Cover: Common Starling flock, Dumfries, Scotland. Photograph: Paul Hobson/FLPA
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Jack Santa Barbara suggests we need only to attend to those relationships that preserve the integrity, resilience and beauty of the commonwealth of life. Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver. Berrett-Koehler, 2009. ISBN 9781576757628
Right Relationship is a book for the ‘worrying-about-collapse’ weary. It is a book for those of us who realise that the world we live in is in great peril and that something fundamental has to change to ensure that the human story continues and flourishes.
While there are many features of the book that make it hopeful, two in particular stand out. The book lays out a broad framework for change, including a moral base, that encompasses all arenas from the local to the global, and it arises from a Quaker tradition which has had remarkable successes in the past – the abolition of slavery being just one noteworthy example.
The neoclassical economic paradigm that has been so successful at providing material goods is clearly identified as the main culprit in both the destruction of ecological systems and the creation of enormous inequities that characterise the current condition of our special planet. As the authors point out, the economy is about relationships, as is ecology. And the current relationships we humans have with both are wrong. They are wrong because our economic activities are destroying the life-support systems for the commonwealth of life that sustain us, and these same activities reward those who least need more and disadvantage those whose needs are greatest.
The authors’ analysis of the problem we face is not new, but what is different about Right Relationship is the moral basis for both the analysis and the solutions offered. And what may be even more refreshing for some is that the moral basis is not derived from a ‘sacred text’ but from the fundamental truths of science. Many of these truths are also included in sacred texts, so there is no conflict but rather an integration of traditional spiritual values with the more recent perspective of current scientific inquiry.
The authors point out that even within the hard sciences of physics and chemistry, the earlier reductionist approach has given way to an holistic systems approach: one of contexts or relationships – the increasing recognition that everything is connected in complex and profound ways. This recognition, however, has not yet been integrated with how we make use of the Earth’s finite resources to provide for our wellbeing and how we run our economy. Hence the wrong relationships of our economic activities give rise to ecological catastrophe and social inequity.
Right relationships are those which “tend to preserve the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life”. They are wrong when they do otherwise. The term “commonwealth of life” is also defined in terms of embracing all living things (that is, not being human-centric), emphasising the interdependence of all living things, and as something that is concerned with the common good.
The focus on the economy as the arena for radical change leads to a series of basic questions: what is the economy for? How does it work? How big is too big? What is fair? How should it be governed? The authors outline the steps that need to be taken to achieve a Whole Earth economy, but what is encouraging about this outline is that it is not just a series of steps identified and then left to others to implement. The book itself is part of a larger Quaker-initiated project called the Moral Economy Project (www.moraleconomy.org). Its aim is to take the steps and implement them.
There is no sugar coating on the difficulties involved in creating a new economic paradigm based on right relationships. But the book does identify a wide range of activities and institutions already in place which are actively working for one or another aspect of this grand plan. One of the proposed institutions is a Global Federation, the purposes of which are “global security and the protection of human rights and life’s commonwealth”.For those concerned about a potentially Orwellian global government, the authors point out that the status quo “is to allow actual control of the planet to remain in the hands of the current de facto Big Brother of unelected, unaccountable commercial leaders and entities that recognise no responsibility for the public good”.
In addition to proposing four global institutions needed for a Whole Earth economy, the authors provide a summary of how close, or far, we are from making such institutions a reality. They ask whether the concepts behind these proposed institutions are ready for implementation. They conclude that models already exist for three of the four proposed institutions, although modification is needed for adaptation to a global level. Federalism, for example, is a well-known and established political mechanism that can be adapted to the common good; but no attempts have yet been made to establish it at a global level.
The institution that is least ready is what they term the Global Reserve. “The principal purpose of the Global Reserve is the analysis of the Earth’s life support budgets and their uses in accordance with right relationship with the commonwealth of life.” The goal of the Global Reserve is to prevent “the total human economic impact from overrunning the integrity, resilience and beauty of life’s commonwealth”.
This brief overview of the book may make it sound simplistic and idealistic. While the book is written in a straightforward and accessible style, there are many practical perspectives and informed suggestions to shore up this idealistic framework. And the approach rightly, I believe, clearly identifies the values and ideals that need to change for a Whole Earth economy to work. As the authors point out, “what is truly unrealistic is the idea that continuing down the current economic path will ever serve the common good, or save the life forms and cultural traditions of this planet from their march toward extinction.”