Striking the right balance

MANKIND is facing a dilemma because we need material resources to survive, yet the industrial economic approach to providing these resources has resulted in serious damage to the environment and thus to the very resources needed for our survival.

However, there may be a way out of this dilemma: the adoption of an approach called “preventive environmental management.” This approach reduces the costs associated with pollution, and thus helps increase, not undermine, corporate profits. There should also be a shift to a “service economy,” in contrast to the current emphasis on the production of material goods.

Industrial pollution results in undesirable costs, not only in terms of environmental destruction, but also in terms of clean-ups and damage to human health.

For the human species to continue to survive, it is necessary to break the “stalemate” that exists between demands for economic growth and environmental protection.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this complicated problem.

Tim Jackson, in his book Material Concerns, recommends a radical approach that calls for the “dematerialisation” of the economy. The central element in this approach is a process known as preventive environmental management, which involves efforts to reduce the use of environmental resources.

It seeks to prevent pollution rather than resort to the costly methods of trying to clean up pollution. Essentially, pollution clean-ups are not only costly, but also generally ineffective.

The other major component of Jackson’s proposed solution is a switch from the existing goods-based economy to a system with more emphasis on the provision of services. This would be a more environmentally friendly way for corporations to attain economic profits.

Although these services require material inputs and outputs, the incentive to increase material throughput is transformed – via the commercial innovations of the service economy – into a continuing drive for material efficiency.

The service economy approach seems to be an efficient way to help consumers fulfil their material and non-material needs. Jackson provides some practical ideas for how economic and environmental demands can be reconciled.

The main drawback is that it will be very difficult to make such changes in the existing system, which has become strongly ingrained over the centuries during which it has developed.

Changing the economic system will require the participation of humanity as a whole. In order for positive changes to occur, everyone needs to understand the consequences of the existing system and be willing to do their individual part in transforming it.

All areas of our accustomed way of life (politics, business, etc) need to be involved in making the changes. Certainly the government must play a particularly important role in this process.

We can expect to encounter many obstacles in the effort to get industrial corporations to change their ways. Perhaps we could not expect corporate leaders to act aggressively to change the existing system, because of their vested interest in it.

And certain types of industries will be harder to change than others. Obviously, those who profit the most from the existing system will be the ones who will be most resistant to change.

The Government also needs to create regulations and provide incentives in order to motivate corporations and individuals to change. The role of the consumer must not be overlooked in the effort to bring about change. Industries and corporations do what they do because they are trying to meet the demands of consumers.

We must place upon the consumer at least some of the responsibility for making the economy sustainable.

Humankind is not necessarily stuck with the existing system; the emphasis on material throughput is a contingent aspect of a particular historical development. There is more than one way that basic human needs can be satisfied.

Throughout history, different cultures have adapted different ways of meeting these needs. In the developed industrial economy the dominant way is a very specific development path characterised by the system of production and consumption.

Alternative approaches do exist, and it is possible for people to change from the use of one system to the use of another.

The effort to create a new reality in which the economy and the environment work together in harmony will be an extremely challenging one. Yet, this is an urgent issue which cannot be ignored or put off for too long, despite the difficulties. At stake is the health of the planet and, ultimately, the survival of the human species.

Jackson’s recommendations are radical, yet necessary, and the sooner they are accepted and implemented, the better.

We have a long road ahead of us, and Jackson’s book provides an important first step along that road.

Material Concerns opens the way for dialogue on the issue while simultaneously providing insights into the kinds of material and psychological changes that need to take place.

The writer is a senior research officer with the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER).