Sunday, October 31, 2010

Voting for an Ideal World

Elections in the United States present a regular opportunity for citizens to influence government policy. Following are some recommendations for how we can vote to improve the chances for creating an ideal world, or at least one that will not end in our lifetimes.

Choose candidates who (in no particular order):
  • Accept the conclusions of the majority of scientists about how Nature works and what the likely consequences of our actions will be
  • Have read and understand the Constitution, which defines what they can and cannot do
  • Value all people and creatures, living and yet to live, and are committed to not reducing their numbers
  • Understand basic mathematics, especially relating to exponential growth
  • Understand basic geography (physical and cultural)
  • Are honest, and constantly questioning their beliefs in order to stay that way
  • Understand and accept the need for the preservation of a common set of resources (“commons”) that is freely available to everyone alive and yet to be born so that they can meet at least their basic needs for survival
Vote for ballot measures that:
  • Will not diminish the commons
  • Will not result in loss of human life or health
  • Will not increase the chances of any species going extinct (including ours)
  • Will not put excessive power in the hands of a small number of people
  • Will either increase or not diminish basic freedoms (speech, association, mobility, access to accurate information)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Imagining the Future: Strategic Goals

To create an ideal world, we should work toward all of the following strategic goals:

  • Transitioning to entirely renewable energy and reusable materials
  • Eliminating pollution both at the source and in the environment
  • Emphasizing service more than attainment of personal power
  • Re-humanizing our relationships with each other and the rest of Nature

For a healthy, sustainable society, material consumption should be kept to no more than the biocapacity of local ecosystems and no less than the amount required to maintain a functioning society (see “Imagining the Future: Meeting Needs”). This currently translates into an average world average global ecological footprint of between 1.5 and 1.7 global hectares per person. Because the biocapacity per person is inversely proportional to the ecological footprint per person, which itself is proportional to population, increases in consumption and population should be avoided at all costs.

The goals that I listed support meeting this objective. The first two directly reduce the ecological footprint and its growth by reducing waste, and could eventually contribute to increasing biocapacity if we enlist other species in meeting them. The third is based on my analysis of why we are so wasteful (see especially “Fatal Flaw”).

According to Global Footprint Network's “Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, 2007,” the average person in the United States had an ecological footprint of eight global hectares in 2007, or five times the minimum acceptable amount.  Because the money we spend is roughly proportional to our ecological footprint, then as a first step toward creating an ideal world, we in the United States could try to limit what we spend to one-fifth of our income in 2007. We could then use the rest of our income to pay off our debts, assist people below the minimum to at least be able to live at the minimum, and contribute to pollution-fighting and habitat restoration and preservation.

An overall decrease in the world's per-capita consumption would seem to require a corresponding decrease in the population, which is why I've shied away from proposing it in the past. The broad goal of replacing current consumption with renewable and replaceable resources, without requiring that those resources come at the expense of the biosphere, left open the possibility that technologies might be developed that could do so. I now have little (less) hope that this could happen before the population peaks. One possible alternative is to increase biocapacity enough to compensate, but this too would require time we may not have.

The fourth goal presents a possible way out of this dilemma. Personal relationships with each other and other species have weakened considerably as our population has increased. To the extent such relationships exist, they have become largely transactional and correspondingly abstract, thus more likely to weaken or break if there is less to trade. Strengthening the non-transactional aspects of these relationships, bringing them closer to what our distant ancestors enjoyed, could conceivably deal with this problem. As we become more familiar with other creatures, they might be perceived as a part of our population (similar to how some people view their pets) who could take of themselves, while helping us. The contribution to happiness – the internal experience of approaching our comfort zone that is probably a major motivation behind our consumption – might offset the perception of loss accompanied by the reduction of consumption. Keeping consumption at or above the minimum would assure that changes to life expectancy (also correlated to consumption and happiness) wouldn't be an issue.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Goals in Education

I recently started applying for a part-time job helping high school kids prepare for standardized tests used for entering college. As I worked through the application, I remembered the lessons of the years I spent as an educational consultant, which directly contradict the entire idea of such competition as a valid method in education.

