The economic process transforms raw materials and energy into economic products and waste. On a finite planet, continued economic growth threatens to surpass critical socio-ecological thresholds and undermine ecosystem services upon which humans and all other species depend. For most systems, whether such thresholds exist, where they lie and whether they are reversible cannot be known with certainty until they are crossed. We argue that our central economic challenge is to maintain the resilience of the current socio-ecological regime. We must reduce net impacts of economic activity to avoid critical ecological thresholds while ensuring economic necessities. Conventional economists pursue continuous growth as the central goal of economic activity, and assume that the price mechanism and technological breakthroughs ensure system resilience. Unfortunately, the price mechanism fails to address ecological thresholds because it ignores unowned ecosystem services, and fails to address economic thresholds because it ignores the needs of the poorest individuals, who live on the edge of them. Panarchy theory suggests that systems go through a cycle of growth, conservation, release and renewal. Managing a subsystem too long for growth or conservation—which many consider to be the goal of sustainability—actually threatens to collapse the higher-level system upon which that subsystem depends. Black Swan theory suggests we should seek to reduce the risk of catastrophic thresholds and promote the likelihood of technological breakthroughs. Economic degrowth, or planned release, is required to avoid catastrophic collapse. At the same time, publicly funded, open source information can help stimulate the technological breakthroughs economists count on to ensure resilience.
Farley, J., & Voinov, A. (2016). Economics, socio-ecological resilience and ecosystem services. Journal of environmental management, 183(Part 2), 389-398. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2016.07.065