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In Review: Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy

Read my review of ‘Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy‘ in the Aug 2009 issue of Alternatives Journal. Here is an excerpt:

Perhaps it is the economic crisis. Maybe it is climate change, soaring extinction rates or the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor. Or then again, it could simply be the nagging sense among more and more people that the human project has somehow gone awry. Whatever the case, in recent years, we have witnessed an explosion of popular interest in books that question, even excoriate, the most fundamental assumptions of our current, growth-at-all-costs economic system. …

Right with the Planet
Right Relationship: Building a Whole
Earth Economy, Peter G. Brown and
Geoffrey Garver, San Francisco: Berrett-
Koehler Publishers, 2009, 210 pages
Reviewed by Mark Brooks
“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s
relation to land and to the animals and
plants which grow upon it…The landrelation
is still strictly economic, entailing
privileges but not obligations.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Perhaps it is the economic crisis. Maybe
it is climate change, soaring extinction
rates or the ever-widening gap between
the rich and poor. Or then again, it could
simply be the nagging sense among more
and more people that the human project
has somehow gone awry. Whatever the
case, in recent years, we have witnessed
an explosion of popular interest in books
that question, even excoriate, the most
fundamental assumptions of our current,
growth-at-all-costs economic system.
It is in this mould that Peter G.
Brown, a professor at McGill University,
and Geoffrey Garver, an environmental
consultant and lecturer in law in
Montreal, cast their excellent new book.
Yet the authors offer much more than
another indictment of 21st century,
laissez-faire market fundamentals. With
humanity in the throes of an ecological
crisis (described in the book as a “lethal
failure of imagination”), the authors
propose a new ethic. They offer a practical
guide for differentiating between right
and wrong relationships, both within
human society, and between humans and
the planet’s entire community of life, of
which humans are a part.
The authors believe that it is “wrong
relationships” – those between fellow
humans, future generations and
other species – that lie at the heart of
the problems that modern societies
face today. An economy based on
consumerism and an unquestioned
obsession with perpetual growth has
led to a fundamental disconnect in
the human-Earth relationship. Their
“right-relationship” ethic is something
like sustainability, but it goes much
deeper. Starting from the premise that
the economy is part of the Earth system,
and therefore subject to ecological rules,
the right-relationship ethic challenges
us to reconsider humanity’s place in the
world.
In this respect, Brown and Garver
owe much to Aldo Leopold for his land
ethic, penned over 50 years ago, which
forms the foundation for their concept
of right relationship. But the authors’
prescriptions for a whole-Earth economy
also find inspiration in civil-society
movements, and in Quaker traditions of
human solidarity, betterment and wellbeing.
The authors ask five simple questions
about the purpose, size, fairness,
functioning and governance of our
current economic system, and then
systematically demonstrate that it has
been built on assumptions that are at odds
with scientific realities. They argue that
an economy guided by right relationship
offers a new way forward, with ideas
ranging from new forms of governance
institutions to ecologically based limits
on the consumption of resources and
production of wastes.
The authors maintain that the
economic-growth imperative has failed to
distribute wealth fairly, has not reversed
environmental devastation and, once
basic needs have been met, has not
improved human well-being. Moreover,
our current economic system simply has
no way of putting any boundaries on
excessive consumption and waste.
These shortcomings, say Brown and
Garver, are signs of an economy in wrong
relationship with the Earth. A whole-
Earth economy in right relationship
would not be guided by the need to
constantly maintain growth (although
some forms of expansion may continue).
Instead, it would be driven by a desire
to maintain the integrity, resilience and
beauty of life’s commonwealth, and to
provide for the health and well-being
of present and future generations. The
authors then describe four steps that
people can take, including non-violent
direct action, to advance this paradigm
shift.
Some of what Brown and Garver
advocate – such as the need for population
limits, massive wealth redistribution and
ecologically based limits on economic
activity – will surely be considered
controversial, even unrealistic. And this
strikes to the heart of the problem.
While the authors’ assessment of the
global environmental crisis and their
prescriptions for change are well-reasoned
and persuasive, the transformation they
speak of is nothing short of revolutionary.
So ambitious, in fact, that it is hard to
imagine it ever taking place. The authors
fail to elaborate on how it will happen,
except to say that either crisis or a mass
epiphany will force “the fundamental
re-evaluations that will be necessary.”
The latter case seems unlikely, and the
former is hardly comforting. If the
worst economic crisis since the Great
Depression hasn’t compelled us to reject
our long-held economic assumptions,
one wonders what will.
Regardless of what brings about the
“big shift,” Brown and Garver believe that
the only choice left to human beings may
be to have a new platform ready when
the situation demands it. By offering a
glimpse of what this economy might
look like, how it would function and
what concrete actions people could take,
Right Relationship is the authors’ attempt
to prepare humankind for this transition.
It is an urgent call to action for people
who understand the crisis of the human-
Earth relationship, and a wake-up call for
those who don’t.

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