How are we to live? - Dr Robert Howell

How are we to Live?

Dr Robert Howell


How are we to live to get what we want from life, to enjoy the love of family and friends, the comforts of the Earth, and the pleasures of the good life?  A normal pattern is to seek an education to get a good job, to enable us to buy a house and the various goods and services to feed ourselves, travel, and keep in good health.  We expect the collective arrangements by the people who live with us - locally, nationally, internationally – to provide security for our safety, and protection of the rewards of our work and effort.   During the last 50 or so years, large numbers of New Zealanders have realised many of these expectations.


Yet there are numerous signs that these expectations cannot be met in the immediate future.  These indicators include climate warming, water pollution, energy pricing, food shortages, banking failures, government incompetence and paralysis, and the destructive behaviour of many business operations[1].  In each of these indicators, let alone their combined impact, there is significant evidence to show that we cannot continue Business-As-Usual.  The New Zealand No 8 fencing wire approach of pragmatic and innovative DIY problem solving will not solve these issues.  Instead we need to think outside the box in a different way.  We need to rethink the basic assumptions that underlie what we have understood by the good life: the beliefs that we have about how to relate to our fellow humans and the Earth we live on.  Many of these intellectual frameworks are based in innovative approaches for their time over one or two or more centuries ago.  These have shaped the way we have built our institutions that make up the governmental, commercial and civil society sectors that are commonplace today, and that we take for granted.  Our purpose here is to discuss the various strands or traditions or schools of thought in ethics, science and economics and how they fit together.  Until we release ourselves from these historical straitjackets of how to think about how we are to live, the future will be captured by the limitations of outmoded principles that underpin current thought and practice.


Ethics traditionally has dealt with human-human relations and ignored human-Earth matters.  The dominant international economic model is based on out-dated scientific principles.  Yet there are many writers and thinkers who have recognised these weaknesses and have extended the traditional ethical and religious traditions to include a human-Earth perspective, and an economics that is based on modern scientific principles.  These are described here.  (Figure 1 summarises this in a diagram.)



Everyday discourse includes words such as “right”, “ought”, “duty”, “obligations”, and “responsibilities”.  We talk about obligations parents have towards their children for their care and nurture.  Organisations have responsibilities towards their employees.  Entitlements can be rights, or what people are owed.  This is moral language. 


When these descriptions of intention or behaviour are gathered together in a set they can take the form of professional rules; organisational charters; national constitutions; policies; codes of conduct; creeds and doctrines; and cultural customs through myths, stories, and traditions. Example: organisational employment rules describe the expected behaviour between an employee and their employer about matters such as racial or sexual discrimination, a safe workplace, drinking alcohol or taking certain drugs while at work. Schemas describe standards or sets of rules or customs or policies and are attempts to give system, clarity, and intellectual power to everyday moral activity and discourse. In these codes are certain primary moral concepts or principles.  When we talk about these principles, we are using a meta-language: we are talking about the moral language or schema.


Philosophers have developed theories about these primary moral principles, and argued that a certain notion or notions could be used to derive explanations about what was ethical. Theories can also aim to advocate for different understandings about how to behave where there are contradictions between different discourse and behaviour, and between different schemas.   Kant relied on the notion of duty[2], the Utilitarians on the concept of happiness or utility[3], and Rawls on the idea of equity[4].  Aristotelians use a set of virtues coordinated by eudemonia[5].  Hobbes and Locke[6] were early advocates for the idea of a social contract that described the responsibilities between a ruler and their subjects.  That approach has been very influential in French, American and international thought (example: United Nations Declaration of Human Rights[7] ), that include individual property rights.  These traditional ethical theorists or theories primarily focus on human-human relations, although Utilitarians were reformers in regard to such attitudes and behaviour towards animals.


In the 1970’s Rawls gave a new impetus to the social contract tradition by describing persuasive arguments for the importance of the notion of fairness in deciding the responsibilities of leaders and the range of social institutions to be included in governmental obligations to its citizens.  Differing from Rawls is Nozick[8] who argued for a libertarian ethic (maximising individualism and freedom of choice) and a minimalist state with very wide disparities in access to the resources necessary for living. But a minimalist state will have very few of the functions that are critical for a safe and sustainable world.  Nozick tries and fails to show how a police force can be established through voluntary association[9].  His theory has fatal weaknesses.  Both Rawls and Nozick ignore human-Earth relationships.


While traditional ethics has primarily dealt with human-human relationships, there have always been people throughout history who have included human-Earth relations in their ethic.  These include people from many indigenous cultures, Francis of Assisi, Blake, Wordsworth, John Muir (Sierra Club), Gandhi, Rousseau and Schweitzer.  German foresters influenced in part by Rousseau, and the movement promoting wilderness, included a human-Earth perspective into their thinking[10].  But it was twentieth century scientists such as Rachel Carson[11] and Aldo Leopold[12] who led the modern development in environmental ethics. Their focus on a human-Earth relationship was picked from some of the animal rights writers (Singer, Regan), and then environmental philosophers such as Naess (deep ecology)[13], Callicott (the leading contemporary exponent of Leopold’s land ethic)[14], Westra (ecological integrity)[15], Sylvan (the intrinsic value of the non-human, natural world)[16], Taylor (respect for nature)[17], and Roulson (value in nature)[18], amongst many others.


Ethical issues were also recognised by scientists working with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to advise the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on the issues of climate change. The First IPCC assessment Report dealt mainly with the science.   But subsequent Reports and the literature debate around these Reports picked up the issues related to the Articles and Principles of the UNFCCC, namely, equity, cost effectiveness and economic analysis, sustainable development, and (to a lesser extent) governance.  One of the writers on the IPCC Working Party Group III in the early 1990’s, Grubb, recognised a number of the ethical issues[19].  He identified the issues of fairness (equity) between countries and generations.  He picked up a third issue put forward by Shue, namely, the process of representation and effective participation.  Grubb reported on the economic calculations by such economists as Nordhaus which rests on a utilitarian philosophy, and obscures the important differences in climate change effect between countries and generations, and the valuing of life. He noted that countries will have different impacts, with the developing countries worse off; countries differ in their capabilities to deal with climate change; and the method of evaluating impacts is difficult. Grubb referred to the attempts by economists such as Nordhaus to assess the impacts of climate change on the basis of GNP and agricultural intensities.   Nordhaus and others argued that it would be cheaper to adapt to climate change rather than abate it.  The calculations do not feature poor countries significantly in their calculations.   Kamal Nath, the Indian Environment minister publicly rejected these because of the discrimination between rich and poor people[20].  


We have seen that scientists and environmentalists have picked up ethical issues involved in the human-Earth perspective. But a number of modern philosophers have now recognised that the traditional approach needs to be extended to include a human-Earth relationship. Hursthouse is an example of someone who has used the Aristotelian approach[21]. She has developed the virtue of respect for nature as a new virtue.


Peter Singer is a modern utilitarian or consequentialist.  He devotes two chapters of the third edition of Practical Ethics to climate change, and the environment, respectively[22].  He describes an environmental ethic arguing from a human-centred ethics.   He argues that we have a responsibility to avoid harming people.  Individually and collectively through our emissions we are causing harm.  We have an obligation to act individually and to change the policy of governments to slow climate change.


Shue uses the social contract tradition to advocate for a rights approach based on fairness[23].  He states that the purpose of a right is to provide protection for human beings against a threat to which they are vulnerable and against which they may be powerless without such protective action. To be effective they must be international and intergenerational.   Rapid climate change places current and future generations in the kind of circumstances that call for the construction of rights-protecting institutions.  Climate change threatens in particular the right to life, the right to health, and the right to subsistence. He argues that rights-protecting institutions are required now. He argues on the principle of fairness for the right of all current and future generations to life, and for immediate action to reduce this environmental destruction.