Competition, by itself, is not a bad thing: it's a tool for reaching an objective. Like our economy, the objective is for people to gain more personal power than others. There are a limited number of colleges (“institutions of higher education”), so only a few students that apply can get into them; tests are a way for colleges to ensure that the students they get are capable of getting the most out of their limited resources. From a student's perspective, it is self-evident that “knowledge is power,” and college provides an opportunity to gain more knowledge. Employers value employees with more knowledge (and the demonstrated ability to gain it), and reward college graduates with better chances of a job, and higher paychecks, which improves the graduates' ability to acquire more of what they need and want.

My main problem is with the goal.

Focusing personal power is a strategy that enables populations to have access to resources that aren't locally available by providing incentives for a small group of risk-takers to search for them elsewhere. But as more people become risk-takers, the overall risk to the entire population increases, not least because the “incentive,” giving people more than they need, multiplies so that resources become depleted faster. In an environment with fixed resources, or a limit to how fast people can access new ones, the most successful risk-takers are able to thrive – for a while – while the rest of the population becomes less able to thrive, and then survive. Our entire planet is now in this condition, with populations of other species already declining rapidly (in large part because we consider them “resources”), and ours soon to follow if we don't change our behavior.

If the overarching goal of a population is to survive as long as possible, which is the most rational goal I can think of, then its members need to learn how to get the most utility out of what the environment can produce on a regular and reliable basis. That last part is what I would recommend as the most basic goal of education.

As to the methodology of education, let me use a helpful analogy. Two people each have a destination they want to reach. One has a map, and the other one doesn't. All things being equal, the person with the map has a better chance of reaching his destination without something unexpected either detouring him or stopping him altogether.

The map is the equivalent of “knowledge,” and the “destination” is the set of conditions that will provide one's needs and wants for a long time. For the map to be useful, it must accurately and readably represent landmarks and other information that correspond to identifiable parts of the real world that are meaningful to whoever is using it. If any of these conditions aren't true, then its user loses his advantage over the person without the map.

Suppose the person without the map knows how to make maps. She translates everything she encounters into a form that she or someone else can refer to later. She has learned on her own how to recognize places where she can meet some of her needs and wants, so she can live off the land if necessary while she searches for a location that provides all of them. If she never finds the ideal place, her maps may be never find their way into the hands of the people who feel the need to use maps. She may even discover that, for her, the “ideal place” is different from other people's, perhaps it is the totality of all the places she's visited, or just the experience of exploration itself.

If everyone is making “maps,” and testing the ones that others have created by using them and making corrections as necessary, then the chances of finding what they all need and want will be maximized. One reason is that more people cover more ground. Another reason is that there is a critical social component to life that is every bit as important as the “environment” we inhabit, if not more so: it is the glue that enables us to work together, and provides the impetus for playing together, which may be the most productive activity we can be part of.

Years ago, when I tutored for a living, one of the most common questions I heard from students was “Why do I need to learn this?” Fortunately, I had some experience I could use to plausibly answer it, but I knew that ultimately the students wouldn't be totally convinced until they had experience of their own. This was one of the reasons why my father conceived our education business: to develop and nurture the ability to synthesize knowledge and understanding from direct experience, to “make maps” and learn the communications skills required to share them with others so we can all benefit.

When my father died, the business effectively died with him, but the lessons live on. With our global crisis requiring us to collectively live within our means (another lesson I learned while running a small business), we need to change our goals from unrestricted growth (profit) to innovative use of what Nature can provide in the long term. This requires that we respect the many species that are part of the web of life we are part of, and must depend on. To do so we must get to know them, from experience; to learn how to “live off the land” -- and find happiness where we can, without stealing it from others now and yet to be born.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Imagining the Future: Meeting Needs

In an ideal world, everyone would be able to meet their needs without resorting to use of non-renewable resources. The easiest way to do this would be to use the free services of their local ecosystems. When populations can't do this, they have several options: They can find a way to live on less, grow the ecosystem, expand their territory, move, or trade something they don't need for what they need.

Living with less can be done by changing choices of food and materials (to get more utility out of a part of the ecosystem that is more plentiful than others), using more efficient methods (such as building smarter or preparing food differently to get more nutrition out of foods), and developing technology that can get more use out of both the ecosystem's resources and human labor.

