The idea of the circular economy frequently brings to mind issues of recycling waste and materials and making moderate use of natural resources. But if a new system is to emerge which is sustainable and equitable the whole economic model will have to be re-thought. With the differences in wealth which exist at the moment, no ecological ambition is possible. Energy saving can only come from economic and social restraint and not from excessive fortunes and lifestyles. We will have to construct new norms of social, educational, fiscal and climate justice through democratic discussion. These norms will have to say no to the present hyper concentration of economic power. On the contrary, the economy of the 21st century must be based on the permanent circulation of power, wealth and knowledge.
It is the spread of property ownership and education which enabled social and human progress to become a reality in the 20th century. A powerful movement of reduction in social inequality and increased mobility (the first intellectual signs of which were already visible in the 18th and 19th centuries) gained momentum from 1900-1910 and into the years 1970-1980, thanks to an unprecedented level of investment in education. A new equilibrium was established with the rights of shareholders being matched by those of the wage-earners (particularly in Northern Europe) – the circulation of incomes and wealth was accompanied by progressive taxation (in particular in the USA), and so on.
This movement was interrupted in the decade 1980-1990 following the change in direction in the wake of the post-communist disillusion and lapse into the Reagan approach. Post-communism then became hyper-capitalism’s best ally. Natural resources were over-exploited and privatised to the advantage of a minority, legal systems were systematically circumvented via fiscal paradises, any form of progressive taxation was completely eliminated. In Putin’s Russia, income tax is 13% whether your income is 1000 roubles or one billion roubles. The same excesses can be seen in China, where those close to those in power have carved out empires for themselves which they transmit to their heirs with no inheritance tax. Hong Kong is thus an astonishing example of a country which has become even more unequal by submitting to the authority of a supposedly communist regime.
Thomas Newsome is a Lecturer at the University of Sydney and William Ripple is Distinguished Professor and Director, Trophic Cascades Program, Oregon State University This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.