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Revolution or Renaissance

D. Paul Schafer

Part I - The age of economics

4. Assessment of the Economic Age

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There is... one difficult exercise to which we may accustom ourselves as we become increasingly culture-conscious. We may train ourselves to pass judgement upon the dominant traits of our own civilization. It is difficult enough for anyone brought up under their power to recognize them. It is still more difficult to discount, upon necessity, our predilection for them. They are as familiar as an old loved homestead. Any world in which they do not appear seems to us cheerless and untenable. Yet it is these very traits which by the operation of a fundamental cultural process are most often carried to extremes. They overreach themselves, and more than any other traits they are likely to get out of hand. Just at the very point where there is greatest likelihood of the need of criticism, we are bound to be least critical.—Ruth Benedict (1963), p. 179

1Now that the mechanics of the economic age have been dealt with, it is possible to turn our attention to the task of assessing the economic age. This is surely the most difficult task of all, because it is difficult not only to find the right perspective from which to view the economic age, but also to overcome basic biases and fundamental beliefs. It is this that the distinguished anthropologist Ruth Benedict had in mind when she wrote about the difficulty of making an objective assessment of contemporary civilization. Yet, despite this difficulty, it is essential to persevere with this task. Logic and common sense demand it; concern for humanity, and the welfare of people all over the world, compel it.

2Numerous problems have loomed up on the global horizon in recent years that make assessment of the economic age imperative, most prominently the environmental crisis, involving global warming and consumption of the world’s renewable and non-renewable resources at alarming rates; the large disparities in income, wealth, and resources between the rich and poor countries, giving rise to unacceptable levels of poverty, hunger, and unemployment in the latter; rapid rates of population growth (in absolute if not relative terms); escalating violence and terrorism, along with the constant threat of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare; and growing tensions between the diverse religions, cultures, and civilizations of the world. Given the severity of these problems and their implications for the future, it is tempting to plunge directly into an assessment of the shortcomings of the economic age, in view of the many concerns and reservations that have been expressed about it. Such a temptation must be resisted, however, at least until time has been taken to assess the strengths of the economic age. If the economic age has its shortcomings, it also has its strengths.

Strengths of the Economic Age

3Most of the strengths of the economic age have to do with the enormous advances that have been realized in production, productivity, and productive capacity over the past two hundred years or so. These advances would not have been possible without the economic age and its commitment to economics, economies and economic growth, the economic worldview, and the economic model of development. One need only walk through any market, mall, shopping centre or store to confirm this. Not only has production been increased substantially, it has been increased in every domain of life, whether agriculture, industry, business, government, education, social affairs, the arts, science, religion, politics or technology. More of everything is being produced than at any other time in history. The fact that many people are badly off rather than well off has much more to do with problems in the distribution of goods, services, and wealth than it does with problems in production.

4What is true of production is also true of productivity, which has risen dramatically during the economic age, largely because of specialization, capital accumulation, improvements in labour-management relations, education and training, and increases in the size of markets. While conditions are far from ideal in most parts of the world, workers in virtually every country can now produce more per capita than was possible even a few decades ago.

5As a result of the phenomenal increases that have occurred in production and productivity, productive capacity is greater than ever before, despite the fact that many companies are operating at far less than full capacity. Just as the problem is much more one of distribution than of production, so it is much more one of demand than of supply. Whenever there is enough effective demand, meaning demand backed up by the money to pay for it, supply increases to take advantage of it. This is actually a reversal of Say’s Law, since in this case demand creates its own supply.

6These phenomenal increases would not have been possible without phenomenal advances in science and technology, which have been crucial to the development of the economic age. Not only have they proved capable of outstripping the law of diminishing returns and warding off the stationary state, they have also made life far less physically demanding and strenuous for many people. In agriculture, production, productivity and productive capacity have all increased tremendously as a result of technological and scientific achievements. The entire way in which manufacturing is conceived and practised today, from automation to the management and organization of industrial life, has been fundamentally changed as a result of improvements in “the state of technique,” as the classical economists called it. Numerous advances have also been recorded in disease control and prevention, sanitation, health care, delivery systems, life expectancy birth rates, and death rates. In transportation and communications, the most conspicuous field for technological and scientific invention and innovation, there have been enormous advances too, as mentioned in the previous chapter. The benefits of these scientific and technological advances are by no means accessible to everyone, but few would deny that they have contributed to improvements in living for millions of people throughout the world.

