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New economic framework to protect the environment

Published: 22 Mar 2000

McGill professor Peter Brown, director of the McGill School of the Environment, proposes a new economic framework to protect the environment. His latest book raises serious questions and argues fresh solutions.

It’s not enough to set up nature reserves for ecotourism, clean up watersheds and regulate automobile emissions. If North Americans want to ensure a healthy planet is around for future generations, they need to rethink the way they do business. In his new book, Ethics, Economics and International Relations: Transparent Sovereignty in the Commonwealth of Life (Edinburgh University Press), McGill professor Peter G. Brown proposes a new, more holistic economic system in which environmental protection is part of the bottom line.

Brown calls his system "stewardship economics," and in his book he explains how capitalist countries like Canada and the United States must rebuild their economies to restore, protect and enhance the commonwealth of all life, not just human life.

"Humans are instruments of change from the micro-environment to the global level, from what goes on in our own bloodstreams to the shape of mountains and the course of rivers," says Brown, who directs the McGill School of Environment. "What we are currently doing is downloading many of our environmental problems to other countries, species and distant generations. Rain forests are cleared for beef cattle so we can eat hamburgers. Traffic jams full of SUVs affect the health and reproduction of polar bears in the far north, and the well-being of the human generations yet to be born."

Specifically, Brown proposes five principles to guide the economy in his stewardship model:

1. WHAT IS THE ECONOMY FOR? The goal of the economy is to restore, protect and enhance what Brown calls "the commonwealth of life." The goal is not only to bring about high levels of employment with stable prices, but to act with respect for all living things. In this regard, Brown proposes broader measures of economic activity than the Gross National Product. The problem with GNP, according to him, is that it measures growth -- without measuring the impact of growth. In stewardship economics, new assessment would take into account how much life had to be exchanged for a product to be created and sold.

2. HOW BIG SHOULD THE ECONOMY BE? North Americans must recognize that the economy operates within limits. Only so much carbon dioxide can be pumped into the atmosphere without destabilizing climate, says Brown.

3. HOW MUCH WEALTH IS ENOUGH? Introducing the concepts of legitimate and illegitimate wealth, Brown argues that the overall wealth of a society should be judged as "illegitimately too small" when it is insufficient to provide minimal subsistence for all its citizens. It should be judged "illegitimately too large" when it affects the ability of species other than humans to flourish.

4. WHAT ABOUT WASTE? Brown thinks industrial processes should be evaluated in terms of their effects on the commonwealth of life. The byproducts of human industrial activity, such as pesticides, must not be allowed to accumulate in the tissue of living things, unless they are proven benign.

5. IS THE ECONOMY TOO IMPORTANT TO BE LEFT TO ECONOMISTS? Brown argues that we are failing to build the institutions we need to stabilize currencies, promote employment, protect other species and build the public infrastructure on which a healthy society and a healthy planet depend. "Prevailing economic theory concentrates on exchange, not on institutions necessary for a healthy planet," he says.

Not responding effectively to these kinds of questions, declares Brown, has led to "widespread policy failure and moral bewilderment."

Dr Peter G. Brown came to Montreal in 1998 to direct McGill’s School of Environment. The School was created by three faculties -- Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Arts and Science -- to give students an opportunity to study environmental problems and their solutions, drawing on all relevant disciplines."Students typically come to us with a spark; we help them leave with the resolve necessary to bring about fundamental change," Brown notes.

Brown previously founded the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, Environmental Policy Programs and the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. He has taught at Princeton University, the University of Washington and St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University, an MA from Union Theological Seminary and Columbia, and a BA from Haverford College.

Contact Information

Contact: Peter G. Brown
Organization: McGill School of Environment
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Office Phone: 514-398-2670
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