Within Christian thought the interpretation that the Genesis stories supported human dominion over nature for human benefit has been argued by White in a 1967 article, Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis [24].  Many Christian churches have countered this view.  For example, for Methodists, the theology of creation proclaims the consistent message of Christian stewardship, of humanity’s obligation to care for the whole of the earth and its creatures. While historically some groups may have emphasised human dominion over creation, modern Church teaching explicitly denies this interpretation[25].  Other religions have affirmed a human-Earth ethic that recognise interdependence between humans and nature[26].  Eric Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered[27] was a very popular book in the 1970’s that brought a Buddhist approach to economics and ethics.  The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale is the largest international multireligious project of its kind[28].  With its conferences, publications, and website it is engaged in exploring religious worldviews, texts, ethics, and practices in order to broaden understanding of the complex nature of current environmental concerns. It is a valuable source to identify many religious views that take a human-Earth relationship other than one of explotation of the Earth.


These are just a few examples of philosophers, ethicists and theologians from many traditions who have included a human-Earth relationship into their ethical framework.  Respect for nature, care; integrity; oneness; intrinsic value; resilence; stewardship; wholeness; and reverence for life - there are many concepts to choose from for our core ethical principle or principles.  (The Earth Charter uses a number of concepts including respect, ecological integrity, care, equity, just[29].)  If we choose one, it needs to be rich enough to generate the secondary concepts, schema and sets of obligations to be able to define a relationship that guides behaviour.  If more than one concept is chosen, then they need to be integrated together to avoid conflicts and contradictions.  Do we give priority or equal weight to righting the injustices that led to developing countries being much poorer, against a need to drastically reduce carbon emissions by all countries including poor countries that might have large deposits of fossil fuels?  Does the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (including property rights) take precedence over the World Charter for Nature (“Nature shall be respected and its essential processes shall not be impaired”)[30]?


Whatever core concept or set of concepts is chosen it should not include ideas that see the world as solely or mainly for human utility.  There is a more pragmatic argument for this.  If we start with the notion that nature is mainly to be seen for instrumental utility for humankind, but subject to certain limits, it is much harder to develop a relationship with nature that enables a fit that works for humans, and where nature is able to provide a sustainable place for human life.   It is the same as having a competitive ethic for business, but within some limits.  If the basic value of business is maximisation of self-interest, it is very difficult for a business executive to leave the office for home and change into a loving, caring spouse or parent.  And to develop a society as a whole that is a loving and caring place to live in, while a significant portion of it works to contrary standards, is very difficult.   People do not find it easy to be schizophrenic.   Aristotle talked about phronesis or practical wisdom that is a complex, learned and nuanced ability to be virtuous.   It is like an apprenticeship.  It is not something that can be switched on and off.   If humans value and respect nature, but recognise that it is also of utility for food, shelter, and warmth, it will be much easier to design an economy and society that has the right relationship with nature, than if we start with the belief that the world is primarily for our use, but within certain limits.  Rather than start at one end (the world is for us to exploit) but then impose some limits, start at the other end (we should ensure nature’s health and resilience are paramount) and then see what resources are needed for humans and how they can be used.


Mainstream Economics

The current dominant economic model, classical or neo-classical, is based on Adam Smith’s work, and has been developed by economists such as Ricardo[31], Jevons[32], Menger[33] and Walras[34], amongst others. It is founded on the premises that if individuals pursue their self-interest in a competitive free-market system, an optimal and stable equilibrium will be reached that will benefit everyone[35].  Competition will bring about the most efficient price for goods and services through a balance of supply and demand.  The price mechanism will also deal with scarcity, encouraging substitution of diminishing resources.  The model assumes a Utilitarian ethic. 



The neo-classical tradition recognises that the market is not always perfect.  There are externalities (costs that are not included in prices).  Pollution created in the production of certain goods is an example and the cost usually falls on the government or non-polluters to pay (hence the polluter pays principle).  Coase is a more recent economist who suggested that market pricing be used to deal with the environmental hazards of CFCs.  But Nicholas Stern argued that the greatest market failure was the lack of factoring in of the cost of climate warming[36].  Environmental Economics is a sub-set of the neo-classical position where attempts are made to identify externalities in internalise them in prices.


When the economists were developing their classical economic principles they believed in the existence of natural laws of economics that were analogous to the laws of physics. They substituted economic variables for physical variables.