7In the first place, these momentous accomplishments of the economic age have expanded the realm of choice and made many more products available, from new forms of food, clothing, and shelter to cars, television sets, stereos, household appliances, and other consumer durables. In addition, there are many more opportunities for education and training, particularly advanced education and training, as well as for tourism, travel, recreation, and entertainment. There have also been substantial improvements in health care and medical systems that have made it possible for people, at least in some parts of the world, to live longer and enjoy their lives more. They have also made it possible for people to live with a great deal more confidence that their lives will not be snuffed out as a result of medical emergencies or uncontrollable events (although of course floods, hurricanes, avalanches, forest fires, wars, terrorism, and infectious disease can still erupt, and with devastating consequences).

8For those who are fortunate enough to enjoy these opportunities and benefits, life is no longer, as Thomas Hobbes called it 350 years ago, “nasty, brutish, and short.” On the contrary, it is more enjoyable, more fulfilling and longer-lasting than in previous generations, which is why people in every part of the world are anxious to enjoy the fruits of the economic age. While some lament the passing away of bygone eras, few would exchange their present situation for shorter lives, higher mortality rates (especially infant mortality rates), premature death, destitution, a great deal more poverty and disease, sixty to eighty hours at work each week, and a great deal of squalor, misery, starvation, and deprivation. Nor would they want to return to the past if it meant eating the same food three times a day, or having no holidays or vacations, few opportunities for education, training or entertainment, and no central heating or air-conditioning. Life in previous centuries was demanding, strenuous, and brief for many even in the most developed countries, much as it still is in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East.

9While the benefits and opportunities of living in the economic age are worthy of a great deal of reflection and respect, these are not its only strengths. One of its greatest strengths has been its capacity to confront the various challenges and problems that have loomed in its path.

10When, for example, the preoccupation with production was getting out of hand, in the early part of the nineteenth century, Malthus, Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and especially Marx shifted attention from production to distribution. While this did not solve the distribution problem, it did help to achieve a better balance between production and distribution, and it signalled how dangerous it is to focus exclusively on production if insufficient consideration is given to the ways in which the fruits of production are distributed among the various classes and interest groups of society. This same responsive capacity was evident in the middle years of the twentieth century, when the preoccupation with economic growth and laissez faire economics was getting out of hand. In this case, welfare economics, aiming to take into account the needs and interests of all classes and interest groups, not just those of the rich and privileged, grew and spread rapidly. Spurred on by theoretical contributions from A. C. Pigou, John Hicks, Gunnar Myrdal, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others, as well as practical measures such as medicare, workers’ compensation, pension plans, progressive taxation, the spread of labour unions and better labour relations, and a variety of redistribution schemes, the economic age demonstrated a similar capacity to respond to the problems it was confronted with at this time. More recently, with the increasing recognition of the environmental crisis has come the concept of “sustainable development,” development that takes the needs and interests of the natural environment, other species and future generations into account. While the capacity of the economic age to respond has not solved the crisis and, indeed, most would argue that it is worse than ever before, it has certainly helped to mitigate its worst effects. The environmental crisis would be far worse today than it is if economic growth had been allowed to run rampant over the past fifty years and the concept of sustainable development had not been developed and applied in attempts to counteract environmental excesses and deficiencies.

11This responsive capacity of the economic age has been matched by numerous advances in the capacities of planners, policy experts, decision-makers, politicians, and governments to manage complex economic systems and local, regional and national economies. This ability should never be overestimated or taken for granted, since forces capable of having devastating effects can hit at any time, as has been shown repeatedly from the stock market crash of 1929 to the financial crisis in East Asia in the 1990s and the events of 9/11. However, economic, corporate, government, and financial authorities now have a better understanding of how complex economic systems function, and how they can be managed effectively, than they did before the economic age began. They also have a much better understanding of how to use all the various monetary and fiscal tools and techniques at their disposal to control fluctuations in economic activity, and to address economic, commercial, and financial problems. Many of these advances grow out of the experience of the Great Depression, including “New Deal” economics, management of business cycles, Keynesian economics, refinements in economic science, and advances in monetary and fiscal policy.

