A Not-So-Nobel Prize for Growth Economists

William Nordhaus shaping vulnerable minds in his Yale classroom – Oct. 8, 2018.  (Photo credit: Yale/ ©Mara Lavitt)

by Brian Czech

How ironic for the Washington Post to opine “Earth may have no tomorrow” and, two pages later, offer up the mini-bios of William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, described as Nobel Prize winners.

Without more rigorous news coverage, few indeed will know that Nordhaus and Romer are epitomes of neoclassical economics, that 20th century occupation isolated from the realities of natural science. Nordhaus and Romer may deserve their prizes for economic modeling, but each gets an F in advanced sustainability.

Nordhaus won his prize (actually the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”— not the Nobel Prize per se) for his mastery of mathematical modeling. He applied his skills to carbon taxes for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. All along he prescribed economic growth – the key driver in greenhouse gas emissions—as the way to afford such taxes!

In 1991 Nordhaus uttered one of the most iconic sentences in the history of unsustainability: “Agriculture, the part of the economy that is sensitive to climate change, accounts for just 3% of national output. That means that there is no way to get a very large effect on the US economy” (Science, September 14, 1991, p. 1206).  Think about that. He must have set a graveyard’s worth of classical economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill…) to rolling. They’d be rolling in laughter if the folly of Nordhaus wasn’t so dangerous.

No follow-up should be needed to expose the ludicrous nature of Nordhaus’s statement, but just in case: Agriculture is the very foundation of the economy. No agriculture, no anything else. Think about it. Any hit on agriculture—whether from climate change, bad luck, or stupid policies—has a magnified effect on the entire, integrated economy. Nordhaus’s “3%” statement was a classic case of ivory-tower cluelessness.

Too many trees for seeing the forest?

Romer, meanwhile, deserves some credit for his elegant theory of “endogenous technological change,” which took the work of Robert Solow (the father of economic growth theory) to the next level by describing in nuanced detail how R&D leads to technological progress. That said, there has never been a bigger forest missed for so many trees. For him, all that mattered was capital and labor; he said nothing about land, natural resources, or the environment.

Some readers may recall Julian Simon, the ultimate Pollyanna who claimed in the 1980s (and I paraphrase after thoroughly reviewing his 813 page Ultimate Resource II during my post-doc studies), “Sure, there are environmental problems caused by growth, but the more people we have, the more brains we have to solve the problems. Therefore, the more people we have the better, without limit forever.” Romer’s work amounted to a highly nuanced repetition of Simon’s self-christened “grand theory.”

Romer said in a nutshell: We have capital and labor. Part of the labor force is devoted to research and development (R&D). As limits arise, we get over them with more R&D. So we need ever more people, with ever more devoted to R&D, to keep raising the bar for GDP.

For Romer, it was as if ideas alone could overcome water shortages, biodiversity loss, mineral depletion, soil erosion, pollution, and climate change. As if ideas could be perpetually borne out of human minds struggling in a degrading environment, a warming climate, and an imperiled agricultural base (not to mention a crowded, noisy, and stressed out society). Romer was like a cook thinking up recipes with no idea where the ingredients would come from.

A generation and then some of economists and business students have been led to the exceedingly dangerous myth that there is no limit to either population or economic growth. Nordhaus and Romer have done as much as anyone to lead them into such a fallacy. Yet politicians and publics heed their advice, while the media regurgitates their fallacious notions.

Does Earth have “no tomorrow,” as the Washington Post wondered? One thing is for sure: Any hope for a happy tomorrow on Earth means rejecting the neoclassical economics of today. Even when such economics wins the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”

 


Gross Domestic Problem On World Animal Day

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. (Photo Credit: Michael Shealy)

~Republished from The Daly News for World Animal Day 2018~

 

by Brian Czech

If you like animals, your feelings may have been nurtured by “Hedgehogs Being Adorable,” “Baby Hippo Has Won Our Hearts,” and other such gems. The Huffington Post, The Animal Blog, and various animal-lover media take a heartfelt approach to the appreciation of animals—wild as well as domesticated—reminding us of the needs and vulnerabilities of our fellow creatures. It’s a refreshing approach compared to the stodgy science and economics of conservation.

And it’s important. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.” Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” Animal welfare is a barometer of national “goodness” in a sense that resonates with our common sense.