The physics they used was soon to be outmoded. By copying the equations of mid-19th century physics, economists fell victim to the assumptions of the time.   As a result their abilities to accurately describe and predict economic activity is seriously flawed[37].


Reed, CEO at Citicorp became disillusioned with the predictions of economists. He funded a 10-day cross-disciplinary workshop in 1987 where he brought major scientists and economists together.  The scientists were amazed at economic assumptions that were out of step with modern science: they said that it was like visiting Cuba – completely shut off from the Western world and vintage cars of 50s[38].


A more recent example is the inability of mainstream economists to predict the 2008 financial collapse.  The 2008 crash was not predicted by mainstream economists because the behaviour of the financial sector was not included in their models.  This exclusion is due to neoclassical economists’ inadequate understanding of how money is created by privately owned banks. Ingham calls the orthodox concept of money for practical monetary policy, incoherent[39]. The expectation that the state has no role to play, and that money can be created by market means, Wray calls Peter Pan Never-Never Land[40].  The obsessive reliance on the market in money creation is ideological: the theory refuses to acknowledge the roles of the government monetary authority, the banking system, and the agencies of production. The cost of money creation is excessive and the system is unstable. 


Other authors who have described this problem include Stiglitz[41], Robertson[42], Kent[43], Brown[44], Greco[45], Lietaer[46] and Wolf.   (I have located this group in Figure 1 at the bottom, associated with the Ecological Economics stream, because on balance the majority but not all fit within that stream.  The money discussion has a long historic pedigree and Brown gives good coverage of that in her book, Web of Deceit.)   Of recent authors, the most surprising is Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times.  He is widely considered to be one of the world’s most influential writers on economics and regarded as “staggeringly well connected” within elite financial elite circles.  As a young man Wolf supported Keynesian economics, but gradually became disillusioned and moved to become an influential advocate of globalisation and the free market.  This changed after reflecting on the 2008 meltdown.  He writes that he is guilty of working with a mental model of the economy that did not allow for the possibility of another great depression.  He states that the economic, financial, intellectual and political elites have misunderstood the consequences of headlong financial liberalisation.  The policy-making elites failed to appreciate the risks of systemic breakdown; the intellectual elites failed to anticipate the crisis and agree on what to do; and the political elites were discredited by their willingness to finance the rescue.  He argues that the current international economic model is too unstable and needs to be changed.  In particular he recommends changing the privatisation of the creation of money carried out by banks, and making that function the responsibility of government[47]


The current mainstream economic system is based on a utilitarian ethic that sees the Earth a resource for human utility. It is based on a version of the libertarian social contract that sees a minimal role for government, yet its most sophisticated advocate, Nozick, fails in being unable to justify the establishment of a police function within his scheme.  It ignores the instability of the financial sector through the privatisation of money creation: it is linked to a monetary policy that is incoherent.



Carnot[48], Clausius[49] and Thompson[50] (Lord Kelvin) were among the prominent scientists who developed the thermodynamic laws.  The First Law of Thermodynamics states that all matter and energy in the universe is constant, that it cannot be created or destroyed.  The Second Law (entropy law) states that matter and energy can only be changed in one direction, from usable to unusable, from ordered to disordered. The earth is a closed system except for the entry of energy in the form of sunlight.  In earth’s system what goes into a part of the system must come out, and it does with its productive potential irrevocably diminished[51].


The thermodynamic laws are in direct contradiction with the equilibrium law that is one of the foundational principles of the current dominant neo-classical economic model.  The thermodynamic laws mean that the beliefs that there is no limit to growth, and that there is always a substitute for scarce resources, are in conflict with modern science.


The Club of Rome produced a book, Limits to Growth, in 1972, which was based on computer simulations of exponential economic and population growth with finite resource supplies[52]. (The book picked up issues like population that had been earlier identified by Malthus [53].)  Scenarios based on Business-As-Usual could not be sustained. Recently Turner has shown that their predictions about limits to growth were justified[54].


