How can we separate economic growth from negative impact?
“Hug in the Snug” Interview by Alisa Murphy of Life Size Media, in 2015
Article by Wayne Visser
It is not uncommon to hear our present global economic system being compared to a predatory natural environment. We might imagine the market as a great African plain where competition for scarce resources dominates the life of every species. We can see successful companies as the supreme hunters in this eat-or-be-eaten world, like the awesome lions of the bushveld.
It is certainly a compelling analogy and one that is perpetuated in boardrooms and business schools around the world. We need only look at our economic and business language to realise that predatory behaviour is believed to be imperative to survive and thrive in the marketplace. We must “target” our customers, “chase” higher growth and better profits, “hunt” for potential merger or acquisitions partners, and “go for the kill” in our sales pitches.
But is this lion-king economy really the kind of place that we want to live in? Of course, it’s great if you’re at the top of the food chain, but what about the other, more vulnerable species? Is the free market really working “for the common good”, as it should according to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? Or are communities and the environment being sacrificed to keep companies well fed?
This article questions many of the beliefs which dominate economic thinking today, and asks whether we can design an economy “as if people and the planet mattered” – a sustainability-driven elephant economy.
Myth 1: The bushveld exists solely to serve the lion-king
One hundred years ago, nobody questioned the role of the economy in our lives. Business and the economy existed to serve the welfare of society – to provide the goods and services we needed in order to maximise our quality of life. Certainly, it was not the other way round. People did not exist to serve the economy.
And yet, some time in the past century, the tables have turned. Personal, community and even country survival are increasingly dependent on working within the formal, money economy. Furthermore, companies are able to justify all kinds of unethical practices in the name of profits or job creation, whether it is restricting the accessibility of lifesaving drugs, or causing wholesale destruction of the natural environment.
Partly this is a systemic problem in the way our economy works. It encourages dependency on money, institutionalises growth and incentivises short-sighted thinking. It is also about the balance of power and accountability. Today, many companies are more influential than whole countries, yet they remain accountable only to their shareholders, whose sole criterion is dividends.
This entrenched situation is the same as saying that the entire bushveld exists only to serve the lion-king. Which, of course, is neither desirable nor sustainable, even in a “survival of the fittest” context. In actual fact, nature is dominated by cooperative, symbiotic relationships that weave together into a complex, dynamic balance.
Myth 2: The bushveld contains unlimited food for the lion
We all know that economies depend on the natural environment, both to supply resources and act as a sink for our wastes. But the rate at which most modern economies are gobbling up raw …
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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)
[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/business-frontiers”]Page[/button] Business Frontiers (book)
Visser, W. (2002) Economics: An Environmental Perspective – Unmasking the myths of the predatory lion economy. The Enviropaedia: World Summit Edition, Eagle Environmental: Durban.