Global Footprint and Ecological Sustainability
19th August 2014, planet Earth: humanity has exhausted all the biological resources provided by nature in one year .
According to Global Footprint Network, last 19th August was the Earth Overshoot Day 2014. That means, from 20th of August till the end of the year 2014, in order to support world consumptions and human activities, the world economy has to exploit natural resources, such as water, soil and gas, that nature is not able to recover back as usable as well as all the carbon dioxide emissions will not be assimilated by the ecosystem anymore.
Till 70s, human activities where below Earth’s biocapacity. From 80s, the world economy has always overshoot the biocapacity and it’s getting higher and higher every year. Financially speaking, is like withdrawing from a bank account more money than incomes: It’s not sustainable in the long run.
Way towards ecological sustainability (Mankiw’s Ten Principles)
According to Mankiw’s ten Principles , there are manly two ways\approaches that might promote ecological sustainability:
- Decision Making and Consumer Awareness
Recalling the so called “invisible hand” of principle n.6, markets are a good way to organize economic activities:
Households and firms that interact in market economies act as if they are guided by an “invisible hand” that leads the market to allocate resources efficiently. The opposite of this is economic activity that is organized by a central planner within the government.
Meanwhile, Governments and policy makers can fix market inefficiencies, as stated in principle n.7:
When a market fails to allocate resources efficiently, the government can change the outcome through public policy. Examples are regulations against monopolies and pollution
Therefore, according to principle N.7, Governments and policy makers can regulate market ecological inefficiencies towards sustainability as well. For example, through incentives in renewable energies (see also principle n.2), taxes or regulations.
As an example, with regards to climate changes, Mankiw himself suggest (see A Carbon Tax that America could love with, New York Times ) to put a price (tax) on carbon emissions. In such a way, Governments, by charging a fee for each carbon emission, will “internalize the external costs” due to climate changes (hurricanes, global warm,…).
Prices of Product\Services with higher carbons emissions will have higher prices and thus people will be inactivated to buy other products with less carbon emissions (see also Principle N.2), look for alternatives, or even not to buy it (see also principle N.1).
2. Decision Making and Consumer Awareness
Since people have a limited amount resources in terms of time and money, behind each consumptions there is always a tradeoff.
That means, People Face Tradeoffs (principle n.1):
To get one thing, you have to give up something else. Making decisions requires trading off one goal against another.
As an example, in the same post concerning climate changes , Mankiw’s pointed out that people might decide to:
- buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car;
- use public transportation;
- eat more locally produced foods, which need less fuel to transport;
as a trade-off for introducing in the ecosystem less carbon emissions and waste.
Therefore, people decision-making and how much people is sensitive toward sustainability issues when consuming, have an impact on the ecological footprint.
My issue about economic activities and (bio) sustainability
In order to achieve ecological sustainability, there are two approaches argued among economists, activists, biologists and mathematicians. One is through regulations (tax, incentives, agreements,…) and the second one through more responsable decision-making by consumers and firms.
Regulation approach concerns “How Economic Work as a Whole” Mankiw’s principles:
- n.5: Trade Can Make every one better off;
- n.6: Market are a good way to organize economic activity;
- n.7: Governments can improve economic outcomes;
While, Decision Making is about awareness on biological impacts of consumptions. “How People Make Decisions” are explained by the following Mankiw’s principles:
- n.1: People Face Trade Offs
- n.2: The Cost of Something is what you give up on get it
- n.3: Rational People think at the Margin
- n.4: People Respond to Incentives
Regarding regulations, Mankinw’s himself complained how difficult is to convince politicians to put a fee on a carbon tax. Elections debates are about reducing rather than increasing taxes  and usually people is not willing to vote a candidate who promotes new taxes.
Concerning Decision Making, some researches applied thermodynamics principles (2nd Law) to Economics (Thermoeconomics) and theirs conclusion was that each money transaction as well as consumptions is essentially a flow of energy .
Thus, no matter if the decision is to buy a smaller and more, fuel-efficient car or use public transportation: an amount of energy will be dispersed anyway.
But, what happen in everyday life when a new car is bought? Actually, there is a money flow from the consumer to the retailer.
Thus, since for each consumption there are either a money flow and an energy flow, my issue regarding ecological sustainability of economy is:
Why not considering money as a measure of energy and biocapacity flows?
People use money as a tool for exchanges, and such interactions are described by the remaining three Mankiw’s principles (How People Interact):
- n.8: A Country’s Standard of Living Depends on Its Ability to Produce Goods and Services;
- n.9: Prices Rise When the Government Prints Too Much Money;
- n.10: Society Faces a Short-Run Tradeoff Between Inflation and Unemployment;
Some scientists already pointed out the missing link between Information Theory (Cybernetics) and social sciences (e.g. economy) as well as biologists have some concerns about sustainability of an economy based on endless growth.
Thus, how to create a link between human economy and the Earth biocapacity thanks to the achievements and researches in Economy, Physics, Biology and Cybernetic?
Decision Making and Policies have a key role for pursuing economy towards ecological sustainability, as described by Mankiw’s principles from number 1 to 7.
Nevertheless, till economy is not linked with natural environment and its limited biocapacity neither policies and more conscious behaviors towards sustainability will be effective since what is missing is how people interact: money flows and monetary policies.
With regardless to Mankiw’s principle n.2:
The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It.
So, how much does it cost to give up to link economy with natural environment?.
There is an Optimistic View about a self-regulation of the world economy that, thanks to the supply-demand’s law, will guarantee an endless growth and energy efficiency as well .
However, relying mainly on the supply-demand’s law it is a reactive, rather than proactive, attitude towards sustainability.
Since economy is also a social science, having such an optimistic view it means forgetting what happened in the 18th century to the population of Easter Island: they dropped from 15.000 to 2.000-3.000 inhabitants because of an ecology disaster created by themself.
People of Easter Island realized supply-demand’s effect when it was too late for recovering their ecosystem and its biocapcity.
Economy, ecosystems and complex systems in general, have outcomes that are not predictable and controllable in the long-run.
Avoiding to consider the constraint of a limited Earth’s biocapacity, it means avoiding the risk of definitely compromise the entire ecosystem without any chance for recovering.
So the question is: would all humankind be reactive or proactive towards the ecological sustainability issue?
Feelink – Feel & Think approach for doing life!
: Earth Overshoot Day. “Global Footprint Network“. http://www.footprintnetwork.org
: N.Gregory Mankiw. Principles of Economics 6e. South-Western, Cenage Learning.
: N.Gregory Mankiw. “A Carbon Tax that America could Love with”. New York Times. 01. Sept. 2014.
: A. Annilla, S. Salthe. “Economy Evolves by Energy Dispersal”. Entropy. 11-2009. http://www.mdpi.com/journal/entropy/
: M. Gong, G. Wall. “On Exergetics, Economics, and Optimization of Technical Process to Meet Enviromental Conditions”. International Conference on Thermodynamic Analysis and Improvements on Energy Systems. 10-13 June 1997. Beijing, China.
: Buttonwood’s Notebook. “Energy use and Growth: an Optimistic View”. The Economist. 26 June 2013.