Growing the ecosystem is another way of saying “increasing its biocapacity,” where biocapacity is the annual ability of the biosphere to provide what we use and clean up what we waste. This could involve importing more (preferably native) species, reducing pollution, and changing the landscape to be more conducive to life (such as growing or importing soil, capturing and routing water, and adding weather protection).

Expanding territory and moving are the easiest ways to get what you need if your ecosystem can't provide it. There may however be physical impediments (places you can't travel) or human ones (other populations already living where you want to move). An efficient way to do this is to provide incentive to a small part of your population to take the risks for you by giving them or promising them more than they need (paid for by having the rest of the population live with less), then moving or expanding the rest of the population when a satisfactory environment has been found and the means for accessing it developed.

If other populations occupy ecosystems with sufficient additional biocapacity to help yours meet its needs, then trade may be an option. What you would trade is resources that you don't need, but which the other population wants. Because there is also risk involved in making such transactions (both in determining what can be traded as well as performing the trade itself), a small set of risk-takers can also be employed by one or both populations.

Now, trade connects practically every population on the planet. Encouraged by the incentives of risk-taking to use more than they need, almost everyone is joining the ranks of the risk takers. This has created a global culture of growth, with disastrous consequences.

According to the recently released Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund, our global population exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth (the biocapacity needed to provide what we use and waste) by half in 2007. This means that if we relied strictly on biocapacity, only two thirds of our population would have been able to sustain its annual resource use and waste (“ecological footprint”). We've made up the difference by “consuming” the very species and systems that do that work. For reference, the report comes up with a minimum healthy, sustainable per-capita ecological footprint (for Peru) that is roughly half of what the world is probably using now if per-capita consumption is still proportional to population. If biocapacity stays constant and the average per-capita consumption drops to this minimum, then our planet will sustainably support no more than eight billion people. (This, interestingly, is very close to the peak population my own population-consumption model projects for business-as-usual with no renewable resources.) The global population is approaching seven billion people; if we all lived like people in Peru, I estimate we would be using seven-eighths of the world's carrying capacity.

If we could somehow manage to redistribute the world's population so everyone could meet their needs using the available biocapacity, grow biocapacity, and limit whatever extra we consume (meeting our wants) to the added biocapacity, then we would probably have the best of all worlds. With more self-discipline, we could set aside a reserve as a cushion against external forces that might reduce what we have (such as global warming, which is almost sure to have this effect).

Implementing this admittedly simplistic plan would seem to require centralizing the population rather than splitting it up (as I've suggested in the past), but this isn't necessarily true. A thorough analysis could theoretically be done to determine the optimal distribution of population on the planet given local biocapacities, energy resources, and projected changes in the environment on both local and planetary scales. The analysis would have to consider how to reduce the vulnerability of connected populations to threats that could imperil them all, which I believe will result in suggesting some degree of isolation.

Far more difficult than coming up with a physically plausible “ideal world” will be convincing the vast majority of people who subscribe to an entirely divergent set of cultural norms and beliefs that it should be followed at all, and then changing their way of life to accommodate it.

Friday, October 15, 2010


As I discussed in “Fatal Flaw,” there are two basic approaches to avoiding catastrophe as a result of our accelerated pillaging of the biosphere. One is to fix the way our economies run, and the other is to develop smaller communities that interact in healthy ways with Nature. In reality, both approaches are currently being tried.

In my “Imagining the Future” posts, I've described my own criteria for an ideal world and speculated about how they might be realized. This generally follows the second approach (substitute “social units” for “communities” and you can see where I'm headed).

One reason I chose to focus on this approach is because, frankly, I believe the alternative is doomed to fail, mainly because we've run out of time: As numerous observers much more knowledgeable than me have pointed out, we should have been making those changes 20 to 30 years ago, because we need the results now.

Also, because my values are no longer aligned with the dominant system (which treats the rest of Nature as merely a set of resources for serving our personal wants and needs), I'm not convinced the world will be better off even if the first approach does work. As we play god and try to remake the Universe in our image, we should keep in mind that our identity as something separate is a figment of our imaginations. We are a part of something far more complex than anything we could ever comprehend. We should respect it, rather than simplifying it, by cutting its guts out, so our puny little minds can feel more in control.

