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  • Forfatters billedeJacob Rask

Earth calling economics

Opdateret: 9. feb. 2023

By Jacob Rask, economics lecturer at Roskilde University

Earth is calling. On fire. Seas rising. Air warming. I assume I don’t have to say too much more about this because by now, everybody who reads this knows.

I was born in 1989, along with the IPCC, and the world wide web. The previous 12 months was the hottest period science had ever recorded. James Hansen told congress he was 99% sure it was global warming. None of us will ever experience a year that cool again.

The Berlin wall tumbled. I grew up in an economy of abundance, overshooting its ecological limits. In the language of accounting, Denmark's economy has been in ecological deficit longer than I have been alive. So have all industrialised economies. In the language of systems, to overshoot means inducing stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The ever frequent forest fires and floods are Earth's invoices. Time to pay. With interest.

I also assume that a primary driver of ecological overshoot is global inequality in wealth and power. That getting back within planetary boundaries, not simply requires minor adjustment or even moderate reforms, but a substantial reallocation of wealth and a transformation towards regenerative economies. An economic transformation similar in magnitude to the agricultural and industrial revolutions. If this second assumption is not as self-evident, allow me to explain. At 20 years old, a happily starving artist, I read this article on the Great Acceleration of socioeconomic activity, and Earth system trends. Adding what I learned in school about thermodynamics, and the prevalence of elements in the periodic table, I became terrified of the possibility of a global economic collapse within my own lifetime. Unless, of course, we could change the direction of the global economy.

So, 14 years ago, when COP15 came to Copenhagen, I joined the 100.000 protesters from every corner of the world, handing over A People's Declaration calling for "System change – not climate change”. Since that didn’t work, I went back to school, to go to university, and study the relationship between environmental science and economics. Perhaps in the spirit of youthful naiveté, I reckoned that since our society is based on science and technology, and economics is the mother tongue of public policy, perhaps getting a university education would equip me to play my small part in turning the Titanic around. I imagined I would go study, spend a decade or two helping climate scientists spread the word on the need for immediate action, get listened to by political leaders, and then return to my true passion for art and gardening.

A month after stumbling over ’Thinking in Systems’ By Donella Meadows, in the MIT bookshop, I walked through the square-root-shaped gates of Roskilde University, into the basement of the library archives, to find a two hour long recording, labelled “Dennis Meadows on Limits to Growth at Roskilde University, 1973”. After spending a full day searching for a way to play it, I watched the whole monochrome recording in one go. And then a second time. And then a third. Before continuing, please take 5 minutes to watch this snippet for yourself. I promise it’s worth it.

How do you feel after watching this? At 20 I was overwhelmed, angry and perplexed: Worlds leaders knew all this stuff decades before I was even born!? And they kept overshooting the limits? This talk made more sense to me, than anything I had read in any of my textbooks. Why didn’t we change our priorities and actions already in 1973? Or after the heat record of 1989? Or after the paper on planetary boundaries in 2009? Or when rain, rather than snow, fell for the first time on the melting peaks of Greenland's ice sheet two years ago? Or at least last year when we crossed the 5th planetary boundary of chemical pollution? Here are a few of Dennis Meadows’ points I scribbled in my notebook, when I first watched that 1973 recording 10 years ago:

  • Most of our political, economic institutions have a very short time horizon. There is no government who is trying to base its decisions on a view of the world 50 years from now.

  • When you have limits, long delays and a short planning horizon, the system is always unstable. When you have a drunk driver, who can respond only very slowly to information, and when his foot is on the accelerator going faster and faster, he will have an accident. The global system is just like that drive, with one exception. To a large extent we are trying to drive the car by looking out the rear window.

  • Anyone who looks at the global system must be reminded of a ship... I'm surprised by the difference between the ship and the real world however because when the radar operator comes up to the bridge and says Captain Captain if we continue in the same direction and at the same speed we're going to run into an iceberg, the captain doesn't say well you're a prophet of Doom!

