THE ECOLOGY AND THE ECONOMY – Can we find harmony in these two?

Are we standing at the beginning of Nature or the end of Industrial History?

by Oliver Rothschild for The International Chronicles


A linguist will tell us that both Ecology and Economy stem from the Greek word ‘oikos’ – meaning ‘House’. Ecology, derived from ‘oikos’ combined with the word “logie’ – meaning ‘study of’ – is quite literally “the study of the house”. And Economy means “management of the house”. Therefore, we can rightly deduce that the environment is in every respect our house and the two words are appropriately the very system we find ourselves in today.

And yet, although needing to work in harmony, their relative perspectives rarely seem to connect. Whereas Ecology evokes images of energy, green landscapes and open freedom, Economy leads to thoughts associated with money and mass production, of technological science and gain dressed in stuffy attire. But in reality these two are becoming caricatures of themselves. Economy, on the one hand, is harbouring more in the way of relationships, and Ecology, on the other, is increasing its commercial interactivity. Both are now heading into unfamiliar territory. Institutional change seems to be rife.

Ever increasingly we begin to realise our economy is based on the natural world. But our ecology conscience warns us that the very same economy is destroying the natural world. Steadily we all come to the realization that we’ve been living an unsustainable lifestyle. We’re using resources far faster than the planet can replenish them and expelling waste much faster than the planet can absorb.

The Earth is everything to us. Quite simply it represents all that we have, and all we’ve ever had. If we were to talk for a moment in purely financial terms, the resources available to us are our ‘capital’. We have metals, trees, water, animals, oil, and a myriad of other things we can use. Under the capitalist system our resources, i.e. “capital’, are used to generate profits. If the capital is used up improperly, its ability to generate profit is greatly reduced. In the successful model, our capital must remain the same or even, if possible, increase. This generates continued and increasing profits for the organisation. However, with our natural capital, this is being squandered with very little being reinvested. For example, forestry is just fine if done properly. But chopping down a natural forest not only destroys that forest, it also prevents it from growing any further trees.

What we are witnessing today is that the ‘capital’ is being liquidated at an alarming rate, and being inappropriately termed as “profit!” To reverse this trend some major shifts need to occur in our mindset. We don’t necessarily have to give up our comfortable way of life to do this, but we’ll need to make a few fundamental changes in order to accomplish it. If we are talking about Ecology as against Economy in the context of the reality of our world, the argument has got to be that Joe Public does not feel he is being penalised financially, or in any other way, to pursue what was seen originally as a very narrow ideal.

In the last 3 years there is considerable irony in the fact that dramatic fluctuations in the fossil fuel prices, especially those which saw prices rising indiscriminately in 2008, have focused people’s attention to look at the economic reality of alternative or renewable energy; and even though the economic scenario has altered unfavourably towards the green agenda, it will not stop the green agenda from being in the mainstream of geopolitics and economic discussion from hereonafter. That said there has been a shift in the green agenda, which has suddenly become more realistic and it has begun to look inside itself to find those alternative energy sources or sustainable ideas that are really what they set out to be.

Ethanol may indeed be a perfect example of this where, although intentions were originally good, the actual carbon footprint impact in producing ethanol may have proved to be greater than the carbon footprint saving that it set out to achieve. Apart from, of course, the loss of necessary food production itself.
We now find ourselves in the grips of a global recession where the economic reality of the green agenda must establish a far stronger case against past world business economics. And there are two catalysts to help this come about. First, is the greater awareness and increasing understanding of what the world green agenda is all about. And secondly, is the more realistic patience apparent from within the movement pushing that agenda. In addition, we are visibly witnessing a perceived physical reality of what is going on in the environment around us – for example polar shrinkage of the ice cap.

So is it true then that we can turn things around in the 100 months that we supposedly have left before we pass the tipping point for runaway climate change? At least that is the view held by Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation, and was so animatedly presented in ‘The Age of Stupid’ – a film described as the first successful dramatization of climate change to hit the big screen. The mere fact that we’re now talking in months rather than years hits home even to the least motivated environmentalist.

