The world economy in a cube


In 1884, the English theologian and pedagogue Edwin A. Abbott wrote a romance called “Flatland”, in which he described a two dimensional world. The rigid and hierarchically organized society of Flatland develops in the large plane in which it lives, and flat authorities control that no flat citizen (the inhabitants are all flat geometric figures) escapes from the two-dimension reality. The book is a social satire as well as an exploration of the concept of multiple dimensions. Furthermore, it can also be viewed as a critic of narrow worldviews stubbornly based on old paradigms.  


The novel’s example can be used to argue that despite the proliferation of metrics, our decision making process tends to be guided by the quasi-imposed limited set of information tools – mainly economic – that we use every day. In other words, concepts like Earth System, Planetary boundaries or biophysical limits, environmental sustainability, social welfare and other important elements of our life on this planet are not satisfactorily incorporated in our knowledge horizon.

The current economic worldview is based on the idea that a free market works for the 100% of the population. Thus, economic growth (as measured by growth in GDP) is the political mantra: “the rising tide that lifts all boats”. A recent study published on Global Environmental Change (available here) gives a different point of view by including the environment and the society in the economic picture.

National economies are investigated in a 3-axis diagram (a cube), where each dimension is a different compartment. In this way, the relationships between environment, society and economy are represented in a single framework without losing the specific information. This framework recognizes a physical (and also thermodynamic, and logical) order, highlighting the dependence of the economy on societal organization and, primarily, on the environment.

From this three-dimensional perspective emerges that the economic activity is always strictly correlated with the use of natural resources, and that social well-being is often neglected. Over a total number of 99 national economies investigated within the cube, none of them is at the same time environmentally sustainable, economically rich (high GDP), and equal in the distribution of income.   

This means that growing GDP is beneficial for a limited fraction of the overall population, while the vast majority has to deal with increasing environmental problems and worsening ecological status. Moreover, decoupling economic growth and natural resources consumption, seeking the so-called dematerialization, is found very complicated. Continuous growth in GDP implies consequences especially for the poorest individuals and communities: “the rising tide is lifting the yachts and swamping the rowboats” (Dietz and O’Neill, 2013).

Politicians are looking at the world around as a mono-dimensional economic universe. This is due to the fact that economists play a relevant role within governments. We need ecologists and social scientists playing an equally relevant role, in order to finally show politics we live in a three-dimensional world.

Author: Luca Coscieme, @lucacoscieme


F.M. Pulselli, L. Coscieme, L. Neri, A. Regoli, P.C. Sutton, A. Lemmi, S. Bastianoni, “The world economy in a cube: A more rational structural representation of sustainability”; Global Environmental Change 35, 41-51, 2015 (doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.08.002) 

Dietz and D. O’Neill, “Enough is Enough”; London: Earthscan, 2013.



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