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Right Relationship

February 2010: In the middle of a beautiful but dark and snowy winter in New York, fighting off the post-Copenhagen blues, I found the perfect antidote in the form of a little book that seems to have all its priorities right. Right Relationship is that rare thing – a book on economics with a heart and a soul. 


So it is a tonic, but also a call to arms, shining a light forward for all of us working to pull together economics, ecology, ethics and spirituality in a way that finally enables our species to live in harmony with the earth. The term “right relationship” in the title refers to the concept of “bearing witness,” and is at the core of Quaker beliefs, though shared by peoples of all faiths and cultures when they consciously strive to live life in a way that reflects fundamental truths. Contemporary Quakers pride themselves on ancestors who were at the forefront of the struggle against slavery. A number of them have been founding members of organisations such as Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International.


Brown and Garver, economists with personal roots in Quakerism, contend that humanity has long been living deeply at odds with the planet: “The way that people provide for themselves (in local and national economies) is in growing conflict with the integrity of Earth’s ecological and social systems. The disconnect is so severe that it is now easier to imagine Earth’s life-support systems breaking down, than to imagine that our ecologically incoherent and destructive economic system will be significantly altered.”


Invoking ancient philosophies deeply rooted in concepts of “right relationship” such as those of Lao-tzu, Confucius, Isaiah, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and other religious thinkers, the authors argue that these ideas can still be found in our own time. Twentieth-century physician and scholar Albert Schweitzer, for example, said that the West lost its way when it began to focus solely on what is the human good, to the exclusion of all other species. Schweitzer, Aldo Leopold (The Sand County Almanac) and current scientist-philosophers such as E.O. Wilson, say the authors, point the way to a solution to the ethical and environmental crises that modern belief systems have created by insisting that ethics must move beyond the standard  morality concerned only with humans. Schweitzer emphasised the critical need for “reverence for life,” for human beings to accord the same deep respect for the will to live in all species that they recognise in themselves.


Similarly preoccupied with the need for a broader human vision, Aldo Leopold famously said:


A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.


Leopold’s statement, say Brown and Garver, has become one of the touchstones of the ecological worldview, and can be used in the coming  decades to construct a new emphasis on the “commonwealth of life” that must guide us in our twenty-first century pursuit of a moral economic system that respects and cherishes the living planet as a whole, and humans’ dependence on it. Human beings now have both the scientific and the spiritual/ethical understanding needed to reconfigure their relationship with the earth. If we fail to put that understanding to work, the authors say, all of the symptoms of humanity’s pursuit of wrong relationships will worsen: climate change, overpopulation, loss of topsoil and fresh water, species loss, deforestation, imperiled coral reefs, persistent human poverty and hunger, accumulating toxins in the environment – we all know the list.


After laying the philosophical groundwork, the moral and sheer survival imperatives of constructing new economies based on the commonwealth of life, the authors get down to the brass tacks of rethinking economic relationships from the ground up, asking, “What’s the Economy For?,” “How Does it Work?,” “How Big is Too Big, Boundaries on Consumption and Waste,” “What’s Fair, Sharing Life’s Bounty,” “Governance, New Ways to Stay in Bounds and Play Fair,” and “Four Steps to a Whole Earth Economy.”


But there is nothing tedious about Right Relationship. It is lucidly written for the economic layperson, and passionately written for those who already recognise themselves to be fellow citizens with the snail and the redwood. I recommend it to Barack Obama, Manmohan Singh and other “leaders” who may have the wisdom to recognise that the ecological and ethical realities and forces of life on Earth are leaving them behind.


Building a Whole Earth Economy
by Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver
Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009
Softcover, 195 pages,
Prize: $16.95 (Rs. 750/- approximately)


Reviewed by Jennifer Scarlott


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