But there is a growing sense of a ‘feel good factor’ among those who may still be sitting on the fence about the green agenda, that they are capable of doing something good, and in any case doing some good can’t be doing any harm. The most immediate example is with the plastic shopping bag. The reduction by 420 million bags being used in the UK by last month, 90% reduction in Ireland with the introduction of a tax on bags, and indeed the total banning of plastic shopping bags in China. The mind begins to focus on using sustainable and natural products instead, such as the rush matting bag, and this in itself has a positive social responsibility impact.

So to pursue and to turn idealism into practical reality those institutions and  authorities that set themselves up as the arbiters of the green agenda, are now beginning to interface with the public at large focusing on the objective to educate on the one hand, but also to be educated by the public on the other. As with social and viral media, it is the sharing of information in bite-sized chunks that draws in the least patient more indiscriminate new advocates. No longer is it simply the act of standing on a soap-box and ranting. The old world order of one-way debating, staking your green agenda against an audience, is also very much the old world marketer who spent his budgets forcing information at the public, as loud and as often as it took to grab their attention, whether they wanted to be approached or not. And more often than not, this propelling tactic merely gained an adverse reaction and push-back from the public.

The new world demands immediate and brief ‘engagement’, constantly competing against a public that has opted into multi-media – literally several media at the same time – with the radio, the TV, the PC, the iPod, the mobile phone, the text message, the music library, all vying for that split second of attention. For a message to gain any traction it now has to be absolutely concise and very, very precise.

Conversations, such as those that float around the social media worlds of Facebook, MySpace, and even on You Tube, rise or fall on their up-to-date relevance, and also they’re quick-fire and instant. Any kind of following seems only possible if its singular and brief by nature. Get your message across in 140 characters or less via your Twitter profile. Conversation is limited to snippets of information – a simpler, leaner, more relevant and engaging message is changing the shape of how we communicate. You don’t have to travel to the messenger, because broadband will deliver that messager to you, in person, to wherever you are!

But what does it mean to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining? And at a time when that rate of decline is accelerating? The earth looks like it is need of a new Ops strategy. Question is, how long do you have to find it? And how long to actually fund it?

Governments and the Public have been in conflict with one another for generations, disputing what those operating instructions say, and in what order we should put them into practice. In the world of geopolitics, energy security has always been the yardstick. Played out by government after government in the last 50 years “energy security” has become a euphemism for “continued and easy access to oil”. There is a contention that when oil prices are going up, companies like Shell don’t suddenly plan on building more wind turbines. No. The reality is that some less profitable oil sources now become more economically viable.

But that tide may finally be turning. Governments are turning, having taken a long hard look at what the climate has been up to lately. Rather than play the game of being ruled by oil production – give in to rising demand and remain slavishly devoted to oil, ad infinitum – they are, under the influence of the public, opting out of the habitual resources fueled ‘rat-race’. What do I mean by ‘influence of the public’? Well, throw in a global recession and dropping demand and you find the new world Obama-led US government, just as an example, pushing major efficiency drives that causes an immediate drop in the demand for oil. So, has oil hit it’s peak? Well maybe so, and perhaps BP’s Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, realises this when he recently declared: “BP is unlikely to sell more gasoline ever again in the US … than it sold in the first half of 2008”.

There’s that tide again; evidence once more that it’s turning. Nothing will hold a tide back for long. But I would like to caution journalists and lobbyists not to push too hard for information or instant action in certain areas of the world, where at least we can see and have evidence that there are “green shoots” of ecological innovative activity. I think back to an encounter I witnessed at a Green Sustainability Conference I was attending in Dubai earlier this year. There was an Australian journalist who was vehemently pressing home his questions about the green agenda in the region and that sustainability had not been adopted across the board. I was glad he didn’t achieve the quote no doubt he was so fervently pursuing, but I went up to him afterwards and suggested he carefully consider the negative impact he had probably caused. I believe that the mere fact that they were hosting this conference with a green agenda at which they were adopting a policy of switching lights off and most power, all over the region, even if only for a symbolic hour, was a major step in the right direction. So, to have gone on the offensive against the government representative could only, have put them back on the defensive and possibly cause them to close the shutters on any discussion, policy or action in the immediate future. They might have said – “well, in that case, we simply won’t bother!” and that would be disastrous and have had a negative impact.

