When The Limits to Growth was first published in 1972, most economists, along with many industrialists, politicians, and Third World advocates raised their voices in outrage at the suggestion that population growth and material consumption need to be reduced by deliberate means. Over the years, Limits was attacked by many who didn’t understand or misrepresented its assertions, dismissing it as Malthusian hyperbole. But nothing that has happened in the last 50 years has invalidated the book’s warnings.
We are experiencing the symptoms of a world in overshoot, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. They are leading us toward global environ- mental and economic collapse—but there may still be time to address these problems and soften their impact.
We cannot prevent an ever-worsening ecological collapse when we apply a religion of never-ending industrial growth and increasing human population far beyond what our finite earth systems can support. Our economy depends entirely on cheap, affordable energy which, even with today’s massive subsidies of fossil fuel production, is running out. While capitalism sometimes thrives on creating artificial scarcity — even for non-competitive goods —it also promotes the idea of endless economic growth. Economic models where the organizing parameters are scarcity, control, hoarding, hierarchies, and relationships of power being held over others and defined by the production and consumption of goods and services, and success is measured by output (GDP), are outdated. A narrow focus on measured market income misses out on use of resources which are not priced appropriately in the market.
Much of economic growth has relied on harvesting readily available, cheap materials to produce products for a growing consumer base. Once those products are no longer needed or wanted, consumers simply dispose of them as waste. Not much has changed: This ‘take-make-use-dispose’ behavior defines the essence of today’s global linear economy. Rising national income as conventionally measured does not price in the loss of irreplaceable environmental resources at the national level nor, in the case of ecological disruptions, irreversible moves toward catastrophic risks for the planet we live on. The most important of is the dramatic effect on the Earth System, especially in the context of greenhouse gas emission, biodiversity loss, changing ocean currents and climate change. With the global population expected to exceed 10 billion by 2100, in order to sustain itself, the linear economy will require exhaustion of the planet’s natural capital, not just its annual productivity potential. We are now consuming the interest and the principal. Add this evolving threat to the adverse impacts of climate change, market volatility and political risks, and it becomes starkly apparent there is an immediate and compelling need to change the way the world at large and each one of us conducts business. The linear economy cannot sustain society under the growing pressures of climate change, resource depletion, rapid urbanization, growing population and systemic disenfranchisement, nor can it generate solutions to eliminate those pressures. We must transition to behaviors that eliminate adverse societal pressures, increase the planet’s capital and allow us to thrive on the interest.
Conclusion, the worldview of the centralized global linear economy has been based on the idea of limitless material growth: that nature is a free resource and profit is the primary goal of economic activity. This shallow ideology has led us to the brink of ecological and economic collapse via species extinction, global warming, the energy crisis, and growing economic inequality, to name a few. Materials are harder to come by and cost more to extract. Despite companies chasing the cheapest human labor around the world, the global labor market is becoming more educated and demanding better compensation and safer working conditions, increasing labor costs for manufacturers. Natural systems are distressed as material extraction becomes more effort-intensive, ecosystem services that sustain life are polluted and reduced, and waste flows regularly threaten vulnerable communities. Another aspect with this global networked competitive based economy is that it is so tightly globally integrated, and so lacking in resilience (‘efficiency’, being cheaper and more profitable for corporations, has been pursued instead) that a next crash is highly likely to be global.
The universal patterns and principles to build stable, healthy, and sustainable systems throughout the real world can and must be used as a model for economic-system design.
One of the fundamental, but usually unacknowledged assumptions of neoliberalism is that man is selfish and that the markets are an efficient way in which to channel that basic human trait. The pursuit of profit is a handy, and useful, stand-in for such selfish behavior. It’s a simple and neat narrative. While there is no doubt that self-interested behavior is common, considerable research points in the opposite direction. The old narrative was based on assumptions that scientists now reject. Psychologists, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists and others find that we seek to meet our needs, but more than that, people seek goodness, connection and caring; we desire to be rewarded for meaningful contributions with a decent living but are not primarily motivated by acquiring wealth.
Our capacity for – indeed, need for – social behavior in community, begins to point us to an alternative philosophy, one that goes beyond the raw, monomaniacal pursuit of profit, one that measures human progress in ways other than GDP.
The current, predominant contrast to a linear economy is a circular one. The circular economy, as part of the economic transformation, is a stock-maintenance concept. Within a circular economy, which was initially defined for manufacturing processes, the lack of waste and absence of pollution are primary characteristics. Products and materials are used and re-used as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated. Maintaining and increasing the stocks of available capital, whether manufactured capital, social capital, infrastructure or natural capital – the capacity of the land, sea forests to produce a flow of goods and services over time.