Yet if we are serious about animal welfare, we have to get beyond the mere adoration of hedgehogs and hippos. We have to face up to the big-picture, systematic erosion of wild animal welfare. It’s all around us and getting worse by the day, and our public policies precipitate it.

The most prevalent source of animal suffering is habitat destruction. Habitat includes food, water, cover, and space. When any of these elements are destroyed or depleted, wild animals suffer and often die more miserable deaths than if killed by hunters or predators.

Some animals survive an initial wave of habitat destruction only to be stranded in an unfamiliar, unforgiving environment. When a food or water source is destroyed, wild animals may starve, die of thirst, or suffer from malnutrition and the associated agonies. When thermal cover is lost, animals expend valuable time and energy trying to regulate body temperature. This lowers the time and energy available for feeding, playing, and mating. When hiding cover is lost, wild animals experience fear and stress, seeking cover from predators that may or may not be present.

What kind of a life does that sound like? It would be like getting thrown out of your home, into a perilous world with no social net, no health system, no Salvation Army, and no street corner to beg from. Yet it’s the life we’ve been forcing animals into by the millions. How can we stop?

We often hear of “human activity” being the cause of habitat loss. That’s a start, recognizing our basic role in the problem, but we have to dig deeper to detect precisely what type of human activity is problematic. After all, the habitat destruction caused by humans beings isn’t spiritual activity, or neighborhood activity, or political activity (at least not directly), but almost always economic activity.

The macroeconomic nature of the problem is evident when we consider the causes of species endangerment. These causes are essentially the sectors and byproducts of the whole, interwoven economy, starting with agricultural and extractive sectors such as mining, logging, and livestock production. These activities directly remove or degrade the habitat components required by wild animals.

Another major cause of endangerment is urbanization. Urbanization reflects the growth of the labor force and consumer population as well as a variety of light industrial and service sectors. Few types of habitat destruction are as complete as urbanization. While extractive activities can be a traumatic experience for the denizens of wildlands, logging, ranching, and even mining usually leaves some habitat components. But when an urban area expands, it does so with pavement, buildings, and infrastructure. These developments are devastating to most of the animals present.

The economic system extends far into the countryside, too. Roads, reservoirs, pipelines, power lines, solar arrays, and wind farms are examples.

It would be hard to conceive of a more prevalent danger to animals than roads. Roads and the cars upon them leave countless animals mangled and left, during their final hours, to be picked apart by wild and domestic scavengers. Power lines induce electrocution, a significant source of bird death and crippling. Power line collisions cause their share as well. Wind farms and solar arrays, thought to be the keys to “green growth,” are the latest hurdles for migratory birds.

Pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. Pollution is an insidious and omnipresent threat to wild animals. Whether it’s nerve damage from pesticides, bone loss from lead poisoning, or one of the many other horrible symptoms of physiology gone wrong, pollutants ensure some of the most excruciating diseases and slowest deaths in the animal kingdom.

Climate change is another threat to species, although its mechanisms are less direct. Temperature is a key factor in the functioning of ecosystems and the welfare of the animals therein. Climate change is pushing polar bears and other polar species off the ends of the earth; at what point will this climate-controlled conveyor belt stop? Climate change, too, is a result of a growing (and fossil-fueled) economy.

We should give thanks for the Humane Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. These and related organizations do the good work that Gandhi and Lincoln would have endorsed. Yet when is the last time you’ve heard these organizations give a hoot about economic growth, the single biggest threat to animal welfare?

And why does no one put in a word for our furry and feathered friends when Congress, the President, and the Fed pull out all the stops for GDP growth? Where are the advocates of humane treatment of animals, when the biggest decisions are made about the rate of habitat loss and therefore animal suffering? When a hundredth percentage point less in GDP growth could save hundreds of thousands of animals a year?

Why don’t we have a mainstream media, which isn’t afraid to expose nastiness to horses and chickens, talking about the millions of animals suffering at the cumulative hand of economic growth? Has economic growth become the inconvenient truth for animal welfare?

It’s definitely inconvenient—and that’s an understatement—for millions of animals.

 


NGOs Challenged to Back Up Their Rhetoric

The following letter was sent to the top ten environmental NGOs today, challenging them to a debate on the topic, “Is there a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection?” Recipients included the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton League.