This chain of thought has put me in a bit of a personal bind.

A few weeks ago, the multinational corporation I was contracting with ran out of work for me to do. For reasons that should be clear to regular readers of my writing, I felt a fair amount of relief.

I decided to use my “free” time to consider options for what to do during the rest of my working life, which will probably be the rest of my natural life. These included going back to school, perhaps to pursue a post-graduate ecology degree; trying to make a living as a creative writer – which appears to be my true passion; and working for a nonprofit promoting the causes I care about. Having a goal tends to focus the mind, so I used a lot of that time defining the kind of world I want to help create, which could narrow the practical options considerably.

What I didn't count on was just how successful my efforts would be. Assisting with the creation of a meta-population of healthy, relatively self-sustaining societies in the service of the global biosphere through support of local ecosystems isn't a job description that helps you pay your bills in an economy you've all but proved (and told the world you believe) is an evil creation that is killing everything in its path. Oops. I feel like a mercenary who suddenly gets a conscience, and then finds out he can't get another meal until he goes out and kills someone.

And I know I'm not alone in being conflicted. Many people I know are decent and wouldn't knowingly harm others. They're serving the economy as they would a natural ecosystem, doing their part because their experience tells them it's right, and because they've been sold the promise of being rewarded with some degree of security. It's only now becoming obvious that the whole system is designed to give a few people everything they want at the expense of everything and anyone else (including them), and that their chances of becoming one of the “winners” are slim-to-none. Yet they feel stuck, and are more inclined to hold out hope that the system can be tweaked than face the fact that at the rate we're killing other species, destabilizing the Earth's climate, and using water and energy, there may not soon be any options left.

That said, I really am trying to be upbeat about the future. When you realize you've been at the bottom of a hole when you thought you weren't in one, it takes a little time to adjust. After that, you begin to understand that there's a universe of possibilities right above your head.

For now, I'll probably keep writing, as I was once again driven to do here. Encouraging people to challenge and test how they think about the world seems to be something I seem to be good at, and it contributes to the mental preparation we all need to have so we can handle rapidly changing circumstances. That, and providing some concrete thoughts about a future we can thrive in, along with how to get from here to there. To continue eating and help pay off my debts, I'll work on stepping up the sales of my books and music, and ease my conscience knowing that in the process I'm reaching a larger audience with my ideas (for example, the novel “Lights Out” is an excellent allegory for our condition). I'll also take a fresh look at the other options, and search for new ones, using my new perspective as a guide.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fatal Flaw

The artificial ecosystems we call economies developed so we could gain more personal power, without having to give anything back to the rest of the natural world (and, to a growing extent, each other). Knowledge translated into tools (technology) that could enhance this power through access and processing of “raw materials” – the lives and life-blood of the biosphere – to create environments under our direct control. Social manipulation, enhanced by communications technologies, allowed people's behavior to be coordinated so these environments could continue to be built, improved, and function with minimal disruption in the service of their main goal.

Natural ecosystems were obvious templates for the artificial ones, except they had the unfortunate characteristic of diffusing the power of individuals rather than concentrating it. This characteristic was understandably left out of our creations. Several early attempts failed dramatically, and others much less so, merely harming large parts of their populations without totally self-destructing.

Associating the failures with the lack of power diffusion, some people tried to force that diffusion in alternate types of economies, but without realizing that it was a consequence rather than a cause, a consequence of a deeper aspect of ecosystems they failed to reproduce. And their economies also failed.

Eventually, technologies grew so powerful that the world was able to unite under a dominant economic model, a model that sadly still had the fatal flaw, but with a workaround that kept it from totally failing. Then the workaround began to lose its effectiveness, and the global economy began to falter. The prospect of worldwide failure, accompanied by the collapse of the entire human population, became too obvious to ignore.

Tragically, the underlying cause was known decades before.

