Infinite Wants in a Finite World

The world we inhabit is ultimately governed by the concept of finiteness.  Finite time, space, resources, and information impose complex constraints on what humans can achieve.  However, centuries of economic growth and advances in technology has meant that the average person’s lifestyle in the twenty-first century is not in accordance with the limits faced by the broader economy.  More generally, our system of economic incentives allows for entities to act without necessarily accounting for overall finiteness.  Even so, their very actions still impact the aggregate constrained economy.

This idea is nothing new.  In fact, its origins go as far back as 1798, where in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Thomas Robert Malthus argued that exponential population growth against linear increases in food supply will lead to decreasing societal welfare.  Later, in 1833, British economist William Forster Lloyd presented a similar idea in an essay that outlined the famous narrative of the Tragedy of the Commons.  As all students of economics know, the Tragedy of the Commons posits that individuals operating independently and in their own self-interest will collectively act against the common good by causing the depletion of a public resource and, thus, reducing social welfare.

Numerous current issues reflect the problem of finiteness – for example, human overpopulation, energy and natural resources, and overfishing.  Providing optimal solutions to these problems has indeed been the focal point across many subdisciplines in economics and philosophy for quite some time.  Suggested solutions to counter these problems normally involve government intervention through privatisation of property rights, regulation, and some sort of tax or subsidy.  However, is it possible to address the overarching issue of finiteness directly and on a deeper level?

University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth argues that there is.  In her Oxfam report titled “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity”, Raworth (2012) outlines the Doughnut Model (pictured below) which suggests a framework for sustainable long-term economic growth.

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Raworth’s (2012) Doughnut Model

Her model consists of a social foundation and an environmental ceiling.  The social foundation identifies eleven core social priorities which need to be addressed.  These eleven priorities were formulated through an analysis of member states’ submissions to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 (Rio+20).  The environmental ceiling includes nine planetary boundaries that are required to maintain environmental wellbeing.  These were developed in 2009 by a panel of twenty-nine scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  Together, the social foundation and the planetary boundary form a doughnut that represents the “safe and just space for humanity” to thrive in (hence, the Doughnut Model).

While the Doughnut Model is more so targeted at addressing social and environmental concerns, we can still use this sort of thinking more generally to tackle the finiteness problem.  In this sense, Raworth’s (2012) model proposes that society takes on a more balanced approach, ensuring that the constraints faced by the broader economy (i.e., social and planetary boundaries) are not surpassed due to the unconstrained actions of any individual entity.  To achieve this, Raworth (2012) calls for action by governments and businesses around the world to make compromises and to consider the social and planetary boundaries when making decisions.

Related to the Doughnut Model is the idea of a circular economy.  The circular economy posits that an economy should minimise the use of inputs and outputs through a closed-loop system.  Such a system revolves around methods such as recycling and sharing, aiming to reduce the need for production and minimise waste.  The circular economy concept has been gaining attention worldwide, with the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) being launched in 2018 with the support of the World Economic Forum, World Resources Institute, United Nations Environment Programme, and over forty other organisations.  

The model of the circular economy cuts to the core of our problem of finiteness, arguing that we need to employ sustainable self-contained consumption and production cycles to ultimately reduce our consumption of finite resources.  While similar to the Doughnut Model, the circular economy essentially focuses on innovation and restructuring to create a self-sustaining world.

Let’s return to our original question; is it possible to address the issue of finiteness directly?  Raworth (2012) and the circular economy model both offer neat ideas of balancing and restructuring economic activity as answers to this question.  They provide a solid stepping stone for future research and policy discussions in this space.  In the energy sector, we are already seeing a gradual global shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies.  Perhaps, with the development of new technologies, we will hopefully observe more segments of the global economy follow in this path towards a more doughnut/circular existence that conforms to the finite constraint. That being said, there are still many other social and political factors which unfortunately are likely to make these transitions much slower.

As economies continue to grow in the future, we will see even greater amounts of consumption and production amidst finite (and even dwindling) resources.  Hence, the problem of restraining individual wants for the greater good of society will become increasingly more important.  Research and discussion on this topic will be vital to ensuring long-term sustainable human prosperity.  

References

Raworth, K. (2012).  A safe and just space for humanity:  Can we live within the doughnut? (Oxfam Discussion Paper, February 2012).  https://www-cdn.oxfam.org/s3fs-public/file_attachments/dp-a-safe-and-just-space-for-humanity-130212-en_5.pdf