  • Another response to Limits to Growth says: maybe there are limits and maybe there aren't. But don't worry. The price system, technological advance and social change will stop growth when it's necessary… The price system isn't something apart. It's us, every day as we make decisions. Technology isn't something that just stays in the corner and goes ahead. It's us deciding what we want to do and then beginning to allocate resources so that we can do it. And social change clearly isn't anything apart from man and his institutions

  • We need a new mode of Education. We need a way of teaching people what it means to exist on a closed system… The economic values tend to move us towards uniformity and efficiency. We need an ecological value which moves us towards diversity and stability. Those concepts aren't taught in our schools.

  • In the short term I would hope that most of us here have benefited from economic growth to the point where other things are now more important.

  • Solar energy and even wind power have been discarded because they're not economically efficient. Well I will make a little prediction now. The cost that you're going to have to pay for your oil in this country is going to go up by two or three times in real terms over the next 10 years. Now's the time to start thinking about what will be economic 10 years from now instead of what was economic 10 years ago.

  • There are many different kinds of material equilibria towards which we could move. You don't necessarily have to have a dictatorship you don't necessarily have to have a static condition of mankind you don't necessarily have to put everybody back on the farm to have material equilibrium though I personally feel if we ignore the inevitability of material equilibrium the one we end up with is much more likely to be a dictatorship much more likely to be essentially agrarian and much more likely to be static.

  • We need a long-term goal which is expressed not only in terms of employment and GNP but in terms of the quality of life. I suspect that not one of you could really give me a comprehensive and believable description of where your children might be 50 years from now. Certainly I have no image whatsoever of what kind of life they'll be able to lead. Because we have no long-term goal

After watching the recording, I took out a copy of Limits to Growth. Even though it was as old as my university, it was pertinent. Fresh. Two pictures and one quote stood out in particular. I will let them speak for themselves:

“There can be disappointments and dangers in limiting one's view to an area that is too small. There are many examples of a person striving with all his might to solve some immediate, local problem, only to find his efforts defeated by events occurring in a larger context. A farmer's carefully maintained fields can be destroyed by an international war... Indeed there is increasing concern today that most personal and national objectives may ultimately be frustrated by long-term, global trends.” - Limits to Growth (1972)

The "Standard run" of the World 3 model predicted global decline around 2040
The "Standard run" of the World 3 model in Limits to Growth predicted global decline around 2030

Here is my 23 minute version of the talk.

Economics fit for the Earth

The recording is now 50 years old. Just like Roskilde University. Earth is still calling. This spring I will return to the ivory towers of academia, to teach my first course as lecturer in economics, because we still need a new mode of education, teaching what it means to exist in a closed system. Hubris perhaps. If half a century of brilliant scientists, like James Hansen, James Lovelock, Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows or Johan Rockström couldn’t, how can I make a difference? I guess I still have some of my youthful naivety left.


Here is my two cents on an economics fit for the Earth.

  • Economics needs a goal: Like the captain of a ship, economics today needs to combine short range fine steering of cost-benefit thinking, with the radar operator's long range view of the world 50 years from now. In the 20th century, the goal of economics was material growth. What should be the 21st century goal? Personally, I advocate Kate Raworth’s Doughnut as a pretty good compass for human prosperity on Earth. What is your goal?

  • Economics as an art. Take the word back to its ancient Greek roots. Economics means the art of household management. Education means to bring out or develop what is latent or potential, to unfold what is dormant; to make explicit what is implicit. Thus, the purpose of 21st century economics education should be to develop the students' full capacities to participate in the art of managing our planetary home in the interests of all its inhabitants in the long term.

  • Economics as a science: Herman Daly taught us that the ultimate subject matter of biology and economics is one. The life process. Economics is the part of ecology which studies the life process insofar as it is dominated by commodities and their interrelations. Just as a student of Medicine begins with lessons in Biology, any student of Economics has to begin with Ecology. Because we are now almost half a century past overshoot, we need economies that protect biodiversity, learn from nature's inherent capacity for regeneration, draw carbon out of the atmosphere, and support the restoration of the damage we have caused to Earth and the web of life.

