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A New Organisation Working for the Economics of Sustainability

By Peter Dorman

" Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmaid, Tá deireadh na gciollte ar lár?"

Economics has become the domain of the experts and yet it dictates what happens in our day to day lives. Feasta questions this loss of power. It also questions a model of development and growth that inevitably will take the planet and not the rug from under our feet.

Up to the Middle Ages, the island of Ireland was densely forested. People lived not so much on roads and crossroads, but on the banks of rivers and lakes, and by the shores of sea and ocean. The interior was too densely wooded to penetrate. The forests supported the people, providing fuel, shelter, food and protection. But this changed with the plantations, when forests were cut down in swathes to make way for new towns and so that wood could be exported to England for shipbuilding and as a raw material for other industries of progress.

In this climate, the poet wrote: "Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmaid, tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár". (What will we do in the future without wood; the end of the forests is here?). In an apparent statement of the obvious, the poet poses the key question. It cannot be all about now. What about the future?

A new organisation borrows its name from these lines. Feasta was launched last October as a platform for asking what about the future. It can't all be about now. As the Brazilian economist Marcos Arruda, who launched Feasta in Mother Redcaps in Dublin, pointed out: "It is no longer what will we do in the future without wood; but what will we do in the future without the earth?"

Feasta is about questioning the economics of growth and proposing an economics of sustainability. The model of economics, which is accepted throughout the world almost universally, is one that is about growth and competitiveness. In this article I want to reflect upon why this is so, why we should be concerned about it and how Feasta is trying to address the issue.

First though I want to acknowledge the objection that many of us have with even engaging in economics in the first place. Surely it is the preserve of the thirty year old man in suit-and-tie who appears on the tail end of the news and seems to understand things about inflation, capital flow, mergers, boom and bust and the rest of it. It is dead territory, uninspiring, uncreative, energy sapping stuff and not the business of visionaries. But the question is why is it so? In whose interests is it so? Economics has been 'professionalised' and 'expertized' so that all but a few elite can grasp its mysteries. We all know who our politicians are. But who among us knows the chairmen of the world's largest corporations, or the directors of the national and international financial institutions? Why do we need to know, when Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy are there to take the blame for all our ills?

Feasta argues that we need to reclaim economics. At its root, the word itself means 'household management'. In a global economy, the earth is the household. Who is managing it? What part are we each playing? Or are we leaving it to those who speak and understand the right language?

Thirty years ago, J.K. Galbraith compared the making of the Ford model T with modern day Ford engineering. His comparison illuminates the nature of the modern economy. When the model T was made, it was a simple piece of engineering that could be put together in a short space of time. Today, a car can take three years from blueprint to sale. In that time, many things can happen. Competition may produce a better, cheaper car. Raw materials may escalate in price. Markets may be closed off by national decision-makers. The public's taste for that particular style of car may wane.

Galbraith points out that all of these difficulties can best be overcome by size. If the corporation is large, it can absorb competition, perhaps even buy out the competitor! It can be such a significant customer for the raw material supplier that it can determine pricing. It can launch a marketing campaign that will convince the public that you are nobody without this style of car. It can influence political decisions which affect free markets; even make them! Given the nature of modern technology, the compulsion for growth is irresistible. Richard Douthwaite compares it to an aeroplane lifting from the runway. If it does not continue to gather speed, it stalls. Coca Cola is not free to announce, "enough, we have enough-". Pepsi would be waiting in the wings.

James Robertson illustrates the process thus. Because of competition, and because of the need to pay interest on money borrowed to embark on an economic venture, the business people find themselves in a situation where 'money must grow' to keep ahead of competitors and to repay debts. In order for money to grow, 'production must grow'. This in turn means 'consumption must grow'. People must extend their consumption to buy the new products. In order for them to do this 'earning must grow', so they have the disposable income to consume, and so again, 'money must grow' once more. It's a cycle, a vicious circle of spiralling growth.

The result of this growth cycle is disastrous. First of all the pressure of 'production must grow' means that energy consumption rises and rises, and raw materials are exploited at any cost. The environmental damage is unsustainable. We cannot have unlimited growth in a finite world. Politically, the real cost of production is never revealed as the actual energy and environmental costs are kept out of the equation. If they were, the day of us all realising how we cannot afford the earth would come a lot closer. Secondly 'consumption must grow' keeps us all on a treadmill of consumption. From our earliest years, Schumacher points out, we are instructed to be one thing; consumers. One problem with this is that markets are limited. There are only so many television sets, cars and microwaves a person can buy. Witness in the developed world how many of us struggle to think of gifts for Christmas. Charles Handy in the Empty Raincoat talks about Chindogu, the Japanese expression for products which are made just for the sake of producing something; windscreen wipers for spectacles for example. On a more serious level, the discovery in Asia that we actually don't need all these office blocks, hotels and new roads led to a collapse in markets there, and a reduction in demand for Russian oil. This in turn led to collapse there and a reduction in demand for Irish beef. Consequently, a near collapse for our beef sector. And so it goes on. The connections become clear in the unravelling.

At the heart of the system though is a cruel contradiction. 'Consumption must grow'. But also the drive to increase production with the lowest possible cost leads to low employment levels and low wages. This means that a significant amount of people are too poor to consume. Yet 'consumption must grow'. At this point the system begins to go into reverse. It cannot maintain its required momentum so it stalls. This, according to Richard Douthwaite, is what is happening now. The economic system is grossly unsustainable.

Of course this speaks about poverty as if it were simply a flaw in a system. It is of course so much more than that. It is the pain of millions and millions of people.

Possibly the most serious implication of the ever-growing, ever centralising, ever competing system is how it alienates us. Like it or not, economics, our household management, forms the basis of our lives. How we choose to order it shapes our outlook, our values, our politics, our culture, even our spirituality. In a world where we have little or no power over the most fundamental process of meeting our basic needs; where anonymous global realities determine whether we have a livelihood or not, we are in danger of becoming alienated from our own sense of dignity.

Feasta proposes to do three key things. Firstly, we want to generate public debate, to get people thinking and asking questions. We want to begin an education process to facilitate people to reflect on what is happening and draw their own conclusions about it. We need to take responsibility for what is happening.

Secondly, we want to do research into the system as it is, to understand better how it operates and impacts on our lives.

Thirdly, we want to facilitate the development of new models, both in theory and practise, which might put humanity back into economics.

At present, Feasta is co-ordinated by a small committee and has almost 200 members. These are drawn from a variety of areas of interest: community development, anti-poverty, environmental, overseas development. This coalition between people who work on such a variety of interests may indicate that we are at last coming together to tackle a common root cause of so many ills in our world.

We hope to develop a strong membership group, who will engage in a variety of voluntary actions and who will elect a steering group at an annual AGM. If you are interested in joining, please contact us at the address below.

Long long ago, through the consciousness of a young man, MOE INSANTO, a new concept dawns

  Feasta, Crolly's Cottage, Kilcroney, Readypenny, Co. Louth. 042-74064.



- James Robertson. Transforming Economic Life.
- Schumacher Briefings. Green Books. 1998.
- Richard Douthwaite. Short Circuit The Lilliput Press.1996
- J.K. Galbraith. The New Industrial State. Penguin 1967
- EF Schumacher. Small is Beautiful. Abacus1974
- Richard Douthwaite has written a pamphlet entitled 'The Ecology of Money', just published by Green Books, available from Richard Douthwaite, Cloona, Westport, Co. Mayo. IR£6.00; St£5.00; $10.95. Include postage. E-mail:

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