An Act of Congress for the Steady-State Timeline

By Brian Czech

Some years down the road—probably decades—we’ll pass the Full and Sustainable Employment Act, calling for a steady state economy in the USA. This is our vision at CASSE. When that day comes, scholars and commentators will construct a timeline demarcating the major steps along the way. On that timeline, August 28, 2018 will be duly noted. This was the day when the Measuring Real Income Growth Act, “MRIGA,” was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

Even if MRIGA is never enacted, the Senate bill will belong on the timeline. It recognizes one crucial point on the way to a steady state economy: namely, that something is wrong with using GDP as an indicator of success. It represents an American paradigm shift, away from the bankrupt notion that “a rising tide lifts all boats” to the reality that some boats are falling to pieces while others are accruing new decks.

Now it’s true that MRIGA is far from a Full and Sustainable Employment Act. It’s all about a more equitable distribution of wealth, and says nothing about limits to growth. And that is precisely why it will be an early mark on the steady-state timeline, as opposed to the culmination of steady state economics.

Steady state economics centers around the themes of sustainability, distribution of wealth, and allocation of resources. When asked for advice, the steady state economist will prescribe stabilized GDP (for sustainability), an equitable distribution of wealth, and efficient allocation of resources using a variety of approaches. In contrast, conventional economics deals almost entirely with the allocation of resources by prescribing especially the “free market.”

Similarly, American political history has favored the free market. The American Constitution was conducive to the fast track of a capitalist economy. The founding fathers – and certainly subsequent politicians – emphasized economic freedom over issues of fairness and sustainability.

As we start bumping up against limits to growth in the 21st century, some cold hard facts reveal themselves. One is the accelerating pace of environmental deterioration. Another is that a rising tide no longer lifts all boats. When it takes drastic measures to grow the economy – including the revocation of longstanding environmental protections – the benefits accrue to fewer individuals, such as oil and chemical company executives.

Chuck Schumer explaining the bill on C-SPAN.

Environmental deterioration is noticed by ecologists and overlooked by most others, while the general inability to get ahead financially is experienced by the vast majority of individuals. Therefore we can expect political action on the distribution of wealth before any action on protecting the environment, much less any steady statesmanship to intentionally limit the size of the economy. And this is precisely what we are seeing in MRIGA: political action on the distribution of wealth, with no heed paid to sustainability (in the current bill at least).

So we suffer no illusions that Schumer and Heinrich are attacking GDP out of a concern for environmental protection or even long-term economic welfare. Even their apparent concern for the current distribution of wealth doesn’t hide the obvious fact that MRIGA is a political response to President Trump’s braggadocio over GDP growth rates. Nevertheless, the mere fact that Schumer and Heinrich focused in on GDP, rather than for example a progressive tax reform, will help us immensely as we raise awareness of the trade-off between GDP growth and environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security, and international stability.

Unfurling the Banner at the Steady State Herald

~Steady State Herald Premiere~

By Brian Czech

It’s been quite a run with our CASSE blog, the Daly News. Regular readers will recall a consistent weekly column from March 2010 through late 2015. Then for a couple years it was hit-or-miss, for reasons already explained (in a Daly News entry, naturally.) Now we’re back to blogging regularly under a new banner: the Steady State Herald!

Well, almost regularly. We do have a technical glitch to overcome first. The CASSE website has gotten bogged down with old plug-ins, programming bugs, and a generally creaky platform. We must fix it, thoroughly, and that process begins this week. This also means our blog (which happens to be at the center of the technical difficulties) will be static for the time being.

We will notify our subscribers and signatories when we’re rolling again with the next article of the Steady State Herald, most likely before summer is officially upon us. Meanwhile it won’t be such a bad thing for readers, new and old, to reflect a bit on the topics and events we covered with the Daly News. This article should help us do just that.

So as we unfurl the new banner of the Steady State Herald, let’s toot the old horn one last time for the Daly News.

“Daly News” was a play on words for capitalizing on the good name of Herman Daly, the champion of steady state economics. The Daly News was the flagship communications tool for CASSE during our formative stages. We published approximately 246 Daly News articles, with Herman Daly and yours truly penning 60 apiece. Brent Blackwelder wrote 50 more, and Rob Dietz (serving concurrently as CASSE executive director) another 40. We’ve had dozens of guest authors and semi-regular contributions from James Magnus-Johnson (20) and Eric Zencey (15).

