Introduction to John Avery’s “The Need for a New Economic System”

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Introduction to John Avery’s “The Need for a New Economic System”

This is Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy’s introduction to John Avery’s new book, The need for a New Economic System.  The book  can be obtained from the following link:

First the good news. Short of an encounter with a wandering black hole, life on planet Earth will survive almost any conceivable disaster including runaway global warning or even a full-blown nuclear war. Its atoms will surely find new ways to combine and recombine into various forms of life, with that life being possibly even more resilient and indestructible than cockroaches. Of course one might somewhat regret the loss, or sharp degradation, of the human species and its habitat.

The bad news is that the risk of catastrophic climate change and nuclear war is growing. We are burning more hydrocarbons because oil prices have dropped by nearly fifty percent, and more countries have nuclear weapons today than twenty years ago. But let’s be frank — most people aren’t terribly interested about hearing such unpleasant things. Nor do they want to worry about how one is to feed a still growing and ravenously hungry population monster. It’s not that such doomsday prophecies are considered wacky, but dealing with any nasty prognostication always requires moving out of one’s comfort zone into new and scary territory. Worse, it doesn’t pay — except perhaps marginally — to think, write, or do anything at all about such things.

I think it can be fairly said that, except for a tiny sliver, most of the smartest people on earth today are quite disengaged from, or only barely engaged with, the larger problems of human survival. They worry about countless other wonderful things such as, for example, how to discover the extra dimensions of space and time, or devising artificial intelligence algorithms for figuring out Egyptian and Cretan hieroglyphics. This is much more intellectually satisfying, brings academic recognition, and raises you higher in the pecking order of your peers. Someone like Richard Feynman inspires awe among physicists like me for his many profound and diverse contributions towards understanding the nature of the physical universe. Nevertheless he made no notable contribution in dealing with any of the numerous planetary emergencies we face.

And then there’s today’s industry and government. They indeed humor the environmentalist who, until just a while ago, had a pariah status.  But saving the planet and the human race is still far from a priority. This task is left up to Greenpeace, Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund, and a bunch of other do-gooders. Considered as working for a charitable cause, they receive some degree of support but only up to the point where the current order feels challenged. On the other hand the clever inventor who designs, say, a new kind of torpedo which could hunt down a quiet submarine anywhere and at any depth would be thoroughly appreciated and richly rewarded for his creativity by the defense industry in any of over two dozen countries.

This being how humans currently structure their priorities, it is therefore a matter of relief that at least some serious scientists have chosen to use their considerable scientific and analytical skills to marshal arguments and evidence that point out the profound dangers facing humanity, and then suggest ways of dealing with them. John Avery’s earlier book, “Space Age Science and Stone Age Politics” eloquently made the point that the pace of technology has far outstripped the speed of our cultural evolution. That tour de force guides us through the many stages of the human evolutionary process, starting from the phase of hunter-gatherers and leading up to the enormously complex socio-economic-political formations contained within today’s nation states. In evolutionary terms, creating such systems has been a massive success. But this very success now threaten the biosphere from which diverse forms of life, including humans, draw their sustenance.

Avery’s new book supplements his earlier works but it comes with a renewed and obstinate insistence that modern society has become unfair to the extreme. In an unregulated capitalist system of rewards and punishments, the rich become richer and the poor poorer. This is what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the “winner-take-all economy.” It is not a picture of a healthy society. Even as unemployment has increased and people have been forced to leave their homes, financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite. Corporate CEO’s have never had it better, with economic risks borne by an increasingly exposed and unprotected, non-unionized middle class. The global financial elite refuses to take losses on its extravagant bets, such as currency speculation. Therefore third world countries — and most recently Greece — have had to pay the price. The contagion shall surely spread to other European countries and beyond.

Growth is god. Obsessed with this ideology, today’s economies are bent upon achieving a “never-ending exponential growth on a finite planet”. But this imperils all systems, man-made and natural. The present global patterns of social organization and behavior, where the goal is to stimulate consumption towards ever higher levels, is unsustainable.

This growth ideology is promoted by a banking system, global and national, whose goal is to maximize profits. Its activities are mysteriously shrouded in the technical language of finance — derivative products, equity swaps, etc. Seeking profit and stimulating growth may not necessarily be bad but should growth mean the growth of goods or, instead, the growth of services? If the latter, then this could be sustainable and a source of never ending wealth and progress. Software, music, education, and various scientific and cultural activities expand the economy and raise us to the next level of intellectual sophistication without necessarily extracting a large cost. On the other hand, producing material goods requires use of resources such as fossil fuels and minerals. City after city, and country after country, now faces the ugly consequences of pollution and massive environmental degradation.

