David Suzuki: It’s time for a new economic paradigm

I’ve heard economists boast that their discipline is based on a fundamental human impulse: selfishness. They claim that we act first out of self-interest. I can agree, depending on how we define self. To some, “self” extends beyond the individual person to include immediate family. Others might include community, an ecosystem, or all other species.

I list ecosystem and other species deliberately because we have become a narcissistic, self-indulgent species. We believe we are at the centre of the world, and everything around us is an “opportunity” or “resource” to exploit. Our needs or demands trump all other possibilities. This is an anthropocentric view of life.

Thus, when faced with a choice of logging or conserving a forest, we focus on the potential economic benefits of logging or not logging. When the economy experiences a downturn, we demand that nature pay for it. We relax pollution standards, increase logging or fishing above sustainable levels, or (as the federal government has decreed) lift the requirement of environmental assessments for new projects.

A fundamentally different perspective on our place in the world is called “biocentrism”. In this view, life’s diversity encompasses all and we humans are a part of it, ultimately deriving everything we need from it. Viewed this way, our well-being, indeed our survival, depends on the health and well-being of the natural world. I believe this view better reflects reality.

The most pernicious aspect of our anthropocentrism has been to elevate economics to the highest priority. We act as if the economy is some kind of natural force that we must all placate or serve in every way possible. But wait! Some things, like gravity, the speed of light, entropy, and the first and second laws of thermodynamics, are forces of nature. There’s nothing we can do about them except live within the boundaries they delimit.

But the economy, the market, currency – we created these entities, and if they don’t work, we should look beyond trying to get them back up and running the way they were. We should fix them or toss them out and replace them.

When economists and politicians met in Bretton Woods, Maine, in 1944, they faced a world where war had devastated countrysides, cities, and economies. So they tried to devise solutions. They pegged currency to the American greenback and looked to the (terrible) twins, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to get economies going again.

The postwar era saw amazing recovery in Europe and Japan, as well as a roaring U.S. economy based on supplying a cornucopia of consumer goods. But the economic system we’ve created is fundamentally flawed because it is disconnected from the biosphere in which we live. We cannot afford to ignore these flaws any longer.

Flaw 1: Beyond its obvious value as the source of raw materials like fish, lumber, and food, nature performs all kinds of “services” that allow us to survive and flourish. Nature creates topsoil, the thin skin that supports all agriculture. Nature removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and returns oxygen. Nature takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it to enrich soil. Nature filters water as it percolates through soil. Nature transforms sunlight into molecules that we need for energy in our bodies. Nature degrades the carcasses of dead plants and animals and disperses the atoms and molecules back into the biosphere. Nature pollinates flowering plants.

I could go on, but I think you catch my drift. We cannot duplicate what nature does around the clock, but we dismiss those services as “externalities” in our economy.

Flaw 2: To compound the problem, economists believe that because there are no limits to human creativity, there need be no limits to the economy. But the economy depends on having healthy people, and health depends on nature’s services, which are ignored in economic calculations. Our home is the biosphere, the thin layer of air, water, and land where all life exists. And that’s it; it can’t grow. We are witnessing the collision of the economic imperative to grow indefinitely with the finite services that nature performs. It’s time to get our perspective and priorities right. Biocentrism is a good place to start.

It’s time for a Bretton Woods II.

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org/.




Aug 19, 2009 at 10:36am

Hah! I always get a good laugh reading your articles buddy!

Did you hear I just canceled LiveSmart BC which briefly offered incentives to replace items like aging furnaces, install efficient windows, and perform other environmentally friendly renovations. No more! We're back in the saddle and our supporters can eat it!

And my gosh did you hear about the Fraser salmon run this year - we've almost got this fishery closed down - soon it will be farmed salmon on every plate and then the price goes up my friend $$$

Thanks for your support good buddy,

your pal, Gord


Aug 19, 2009 at 11:31am

"This is an anthropocentric view of life".

Because the fallacy of Anthropogenic Global Warming is not perhaps...


Aug 19, 2009 at 2:32pm

Good article but I would add that besides our earthly biosphere, we need the sun. Without it, we become a frozen sphere drifting through space.
Three things we all need are housing, food and energy. We must get these without damaging the environment or altering it too much. Any activity we do will alter the environment. We must be able to get these in such a way so all forms of life can continue to live. We must become sustainable in obtaining all of these three things. We may want more things than the big 3 but sustainability is the key. If we are not sustainable in these, then we will run out of them and we may perish.

Sleazy P. Martini

Aug 19, 2009 at 11:55pm

Until we get rid of the useless eaters like gordo using up the worlds resources ( That means reducing the human population by 95% ) we , the elite controllers of planet earth, will have to put up with you. That time for culling is coming , if you don't want to be a victim take the swine flu vaccine. If you don't we will take care of you anyway. And when you have served our purposes , David , maybe you can join our new world order.

Ken Barth

Aug 20, 2009 at 11:31am

But I thought the Carbon Tax in the current economic paradigm was going to solve everything David!

Dave R

Aug 22, 2009 at 9:17am

The economic and social paradigms will either be implemented by us, or inflicted on us, by Earths eventual Biological collapse. through our own collective failure.
We humans will survive like cockroaches we will go on We evolved during the great Ice age that didn’t kill us off. Currently we are at the peak of an inter-glacial warm period.
The question is how we will go on. Will we change for the common global good or will we be small disperse bands of hunter gatherers living like cockroaches in a biologically diminished earth. Either way change will come