What is a sustainable economy?

This article appeared in a number of ACM publications on Sunday 4 September 2022:


What is a sustainable economy?


Humans are like all other animals – we depend on our habitat to meet our needs. In this increasingly connected world, our habitat is the global environment, including the land, seas and atmosphere.

Scientists warn, however, that we are degrading our environment so much that it threatens our very livelihoods. Each year people, particularly in wealthy countries, use far more resources than Earth can regenerate, and polluting more than nature can remediate.

So, it is important to move to a sustainable economy, but what does that look like?

‘Sustainable’ is a word that is often used loosely to describe products that reduce environmental damage. A truly sustainable economy, however, would return our total annual resource use and wastes to within nature’s capacities. It also must be socially sustainable.

A number of sustainable economy models have been proposed.

First, there is the circular economy, which rejects the linear path from resource to product to disposal. Instead, it aims to minimise waste and maximise the re-use of resources, particularly through recycling, as well as regenerating nature.

Better use of resources is vital, but the circular economy is constrained by the properties of many resources, which allow recycling only a limited number of times. Additionally, so long as the physical economy is growing, the volumes of materials in use at any time increases, creating further demands for resource extraction and energy use.

Another proposal is ‘green growth’, which shifts production from damaging extractive and polluting industries towards cleaner production, using resources more efficiently.

It relies, however, on long-term decoupling of GDP growth from resource use, which is almost certainly impossible. The United Nations Environment Program no longer promotes ‘green growth’.

Social justice and environmental sustainability underlie a suite of other models. Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economy’ argues our economy should ensure all people have a decent standard of living, while staying within planetary boundaries.

The degrowth movement advocates radical change beyond capping or reducing the size of the economy, including reducing inequality, guaranteeing everyone an income, increasing investment in public goods and moving away from consumerism and advertising.

The steady state economy shares some degrowth elements, focusing on keeping the physical size of the economy within ecological limits, and social justice.

Its principal tenets are roughly constant economic throughput of resources, stable population size and an equitable distribution of economic benefits. Non-renewable resources should only be extracted at the rate that substitutes can be found.

What emerges from these models is the need to transition to an equitable, post-consumer economy, emphasising strong communities and a respectful relationship with nature. These societies would not be static; even in the absence of economic growth, technical innovation and cultural development would continue.


Jonathan Miller

Steady State ACT


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