12Another strength of the economic age is that, while it has contributed to population growth throughout the world as a result of the impact it has had on birth rates, death rates, and life expectancy, it has also helped to alleviate population growth. Although it is difficult to determine which is cause and which is effect, there is no doubt that there is a high correlation between improvements in living standards, production, productivity, productive capacity, and economic growth, on the one hand, and reductions in the rate of population growth, on the other hand. People who enjoy higher standards of living and higher levels of affluence need fewer children to provide for them in old age. They also need more income and wealth to educate their children and grandchildren, and are thereby prone to limiting the number of children they have. As a result, population growth has slowed significantly in those parts of the world where economic growth and development have been most rapid, particularly in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, presenting the only effective alternative to direct government control of population growth, as in China. While population growth is still increasing at an alarming rate in absolute terms, there has been a significant improvement in the relative rate of population growth in recent years.

13There is one final matter that must be addressed if the strengths of the economic age are to be assessed properly, and that is the creation of a set of goals and objectives that people and countries can identify with, work towards, and strive to achieve. There can be no doubt that most people and countries share the conviction that the highest priority should be given to increasing rates of economic growth, high standards of material living, and making economics and economies the centrepiece of society and principal preoccupation of municipal, regional, national and international development. This conviction has been extremely valuable in providing a common bond among numerous people and countries, and in yielding a great deal of stability and order in the world system. Without it, there would be a great deal more instability, disorder, and conflict, as people and countries pursued different courses of action or aspired to goals and objectives that were divergent rather than convergent.

14While all these strengths of the economic age represent substantial achievements for global development and human welfare, they should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there are some fundamental shortcomings to the economic age. These too must be taken into account in any assessment of this age.

Shortcomings of the Economic Age

15The most obvious shortcoming of the economic age is the devastating effect this age is having on the natural environment. As economic demands and expectations escalate at an alarming rate, more and more damage is being done to the natural environment, including other species. This is contributing to the numerous problems that have loomed up on the global horizon in recent years, particularly global warming, floods, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, earthquakes, the spread of greenhouse gases and toxic substances, and pollution. So pronounced have these problems become that many contend that the global ecosystem could collapse if aggressive action is not taken to prevent it. As the economist and environmentalist Barbara Ward pointed out in 1979 (p. 266):

so delicate is much of the environment, so precarious are its balances, that human actions and interactions (especially now that they are armed with the forces of modern science) can have vast, potentially catastrophic and even irreversible effects.

16What lies at the root of these problems is that, as we have seen, the natural environment is taken for granted and treated as a given in the economic age. It has long been deemed to stand outside the realm of economics, particularly economics as it was evolving in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and seen as the concern of environmentalists or ecologists, rather than of economists or others concerned with economic growth. While certain economists have been and are very sensitive to environmental problems, and are working hard to develop the theories, policies, practices, and insights that are needed to take the natural environment fully into account in economic planning and decision-making, the profession as a whole continues to view these problems and their solutions as “externalities.” Indeed, many economists contend that the preoccupation with environmental issues is having a debilitating effect on economic growth and making it difficult for people to earn a decent living. On the other side of the argument, environmentalists contend that most economists are so preoccupied with economic growth that they are oblivious to the environmental consequences of their theories.

17What is disturbing about this situation is that the positions of the two groups have become so polarized and entrenched that there appears to be little hope of finding any common ground between them. Yet, in a world of increasing pressures on resources, and of increasing tensions between resource-rich and resource-poor countries, discovering and applying viable solutions to problems that are both environmental and economic is imperative for human survival and environmental well-being.

18If devastation of the natural environment is one shortcoming of the economic age, promotion of a highly materialistic way of life is another. The two are intimately connected, of course, because materialism has a negative rather than a positive impact on the natural environment, making colossal demands on scarce renewable and non-renewable resources, the global ecosystem, and the lives of other species. This is inevitable, since the modern world system is based on the centrality of economics and economies, and therefore on the production, distribution, and consumption of material goods and commodities. The origins of this highly materialistic way of life can be traced back to the rise of the western countries as the most dominant countries in the world, as well as the economic interpretation of history, the propensity for defining “wealth” in material and monetary terms, and the promotion of consumption as the main component in economic growth. The creation of more and more wealth and material goods, which had largely been an ideal in the eighteenth century, became an ideology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and an obsession in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. People in many parts of the world now revere wealth as never before.