Conflating personal satisfaction with greater individual consumption of goods, and the health of an economy with its rate of growth, are two cornerstones of the modern capitalist system. At an earlier stage of human development, this was much more understandable. Marx, in spite of his moral indignation at the plight of workers under industrial capitalism, acknowledged capitalism as a system that was superior to feudalism because it was more efficient at organizing the production of material goods. Socialism, he said, would inevitably replace capitalism because it would be still more efficient. In Marx’s world, and for that matter Adam Smith’s or David Ricardo’s, more was better. That was when the oceans were teeming with fish, the forests were still lush, and the air was clean except in and just around industrial centers. This environment was assumed fixed, a given quantity, open for unlimited exploitation.

All this has now changed and a sustainable future for humankind requires a very different outlook. After a certain threshold is crossed, consuming more cannot make an individual, group, or country happier or more satisfied. On the contrary, the penalties paid in terms of environmental damage and clutter is making the graph bend downward instead of curving upward.

In a nutshell, a possibly happy and dignified existence for humankind faces a two-fold threat: wasteful and excessive consumption by richer countries, and overpopulation within poorer countries. The danger posed by the second is just as great, if not greater. World population has doubled in 40 years from 1959 (3 billion) to 2014 (7 billion). By 2038 this will increase to 9 billion.

Inimical to regulating population growth are certain religious forces, primarily Catholic and Muslim, which actively oppose birth-control and contraception, arguing that God will miraculously provide sustenance to all who are born. One wishes religious leaders would experiment with bacteria in a Petri dish; these living forms keep multiplying until they either exhaust available nutritive materials or sufficiently poison their environment with excreted wastes. How tragic it would be if a vastly superior life-form did not learn from this elementary observation or from the plight of refugees fleeing the wars in the Middle East, where before one’s eyes is the fact that only a finite number of people can get on to a boat before it capsizes. Staying just below the capsizing threshold is a prescription for savage competition, where the weaker ones get thrown into the sea.

It is this horrible competition that we must avoid at all cost. As Avery emphasizes, the optimum population of the world is not that which can be squeezed from eradicating every species of plant and animal which cannot be eaten. Instead, it is that which is sustainable and which assures the possibility of a happy and dignified existence to all. John Stuart Mill had noted back in 1848 that “A population may be too crowded, although all be amply supplied with food and raiment.”, and argued that, “If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.

We have lived for over two centuries in a state of extreme hubris, vanquishing nature with ever greater ease and exulting at the “progress”. We can now drain swamps, tame rivers, turn forests into agricultural farms, make artificial islands, and much more.  But instead of expanding our conquests, should we not take a wider view of things?

When the incomparable Carl Sagan said we “we are all made of star stuff”, he was implying that humans must be duly humble, conscious that they are delicately located in a cold, unfeeling universe that would not feel their loss. This cosmic philosopher suggests looking from somewhere in deep outer space towards that tiny pale blue dot circling a certain middle aged star, itself the unintended consequence of some ancient supernova explosion. Behold his magnificent poetry:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

We have not treated our little planet well at all. And yet all is not doom and gloom. The realization that we need to change set habits is beginning to dawn. Phasing out CFC’s was an early realization that these chemicals, earlier thought as miracle substances, would have catastrophic consequences. We now have an international treaty banning them, and production has indeed plummeted.

Reforestation is now an announced goal that many countries say they are committed to. In Canada, overall forest cover has increased over the last decades. China plans to plant 26 billion trees in the next decade, which amounts to two trees for every Chinese citizen per year. The Great Green Wall initiative is a pan-African proposal to “green” the continent from west to east in order to battle desertification. It aims at tackling poverty and the degradation of soils in the Sahel-Saharan region, focusing on a strip of land of 15 km wide and 7,500 km long from Dakar to Djibouti.

But the progress in renewable energy may perhaps be the most important step forward. According to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2015 report, renewable energy (excluding large hydro) accounted for 48% of new generating capacity installed globally in 2014, and the share of renewables in global electricity generation increased to 9.1%. This is equivalent to avoided greenhouse gas emissions of some 1.3 gigatons annually.

These are welcome, but still fledgling, steps. Much more is needed. We have already used up millions of years of stored resources in terms of land and soil, and most of the easily available energy that was in the form of hydrocarbons. A mass extinction of bird and animal species is well on the way, with about 50 percent already lost. It is unclear when we will be able to halt the downward spiral, but this book certainly lays out the task before us.


Pervez Hoodbhoy has for many years been actively engaged in the search for solutions to pressing global problems.  In 2013, he was made a member of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament. Among the awards Prof. Hoodbhoy has won are the IEEE Baker Award for Electronics (1968); the Abdus Salam Prize for Mathematics (1984); the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science (2003); the Joseph A. Burton Award (2010) from the American Physical Society and the Jean Meyer Award from Tufts University. In 2011, he was included in the list of 100 most influential global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine.