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Our economic system has no future

by Prof. Adelheid Biesecker Tuesday, Sep. 13, 2011 at 3:14 PM

A sustainable future requires facing the realities of waste and speculation. The economy should be a part of life, not a steamroller crushing creativity and self-determination. The economy should serve humankind, not vice versa.

to read Prof. Adelheid Biesecker's article published in October 2010, click on

The Economy in Germany

Modern LifePhilosophy and ReligionPolitics and HistoryLanguageThe EnvironmentEconomy and Social Matters

Work/Life in transitionThe EconomySocial MattersPanoramaBackgroundLinks

SearchProfessor Adelheid Biesecker: Our economic system has no future

Is a new culture of economic behavior just a pipe dream? We discussed this topic in an interview with Professor Adelheid Biesecker, former director of the Institute for Institutional Economy and Social Economy (Institut für Institutionelle Ökonomie und Sozial-Ökonomie – IISO) and a former member of the committee of inquiry “Zukunft des Bürgerschaftlichen Engagements” (lit. the Future of Civic Involvement).

Professor Biesecker, given the collapsed oil platform Deepwater Horizon, how would you describe our current economic system?

It is a system that is playing carelessly and indulgently with the way humans fundamentally run their lives. Today a reasonable economy is one that maximizes your own benefits. It is a system that gains its wealth through the destruction of natural and social living processes.

Federal Minister for the Environment Röttgen said that a trail leads from the Gulf to every oil consumer in the Western world. Do you see a chance to change that?

Yes, there is a chance. Namely, by changing the structure of our economy to deal with the problems and with the preservation of the productive capabilities of nature and humans. This other way has existed for a long time and continues to reemerge; otherwise the capitalist system would have long since collapsed. I’m thinking about those parts of the economy that are not part of the official economy – the nurturing of people and nature that happens outside the marketplace.

What does sustainable economic behavior mean?

Sustainable economic activity means taking care of our present needs in such a way that future generations will also be able to satisfy their needs according to their own vision. To act today so that your great, great, great grandchildren can also enjoy a functioning version of nature. And it means making sure that everyone living today can satisfy his or her own basic needs.

Why do we have such a problem with sustainability?

Because we are not used to thinking long term. And because we are not used to accepting that nature ultimately sets the limits to our behavior. If the whole world lived like we do here in Europe or in America, we would need five or six earths.

What are the consequences that the state, the economy and citizens will have to deal with from the crisis of recent months?

The answer is simple and yet complex. Everyone needs to reassess their behavior regarding whether they are helping to become more sustainable. It is a process that we need to put in motion, not a packaged concept. Nobody today knows exactly what a sustainable system will look like in, say, 80 years. The path is the destination and it comes down to taking one step at a time.

After the financial crisis we kept hearing: We have learned something this time! Now bonuses are being paid just like before the crisis. Do we ever learn from history?

Well, that is not quite fair overall. In Europe, for example, we learned a lot from the history of the 20th century and the efforts to create a united Europe have strong roots now. But financial market regulation, part of which includes limiting those bonuses you speak of, is far too slow in coming. For a sustainable economic structure we need to make thoughtful servants out of those speculators.

Is part of the problem that the zoon politikon (the proverbial social animal) became homo oeconomicus (a profit motivated beast)?

Certainly the homo oeconomicus exists as a self-centered, socially isolated person who is only interested his own benefit. And it is very real today. Bank managers are examples of it. In other areas of the economy – the trades, in the nurture economy, in cooperatives – people are not like that. There are socially minded people who act in the interest of the community and don’t have that profit or benefit motive as a goal. Instead, they aim to improve all of our lives. The problem is that the arenas in which the homines oeconomici are active can be very expansive – markets, market economies, etc. – and what is seen, what is perceived, is that only these arenas are the real economy.

How are civic involvement and the search for alternatives to neoliberal globalization connected?

Neoliberal globalization means, in brief, the expansion of a capitalist market economy focused on maximum profits all over the world and in all parts of our lives. Civic involvement, as Konrad Hummel once described it, is activity practiced “in your own interest but with others for everyone”. People get involved in something that is important to them as a collective, and in this case that is the resistance to neoliberal globalization. Think about the World Social Forum or Attac, whose slogan is “Another world is possible”. That is their motto for change. I could only add to that, “Another economic system is possible.”

Do we need political people for a sustainable economic system?

Yes, we do. Sustainability emerges within a societal process of searching. In order to show initiative towards and contribute to developing a new, sustainable society and economy we need everyone. But that requires the acknowledgement of citizens through politics.

Does our economic system in its current form even have a future?

A future needs sustainability, that is, the ability to provide the people of living generations with a life that satisfies the needs they themselves define, without taking the same opportunities away from future generations. Our current economic system is not sustainable. So the answer is “no”.


Dennis Meadows:

The Limits to Growth (1972)

Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, und Dennis Meadows:

The Limits to Growth – The 30-year Update (2004)

Franz-Josef Radermacher:

Welt mit Zukunft. Überleben im 21. Jahrhundert (Murmann Verlag 2007) a

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