Vitousek and others in 1986 calculated that 40% of the solar energy converted by photosynthesis available to counter the entropic effect of the Second Law, is already captured by humans[55].   The ecological footprint was conceived by Rees[56] and developed in conjunction with Wackernagel and others[57].  Recent use of the footprint shows that 1.5 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year [58].


If there is any doubt about how scientists’ think about the perilous state of the Earth go to the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity (1992), signed by some 1,700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences [59] Their statement (which I encourage you to read in its entirety) contains the following:

The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth's limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.


Ecological Economics

Ecological economics is an economic system that accepts the thermodynamic laws as given. Soddy was one of the early founders of ecological economics.  He received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1921.  From 1921 – 34 he carried on a quixotic campaign for a radical restructuring of global monetary relationships, offering a perspective rooted in physics (particularly the laws of thermodynamics) and was roundly dismissed as a crank.  Most of his proposals (abandoning the gold standard; letting international exchange rates float; using government surpluses and deficits as macroeconomic policy tools; and establishing economic statistics) are now conventional practice.  One remaining recommendation, eliminating fractional-reserve banking, is still outside conventional wisdom[60].


Boulding, in an influential article, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth[61], contrasted an open ended economy and a closed economy. The open economy he called the "cowboy economy," the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains

and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the "spaceman" economy. Here the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution. 


Herman Daly[62] (a student of Georgescu Roegen) proposes three rules for an economics based on modern science. The Output rule states that wastes should be kept within the assimilative capacity of the local environment.  The Input Rule states that the harvesting rates of renewable inputs shall not exceed the regenerative capacity of the natural system that generates them.  The third rule says that the Non-renewable depletion rate shall equal the rate at which renewable substitutes are developed by human invention and investment.


Other economists amongst many who have contributed to economic analysis based on the foundations of ecological economics include Korten[63], Costanza[64], Victor[65], Jackson[66], Raworth[67], Dietz and O’Neill[68].



The traditional ethical philosophers and schools, such as Aristotle, Kant, the Social Contract, Utilitarianism, dealt with human-human relations.  Ecologists such as Carsen and Leopold followed by environmental ethicists, included in their writings human-Earth relations.  More recently philosophers such as Hursthouse, Singer and Shue, have extended the traditional streams to include human-Earth relations.


Science, through the work of people such as Carnot, Clausuis and Kelvin, developed the laws of thermodynamics.  Unfortunately, the dominant international economic model through work by Jevons, Menger and Walras, based their thinking on science before these developments.  The neo-classical economic model uses a form of utilitarianism based only on human-human relations, and sees the Earth simply as there for human utility and exploitation.  It is hence based on out-dated science and ethics.  It also identifies with a version of the social contract that minimises the role of government and maximises the place of the market that leads to an incoherent monetary policy causing major instability. Ecological economics that does recognise the laws of thermodynamics is not mainstream enough to influence political leaders.


There are a number of ethical concepts and principles on which to base a human-human and human-Earth based ethic.  Until we adopt and use such concepts as equity and respect for nature enabling us to live within the capacity of the Earth to support human life, we will be denying any desirable kind of life to future generations.

The recent report of the IPCC[69] states very clearly the serious dangers that the world faces through a warming world.  Why does the world not take heed?  I believe it is because of the mental and organisational straightjackets that we are in because of an unscientific and unethical economic system.  Until we change those, we will not significantly tackle climate warming. Wolf , in his criticism of the move to an unregulated market based economic system cannot see it continuing because it is too unstable. Very broadly he sees two outcomes: less globalised finance or more globalised regulation.  He does not see reform coming very soon and is therefore anticipating further major financial and banking crises.  Unfortunately, even if those changes occurred in time the dangers of ecological deterioration would only be slowed and not halted. 


In the immediate future, the chances of enjoying the love of family and friends, the comforts of the Earth, and the pleasures of the good life will be very limited.  Until we release ourselves from these historical straitjackets of how to think about how we are to live, the future will be captured by the limitations of outmoded principles that underpin current thought and practice. Rousseau's most important treatise begins with the dramatic opening lines, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” [70].   It is now time to throw off the economic chains of thought that bind us to a future of slavery and destruction.




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