Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Regular Contributors:  Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Brent Blackwelder, and Rob Dietz. Guest authors by invitation.

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Viva La Décroissance!

by Brian Czech

Those of us who advocate the steady state economy get a lot of flak from a lot of folks: Wall Streeters, politicians, and neoclassical economists to name some of the prominent groups. In fact, these three groups make up the “iron triangle” surrounding the economic policy table. Wall Streeters are driven to maximize profits in the short term, politicians think they can’t get elected without clamoring for growth, and neoclassical economists don’t have enough expertise in the natural sciences to recognize limits to growth. Worse yet, economists are indoctrinated in programs infused with Wall Street money. How do you think that’s going to affect their curriculum?

Many are the books and articles that have described the corruption of economics. Consider such telling titles as Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, The Death of Economics, and The Corruption of Economics. The corruption of economics causes various theoretical weaknesses and policy prescriptions, including an obsession with economic growth as the solution to all problems. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to recognize the pressures and biases that lead economists, corporateers and politicians to growthmanship.

What would surprise many Daly News readers, though, are some of the other categories of folks shying away from advocating the steady state economy. Such groups include many environmental organizations, professional ecological societies, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, various groups that already emphasize limits to growth! Some of these groups don’t even identify an alternative at all, except with vague reference to a “new” economy.

Can you imagine a coalition called the “Different Economy Coalition?” Or a brand of economics called “not-the-same economics?” Sounds silly you say? Yet here we are, with “new economy” groups popping up as if “new” will somehow communicate more than “different” or “not the same.”

But there is another group that warrants special attention. This is a group that has neither denied the need for a steady state economy nor been particularly prominent in advocating one. One admirable feature of the group, though, is that it clearly identifies an alternative to economic growth in its very title. I’m talking about the “degrowth” movement. In Europe degrowthers roll under the banner of “La Decroissance.”

Degrowthers should be natural allies of steady state economics. The idea is that in some countries, especially wealthy crowded ones, some degrowth is necessary before an economy of optimal size can be maintained. Failing to recognize the steady state economy as the light at the end of the tunnel will relegate the degrowth movement to a suicide mission with the political feasibility of a Tiny Tim presidency. After all, perpetual degrowth is no more sustainable than perpetual growth. For most people, the ugliness of too much growth has little to do with climate change or endangered species, but rather the degrowth that must eventually come. There’s just no political upside — and therefore no practicality — to touting degrowth unless a greater goal is embraced from the get-go.

Not that all degrowthers fail to recognize the steady state economy as the long-run goal. Far from it. Among the long list of CASSE signatories are many known degrowth principals and activists, and numerous CASSE volunteers have been recruited straight from degrowth conferences in Paris, Barcelona, and Vancouver. Such conferences are excellent venues for developing the collaboration that flows naturally from the meeting of minds; that is, degrowth and steady state minds.

But just because collaboration is natural doesn’t mean it’s automatic. Keeping the alliance vigorous and productive takes a periodic stimulant. Stimulants might include collaborative symposia at degrowth and steady state conferences, special journal sections on degrowth and steady state economics, books of course, and other typical tools of orchestrated collaboration and mutual advocacy.

I offer this week’s Daly News as a modest stimulant for the degrowth circulatory system. I want to thank degrowthers for their important work, remind them of our natural alliance, and encourage them to punctuate their degrowthmanship with regular and frequent reference to the steady state economy as the long-run goal. This reaching out applies especially to those who are new to the degrowth movement and, therefore, may not have even heard the phrase “steady state economy.” It’s the influx of new degrowth blood that calls for periodic stimulants to keep the alliance running strong.

Vice versa, too; new steady staters should be quickly apprised of the important and admirable work of degrowthers. There can be no doubt that degrowth will be needed, in many places at many times, for right-sizing the steady state. Viva la décroissance!

This call for unity ironically reminds me that I’ve been called a polarizing figure a time or two or hundred. While it used to irk me, I now take it as an unintended compliment. The idea isn’t to polarize for the sake of polarizing, of course, but rather to distinguish for the sake of reform. The only way to establish the need for steady state economics is to clearly distinguish it from the fallacies of conventional growth economics. If you do so long and effectively enough, you’ll be perceived as a polarizer. Presidents galore have been called likewise.

Meanwhile, those who fear the label of polarizer will strain themselves to avoid plain language on the need for a steady state economy. They’ll talk of “new” economics and the “green economy” and “sustainable growth.” Unless you get way into the weeds of their papers and talks (and how many will bother with that?), you’ll never know if they’re advocating something other than the latest flavor of economic growth. “New” economists won’t polarize, but the people will never know which pole they occupy, either.

Thankfully, degrowthers know which pole is north, and they’re not afraid to occupy it. We steady staters are right there with them.

6 Responses to “Viva La Décroissance!”

  1. Bob Macgregor says:

    Good summary! At almost any acceptable standard of living, humanity has already exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth, so decroissance is a prerequisite to SSE.

    As for “growth”…biological systems continuously grow, but without necessarily getting bigger. Growth, in my view, is a necessary, dynamic process, whereas perpetual expansion is a thermodynamic impossibility. Unfortunately, I’d say we’re likely stuck with confusion of the two concepts and left without a proper term for the ongoing dynamism I’d like to foresee in a SSE.