19One consequence is that living and development have become so deeply rooted in, and dependent on, the production, distribution, and consumption of material wealth that it is difficult to see or think about anything else. With this has come a rapid expansion of the demand for goods and services that are high in material inputs and outputs, which exerts even more pressure on the carrying capacity of the Earth, by causing consumption of wood, coal, land, gas, oil, electricity, water, fish, livestock, minerals, and other resources to rise to disturbingly high levels. Meanwhile, the population of the planet is growing rapidly (in absolute terms) and a major proportion of that population lacks the resources it needs for survival. For example, the World Commission on Water for the Twenty-first Century, established by the World Water Council, estimated in 2000 that the use of water would increase by 40 percent between that year and 2020 (see Keung). This was especially disturbing in light of the fact that 1.5 billion people, one quarter of the worlds population, still lacked access to safe water and that 2.4 million children were dying every year from water-borne diseases (see Crane 1999).

20Rapid consumption of the worlds resources is not the only problem associated with a highly materialistic way of life. Materialism has become so dominant in such parts of the world as the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan that it is causing a great deal of hostility, resentment, and alienation in those parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East where people live without the basic material necessities of life and countries that have not achieved the high levels of material development. Arguably, the use of yardsticks to measure developmental progress and performance, such as gross domestic product, level of capital formation or rate of economic growth, that are themselves materialistic and economic in nature, fans the flames of resentment, because it demeans many countries and people, condemning them to an inferior status, and robbing them of their dignity, identity, and sense of self-worth.

21Nor are these the only shortcomings of the economic age. There are others, the most prominent being: major inequalities in the distribution of income, wealth, and resources among the diverse peoples and countries of the world; unacceptable levels of poverty, hunger, and unemployment; the division of the world into two unequal parts; and the rise of violence and terrorism in the world. While the various attacks that have been launched on these problems have helped to alleviate some of them, others are worse than before. When one quarter of the world’s population owns or controls approximately three quarters of the worlds income and wealth, the prospects for the larger proportion of the world’s population are bleak.

22Fortunately, some impressive gains have been recorded in reducing disparities in income and wealth throughout the world in recent years, thereby lessening some of the tensions that exist between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people. Due to developments in the global economy and international trade, commitment to the United Nations’ millennium goals, and rapid rates of economic growth in China, India, Brazil, and other countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the World Bank predicted in its Global Economic Prospects Report for 2007 that the number of people living below $2 a day will be reduced from 1.9 billion in 2005 to 1.1 billion in 2030, and that the share of "developing countries" in global output will increase from one-fifth to one-third over the same period, provided that population increases, income inequalities, and global warming do not jeopardize or interfere with this.

23Nevertheless, some very troubling problems remain. The average income of people living in the richest countries is still more than twenty times greater than the average income of people living in the poorest countries, indebtedness among the low-income countries continues to be very high, more than ten per cent of the world’s population still lives on less than $1 a day, and aid from the richest countries to the poorest countries declined over much of the last two decades, despite the fact that it has stabilized or risen slightly over the last few years (see Equitable Growth for example). Not only do these problems confirm the fact that the economic age is much more effective in dealing with production problems than distribution problems, but it also explains why a significant percentage of the world’s population is living without a great deal of hope for improvements in their situation in the future. While this is not, of course, the only cause of violence and terrorism, it is certainly a contributing factor.

