Homo sociens and the New Ecological Growth Economy

April 15, 2009

Credit: Kevin Dooley (CC).

A new economy is on the doorstep. It's not the economy we used to know as "the new economy." It's not the information-technology-driven growth of the last few decades, although that makes up part of the new economy. A new economy is rapidly emerging, one which will transform the ways that people live and do business.

The name of the new new economy is the "ecological growth economy." This is neither a bad joke nor an anachronism. It is the emerging new reality. It is also the precondition for the continuation of human progress and the survival of millions of other species on Earth. We have an obvious choice: We can speed up the realization of the ecological growth economy now, or our children and theirs will suffer for centuries.

It appears to be an easy choice, doesn't it? We can choose human progress over suffering. And yet, we are not making this choice at sufficient speed or scale today. Ignorance, institutional inertia, vested interests, and greed are the main reasons for our far-too-slow action. However, as sentient creatures (Homo sapiens), humans are equipped with knowledge, good will, and a degree of wisdom.

A majority of people around the Earth today are realizing that we cannot survive without embracing the ecological growth economy. Most people are willing to join forces and are willing to make certain sacrifices in lifestyle to achieve an economy that will allow the continuation of human progress into future generations. Fortunately, an increasing number of people are making great efforts to bring about this new economy.

Is Growth Evil?

The ecological growth economy will not mean sacrifice, and will not cause a return to low growth or no growth. It will not mean a less attractive lifestyle, but will, in fact, create a more attractive one. It will drive the continued growth of the global economy into the second half of the twenty-first century. It will enable the greatest consumption boom in history and will create more new business opportunities than ever before.

Does this sound unlikely or undesirable? I argue that it is inevitable. Why? Because it is the only way we can choose life over death, continued human progress over prolonged suffering.

The human population will consume at least twice as much food in 2050 as in 1995. Energy consumption will rise by approximately 76 percent between 2000 and 2030. The urban population will rise from 3.3 billion in 2007 to 5 billion in 2030 and further on to 6.4 billion in 2050. There will be an estimated 9.15 billion people on Earth in 2050, as compared to 6.7 billion in early 2009, and they will all want to live decent lives.

They will want to be able to consume, to expand their personal freedom and mobility, and to enjoy what they define as a prosperous or satisfactory lifestyle. Their combined consumption drive will most likely be the greatest and longest seen in human history in any 50-year span. Neither laws nor conventional appeals to morality will stop these new consumers from consuming more.

There is a crucial question of "how much is enough" or of what constitutes a prosperous lifestyle, and there is certainly gross over-consumption in many countries, but prosperity will not be defined by scholars or by environmentalists. It will be defined and realized by people all over the Earth in and through their daily lives.

What is the Ecological Growth Economy?

To enable all people on Earth to pull out of hunger and poverty and create for themselves a life of prosperity and human satisfaction, we must make operational an ecological growth economy within the next decade or so. We do not have the choice between growth and zero growth. Denial of continued growth in the next few decades is not an option. It would deny billions of people a fair and decent life and keep large portions of the global population mired in poverty and misery.

The question, at least when we look at the four to five decades ahead of us, is not "growth or no growth." The question is "what will the quality of growth be" and how will we achieve it. The obvious answer is growth based upon sound ecological principles. Business as usual is a literal dead end. It would cause more misery, death, and destruction. The quality of growth must undergo dramatic changes within a very short period of time. What lies ahead of us is a grand challenge: Not only is it an industrial revolution, it is also a revolution in the way we perceive economics, business, profits, and prosperity. The bad news is that we do not have much time. The good news is that the new economy is already taking shape and picking up speed.

What does it mean to build an economy on sound ecological principles? It means that all forms of business and other human activity will be directed toward a truly cyclical use of resources, zero carbon emissions, and restoration and reinvestment in natural capital. To describe this economy in detail is not possible in this short article, but two major points are essential.

First, the ecological growth economy must be driven by a major restructuring of the rules and incentives built into national as well as international economic systems. This trend can only intensify in the coming years, and the truly crucial question is whether the speed and scale at which this restructuring of our economies takes place is great enough. We need to not just envision but also implement the new rules and incentives of the next industrial revolution.

Second, the ecological growth economy represents one of the largest market opportunities in human history. All sectors of the economy in virtually all parts of the world will move toward green, clean, and sustainable—energy, mobility, housing, appliances, food production, water usage. Every key area supporting human life will be recalibrated or recreated as the ecological growth economy picks up speed. Countries, companies, and entrepreneurs who understand this transformation will be presented with a virtually unlimited supply of new business opportunities.

Can We Evolve to Become Homo sociens?

In order to implement the ecological growth economy at sufficient speed and scale, we need unprecedented global collaboration and a strong sense of shared vision for the future. We also need to be better at listening to the voices of future generations and the many other species on Earth. In more concrete terms, we need more concerted and forceful action from international leaders in forums such as the G-8, G-20, and United Nations, and new forms of collaboration between business and civil society.

In the few decades since humans first saw Earth from space and then started discussing the possibility that our present way of life might not be sustainable, a greater sense of global consciousness has clearly emerged. Technological tools such as fax machines, email, and the internet have helped nurture this healthy sense of globalism. I believe that if we are to make the grand shift to a new industrial and economic system, built firmly on ecological pillars, we will need to further evolve culturally, mentally, and even spiritually. I call this the evolution from Homo sapiens to Homo sociens—human beings who share and collaborate.

We have sufficient knowledge of the ecological and social problems the world faces today, and plenty of realistic simulations of how tomorrow might look. This information should speed up our evolution into Homo sociens. This means looking beyond national interests and placing a higher priority on global or Earth interests. It means realizing that the human species cannot survive without valuing and protecting the myriad living creatures on this planet that enable our survival. Most importantly, it means making such values operational in international and national agreements, as well as in corporate strategy. The future is ours to choose.