Natural ecosystems function by using available energy to drive the transformation of non-living materials into life and back again, recycling everything, and collecting and reusing as much of the energy as possible. Life is not only a consequence of this transformation, it manages it. To do so, it must adapt to the variety of materials and energy sources available. Different forms of life (species) operate with different sets of inputs, and produce a different sets of outputs. Many interact with each other, using what the other has created as an input, and providing its output to another species. Every individual of every species has a role to play, and is rewarded with survival and the ability to reproduce for as long as it can do so. “Power” in Nature is a reward for keeping the transformation process going, not a goal in itself. If any population interferes too much with the process, by reducing the diversity of life or consuming more than it produces, it is generally punished severely, often by death; if it is the only population of a species, the species may go extinct.

Our artificial versions (economies) treat groups of people with specific skills as the equivalent of “species” and process energy, materials, and other species into people, objects, chemical compounds we can't use or that makes us sick (waste), and useless energy (entropy). These then become “outputs” that are returned to natural ecosystems, typically without regard for whether they can be processed by other species and eventually become “inputs” to our economies in useful forms.

Those economies that collapsed did so because they were unable to consistently acquire usable inputs from natural ecosystems, get rid of their waste (so its toxicity overwhelmed people), or both. Those that diffused power arbitrarily, without demanding that individuals perform their roles adequately, failed because they couldn't effectively do even the processing they were attempting.

Today's dominant economies survived this long because they could change where they got their inputs and where they sent their outputs. If one ecosystem became unusable, they could effectively move to another one. They did this, and became adept at changing their internal processing to handle a larger variety of inputs. They even learned to use several ecosystems simultaneously. This workaround was not without negative consequences: often there were people and economies dependent on those ecosystems, and they either resisted (sometimes violently, and generally unsuccessfully) or were assimilated into the dominant economy. Dealing with these consequences became a standard part of the workaround, often co-opting social institutions such as governments to do the dirty work (such as military domination).

The success of the dominant economies led to globalization, which ironically has made the workaround both harder to use and less effective. People have more political options for fighting the co-opting of their ecosystems. Economies are so dependent on each other now that what affect one, affects the others. Technology has become powerful enough for economies to affect the entire biosphere – all ecosystems simultaneously – and there's also nowhere else to go, though a few enterprising souls have their eyes on extraterrestrial sources.

The most popular approach is to fix our economic model. This can involve creating fewer outputs, and incorporating into our internal processing a way to make the outputs we do create more acceptable (or at least less toxic) to the biosphere. More efficient processing can be used to reduce the amount of inputs we use. And we're still working on changing the types of inputs we can use, such as directly processing solar energy (instead of relying on plants and increasingly scarce embodied energy from millions of years ago).

Another approach, gaining interest but far from popular, is to reconnect our civilization to the rest of Nature by finding ways to become useful partners in the ecological process again. Among the options being considered is decentralizing our population into communities that rely on, and interact in healthy ways with, local ecosystems, including revitalizing them through restoration of habitat and detoxifying our existing waste. Many of the same people who diagnosed the problem with our dominant economies argue that the critical resources (among them easily used energy, rare metals, and fresh water) that they use as inputs cannot be replaced fast enough (if ever) to avoid their demise; we can only transition to smaller, resilient communities as soon as possible to avoid catastrophic population loss. To work in the long term, this approach would require a drastic reset of our personal aspirations, from increasing power to valuable service, which may be the hardest change of all. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Dark Side of Solar Power

[Note: A version of this essay first appeared in the “How do we approach Sustainability?” discussion in the Ecological Society of America group on]

I recently learned of a plea by an ecologist to oppose plans for large scale development of solar power in the deserts of the U.S. which could do great harm to the species that occupy those areas, including many that are already threatened or endangered.

There are two primary drivers for this development: the need to maintain an energy supply, and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change. Focusing only on this small set of variables may enable fast action, but it short-circuits consideration of potential feedback loops that can negate the contributions of the action to what appears to be the ultimate goal: stopping biodiversity loss (including loss of our own species). We also don't get to ask the question that is at the heart of the issue: How much energy is enough, and why? Our discussions, at least from an economic point of view, are instead all about how we can meet demand (what we want, which is almost always more than we need) by changing the amount and nature of the supply.

