Growing the Economy

Turning to the earth for guidance to find solutions to modern problems is not a new concept. The “back to the land” movement of the 1960s was looking for help adjusting to a newly nuclearized society decades ago. Before that, Thoreau turned to nature to find solace from his generation’s martial spirit. But it is unusual to see anyone adopt a nature-centric worldview to find solutions to economic issues. In a recent NY Times op-ed, that is exactly what Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer have done. Despite this groundbreaking perspective, however, they have left much of the message in their metaphor unexplored and miss the most important lessons that can come from taking an ecological approach to economics.

In “The Machine and the Garden,” Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that the metaphors that we use to describe our economy — as mechanistic and finely tuned — restrict our ability to properly respond to crises on the scale of the Great Recession. They suggest that if we viewed the economy as we view a garden — managed, but essentially wild and in no way purely deterministic — we would be able to respond much more effectively to crises. For example, a garden view opens the door to discussion of regulation and taxes that do not automatically assume that any outside influence on the economy is harmful.

While Liu and Hanauer are undoubtedly correct in their assertion that a view of the economy as anything other than a well-oiled machine would be helpful, their garden metaphor has even more power than they believe. A view of the economy as a machine, a car running down the highway of existence, is dangerous not just because it ignores the benefits of speed limits, as they point out, but because it ignores the reality that the economy is not self-contained. Like the car relying on the highway to carry it, the economy relies upon the natural capital of the planet and, like all highways, this natural capital is not infinite. Unfortunately, people rarely talk about roads when they talk about cars — they just assume they will be there; in the same way they assume the economy will always have the natural capital to continue to grow. Viewing the economy as a machine just perpetuates this assumption.

A view of the economy as a garden, on the other hand, demands a consideration of forces that cannot be completely controlled. For example, plants need rain, the proper climate, and good soil. To a certain extent, the gardener can influence these conditions but she cannot control them 100% of the time. Most importantly, the gardener cannot negotiate an improvement in these conditions and can only manually improve them so much. Lack of rain can be supplemented by watering, but more water than exists on earth cannot be created from nothing. Water is a finite resource, much like other finite natural capital that the economy depends on. A good gardener recognizes these limitations and plans for them. In the same way, limitations in natural resources that the economy depends on must be recognized and accommodated.

The view of the world through the lens of strong sustainability.

This manner of thinking has given rise to the term strong sustainability, which refers to the idea that the economy is entirely contained within considerations of society and the environment. Strong sustainability is contrasted with the more popular term weak sustainability, which describes the economy, the environment and society as related but discrete elements. Unfortunately, strong sustainability has not gained as much traction, in part, perhaps, because weak sustainability fits more readily with the mechanistic view of the economy. As it is popularly understood, weak sustainability allows the economy to continue on its current path but with the addition of some concern for the environment; an example would be simply switching to a more fuel-efficient car.

This is where Hanauer and Liu can really make an impact on popular thinking; the nature-centric perspective presents a welcome challenge to the notion of weak sustainability and, perhaps, has also provided a metaphor that is powerful enough to carry strong sustainability to broader acceptance. People have gardened for centuries and understand at a very fundamental level the constraints that the natural world presents in that sphere. These limitations are not too different from the constraints the world puts on the economy at a global scale. As Liu and Hanauer point out, a poor choice in metaphors has obscured this reality until now; turning to the land and our gardens might offer the solution.