  • Understanding systems: Donella Meadows taught us that the systems approach to thinking about our future is not only valuable, but indispensable. Let’s change the paradigm, like Copernicus showing that the earth is not at the centre of our solar system or Adam Smith postulating that the selfish actions of individual players in market systems wonderfully accumulate to the common good. Donella taught us that the key is to “keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm. Keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one. Insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don't waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”

  • Make the road by walking: From 1972-1986, there was no train station at Roskilde University, so students pulled the emergency brake to get off the train. Even after the station was created, students had to stomp through fields, to create their own pathways. We need to slam the brakes on the fossil fueled economy. For the coming generation of economic trailblazers, opportunities for hope are revealed through action. 21st century economics will be lived and practised forwards, understood backwards. We will make the road by walking.

  • Imagination, compassion and rebellion: “All power to the imagination” the students cried in 1968. Of course, Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were or ever could be. But without it we go nowhere. Before the talk begins, students sitting on the stairs are told they might be fined for it. They stay put. Although the youth revolt failed politically and economically, it was clearly a cultural success. A student shouts: “Can we agree not to smoke in here?” The crowd responds: “Hear! Hear!” From 1968 onwards, every professor knows that authority is no longer something you get from a title. You have to earn the students' recognition. It will take a similar spirit of rebellion to cast aside the self-serving cynicism of homo oeconomicus, and dare to imagine humans possess enough humanity, compassion to create a decent society on Earth. Human comes from the Latin word humus, meaning earth. We all have a capacity for compassion and care. Risking a fine, for what we believe, puts us in the finest company.

  • Time is the scarcest resource. Each one of us has a deadline. So does ecological and climate breakdown. What has really changed in the past 50 years? What do you think is the appropriate response to the problem of growth, overshoot and collapse today? If you are a student, for the next 5 years, you will have the privilege and opportunity to study anything you want, read any book, join any cause, or carry out any research project. Time is the scarcest resource today. There is no wealth but life, Ruskin said. How will you spend yours?

"Unlike the economist’s exponential growth curve, nature’s growth curve gradually levels off to a plateau.

Growth is a wonderful healthy phase of life – which is why we love to see children and flowers grow.

But in nature nothing grows for ever." - Kate Raworth

If I am lucky enough to survive the next 50 years, in 2073 I will be 84. By then, we will know whether we really listened. Whether we acted on the Earth's calling. We will know whether we got back within planetary boundaries, found a way to rapidly decrease our pressures on the Earth, in time to avoid uncontrollable global collapse, and the entailing human suffering. We will actually have known for a good while. Because according to the WORLD 3 model on which Limits to Growth based its conclusions in 1973, and backed up by the latest science, the next 10 years will be the decisive decade on Earth. How we act now, will determine the future for millennia.

Today and perhaps for the next 10 years we really have a unique chance. We have a tremendous momentum and a stock of resources which can be used in many different ways. We have technical resources and a good deal of expertise. They've only, I think, been directed in the wrong way. Everyone could spend their own resources and direct their own skills and knowledge towards some useful aspect of understanding the promises and the potentials of material equilibrium. If even a few of us could adopt that, I would say that was a very good response to Limits to Growth. This whole paragraph is a direct quote from 1973, by the way. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.

I will end this on a personal note. Of course I fear that my personal goal of changing economics education is too long term, too little, and too late, to matter in this decisive decade. When I read the news, or listen to politicians I am convinced it is. On days like that, I garden and draw. When I meet and work alongside the thousands of young people fighting for their future, it is impossible to give in to cynicism. And as a parent of two bright eyed children, despair is a privilege I can’t afford.

Earth is still calling. How will you respond?


References not linked above:

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J. & Behrens, W. W. (1972). The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books

Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., & Randers, J. (2004). The limits to growth: The 30-year update. White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

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