Last week I caught up with a dear friend, Eric Zencey, who is a writer and a colleague of mine at Empire State College. He also teaches at the University of Vermont and Washington University in St. Louis. He's a busy guy; he's got two new books out. Published within days of each other, they both have an environmental theme.
At the core of his professional life and writing has been a concern for what sustainability means for our political and economic systems -- and the thinking that these systems are based on. He went to graduate school 30 years ago with three big questions: "What have we done to the planet? What were we thinking? And what should we be thinking instead?" What we were thinking, he says, is bad economic theory -- and that's what he's been working to change.
For most of the past 30 years, there wasn't much of an audience for the answers he began to develop, and that's one reason he started his writing career with a novel. (Panama, published in 1995, was a national bestseller.) "But recently there's been a cultural shift," he says. "More and more people understand that we can't have infinite economic growth on a finite planet -- and that this means we have a lot of rethinking to do to adapt our political and economic institutions to physical reality."
He's sketched out that thinking in his two new books. The first, The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy, is Zencey's frontal assault on the "infinite planet" foundations of current economic thinking and practice. Because economic growth has led us to the limits of what the planet can handle, he says, we now see an increasing need for international resource regimes to regulate our collective ecological footprint. Taking on Hayek's argument that control of otherwise "free" markets is "the road to serfdom," Zencey argues that there is no such thing as a free market; every market system is structured by rules and regulations. Moreover, because economic growth within our market system leads us to need regulations limiting such things as fish harvests, the harvesting of wood through unsustainable deforestation and the pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it produces the same result Hayek tried to avoid. "Free markets run on infinite planet principles are just the other road to the same result," Zencey says. The alternative is a market-based system run on finite planet principles, as espoused by ecological economics, an emergent school of economic thought that is grounded in the laws of physics and nature.
In the book Zencey explains this new school of thought and applies it to current political and economic concerns: the financial collapse, terrorism, population growth, hunger, the energy and oil industry's social control and the deeply rooted dissatisfactions felt by conservative "values" voters who have been encouraged to see smaller government and freer markets as the universal antidote to social ills that have in fact been wrought by cheap energy and an infinite-growth mentality. Finance and economics can be steep -- and boring -- topics, but Zencey covers them in a digestible form. As evidence of the power of these ideas and the elegance of his reasoning, Zencey's book carries powerful testimonials from Richard Heinberg, James Kunstler and Bill McKibben, indisputable leaders in ecological and environmental thought.
Zencey's other new book, Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State, co-authored with Elizabeth Courtney, tells the story of the Vermont environmental movement as it responded to economic and social changes brought into the state with the arrival of the interstate highway and the perpetual-growth hydrocarbon economy.
That book asks and answers the question, "Why didn't Vermont come to look like everywhere else?" It presents the work of the Vermont environmental movement as unfinished, given that no economy reliant on fossil fuels is truly sustainable, but as offering policies and strategies worthy of emulation. It points to the future work of the environmental movement in tackling problems that haven't previously been considered environmental, problems that will come as the withdrawal symptoms of a society addicted to oil (e.g., increasing food insecurity, social dislocation and ecological refugees). These are going to be complex and profound problems that will require a clear vision of the path to a sustainable civilization -- a path you can begin seeing in these two books.
You should read them, think about them, talk about them and most of all act on the ideas in them.