24A related problem is the human cost of production, productivity, productive capacity, wealth, and materialism. While increases in these capabilities are recognized as a real strength of the economic age, they are not without their problems. It has been argued that these increases would not have been possible without the exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin American, and the Caribbean in the form of low wages, deplorable working conditions, the creation of giant sweat shops, and the exploitation of labour, especially child labour. Multinational corporations no longer engage in selling products, but rather logos, brand names and lifestyles (see, for example, Klein), realized through mass advertising, marketing and media techniques, as well as contracting out production to companies that use unfair labour practices, make phenomenal demands on their employees, pay very low wages, provide few social benefits, and exploit women and children. This too is contributing to the explosive situation that exists throughout the world at present. In the developing parts of the world, there is animosity over exploitation, injustice, indifference, neglect, and colonization, while in the developed parts of the world, there are tighter and tighter security measures to protect income, wealth, and resources, including gated communities, border patrols, elaborate military installations, and sophisticated defence systems. These trends are heightening a situation that is close to the breaking point.

25One of the most serious shortcomings of the economic age is the priority that is placed on products, profits, profit maximization, capital accumulation, and the market, as opposed to human welfare and well-being. While this was not the intention when the economic age began, or as it evolved, it is a conspicuous feature of the economic age today, with profound consequences for every part of the world. For example, athletic events such as the Olympic Games are valued far more for generating millions of dollars in revenue for owners and promoters than for promoting athletic prowess, ideals and capabilities; space programmes are valued more for generating financial returns from trips to space stations than for advancing new frontiers in scientific knowledge; and artistic activities are prized far more for generating economic impact and multiplier effects than for artistic inspiration. To these examples should be added the inflation of stock prices and the distortion of financial information to keep prices and profits artificially high, sustain the ideological commitment to profit maximization, and exploit commercial and consumer opportunities. While this has always been a cause for concern in the economic age, not to mention the capitalist system of production, distribution, and consumption, it has reached alarming proportions recently as a result of the falsification of accounting records and financial statements, and the manipulation of stock prices and transactions by such companies as Enron and WorldCom. So scandalous have these activities become that they are threatening to undermine the entire ethical foundation of the economic age and the capitalist system.

26The upshot of these developments is that people are treated more and more as commodities and objects rather than as persons and subjects. This has been particularly evident since the introduction of the concept of "economic man." By focusing attention on the way in which the abstract individual functions in the economy and the market, the economic age has turned people into consumers whose principal function, if not their sole function, is to maximize satisfaction by purchasing products. This is making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to realize their full potential, because their potential is defined primarily in economic, commercial, and financial terms. This in turn has led to what is often called the crisis of maldevelopment, or spiritual poverty in the midst of plenty. People in the developed parts of the world are discovering that high levels of income, wealth, consumption, and materialism are not necessarily guarantees of spiritual fulfilment and happiness in life. In fact, the more consumer goods and material possessions people possess, and the more they participate in the economic system, the more they may discover that they are unfulfilled, and lacking in the spiritual, intellectual, emotional and religious requirements for a happy and healthy existence. They have become like the cynic, who, in Oscar Wilde’s words, “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” While this attitude may be starting to change, it is clear that people in the more developed parts of the world will have to change their ways of life quite substantially if they want to capitalize on Wilde’s remarkable insight. Meanwhile, so much time and attention are focused on business, financial, industrial, commercial, corporate, and technological matters that little time and attention are left for focusing on artistic, educational, humanistic, social, and spiritual matters. This tends to downplay or disregard the valuable contributions that numerous groups make to social progress and human welfare, including educators, artists, health care workers, social and environmental activists, homemakers, and spiritual leaders.

27A related problem is the high level of stress and anxiety that many people experience as a result of the economic age. For some people, this is because contemporary economic systems are depriving them of their jobs, incomes, and sources of livelihood, largely as a result of the rapidity and pervasiveness of technological change, accompanied by a great deal of corporate and commercial downsizing. This is contributing to the high levels of unemployment and underemployment that exist throughout the world, as well as a global unemployment rate that has been estimated to exceed one billion. For others, it is because the economic age is destroying their traditions, customs, identities, cultures, and ways of life, as well as eroding such key institutions as families, neighbourhoods, communities, and religious bodies. For still others, it is because life has been drastically speeded up, making it impossible to escape the economic system, or fulfil the need for rest and relaxation from the relentlessness of contemporary economic change. While it would be a mistake to blame the economic age for all of this, there is no doubt it has been a major contributor to it. The social and human bonds, recreational practices, and therapeutic and recuperative measures have not be created that are required to counteract major transformations in the character of economic life.