Instead of re-learning how to view ourselves as part of a healthy ecosystem, we're constantly trying to create one of our own, which we can dominate to the exclusion of anything (or anyone) else. This quest has resulted in a shadow ecosystem (“economy”) that by design will tend to treat other species as “resources” rather than entities with their own rights.

So perhaps we are looking at the immediate issue all wrong. The goal of preventing (or reducing) climate change through cutting carbon emissions isn't really about stopping biodiversity loss, but rather maintaining a biological resource base and reducing the more direct risks to our own survival. This serves the even larger goal of perpetually increasing the scope (size and complexity) of our economy, which can accommodate a perpetually increasing number of people.

If you value all life, instead of just ours, then the ENTIRE enterprise must look pretty repulsive. To those who don't, pleas for the fate of animals and others impacted by it, unless they are perceived as valuable resources, will fall on deaf ears.

Imagining the Future: Social Units

In a simplified model of an ideal world, we would have units of population that could meet my basic criteria:
  • Everyone can at least meet their basic needs (food, water, clean air, shelter, clothing, health care, safety)
  • Everyone has basic freedoms (speech, association, mobility, access to accurate information)
  • No one is contributing to species extinctions, including ours
What might these “social units” look like?

Various estimates have been made about the minimum number of people required to viably reproduce, in the context of sending humans to other planets. The numbers seem to converge at around 160 people, with some latitude based on the number of females in the group. Reproduction directly affects the species extinction condition, since, in the worst case, we would have only one social unit alive, and it would be responsible for all future generations.

In Nature, species are adapted by evolution to ranges of environmental conditions (“niches”) where they can optimally survive and reproduce. So are we, but we have much more flexibility by virtue of our ability to learn. Some portion of the accumulation of knowledge and technology built over the several thousand years of learning by specialists enabled by civilization would supplement each social unit's physical and mental (biological) capabilities and constraints to determine what kinds of environments (ecosystems) it could inhabit. The size of the social unit would also affect this, since everyone's basic needs would need to be met.

Maintaining basic freedoms while restraining behavior that could exterminate other species would be enabled by nurturing and training. The basic psychological substrate for basic values and learning would be created by fostering empathy and curiosity (see “Imagining the Future: Enforcement”). Teaching basic knowledge, applicable to all conceivable environments and social situations, would minimize the chances of taking damaging action while enabling individuals to meet their personal needs and coordinate their activities with others to do what they can't individually achieve and improve the chances of the social unit's continued survival. Developing curiosity into successful learning would provide the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen conditions. Demonstrating the usefulness of the basic freedoms in furthering both the realization of values and the ability to meet basic needs would reinforce their continuation.

Depending on the complexity of the social unit's environment and the individual characteristics and experiences of its members, there will be specialization of knowledge, ability, and physical circumstances across the group. This specialization will become more pronounced if the number of people grows, perhaps to a point where it splinters into subgroups. This dynamic needs to be managed so that competition doesn't result in violation of the basic criteria; for example, social constraints on population growth may need to be observed until or unless a suitable environment can be found where the additional population can meet the criteria.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Added Value

I was recently reminded of Adam Smith's “invisible hand” of the market, which is supposed to enable society to benefit from people acting purely based on their economic self-interest. The point of the comment was that if businesses use the so-called “triple bottom line,” then they can have economic growth that benefits society and the environment.

Traditionally, the value of a business is measured in monetary terms as the difference between what it owns and others owe it (its assets) and what it owes (liabilities). This is its economic value, or “bottom line.” As people have become more concerned with the social and environmental consequences of economic activity, some businesses have adopted ways of measuring their value in those terms, creating a bottom line for each. Most recently, computer databases have enabled businesses to begin to assess the economic, social, and environmental impacts of nearly everything they produce (“life cycle analysis” using “ecological intelligence” as an application of “ecological economics”).

For a business to survive, its economic value must either be positive, or reliably growing in that direction. To be successful, its value must be growing all the time, preferably at an exponential rate. The most common mechanism for growth is profit.

Profit is simply the difference between price and cost for what the business sells. It represents, in an ideal sense, the intrinsic value that the business adds to what it purchased to create its products or services (including its “overhead” -- such as facilities and administration). In practice, the business charges a certain price, and its customers either agree or bargain for a different price, thus setting the amount of added value. The business can increase its profit by adding quality (that the customers are willing to pay for), or decrease its costs, or both.

