Freedom means living without the state-of-nature fear that powerful predators (of whatever kind) will impose harm with impunity. Any economic sense of human freedom, from any angle, requires an economy in which no market actor is predatory and no person, regardless of wealth or status, is significantly limited in their freedom to choose better, healthier options.
- That means polluters will have little room to run, because banks, insurers, and investors, will have little margin for taking on their unnecessary, unmarketable risk.
- It also means the biggest opportunities in the global economy are the expansion of pollution-free technologies, non-predatory finance, sustainable production of healthy food, and the open flow of high-quality evidence-based information, to even the least affluent people.
- Distributed clean energy production for new electrification alone constitutes a new market of 1 billion people.
In the climate-smart economy we are moving into, external costs will not be tolerated by the marketplace. Capital intensive businesses that continue to depend on generalized absorption of environmental damage and threats to public health will flounder.
The most common reason people support the idea of free enterprise is they believe people like themselves should be able to start a business and earn a living by making a contribution to their community or to the wider world.
Destruction of natural capital cannot, by any standard, be considered a contribution; carelessness toward others is not enterprise, but a lack of it. A competitive business needs to know how to manage its wider responsibilities, because none of us are free unless all of us are.
No company wants to be told their core business poses a threat to humankind and to the survival of ecosystems. It is an alarming amount of responsibility to take on board, but the call to ethical responsibility is not a matter of choosing what one prefers; it is a matter of recognizing the obligation not to cause harm.
Unless oil and gas can be produced, refined, distributed, and consumed, without posing a threat to environmental integrity and the viability of civilization as we know it, they will soon be obsolete. Companies that deal in these commodities must recognize that their lack of attention to this problem is not a defense for pushing a product that can no longer claim to be the best value available.
The industry has amassed incredible wealth, as well as influence over policy and the direction of the not-so-free markets where they sell their products. That is enough of a solid foundation for starting an aggressive transition to new business models; waiting for outside assistance would be foolish.
- Some will attempt to stay the course by investing mostly in various forms of carbon capture.
- That strategy is already proving to be fraught with risk, and burdened by high costs clean energy sources can easily beat.
- Others will attempt to be behemoths of clean energy centralization… at first.
To be viable future businesses, they will have to undergo a transition akin to the ongoing information revolution:
- Electrons will be the low-cost ubiquitous commodity on the energy side, the way data is on the information side.
- Centralized ownership will be less competitive than effective management of decentralized reciprocal relationships.
- Staying big will not necessarily more valuable than operating everywhere at the right scale in the right way.
In food production, a similar trend is emerging:
- The “forcing” of productivity through chemical intervention and industrial farming practices pollutes too much and is ultimately not competitive enough.
- The resilience imperative — the requirement that we protect public health and natural systems — will drive such practices to non-viability.
- Regenerative farming methods, the building of soil ecology (a carbon sink), and the deconcentration of market power, will reshape economies everywhere.
Freedom and fairness are reciprocal. The right to know — what you are eating, whether your t-shirt is made by slaves, if turning on your TV is destabilizing the global climate system — supersedes any narrow faction’s demand that the rest of us unwittingly absorb degradations they create.
Science and technology have now advanced enough that we can say, with confidence:
- Affordable clean energy for all people, everywhere, is achievable.
- Access to reliable, evidence-based information can and should be universal.
- Food production can be regenerative and meet the needs of all people.
The age of integrated sustainability and resilience intelligence will be more democratic, more just, and more responsible, in more ways than we have historically demanded. Landscapes of resource management will replace command-and-control production, and this will empower far more people to be entrepreneurs in energy, information, and food production.
Solving the big challenges we face is the most direct route to a better future. Answering the Earth’s ethical call requires we treat regenerative strategies and outcomes as mission critical in everything we do.
First published at Engage4Climate.org on Sunday, May 19, 2019, as an opening statement for the 2019 Earth’s Call conference in Aspen, Colorado.