With the Daly News, we proved there is plenty of news – not to mention opinion – on limits to growth and/or the steady state economy. Even given that theme, our articles ranged far and wide in style and in substance. We came at our topics from philosophical, theological, ecological, economic, historical, political, sociological, and psychological angles.

We used every tenor from sober prescriptions for public policy to hyperbolic parody. We celebrated anniversaries and we posted obituaries. We covered the terrain from local to global. Through it all, we kept to the tenets of a 501(c)(3), non-profit educational organization. We never lobbied for a candidate, but we sure critiqued a number of them, all across the political spectrum.

We should all – producers and consumers of the Daly News – thank Herman Daly for the privilege of using his name. Those familiar with Herman’s modesty won’t be surprised that he was never comfortable with the moniker. But “Daly News” helped to put us – CASSE and our blog – on the map, especially in the field of ecological economics and in the surrounding, broader terrain of political economy.

With Herman’s name gracing our blog, each new article came out of the starting blocks with the traction of credibility. The name also compelled our authors to take their task seriously and to seek… if not perfection, the best of our abilities and perhaps a more civil discourse. The quality of articles was such that the Daly News was often cross-posted at the request of other organizations. It compelled or provoked many follow-ups; numerous articles still do. The Daly News helped CASSE win the 2011 Best Green Think Tank Award.

So yes, we did capitalize – in the best sense of the word – on Herman’s name. We also recognized some trade-offs from the beginning. One of them was the opportunity cost of not being able to send other valuable signals with the name of the blog. And so we come to the naming of the Steady State Herald.

Naming a blog is a bit like designing a logo. With a logo, you only have so much space, and the image must send a clear and instant message. Ideally it will also pique the curiosity required for further contemplation, and in the process convey additional nuance.

With a blog, you only have so many syllables, and they must send a clear and instant message. Ideally they will also pique the curiosity for further contemplation, and in the process convey additional nuance.

“Steady State Herald” has five syllables and readily rolls off the tongue. It’s a phrase that clearly conveys what our blog is about, especially with the subtitle, “Ushering in the Steady State Economy.” Now it’s true that “steady state economy” is not yet in the vernacular. So, just as some had to contemplate the meaning of “Daly News” (because not everyone knew of Herman), “steady state” won’t instantly connect with everyone. Yet the phrase remains the best thing we have going to convey, very quickly, the concept of a stabilized, sustainable economy. (See how quickly the syllables add up without using “steady state”?)

We’ve analyzed the rhetorical properties of “steady state economy,” as well as the technical and linguistic. We’re committed to using the phrase. We are, after all, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. We remain confident the phrase “steady state economy” has the potential to be writ into public policy as well as implanted in the vernacular. We come a step closer, we think, by using the phrase as the very title of our blog.

That said, you can’t just call a blog “Steady State,” or even “Steady State Economy.” A blog is not a state (unless you really want to argue), nor is it an economy. So what else could you call it? We considered many examples, and among them were:

  • Steady State Times
  • Steady State Chronicles
  • Steady State Gazette
  • The Steady Statesman
  • The Steady Statement

You get the picture. We thought of the usual suspects; the news-papery nouns to couple with “Steady State.” We considered a few minor plays on words, too. We ultimately chose “Herald” as the proper coupling.

We’d all be happier if “Chronicles,” for example, was the appropriate coupling. Such would be the case if there was enough public awareness about limits to growth. Things would be happening toward steady-state policy reform and steady statesmanship in international diplomacy, and these happenings would warrant chronicling.

Unfortunately the vast majority of citizens haven’t connected the dots from biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, noise, congestion – and many other indicators of illth– back to GDP growth. It may be the case that the majority doesn’t even recognize some of the indicators themselves. That seems to be true of climate change, for example, which happens so slowly (so far) as to escape the notice of casual citizens. The human race has become the frog in the metaphorical pot, oblivious to the perils of perpetual economic growth.

So we need a herald to awaken our fellow frogs from their slumber. This herald can’t be just another big mouth. He or she – or it, in the case of a blog – isn’t going to help matters by shouting oxymoronically for “green growth” or belting out a chorus of Kuznets Curve Kumbaya. Some people like to complain about “Cassandras,” but we think it worse to live in an age with so many Pollyannas. Certainly it’s a dangerous world when naïve notions of perpetual GDP growth prevail in the midst of melting ice caps, the Sixth Great Extinction, and the Anthropocene in general.