28This brings us to a final shortcoming of the economic age, the tendency to destroy the social fabric of society and sense of community that binds people, institutions, groups, countries and cultures together. Karl Polanyi focused attention on this when he described the transition that took place in the nineteenth century from the market economy to the market society. Through the progressive development of markets for land, labour, capital, and commodities everything eventually became highly individualized and atomized, severing the bonds between people and the various collectivities they had created. This is what is being experienced by many people, institutions, groups, countries, cultures, and civilizations throughout the world today. Economic growth and development are destroying organic collectivities and, with them, the ability of people to trust and rely on one another in times of adversity and hardship.

29When all these shortcomings are added up and compared with the strengths of the economic age, it is possible to compose a balance sheet, and to reach some very definite and specific conclusions about the costs and benefits of the economic age, and the requirements for the future.

A Balance Sheet on the Economic Age

30When the balance sheet is composed on the economic age, two undeniable but highly contradictory facts stand out above all else. First, the economic age has produced countless benefits for people and countries in many if not all parts of the world, and for the world as a whole. Production, productivity, productive capacity, wealth, and living standards have increased substantially, particularly as compared to where they were in the late eighteenth century when the economic age began. This has brought with it significant improvements in the quality of life on many different fronts, social, political, educational, artistic, scientific, economic, industrial, financial, commercial, and technological. While this is much truer of people and countries in the global North than in the global South, even people and countries in the latter have benefited from the economic age, despite the large disparities in income, wealth, and resources. Second, and almost diametrically opposed to the first, there are real dangers and risks ahead for humanity if the economic age is perpetuated. Material demands will be created that are beyond the capacity of the natural environment to fulfil, and substantial disparities will be experienced in income, wealth, and resources between the rich and poor countries and people of the world. This will cause significant hardships as resources are increasingly used up.

31These dangers and risks did not exist when the economic age began, in the late eighteenth century, or as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The population of the world was substantially smaller than it is today, and the disparities in income, wealth, and resources, though they certainly existed, were arguably not as pronounced or as life-threatening as they are today. Moreover, as we have seen, it was always possible for countries with domestic resource deficiencies to draw on resources in other parts of the world. Since this possibility no longer exists to any significant degree, this makes recognizing the risks and dangers that could easily result from perpetuating the economic age a categorical imperative. The longer it is ignored, the more severe the consequences will be.

32Clearly, the environmental crisis will not be resolved as long as the economic age is perpetuated. The economic age is predicated on the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, rather than on an intimate relationship between people and the natural environment. The more economic growth takes place, the more damage will be done to the natural environment and the carrying capacity of the Earth, the more resources will be consumed and contaminated, and the less will be available for future generations. This will result in even more rapid depletion of scarce renewable and non-renewable resources, as well as a great deal more pollution, global warming, the spread of toxic substances, the extinction of many species, far more environmental damage, and growing shortages and higher prices for strategic resources such as wood, water, gas, oil, coal, electricity, fish, precious metals, and arable land. These problems will be exacerbated whenever consumer demands and expectations are created that are high in material inputs and outputs, as they are in various parts of the world.

33The problem here is that no distinction is made between consumer needs and consumer wants in the economic age, because both contribute to economic growth and development. Nevertheless, since consumer wants have a way of multiplying indefinitely, if the experience of the western countries is any guide, this will aggravate even more an ecological situation that is close to the breaking point.

34The gap between rich and poor people and rich and poor countries could also widen if the economic age is perpetuated. Income, wealth, resources, and power may well be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, with more and more emphasis on globalization, commercialism, capitalism, trade liberalization, and the market. Even with the most aggressive redistribution policies possible, there is an inherent tendency in highly developed economic systems to produce substantial disparities between rich and poor people, classes, and countries. This could result in a great deal more violence, terrorism, conflict, and confrontation, a chilling prospect in view of the state of the world at present.

35There is also the very real possibility that there will be more unemployment, underemployment, financial insecurity, inflation, and economic instability in many countries, and in the world system as a whole, if the economic age is perpetuated. This will be aggravated wherever companies engage in downsizing, cost-cutting, capital transfers, profit maximization, globalization, mergers, and promotion of their financial and commercial interests. This could result in a worsening of the economic situation for many people and countries throughout the world.