That said about governments, is the public really ready to take the operations manual for itself? How about those feelings of helplessness institutionally bred into the human of the developed world? Isn’t it too late to do anything? This feeling of helplessness unites the developed world with that of the yet to be developed. Climate has brought these two hugely different worlds together as they are forced to consider their futures, based on sustainable living under a volatile, unpredictable climate on the move. Whilst the subsistence farmer in Malawi challenges himself with a fear of not having the elements to support his means of survival, the parents of the nuclear family abiding in Oxford’s leafy “environ” worry about whether their children will face an uncertain future of climatic disaster too.

And so the green debate is inherently one of change. The patterns of thought have been changing, reflecting the demise in the cartel of the doomsdayist opinionators. We can begin to rejoice in the ever expanding number of conversations on green issues that were once seen as ‘trapist monk’ in their focus, now becoming more a part of mainstream opinion. Environmentalism, a movement often criticised as being anti the globalised corporate economy, now has claim on a growing mass of support and continues to build political constituency as it is increasingly forced to put it’s message across in overtly consumerist language. With no desire to dive dangerously into the factionalist arguments of who owns, manages and determines the productive means of global markets, I would like to build the conversation here on the less reactionary viewpoint that …. not all businesses are mindless polluters, and not all environmentalists are anti-business. In a similar vein, not all environmentalism is consumerist, and not all consumption is anti-ecological. What is fascinating is how these contradictions in economy and environment produce a new intriguing interrelationship, not previously realisable, between ecology and politics.

What we are witnessing is a merging of modern consumerism with mainstream environmentalism.

Are we standing at the beginning of Nature or the end of Industrial History?

Whichever it is, we can see how there is a new movement of eco-politics undermining many older ideological divisions between the arguments for and against both camps. As Mahatma Gandhi so aptly said, “The future depends on what we do in the present”.

There is doing good, and then there is the right way of doing good. Arguably this could be done best by atoning directly for a company’s perceived ‘wrongs’. Whereas some well known green groups, Friends of the Earth included, used to loudly reject the idea that an airline, along with the oil companies, can be anything but the pariahs of the eco-age, there is an increasing movement by them and other organizations, like Forum For The Future, who now lean towards engaging with the likes of BA and encouraging their efforts to focus more closely on community investment and provide this in areas where they may have caused a negative impact. This might be on the mitigation of climate change or stopping deforestation or even helping local communities to become more resilient if they are threatened by climate change.

We the consumers, have to get our own house in order. Just as with the very words themselves, Ecology and Economy, when it comes to actually buying green goods, words and deeds often find themselves going in opposite directions. According to research from McKinsey, 87% of people in the G8 economies worry about the environmental and social impact of the products they buy. And yet, little over a third of these same consumers say they already buy green products. Consumers in the UK and other developed world nations have, so far, done comparatively little to lighten their carbon footprint. Though it is easy to blame this gap on laziness or posturing, empirical research shows that it stems more from a failure by businesses to educate consumers and give a more compelling explanation of the beneficial need of green products.

Business must encourage consumers from simply becoming aware of eco-positive products, to assisting them in finding the alternative, as practical and competitive, and then to buying into the alternative (change for good) product. To work effectively, a business selling green products must recognise itself first as an educator, not a sales machine. McKinsey found that the third of consumers who want to help mitigate climate change don’t actually know how.
The three top ways for a consumer to reduce their emissions are:

1) drive a more fuel-efficient car

2) insulate their homes better

3) eat less beef

But when asked, consumers named their top three as:
1) recycling more

2) use energy-efficient appliances

3) drive less

Today, green products on the shelves are still only a niche market item. However, without a doubt they are poised to go through strong growth. Companies need to remove the obstacles that currently make it hard for consumers to follow their environmental beliefs and then they will see sales absolutely explode. A company can build it’s reputation for eco-friendliness, which in turn attracts more customers, better employees, a greater loyalty in both these, and ultimately actually a higher price for it’s full range of products.

The biggest application on the green agenda will surely be to make green technologies available to those who would otherwise not have them at all in the "Cinderella" economies of the developing world. As Victor Hugo said, and he may have written for right now in the context of green agendas: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world; and that is an idea whose time has come.”


Oliver Rothschild serves as Chairman of AB Entertainment and holds directorships in IT, PR, Entertainment and Investment companies. He is also active in numerous charities and holds several key positions including Chairman of UNICEF and H2O.


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published this page in The Attic 2012-03-27 03:29:28 -0400