Let’s also recall that Cassandra was always right – never wrong – with her warnings to the Trojans. Her only curse was that no one believed her. If there were fools in this mix, Cassandra wasn’t one of them. The Pollyanna, on the other hand, is disastrously wrong. Her naïve “optimism” leads others astray, right down the path of least resistance.

So we eschew simplistic notions of “positive” messaging. We’re not optimists, pessimists, or notionists at all. We are, first and foremost, realists. We understand limits to growth, and we know we must do the yeoman work of rowing upstream in the river of political economy. We’re equal parts Cassandra, David, and Paul Revere. We won’t suffer Pollyannas, we’ll fight Goliath, and we’ll awaken you with our warnings. We ask only that you spread them, because we long for the day the Herald may be aptly renamed the Chronicles, Times, or Gazette.

Stay tuned for the blogroll of the Steady State Herald…

 

 

Nature Needs Half – And Twice the Steady Statesmanship

Brian Czech, brianczech@steadystate.org, 1/8/2018

 

WE NEED NATURE.

NATURE NEEDS HALF.

ERGO, WE NEED NATURE TO GET HALF.

 

Half of what? The planet. That’s the essence of E.O. Wilson’s latest – and greatest – project.

Why does nature need half the planet? To maintain a highly functional system of plants, animals, and their habitats. And we need such a functional ecosystem to support our own species. Nature is our habitat. No nature means no economy, no national security, and no international stability.

When E.O. Wilson says nature needs half the planet, we better listen, because Wilson is still the planet’s top conservation biologist. A wise elder at a spry 88, he cut his academic teeth on species-area relationships in the 1960’s. To this day, no one makes a more compelling argument for the need to conserve biodiversity, as well as how much we need to conserve. Nature Needs Half follows from Wilson’s recent book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.

 

E.O. Wilson in his Harvard laboratory, August 6, 2009. (Photo credit: Neil Patterson)

 

As a conservation biologist at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters for 17 years, no academic figure was more relevant to me than Wilson. Whether it was working on the Land Acquisition Priority System, estimating the capacity of the National Wildlife Refuge System to conserve species, or identifying biodiversity hotspots in need of protection, Wilson’s theses put the sound in “sound science.”

Wilson certainly inspired my efforts to help establish a national wildlife refuge in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Wilson, who grew up roaming the delta, was the best thing we had going for us. He had garnered crucial support from local and state officials. Unfortunately, FWS wasn’t transparent with its planning elsewhere in Alabama, and the state suddenly opposed any new refuges. The Mobile-Tensaw project was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

Meanwhile, though, Wilson gave a boost to the steady-state movement. It was August 6, 2009, and we were in Wilson’s Harvard lab with his long-time associate, Neil Patterson. Wilson was carefully studying the CASSE position on economic growth, which describes (among other things) a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. His questions were nuanced and we discussed several clauses in detail. When he finally signed the position, it corroborated the conclusions of other world-class conservationists such as Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, Sylvia Earle, and Jean-Michel Cousteau. It was an act of “steady statesmanship” that was crucial to the acceptance of steady state economics in the conservation community.

If, on the other hand, Wilson had taken the stance that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment,” it would have crippled our efforts to advance the steady state economy among the Society for Conservation Biology, The Wildlife Society, Ecological Society of America, and other scientific societies, along with the conservation organizations that follow their academic lead. This was a real possibility; Wilson himself had entertained the win-win rhetoric a decade prior to signing the CASSE position. To his credit, he had the integrity – scientific and personal integrity – to formally acknowledge the conflict after studying the issue sufficiently.

It’s no surprise, then, that Nature Needs Half is an implicit prescription for a steady state economy. Rather than elucidating the details in prose, I defer to the CASSE logo, which was designed precisely to communicate that nature needs half. Take a look at the graph of GDP overlaying the planet. See where it stops? Exactly where the human economy uses one half of Earth’s resources (or “natural capital”), leaving the other half for nature and its non-human species.

 

The CASSE logo, designed to convey that nature needs half.

 

The CASSE logo is in marked contrast to President Trump’s approach to the environment. Instead of “nature needs half,” Trump says, “We can leave a little bit.” But this is no mere attack on Trump. The fact is that no president has charted a course of steady statesmanship. Only Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter came close, and only in long-forgotten moments.

