Inter-dependence is one of the defining features of human society since Homo sapiens first began their journey of life on earth in small groups in East Africa about 200,000 years ago.Coordinated activity was necessary for survival since it enabled more efficient hunting, gathering and response to natural disasters. Social interaction was also a key factor in the development of language through which the individual could convey complex ideas to others in the group and thereby achieve the development of human consciousness. It is through this language-based consciousness that humans were able to experience the transcendent beauty of the natural environment around them, and at the same time acquire a progressively sophisticated observation-based understanding of its functioning . Noam Chomsky, the great cognitive scientist, argues that the basic language structure (which is common to all languages) represents the uniquely human mental process through which we are able to integrate information and make it meaningful.In contrast to the archaeological and anthropological evidence of the essential sociality of the individual, neo-classical economics conceives of the individual in isolation from society. The pursuit of individual self interest within a market-based system, it is argued, drives the process of resource allocation, production and distribution in the economy to reach an efficient equilibrium. In this framework, competition rather than cooperation is the hallmark of efficiently functioning economies and societies.Yet recent contributions from the community of natural scientists are contrary to the long-held neo-classical model of the economy. For example, according to a recent paper by Frans de Waal (Scientific American, September 2014), “Our propensity to cooperate has old evolutionary roots… only humans organize into groups capable of achieving colossal feats. Only humans have a complex morality that emphasizes responsibility to others… and sometimes we do incredible things that put a lie to the idea of humans as purely self-interested actors.”The private profitability based competitive market economy over the last three centuries has produced a staggering volume of material wealth. Yet its distribution is so unequal that one percent of world’s population owns more wealth than the rest of the 99 percent together. While the global elites live in luxury, the bottom one third of the population still lives in poverty.These inequalities which are built into the structure of capitalism have the potential of generating great conflict within and between countries that could undermine the very fabric of human society. Thus, free markets have an endemic tendency for increasing inequality (as shown by the empirical work of Piketty). At the same time the process of production within a market based system tends to generate costs for society as a whole (external costs) which is not included in the calculus of the individual entrepreneur. Thus the pursuit of private profitability through the continuous increase in the production of commodities within inadequately regulated markets has over the years caused grave damage to the global physical environment.The process of production, consumption and waste disposal of industrial products based on fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases which induce global warming. The Inter-governmental Panel for Climatic Change (IPCC) has provided evidence that shows that the build-up of these greenhouse gases is indeed causing global warming and that this is due to human intervention into the ecosystem. As a consequence there has been an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events which have already caused great human suffering. Scientists have sounded a unanimous warning that if the average global temperature exceeds 2 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century, compared to pre-industrial levels, it could have catastrophic consequences for the world.The grave risk to life posed by global warming is accentuated by the widespread pollution of surface and ground water, large-scale deforestation, toxicity of soils and air pollution in major cities. As a consequence there is a dramatic increase in the extinction of living species on the earth. The present rate of species extinction is 1000 times the pre-industrial average (2000 species going extinct per year currently, compared to the natural extinction rate of 2 species per year). Clearly the social costs of private profitability have reached a point where the life support systems of the planet are under threat. The Paris Summit (Conference of Parties 21), in December 2015, recognised this threat and resolved to take policy measures aimed at reducing global emissions so as to keep the increase in temperatures to well below 2 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century.The recognition of the gravity of the danger of global warming by the international community is a positive step. However, specific time-bound targets of national level emissions reduction are yet to be agreed upon. Worse, there is no enforcement clause in the Paris Framework Convention for the commitments made by various countries. As things stand, if each country seeks its narrow national interest of maximising economic growth and minimising emissions reduction, then it becomes a zero-sum game –that is, “each country will try to do less while expecting others to do more.”There is uncertainty regarding the success of governments to effectively regulate the markets of a system based on the competitive pursuit of individual interest, and competition between states for national interest. Yet the world more than ever before is inter-dependent. Therefore it may be time to recognise the fact that the sustainability of life requires cooperation not conflict to be the basis of social, economic and political arrangements of human society.
The writer is a professor of economics at the Forman Christian CollegeUniversity, Lahore.