Regenerative economics is a significant extension, focused not on business models but on systems and frameworks and the necessity for new, non-neoliberal narratives. The regenerative economy is one which, while circular in nature, creates ever greater capacity for life without diminishing capital. The transition to a regenerative economy is about seeing the world in a different way — a shift to an ecological world view in which nature is the model. A regenerative economy does not just retain resources that exist, it creates new resources while maintaining a dynamic balance between the ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions, context / place -based (including awareness of the material flows, mainly through thresholds and allocations), post-ownership and multiple capitals letting go the dominance of financial capital alone. A regenerative economy would have critical value adding exchanges occurring within networks of reciprocal relationships in contrast with commoditized transactions.
An important aspect of the transition to such a system is to encourage people to discover their essence, innovate, and create anew across all sectors and activities of society, not just the business sector. To stimulate participation, people need to feel empowered to contribute to a healthy human economy negotiating in their own enlightened self-interest as they naturally promote the health of the whole. It is holistic by nature and enhances the individual and collective characteristics of the natural environment, the built environment and the social environment.
In general, the definition of economics has shifted, away from transactions to interactions. Economics can be seen as a facilitation mechanism rather than a transaction mechanism. Economics becomes a discovery and exchange process, one of interaction, acknowledgement, collaboration, and creation. Characteristics of this economy are free flow of information, engaging and interacting with that information, and more generally active participation. An economy based on abundance, access, availability, collaborative willingness, and power shared with others. This economy of abundance is measured in fulfillment; though actualization, connection, purpose, and meaning. In a full, liberation economics, the measurement metrics are self-chosen by individuals and groups. Another feature is that there is a mindset shift to access rather than ownership, or at least an attunement to different ownership models, and the notions of rights, responsibilities and stewardship attached to each. There are peer-produced commons goods, sharing economy properties and a multi-currency society where other currencies such as attention and intention are monetized. Societal shared trust stems from individual identity being known by others.
Since we have inherited a highly dysfunctional global economic system, a full economic-systems change is the only solution. We need to address the failures of capitalism and its ineffective forms head-on by creating decentralized and cooperative local economies, emphasizing local production with local resources to meet local needs, and to build quality of life. Unfolding now are the ubiquitous on-demand resource network grids, which is fundamental in the mindshift to abundance and will be enabled by disruptive technologies such as high-performance clouds, artificial intelligence & machine learning, data analytics, swarm intelligence, bio-processing, functional additive manufacturing, autonomous systems and many more. More and more resources are becoming fully dynamically available, to be called forth on-demand for use at any moment contribute to the ongoing mentality shift from scarcity to abundance.
Customers will have a central role in value creation, with increasingly important participation in design and manufacturing. The fast-growing development and adoption of AI and Virtual Reality based applications for product and process development, combined with increasingly lower cost equipment and services for additive manufacturing, empower costumers to develop and, eventually, produce conventional and new products. Naturally, this places a significant challenge to the industry in many domains, like new business models, the location of production and service centers, quality and safety.
The last century a large segment of humanity has unknowingly entered a technological sphere of existence. It is not nature or even society that now dominates our lives; rather, it is technology. Even as it exploits, wastes, and exhausts our natural and social resources, the Technosphere provides us with our means of production and survival. It depends on this technological system for sustenance, and it provides the basis of our collective and individual dreams and desires—from visions of an endless array of products to our hopes for new techniques that will cure all disease, feed the world, and conquer the solar system. This ‘technosphere’, refers not only to the massive and interconnected systems of machines and techniques used, but also to the technocratic organizations, including corporations and government bureaucracies, that are required to utilize and operate this massive and increasingly global technological infrastructure. Without much awareness or comment, the technological-technocratic system has usurped the natural and social milieus to become the primary environment in which we live. Our homes, workplaces, transportation, food, energy, entertainment, leisure, education, and government have all been almost completely absorbed into the technological grid.
NEXT GENERATION TECHNOLOGY.
The circular regenerative economy, enriched with the synergies of technology is a powerful and potentially highly productive combination. New, emerging technologies whose development and application are only now beginning to take shape and could be available anywhere within a five-to-ten-year horizon. They are expected to generate new opportunities and offer a wealth of socio-economic benefits. Novel technologies enable us to manipulate and shape phenomena that have long been taken to be given and natural. At the same time, our control of nature is limited. Moreover, technologies themselves are also increasingly exerting influence on us – artificial intelligence, robotics, health surveillance. The boundaries between technological artefacts and living entities are becoming less and less clear, and this is raising ethical and political debate at all societal levels, from local to global.