Obama had steady-state potential but it remained latent throughout his presidency. He knew something was awry with perpetual growth theory, but by 2011 “Obamanomics” had veered onto the slippery slope of win-win rhetoric.

The short history of Obama’s stifled steady statesmanship was probably less a failure of Obama and more a failure of the conservation community. Outside of CASSE, few organizations explicitly advocated a steady state economy or even highlighted the conflict between growth and environmental protection. They failed to provide the political cover Obama needed to raise public awareness of the trade-off.

Obama’s appointees and professionals in the civil service were even less helpful. Instead of helping him develop a cogent message on economic sustainability, they actively suppressed any talk of limits to growth. I should know, having fought gag orders throughout my time at FWS headquarters.

Frankly it came as no surprise that the political appointees and high-level bureaucrats were the opposite of helpful to Obama. Many of them were retreads or recycled from earlier Clinton administrations and networks. The Clintons spent decades proclaiming that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment,” cynically bastardizing language from the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report for the sake political convenience.

The fact is, if Hillary had become president, steady statesmanship would have taken a disastrous step back. Political appointees and ladder-climbing bureaucrats would have curried favor left and right with the win-win rhetoric, and conservation organizations would have sold their souls for political and fiscal favor. Even the scientific, professional societies wouldn’t have been entirely above the fray.

With Hillary in the White House, economic growth would have remained the top domestic policy goal. Instead of getting half, nature would be steadily eroding. Few would notice, though. The Green Koolaid Choir would be strumming Kumbaya, and visions of win-win would be dancing in peoples’ heads.

In stark contrast we have Trump pulling out all the stops for economic growth. The conflict between growth and conservation is bloody clear. Trump doesn’t even try to hide it. “We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing the irony is lost upon Trump. For what it’s worth, we may as well spell it out: Leaving a “little bit” is the surest bet for destroying the greatest number of businesses for the longest period of time. The fact is…

 

THE ECONOMY NEEDS NATURE.

NATURE NEEDS HALF.

ERGO, THE ECONOMY NEEDS TWICE THE STEADY STATESMANSHIP.

 

 

Thankful to be Back in the Steady-State Saddle

By Brian Czech

One thing about American holidays – there’s no mincing of words. Thanksgiving Day is as self-explanatory as it gets. And from where I write, it happens to be easy, giving thanks this time around. For starters, it’s a crisp fall day in Virginia!

But I’ve a bonus to be thankful for. Twenty days and three hours ago, I turned in my retirement papers at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters and immediately went to work as CASSE’s executive director. In a way, I feel back in the saddle. Let me explain…

A long, long time ago I rode horseback from Benson, Arizona to Kuna, Idaho. With no company apart from Red and Jake (my late horses), my mind wandered to whatever I observed. And that’s how I started thinking about the problem of economic growth.

I could see the economy – especially its infrastructure and extractive sectors – seeping into the basins and deserts of the Southwest. I could hear it too, up in the air, down in the towns, and off on the distant highways. I’d wanted wilderness, not the economy; that’s why I rode out of Benson to begin with. You might say (with music optional) I fought the economy, but the economy won.

Well, I’m back in the saddle again, thinking about the problem of economic growth and seeking to address it from new angles. This is a far cry from Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters, where I was prohibited from even talking about economic growth. It’s good to be back on a meaningful, big-picture journey.

I am also thankful to you, readers of the Daly News, for your patience as the blog went dormant for the past two years. In case you’re not aware, CASSE is a tiny non-profit organization. (It may not seem that way to casual visitors, due to our large volunteer presence.) When I filed CASSE’s incorporation papers in 2004, becoming the first CASSE volunteer, I ran it on nights and weekends. Eventually we developed a modest budget, and over the years we’ve had four full-time paid employees – never more than two at once – and I make the fifth.

CASSE has been through the ups and downs of most tiny non-profits as they struggle for traction. But some things never change. My reason for establishing CASSE 13 years ago is the exact same reason I took an early retirement 3 weeks ago. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a gag order a few years into my FWS career, prohibiting me from talking about the trade-off between economic growth and wildlife conservation. So I established CASSE in order to “speak truth to power.”