36The world is also likely to become more dehumanized and impersonal as more emphasis is placed on products, profits, production, consumption, capitalism, competition, and the market than on people and matters of human welfare. It will also deepen the crisis of maldevelopment, thereby making it difficult for people to find real fulfilment and happiness in life, realize their full potential, and achieve a healthy balance between material and non-material needs.

37Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the global ecosystem could collapse as a result of the colossal demands and expectations made on it. Surely wars over resources, a great deal of poverty and famine, and further deterioration of the natural environment are inevitable if humanity does not curb its economic, materialistic and consumption excesses, and bring its environmental demands and expectations under control. This is especially true now that the world’s population is six billion and growing rapidly, while the carrying capacity of the Earth is severely limited.

38Many believe that technology is capable of solving these problems and others that may loom up on the global horizon. They contend that technology has been so successful in warding off the law of diminishing returns, thwarting the stationary state, keeping the Malthusian spectre at bay, and increasing production, productivity, and wealth that it can overcome any problems humanity is confronted with now and in the future. However, while it is true that technology has been successful in alleviating many of the problems that humanity has been confronted with so far, it is not capable of overcoming the problems humanity is confronted with today or may be confronted with in the future. These problems are much more chronic, pronounced, life-threatening, and explosive than they have ever been in the past, largely because humanity’s dependence on “Spaceship Earth” has increased substantially in recent years. While technology may be successful in alleviating certain types of problems, by reducing dependence on fossil fuels or paper, for example, or creating better and longer-lasting products, it will not solve the biggest threat to human survival and well-being, the relentless march of human numbers compared to the finite capacity of the Earth.

39Anyone who doubts this need only reflect on the following statistics. The world’s population was 771 million in 1750, 2.5 billion in 1950, 5.3 billion in 1990, and more than six billion in 2000, and it is expected to increase to somewhere between eight and ten billion by 2030 (Robbins, p. 148). Meanwhile, the carrying capacity of the Earth will not have increased and, if anything, it will have been reduced, as more and more demands are made on it, and more ecological deterioration, contamination, and loss of arable land take place. While technological advances may help in alleviating these problems, they will not overcome them. Severe shortages of, and higher prices for, renewable and non-renewable resources, global resource wars, and excesses, imbalances and deficiencies in the world system are inevitable if this situation is not addressed.

40While some people put their faith in technology, others prefer to look to improvements in the economic age, especially the body of thought and practice, and the world system, that underpin it. They contend that the problems humanity is confronted with can be solved by developing further the theoretical ideas and practical policies that are required to deal with these problems effectively. However, while making such improvements is imperative, they will not make it possible to come to grips with the demanding and debilitating problems that have loomed up on the global horizon in recent years. The economic age is based on theoretical, practical, historical and philosophical foundations that aggravate these problems more than alleviate them. Take the environmental crisis, for example: it is not possible to incorporate the natural environment into the economic age after the fact. Clearly what is needed now, more than ever, is a body of thought and practice, a world system, and an age that open up a commanding place for the natural environment and for the intimate relationship that people have with it at its very core.

41Likewise, making improvements in the economic age, far from closing the gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people, will not prevent further divisions as economic growth and development take place. What started out with Adam Smith as a commitment to creating wealth in order to make improvements in society has long since become a commitment to creating wealth in order to increase the incomes of the richest people and countries of the world. Not only are they getting richer, they also seem unprepared to share a great deal of their income, wealth or resources with poor people and poor countries, despite such highly publicized events as the Live-8 concerts in 2005. In combination with Pareto's law of income distribution, which states that there is an inherent tendency in complex economic systems to increase rather than decrease disparities in income, wealth, and resources between the different classes and interest groups in society, this means that conditions could get worse rather than better for a substantial portion of the world’s population if the economic age is perpetuated.

