Over the last quarter century, since the Brundtland Commission proposed their definition of ‘sustainable development’, the dialogue about sustainability has failed to reduce the threat that human activities pose to the global ecosystem. The time has come to question deep- rooted assumptions, including the role of economics. In this paper, priorities are re-examined and principles developed to be able to build a sustainable economy. It is argued that sustainable economics is subservient to society’s higher objectives and is about control and balance, rather than laissez-faire free markets. A conceptual model for sustainability is proposed that is closer to reality than the traditional model consisting of three pillars of society, the economy and the environment. This more integrated model has cornerstones of ‘culture’, ‘land’, ‘population’ and ‘energy’. Using this model allows economics to be repositioned in support of the needs of society and compliant with effective stewardship of the ecosystem.
Energy is the most challenging aspect of the transition to a sustainable economy, because the distortion to the economy arising from fossil-fuel dependency is considerable, and the consequences of fixing it are huge. Fossil fuel dependency is a seriously dangerous addiction; it is argued that the pain of curing it cannot be avoided and should be faced without further delay.
A renaissance in economics is possible but neoclassical economics has to be challenged to makes way for new economic models. Many blocks of economic policy will survive but need to be repositioned around the cornerstones of sustainability to provide the integrated model required to steer human affairs out of the current crisis and onto a safe track.