Rethinking our World: In her new bestselling book, “Unsere Welt neu Denken (“Re-thinking our World”), Maja Göpel invites her readers to engage in a constructive dialogue on how to arrive at a more sustainable economic system.

There IS such a thing as a free lunch

It is a staggering figure: According to 2007 calculations by a research team led by Robert Costanza, the value of natural services provided free to humanity – such as energy from the sun – amount to 125 to 145 trillion dollars a year. Just for comparison: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates the 2019 world GDP at about 87 trillion US dollars.

This is only one of many thought-provoking facts that Maja Göpel, Secretary-General of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, puts forth to make her readers reassess our view on the relationship between ecology and society and to re-adjust their economic view of the world.

An inefficient & ineffective global assembly line

Maja Göpel openly admits that the problem she addresses is not new: Our current economic system is not sustainable as it comes at the expense of our natural resources. Or, as she aptly puts it: “In its current model, economic growth means climate change” („Wirtschaftswachstum in seiner heutigen Form heißt Klimawandel.“). Göpel sees our current economy as a gigantic global assembly line that transforms resources and energy into goods.

This assembly line suffers from two major flaws: First, it is physically inefficient as it uses too many resources and produces too much waste and carbon emissions. Second, it is socially ineffective as it does not supply everyone with the goods she or he really needs; most importantly, it leaves many people far behind in poverty.

A flawed economic mindset

In her view, the root cause for this defective machinery is that it was designed based on a flawed economic mindset: The ultimate end of producing goods is not to satisfy important demands (such as enough food or clothing) but financial gain. As a result, our economic logic is skewed toward profit and financial indicators and systematically fails to consider ecological and social costs.

It is this rather fundamental approach that makes the book so topical. Although it was written before the corona outbreak, it raises some of the questions the crisis has propelled to the core of the public debate: Do we set the right economic priorities? On which products are we dependent? How can we arrive at a less crisis-prone economic or social system?

Nature provides a blueprint for a more resilient economy

According to Maja Göpel, the solution is to think about the future in terms of systems. („Für mich liegt die Formel darin, dass wir aus der Zukunft denken. Und systemisch.“). Here nature provides a blueprint for a more resilient and crisis-proof economy. One of the central features of the natural world is systemic efficiency.

So instead of trying to maximize the efficiency of individual steps of production while disregarding the costs to society and the environment, we need to internalize all of the actual costs. Another fundamental key to success in nature is diversification. So, taking that concept and applying it to the global economy: instead of conforming each and everything to a single standard or mode of production or relying on just one supplier of intermediate products, it is better to cultivate and protect alternatives.

Some ideas to start a debate

More specifically, Maja Göpel puts forward several ideas on how to turn this rather abstract vision into concrete reality. CO2 trackers and digital markers for resources and intermediates could be an important step toward reliability of supply. Introducing an effective price for CO2 emissions would support energy-efficient and low-carbon approaches and discourage the use of fossil fuels or taking unnecessary flights.

Progressive taxation and updated competition laws would put a limit on excessive financial gains.  An earth-atmospheric trust could collect the revenues from a global cap and trade system and use them to finance per capita payments, which would help poor people, or fund innovative technologies.

Don’t count on technology to save your old habits

While Maja Göpel sees technology as an important ally to arrive at a more sustainable economy, she cautions against mistaking it for a silver bullet to solve the climate crisis. Her main argument is a straightforward economic one: the Jeavons effect. It states that more efficient use of resources does not automatically trigger resource savings.

Instead, it can have the exact opposite effect by increasing demand for products which rely on the new technology. Instead of using technology merely for continuing the current natural exploration in a more profitable way, technological progress should be put into the service of important social goals – which is also one of the key recommendations from our study on world-class patents.

Invitation accepted

Maja Göpel’s book is above all a much and urgently needed invitation for a rational and open-minded debate about a sustainable transformation of our economic system – a system that serves basic needs, prioritizes the left-behind and preserves our natural habitat. We are glad to join this debate.

In our recent discussion paper, for instance, we look at the corona crisis as a potential window of opportunity for a more resource-efficient global economy. In this paper we dig a little deeper into the effects of the corona pandemic on the use of natural resources and put forward some ideas on how to increase the price of carbon emissions and enhance public funding for low-carbon technologies.