Local viability and long-term self destruction

Note: this was posted in 1997 to an early internet experiment.
For more, please see my page The Hyperforum on Sustainability.

a sustainable, global world -- the Earth When you say that “Unrestrained competitive markets in laissez-faire political system are good at efficiency and innovation, but bad at achieving distributive equity and environmental quality,” aren’t you saying that they inevitably self-destruct? Are distributive equity and environmental quality simply extraneous details or are they intrinsic to the long term viability of the markets?

Thu, 27 Feb 1997 16:58:59 GMT

For more, please see The Hyperforum on Sustainability.

Update: Taken out of context, this note must seem like a complete non sequitur. However, in the background of the discussion then, the following thought was obvious to me. Right after the War (please don’t ask, “Which war?”), when I was young, the Japanese flooded the US market with inexpensive manufactured goods. However, the later result was that the Japanese standard of living had increased to a difficult point where they could no longer afford their own labor and had to import from poorer countries. In turn, those poorer countries grew richer and were forced to import from other countries still. When I wrote this in 1997 this sequence had continued for several iterations and the underlying ideas seemed obvious. Although it was good for each country to improve and become industrialized, it would subsequently become painful for them as later countries took their turn. Also, the gap between the first countries in line and the later ones would become ever wider. Both of these factors would tend to constantly destabilize the international situation. And there was the further point that eventually, a lifetime or more later, every country would have taken its turn and therefore countries would no longer be able to support their economy by buying labor from poorer partners — so where would they turn?

I had no specific prescription for solving this. My point was more general: since the outlines seemed so obvious, couldn’t we pro-actively try to manage the situation to get the best process and outcome for everyone, rather than bumping our way blindly through a series of potentially explosive situations?

Similar ideas were behind the notion that environmental problems were destabilizing. Even though the earth’s natural resources were vast, the were finite and would eventually run short, especially as a larger portion of the planet’s population competed for them. People who want to get rich now may find it profitable to pretend that what will happen in, say, 200 years is theoretical and not worth planning for. However, it’s not at all theoretical that someone will eventually need to find alternative, renewable resources; active opposition to that search will not make success come sooner. There will be economic and political consequences long before the point where resources are exhausted. Also, 200 years is not so terribly remote. For example, an American of my generation was young 50 years ago and was very conscious then of the Civil War, 80 to 90 years earlier. The Revolution was 80 to 90 years earlier than that and not too far away.

In the Hyperforum, I was conversing with others who felt similarly about the environment and so I didn’t often feel a need to be explicit about such points. We were aware that our ideas would seem (in light of George H.W. Bush’s successful “spotted owl” attacks a few years earlier) naive and idealistic to many others. Now, only 11 years later, the brief comment above seems dead accurate. For example, the rising demand for oil in China and India, has made prices rise unimaginably and has directly and indirectly contributed much to economic and political instability world-wide. So I feel prophetic on that one.

I did not, however, have the remotest inkling then of global warming.

The final question in the brief post reprinted above amounts to this: speaking as a non-economist, I wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to have an economics where such effects were basic and obvious, rather than one in which they seem esoteric and only for advanced thought?

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