Economics of the anthropocene: Paradigm shift needed for sustainable future

By Charlotte Hings via The McGill Tribune


On behalf of the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) and Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A), Stewart Wallis, the former executive director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF), discussed the need for a transition from an anthropocentric economic system to a biocentric one.

The Oct. 4 presentation, titled Economics without Growth, opened with a short clip entitled The Impossible Hamster. A hamster doubles its weight each week for the first nine weeks of its life; if this trend did not stop, the hamster would weigh nine billion tonnes by its first birthday.

"There is a reason why, in nature, things can only grow to a certain point," the clip's narrator explained. "So why do most economists and politicians think that the economy can grow forever and ever?"

Wallis explained how the current economic system is unsustainable, unfair, unstable, and that people are generally unhappy—the 4 U’s. Humans have developed around the Earth’s seemingly unlimited supply of needed resources, allowing the human population to increase overtime. However, this growth is now surpassing planetary limits. The  ecological footprint of human activity is increasing unsustainably. Some regions expend many more resources than others, though Wallis explained higher ecological footprints does not necessarily correlate to increasing happiness. When looking at a country’s GDP versus happiness index, both factors increase quickly at first; however, once GDP reaches a certain point, happiness barely increases with further increases in GDP. Despite all this, some economists still believe that economic growth is still in humanity’s best interest.

“We moved from being a small world on a large planet to […] a large world on a small planet and the effects […] change the way we think about things,” Wallis said. “It takes away a lot of our fundamental assumptions about how we live and it certainly changes economics dramatically.”

According to Wallis, Earth should be enough to meet the basic needs of all, have a fair distribution of wealth, and respect all life while not exceeding planetary limits. In order to do this, there must be a period of zero growth, change in corporation incentives, phase-out of harmful production processes, and investment in new ones.

Wallis explained that, in order to redistribute resources to meet the population’s basic needs, a paradigm shift is necessary.

“[We must] shift from seeing ourselves as […] consumers and owners to caretakers and creators,” Wallis said.

Humans need to work with natural ecosystems and build within planetary boundaries. In other words, shifting from a human-focused world—anthropocentric—to an Earth-focused world—biocentric.

“Good lives do not need to cost the Earth,” Wallis urged. “We can still have a good life and be well-off without living beyond planetary means.”

While a shift away from the anthropocentric economic model would be drastic, economic systems have undergone many changes in the past. Wallis emphasized the need for a vanguard of supporters to work together to make the movement possible.

“Change is going to require both really good research and thinking […] and working together in a movement and telling a different story, […] a paradigm shift,” Wallis said.