    BOB

  2. Christopher says:

    Brian,
    I hope you were not referring to nef – The New Economics Foundation and NEI – New Economics Institute. There is nothing vague about their proposals and work.
    nef has the most extensive and profound work in our area. NEI is responsible for the most comprehensive conference to date on the subject next June.
    Now, talking about names. Degrowth is a very bad name. Even Latouche, who has created the name refers to it as a provocative slogan. And your point about degrowth is only partially correct. Before being infeasible at some point in time, it is not necessarily correct, even now.
    The same must be said about the Steady State Economy. It is only one of many possibilities, it doesn’t address correctly the issues at hand and it is not yet a proposal that can solve the environmental crisis, the social inequality one and as important as these two, address human well being.
    In both cases the name makes the proposals very vulnerable.
    Although both movements are respectful and important, the New Economics movement is far ahead and it makes no sense to imagine an alliance that excludes them.
    A New Economy is not a good name also. It has been used at least 3 times before to represent different ideas. But it is at least neutral. One has to understand what it proposes before thinking it understood from their name.
    By the way, do you know what is behind the degrowth proposal? Yes, Brian, the end of capitalism. And that is the common link between the 3 groups. In different ways their proposals imply a change in the economic system.
    As I told you before, don’t think that people will “buy” the Steady State idea isolated from its consequences. It is the most obvious fact that it means a profound change in the economic system. If you don’t explain how, the idea won’t prosper.
    Ah, some final thoughts. Think about New York. The city made the name, not the other way around. And, do you realize that the name capitalism came after it was in place? Karl Marx did the job.
    Cheers,
    Chris.

  3. Ronald Brown says:

    Thanks very much for this enlightening article……..

    keep it coming

    Ron

  4. Brian Czech says:

    Bob,

    You’re quite right. When we get a bit further into the linguistics of steady state economics, we take care to refer to a “dynamic steady state economy” to clarify the condition of ongoing technological change, sectoral readjustment, and cultural adaptation. But for vernacular purposes we typically eschew the three syllables of “dynamic” and stick with the more freely flowing and radio -ready “steady state economy:” See:

    http://steadystate.org/make-a-steady-statement-the-latent-power-of-steady-state-economy/

    See also:

    Czech, B. 2004. Terms of endearment for a steady state economy. Response to “The Dynamic Steady State Economy” by T. A. Okey et al. (2004), Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(8):402.

    If you can’t get this letter from the library or internet, I can email it to you.

  5. Blake Alcott says:

    Reading between the lines, Brian, I detect you and I have a similar unease that many in the degrowth movement are in an attitude of rivalry with SSE. Perhaps it is southern European rivalry with northern Europe/US? I don’t know. Perhaps it stems from the fact that while SSE subsumes degrowth (if and when the size of the economy is unsustainably large), degrowth, as you gently point out, does not subsume SSE. SSE is old (John Stuart Mill’s ‘Principles’). That it is the light at the end of the tunnel is a matter of logic. But degrowth is refreshingly provocative and is calling a spade a spade – highlighting the pains and (possible) joys along the path to SSE – a huge part of our job. Therefore yes, an alliance. What or who is the problem?

    To Christopher 2 responses: I believe you, and often nef, are in danger of conflating inter- and intra-generational issues; that is, one cannot pursue sustainability (long-term compatibility of throughput with resource limits) and present-day social/material justice in the same breath. Of course they are related, but the first has (yes, long-term!) priority and in the end one must use (intra-generational) social-justice policies to address those problems and biophysical policies to address throughput-scale problems.

    Secondly, can you please define ‘capitalism’? I remember that Tito drew the line at having a maximum of several hectares and 5-15 employees, the rest being ‘government’. Pure capitalism (laissez-faire) would moreover repeal the right of eminent domain, the government money monopoly, patent laws, limited liability laws and much else. It would also re-instate tort law to defend against intra-generational environmental/health damage. When I read the word ‘capitalism my mind begins to dissolve; please define what you mean.

  6. Mark R. says:

    Whether “degrowth” or “steady state”, both remain defined according to quite theoretical approaches in this article in most or all of the posts.

    I also like theory, my Harvard education in evolutionary biology and my recent master’s include no lack of these elements. However, my master’s work and thesis in particular were built around the practical examples to keep clear the meaning and ultimate objective of my theory, especially in contrast to tag-team neoliberal/neoclassical theoretical browbeating, underlaid by corporate executive capitalist finances in practice.

    Is there a risk in mentioning real world examples? Will the corporate bullies use thuggery or intelligence agents to steal, rob, and assassinate the alternatives? These are some of the underlying fears instilled in many due to the recent events in longstanding human cultural developments, from Oliver Stone and Jim Garrison’s film JFK to John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man cited by Czech. I’d like to go back a little further to honor Philip Agee who blew the whistle on the CIA in Latin America in his book Inside the Company. He was banished from the US, but survived as an activist in Europe.

    We need to courage to cite real examples to support our progressive theoretical formulations of our scientific and moral visions. If I am expressing a view that requires a certain courage, then let me acknowledge that. Peoples’ fear that the end of growth is the end of prosperity and the triumph of communist greens is in the balance, I suspect.

    As for B Alcott’s concerns, my quick definition of capitalism might be, “the system in which private enterprises of people buy and sell goods, manufactured or not, in supply chains using media to advertise as they can. US capitalism, though, is one kind, while other kinds exist from country to country. The European Workers Councils represent one important distinction there at the national and supranational level, while the co-operative business model offers a variant on the typical US profit-maximizing corporation. Green corporations, or green technology use in corporations offers another dimension, with its relevance to the steady state economy especially obvious.

    As for the practical side, I’ve just been trying to update and broaden my familiarity with the green chemical scene, what must be one of the most pressing concerns because of the need to create functional alternatives for what is surely among consumers’ favorite toy in the economy, electronics goodies. I’ve been following Greenpeace’s green electronics project, and just found a report by CPA, Clean Production Action (with a Greenpeace Canada board member employed), and London’s Two Tomorrows both at greenbiz.com .

    I’m certainly looking for more fulfilling employment of my skills and training, and would love to be CASSE’s Director of Practical Applications Anticipating the Steady State Economy.