While politicians tackle the symptoms of an unsustainable economy, we need to call for a complete system change, argues Bruce Nixon

Listening to the debate about the financial crisis, I wonder if I’m living on the same planet as our political and business leaders. Haven’t they heard of the far bigger threat: the environmental and ecological crisis?

The current debate is about restoring continuous economic growth and carrying on as usual. Yet the growth mantra is completely dysfunctional. With global population set to rise from 6.7bn to 9bn by the end of the century, we are already consuming 30% more than the planet can continue to provide. This model fuels climate change and systematically transfers wealth from those who create it, to the rich and powerful.

Meanwhile, current austerity measures intended to prop up the status quo, bear down on the young, poor, vulnerable and those least responsible for the financial crisis. Rash cuts to public spending don’t address the systemic problems and won’t prevent further crises.

Our failure to live in harmony with the Earth and all life on it is resulting in climate change, resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, poverty, economic injustice, and war and terrorism. If we are to solve this greater challenge, we need a whole system change. Political leaders don’t appear to understand this; they are “systems blind,” as sustainability expert Bob Doppelt calls it.

The positive news is we know what to do; it’s a new concept of prosperity that would offer far better lives for everyone – prosperity without growth, as described in Tim Jackson’s inspiring book of that name, in the New Economics Foundation’s report The Great Transition, and in Lester Brown’s book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

Our goal must be the wellbeing of all humans and other life on Earth. We’ll achieve this by living within the limits of the planet, stabilising climate change and building a just and sustainable economy. To do this we must consume less in developed countries, stop exploiting the rest of the world and enable everyone to have healthier and more fulfilling lives.

It’s not about just making sacrifices – yes, the very rich would have to scale back, but it’s about genuine, greater wellbeing for everyone. Research shows that the constant pursuit of more ‘stuff’ actually makes us dissatisfied and stressed, not happier, creating increasingly unequal and insecure societies. In more equal societies, all people are happier.

The route to this future involves ‘contraction and convergence,’ providing real global justice, whereby the wealthiest nations gradually reduce their consumption to a sustainable level while developing nations converge upwards. We need to help poorer nations develop renewable energy, infrastructure and self-sufficiency. At the same time, global population can be stabilised by giving women greater educational opportunities and the right to control their fertility. And if we waste less, stop food price speculation, and work with nature by harnessing both science and traditional farming wisdom, we can all feed ourselves.

The exciting transition to such an economy promises massive employment opportunities in green industry, a better balance of work and leisure for everyone and many more meaningful jobs in sectors that directly benefit people and planet. It can be achieved through fairer taxation and by tackling corporate tax evasion; through principled foreign policies with investment in conflict resolution to release the vast sums spent on war; by providing public funds for green investment; and by shifting subsidies from industries that accelerate climate change and harm lives to those that are sustainable.

There are many aspects to this transition, all warranting detailed exploration, but fundamentally, to make it a reality requires whole system change based on clear values and the necessity for human survival.

This means ending the debt-based economy, which drives unsustainable growth. According to campaign group Positive Money, 97% of our money is created by commercial banks through debt – this adds to the cost of everything including infrastructure and housing. The New Economics Foundation, James Robertson (author of The Sane Alternative) and the Positive Money campaign, offer comprehensive proposals for reforms that would instead give national reserve banks the sole right to create money.

Successful system change requires participatory, inclusive democracy at every level. The extraordinary power and collective intelligence of ordinary people can transform the world, as it always has, and now the internet is helping to make people better informed than ever before, with social networking helping millions mobilise all over the world.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, said: “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” We too must see that we need to act; the big question is: will we act in time? We cannot afford to be bystanders. We need to inform ourselves, lead, educate politicians and demand they do what is needed. We, the billions of ‘ordinary people,’ must rise up peacefully.

Photo title: An estimated 500,000 people marched in London on 26 March, for an alternative to the government spending cuts.

Photo credit: © Caroline Griffin / World Development Movement