If we think of the economy as the human subset of the wider ecosystem, continuously extracting and exchanging resources on our behalf, then the question of whether our current systems can be sustained in the long term comes down to a simple equation: do they operate in balance with the natural world?
As far as I can tell just by looking around in my day-to-day life, the human economy seems marvelously effective. After all, our elaborately engineered systems of production and distribution have thus far never failed to provide me with water and food.
This predictability on the receiving end implies to the unquestioning consumer that our systems are working beautifully.
But what’s happening behind the scenes—beyond the economy, in the ecosystem itself, at the actual source of our vital water and food? At no point am I as a typical consumer faced with the whole picture, or prompted to consider whether what I consume is being processed in sustainable ways.
Dams, reservoirs, factory farms, feed lots—are these systems as endlessly efficient and stable as they seem? Or are they wreaking havoc out of sight and out of mind, extracting resources for us faster than the natural world can replenish them?
In other words, as humanity blithely goes about its business growing the economy, are we maintaining balance with and within the ecosystem?