10/04/2012 02:30 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2013

The Economy That Could Be

A major challenge for our society in the next century will be to figure out how to overcome natural resource limitations while fixing the complicated issues related to poverty. Our dilemma as a species is not that we consume too much, or that we are active creators; rather, it is how we choose to focus our effort, imagination and resourcefulness. As we enjoy the innovations of the developed world that make our lives more productive, simpler and less stressful, we might be careful to remember that our personal self-worth and sense of well-being is still defined by our cultural connections, social communities and basic human goodness.

We can create an increasingly non-material economy, which can be vibrantly successful and that only requires a cultural shift already underway. For example, through educational outlets such as TED talks or the Khan Academy, we are discovering how fulfilling, accessible and affordable learning can be.

As a scientist who applies the principles of mathematics and physics to ecology, I spend a lot of time thinking about the limitations faced by biological communities. Typically, we see communities of organisms grow with abandon for a period of time before leveling off to a constant population size where their resource use matches what is supplied to them. Today there are limits that we are growing toward as a human species. These range from energy sources, to food, to the abstract world of economics and financial systems. It would be nice to believe that we will never see these limits because of our potential for future technological ingenuity.

Surely there is much to be gained from an energetic push at the limits of technology and our continued investment in basic science. However, this may not be sufficient in dealing with future challenges: a team of physicists led by Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt has recently shown that every cycle of innovation must be faster than the previous. This can be thought of as scientists and creators needing to produce twice the innovation in half the time -- an exponentially increasing challenge.

We as humans have survived because of our ability to alter our behaviors, and to radically change how we live in response to natural limitations. In the past we have oscillated between nomadic and agrarian lifestyles and we have continually and successfully changed our energy and food sources based on availability. So in thinking about the limitations of the next century, the issue at hand is not necessarily about our species' survival or some approaching "doom"; rather, it is about using our ability to anticipate the future so that we can avoid unnecessary hardship. We can choose to design a world that is as comfortable as possible for as many people as possible.

This is similar to a perspective spoken about by William McDonough: In contrast to focusing on morally dubious and socially controversial hard limits, such as population control, we can instead work to create a world that is welcoming to and sustaining of all humans living and soon to be alive.

In most developed nations we already have the capacity to meet the basic needs of all individuals. It seems that we have overcome the main challenge posed by nature: staying well-fed, hydrated and warm enough to make it to tomorrow. Yet our release from a daily life focused on the struggle to survive has introduced several perplexing questions. How should we as humans spend our time, and for what purpose do we invest our creativity, intellects and ingenuity? Specifically, how do we understand, and then solve, the issues of human poverty, disease, and suffering which still exist even within the most technologically advanced nations?

The latter question is really about natural limits. If we have solved humanity's basic needs, then why do we continue to create and invent? Why wouldn't we simply perfect the system that could feed us all, ensuring a sustainable future through moderated use of resources? Perhaps the answer is that we are a species that cannot stagnate--we thrive on and prosper from persistent exploration and creativity.

So, how do we invent a new non-material economy that can employ and be fulfilling to our population? The template for this already exists in our art, entertainment and social altruism. It takes few to no material resources to perform in a play, talk with a friend, or read to a child. Imagine a human society in which we consume, create and are actively employed, but where very few material goods are made or used. Imagine a society where the most abundant natural resources are its writers, parents, actors, educators, poets, volunteers, and philanthropists. Imagine a society where we consume lectures and art instead of material products that will break and be tossed aside in a few months.

Perhaps we will find it far more fulfilling to become active with global civic engagement. Those of us who live with all of our natural needs met can turn our time and resourcefulness toward "consuming" the problems of poverty and suffering. We can create and participate in an economy that employs many more artists, thinkers, educators, and volunteers. We can spend our time and focus the fruits of our economic growth on the advancement of our culture, on the elimination of the fixable problems such as hunger, and in reflection and the pursuit of self-discovery so that we may truly know ourselves, find greater happiness, and treat one another with compassion and genuine civility.

We need to find ways to economize and monetize the good work that so many, such as parents, already do. In doing so we will create a truly sustainable economy -- an economy that is less vulnerable to the natural limits and challenges lurking in the unexpected events of the future. We can be the first generation in the history of our global species to live without a hungry, cold, or thirsty individual, and we can be known as the generation that gave more than it received.