42It follows that what is needed is a different body of thought and practice, and a different world system. Clearly, a much higher priority will have to be placed on equality of income, resources, and wealth, and on a united world, rather than on products, profits, inequality, and a divided world. This cannot be accomplished by the economic age because it is not designed to do this. The economic age makes it impossible to achieve balanced, harmonious and equitable relationships between the economic part of human activities and other activities because everything is reduced to economics, economies, and materialism, and made dependent on them. It also makes it impossible to deal with major excesses, imbalances, and deficiencies in the world system and in people’s lives because the emphasis is on means—production, distribution, consumption, profits, products, the market—rather than ends, such as a healthy environment, people, human welfare, sustainable communities, cities, countries and societies, and real fulfilment and happiness in life. While it would be foolhardy to suggest that economics, economies, and materialism will ever cease to play extremely important roles in the world and people’s lives, they do not cause everything in society or constitute the basis of everything. This is the fundamental flaw in the economic age.

43This is why perpetuation of the economic age into the future is so dangerous and potentially life-threatening. People will not sit idly by while their environments are devastated, higher and higher prices are charged for increasingly scarce resources, living standards are reduced, and life takes on negative rather than positive connotations. This is a recipe for revolution and for global disaster. This acts as an early warning signal that violent outcomes are in store if the problems confronting humanity are not dealt with successfully. We cannot allow ourselves to reach the point where, as Ruth Benedict put it (1963, p. 179):

Revision comes, but it comes by way of revolution or of breakdown. The possibility of orderly progress is shut off because the generation in question could not make any appraisal of its overgrown institutions. It could not cast them up in terms of profit and loss because it had lost its power to look at them objectively. The situation had to reach a breaking point before relief was possible.

44Given the fact that more and more countries possess nuclear weapons and are capable of conducting warfare, reaching such a breaking point, and thus precipitating a revolution or breakdown, is too frightening to contemplate. It need not happen. By learning the lessons that must be learned from an assessment of the economic age, we can identify the changes that are required in the human condition, the world system, and people’s lives in order to set things right. These changes necessitate a renaissance rather than a revolution in global development and human affairs, through visualizing and interpreting the world, acting in the world, and valuing things in the world in a new way.

45This renaissance is best realized by incorporating the economic age, and a great deal more, into a broader, deeper, and more fundamental way of looking at living, reality, history, and the human condition, rather than by rejecting the economic age The world needs strong economies and the strengths of the economic age if improvements are to be made in material living standards and peoples lives, but it needs them to be counterbalanced and constrained by powerful social, artistic, educational, scientific, spiritual, and human activities. This is precisely why undertaking an assessment of the economic age and composing a balance sheet on it are so essential. Exposing the shortcomings as well as the strengths of the economic age signals the changes that are needed. This is as it should be. A good balance sheet should shed light on the existing situation, and identify those developments and directions that are most needed for the future.

46Surely the most important of these is the creation of a new theoretical, practical, historical and philosophical framework for the world of the future. The key to this lies in placing the priority on the whole rather than on a part of the whole, and on ends as well as means. There are always problems when priority is given to one activity over other activities, because this creates excesses, imbalances and deficiencies. Secondly, a very high priority will have to be placed on dealing with the intimate relationship between people and the natural environment. Failure to deal effectively and fully with the environmental crisis will cause severe hardships in every part of the world, as well as even more conflict, confrontation, hostility, and violence. Thirdly, a much higher priority will have to be placed on people and matters of human welfare than on products, profits, and the market, in order to create the sensitivities and sensibilities that are required to open up many more opportunities for people to live creative, constructive and fulfilling lives, as well as to participate fully, actively, and freely in the public and private decisions that affect their lives. Finally, a much more effective balance will have to be achieved between consumption and conservation, competition and cooperation, scientism, aestheticism and humanism, economics and ethics, and spiritualism and materialism. This is imperative if nature, and other species, are to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, if people are to be provided with opportunities to realize their full potential, and if humanity is to go fruitfully into the future.

47With these developments and directions in mind, what can be said in conclusion about the economic age that is relevant to a future age? Surely this, while the economic age has made countless contributions to global development and human affairs, it is not capable of carrying humanity forward into the next great epoch in human history. For this a different type of age is required. This age must flow from a different set of foundations, principles, practices, policies, and priorities, as well as a different worldview, value system, and model of development. The key to this age lies in the realm of culture rather than in the realm of economics.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2008

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