Technological disruptions are turning the prevailing extraction and exploitation, scarcity and central control model of production on its head, driving a new model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks—a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete, but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits.
Nature, as a as a source of inspiration for a manufacturing system and knowledge for Industry. The synergies can be intensified due to relevant developments in the field of Life Sciences and particularly in Biotechnology. Diversified application areas such sensors and actuators, bio-refineries or energy storage illustrate and fuel a continued and stronger collaboration. Nature inspired manufacturing can also lead us to design and operate more sustainable eco-systems, from the organizational to the technology levels, for example, how to combine different actors and activities with efficient processes to recycle and reuse materials.
The digitalization of industry, by means of cyber-physical production systems, modelling and simulation, cloud and edge-based manufacturing, manufacturing as a service and smart manufacturing will change manufacturing paradigms. It will provide the means to address challenges such as mass customization and the need for continuous improvements in flexibility, productivity, accuracy, security and sustainability, in cybersecure environments. One of the main changes will probably emerge in value chain organization, including the geographical location of manufacturing activities. The combination of customization and circular economy, with technologies like 3, 4 & 5D Printing, will boost the complete redesign of future manufacturing towards consumer centric grids aiming at providing the required products and services while optimizing the usage of resources, including materials and energy (also in transports), creating balanced and sustainable eco-systems. Developments in robotics and flexible automation will enable the simultaneous improvement of efficiency and flexibility. Collaboration and integration between humans and technology will augment human capabilities, instead of replacing them, allowing humans to concentrate on more added value, creative and socially relevant activities.
Thanks to atomically precise manufacturing, we will soon have the power to produce radically more of what people want, and at a lower cost, making new matter through nano technology and molecular engineering -precisely arranged atoms -. The advent of this kind of atomic precision promises to change the way we make things — cleanly, inexpensively, and on a local scale. As mentioned, the building blocks of the new production system will be the bit (and later qbit), photon, electron, molecule, and DNA (or gene). These building blocks are available and plentiful everywhere and can be recombined in infinite ways to create new materials, products, and services at essentially zero cost. The result will shake the very foundations of our economy and environment.
An intelligent manufacturing system is a composite intelligent system comprising humans, cyber systems, and physical systems with the aim of achieving specific manufacturing goals at an optimized level. This bionic manufacturing, where technology enhances and augments relevant human capabilities, is the winning combination for highly automated and robotized processes, yet capable of providing flexibility and adaptability to new customer requirements. Factories will adapt and become resilient to foreseen and unforeseen changes in the market and in technology.
The emerging crypto-economy uses blockchain technology and cryptocurrency tokens like Bitcoin to automate and facilitate human (and human-technology) interaction patterns. Decentralization as a new organizational paradigm extends our capabilities beyond hierarchical organizational models (both practically and values-wise (e.g.; more autonomy for all agents)) into trustless very-large scale models for coordinating world-scale activity.
Cryptographic ledgers could coordinate spot transactions (cryptocurrency) and the interactions with smart contracts and autonomous Decentralized Applications, Decentralized Autonomous Organization entities and all physical and intangible assets registered as smart property. Societal shared trust is instantiated though smart network consensus.
ETHICAL QUESTIONS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
Clearly, living in this era raises very different ethical questions and responsibilities than did the past milieus of human existence. We find ourselves not only in a novel physical environment, the technological system, but also in a new ethical landscape. For technology is never neutral.
These technologies raise complex ethical issues that can have considerable socio-economic impact and generate lively debates on research ethics and Human Rights. The areas of genomics and man-machine interactions are of particular importance due to their innovative nature and potential impact on jobs and growth. Body and mental enhancements as well as the changing nature of the relationship between humans and machines (i.e. robots) raise complex ethical issues that need to be addressed in order to promote an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic model. There is a pressing need to provide ethical responses and practical options which support innovation, the research community, facilitates the work of ethics committees and addresses the expectations of society.
Due to their transformative potential, these technologies are also likely to pose a number of ethical challenges and societal consequences. With the conceptual, ethical, and political issues associated with the way in which humanity can manipulate living systems and nature and how technologies are changing us as well, we have a chance, now in the early stages of their development (and not only in the economic domain), to ensure that ethics is prioritized.
The focal point of this economic transformation is needs, where the needs of all entities readily surface and can be met. A needs-based economy focuses on the most important aspects and deeper level of what occurs in economic transactions. Each entity (person, group, community, country, technology entity) has needs. Some of the most important needs for humans tend to include acknowledgement, connection, contribution, meaning, and action in the world. Economics is a strategy for getting these and other needs met.