To continue growing, businesses will invest part of their profit in creating new things to sell, increasing the value of what they already sell, reaching more customers, or investing in other businesses that are growing. Some of the rest may be kept in reserve in case of unforeseen cost increases. “For profit” businesses will distribute any remaining profit to the business owners as a reward for success (“nonprofits” invest all their profits in the business).

If social value and environmental value are held to the same standards, then a business must presumably demonstrate that they are increasing as well. Unlike economic value, however, they are external to the business, and considered part of the “commons” available to everyone (a business can't own part of a society -- we don't have slavery -- and ecosystems provide services to the entire planet). Theoretically, the impacts of business activities on society and the biosphere could be measured and converted to economic equivalents (so all three values could be reasonably compared), but because the business would be unable to either own or “spend” the two of them, there would be no way to directly use any value gains to grow the business.

A more practical approach, as I've discussed elsewhere, is to assess the social and environmental impacts in the determination of the (economic) price of products and services. Net social and environmental gain could be factored into the added value, and net losses would be factored into the cost. For this approach to work, however, every business would need to adopt the same standards, and it would need to be enforced by an outside entity to avoid cheating. It would also have to be affordable to everyone, from the smallest to the largest business, so the cost of value assessment would probably best be administered in the economic commons, a role currently held by government, which fortuitously is also the protector of the social and environmental commons.

In Adam Smith's day, when people did something, they got direct and immediate feedback about its effects from their (small) communities and local environment. Technology in the 1700s was limited, so they had limited influence that transcended their awareness. Being bound tightly to a community, a person's self-interest was generally in the community's self-interest; this was the essence of the “invisible hand.” Such communities are hard to find now, and feedback from our actions is consequently optional and abstract. Our technologies are so powerful that we can individually affect the world's climate, yet our instincts and knowledge are in some important ways more limited than they were centuries ago: many of us don't know each other, or know Nature, at the visceral level where our humanity still lies (albeit in an increasingly dormant state). We can no longer depend on the invisible hand because we've nearly destroyed it.

Can we create a “visible hand” that is as reliable and accurate as direct experience once was? If we do, how might businesses react if their profits are eaten up by their social and environmental costs – a very real possibility, especially as we simultaneously approach the limits to our natural resources and burn out our human resources in the pursuit of relentless, exponential growth? How would we want them to react?

Arguably the vast majority of environmental damage we cause comes from making resources unavailable to the rest of the biosphere, which is a key activity of our economy. Habitat loss (paving, mining, or building on land used by wildlife), invasive species (reducing biodiversity by monopolizing resources), and pollution (making water, air, or soil toxic) are among the top causes of species loss.

We also restrict use of resources among ourselves. This virtually defines the term “ownership,” and it is one of the main sources of both violent and nonviolent conflict among people. The worst consequences have been alleviated by elaborate social organization, not the least being our economies themselves. When resources become scarce, we either move, or improve extraction and transportation technologies; but that's becoming rapidly harder to do. In times like these, warfare becomes economically more viable, as groups attack other groups to get their resources (note the invading economy's social value metrics would need to be drastically re-calibrated to avoid a major loss for its military contractors).

If the resources we used were renewable, reusable, or both, we didn't use them faster than they could be replaced or recycled, and other species weren't deprived of what they needed for survival, then at least our environmental impacts would disappear, along with our resource crisis. Substitute “people” in the last sentence, and we would make a dent in the social problems, with the minor modification that resources would be effectively on loan rather than subject to permanent ownership.

Before civilization, we depended on what Nature provided, and met all of these conditions. We also didn't live as long, and ended up being “recycled” into the biosphere ourselves. Almost everything we've done since then has been a departure from that lifestyle, and due to the damage we've inflicted on the world's ecosystems, we may not be able to return to it anyway, at least for a long time. Finding equivalent alternatives is probably our best option, especially if we want to retain something like our current life expectancy, but it will require much more than tweaking corporate balance sheets and product labels. At a minimum, we need to totally restructure our society. And time is running out.