Serving also as a visiting professor in Virginia Tech’s National Capitol Region, I had three distinctive hats to wear, depending on topic and venue. Always, though, the topic that kept me awake at night and motivated my activities by day was the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security, and international stability. But my daylight hours were dogged by the FWS gag orders.

Over the years at FWS, the gag orders never really expired. Instead, I accumulated a collection! The pressure to ignore the “800-pound gorilla” was intense in recent years. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the book I nearly completed while still working for FWS. But for now, I am just thankful; thankful to be working for CASSE, thankful for Daly News readers, and thankful for a crisp fall Virginia day.

Unfortunately it won’t be easy for any of us to be thankful in the coming years of the 21st century, unless we succeed with steady statesmanship. Problems will abound as nations pull out all the stops for economic growth, far exceeding their ecological capacities. So let’s do our best to steer them otherwise with common sense and steady state economics.

Meanwhile, let’s be thankful for that opportunity.

Happy Thanksgiving!

No Mere Resolution: The Vermont Legislature and the Steady State Economy

By Brian Czech

Brian CzechHere’s a day to remember: May 6, 2016. That’s the day when, late in the afternoon, the Legislature of the State of Vermont passed H.C.R. 412, “House Concurrent Resolution Honoring the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy for Its Important Work.” In a nation where acts of steady statesmanship – political support for a steady state economy – have only just begun, the Vermont Legislature has offered a perfect and prescient precedent.

Some may scoff at the idea that any resolution could be momentous. It’s true that, typically, a resolution isn’t as distinguished as a statute, an executive order, or a Supreme Court decision. H.C.R. 412 was one of 47 resolutions passed on that adjourning day of the 2015/2016 Vermont Legislature. True, too, that the legislature didn’t resolve to reform any economic policy with H.C.R. 412.

Now that we’ve looked the donut squarely in the hole, let’s consider what the Vermont Legislature did accomplish:

1) The steady state economy – the only sustainable alternative to unsustainable growth or recession – was brought out of its academic niche into mainstream political dialog. We’re not talking about the ramblings of a quirky county commissioner or misfiring mayor. A state legislature represents the second-highest lawmaking level in the land. In Vermont, a famously beautiful and progressive land that has also offered us a viable presidential candidate, there was virtually unanimous support in the legislature for recognizing limits to economic growth, the problems caused by growth, and the solutions inherent to a steady state economy.

2) Vermonters have proven the phrase “steady state economy” is not the bogeyman it was thought to be by the architects and activists of the “new economy” movement. If a state legislature can stomach, reprint, and even honor the phrase, it’s time to stop the hand-wringing in futile attempts to come up with a warmer and fuzzier phrase that would connote an economy of stabilized size. “Steady state economy” is perfectly clear with no connotations necessary. Let’s just tell it like it is, and thank you Vermont.

3) H.C.R. 412 is loaded with implications for future adjustments to tax codes, budgets, program goals and incentives of all kinds. Meanwhile, it provides leadership that is immediately relevant to consumers. Consumers are citizens who constitute the demand side of the economy. Any citizen mulling the construction of a new home, the purchase of a new vehicle, or the development of a new wardrobe has a decision to make. To illustrate by extreme: Hummer or hybrid? Conscientious, widespread tempering of demand toward sustainable levels starts with leadership, such as provided in H.C.R. 412.

Suddenly, doesn’t the donut look bigger than the hole?

H.C.R. 412 was introduced by Representative Curt McCormack of Burlington. The Burlington connection makes a lot of sense, given the long-running leadership in steady state economics coming out of the University of Vermont and its Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. In fact, McCormack is on the UVM Board of Trustees.

It’s refreshing that, in the political days of short-term memory and “small hands” rhetoric, some politicians are doing their homework on the big picture and the long term. The perpetual push for increasing GDP is a growing threat to the environment, the economy, national security, and international stability, but the threat is clear only for those who stop to think about it. Led by McCormack, May 6 was the day a state legislature stopped to think about it. It’s a day worth remembering.

Setting Things Straight for the Steady State

By Brian Czech

Editor’s Note: The forthcoming A Future Beyond Growth (Routledge, 2016), edited by Haydn Washington and Paul Twomey, explores the vision and process for moving toward a steady state economy. This edited volume stemmed from the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Haydn is the co-director of the New South Wales chapter of CASSE. The following is Brian Czech’s foreword to “A Future Beyond Growth.”

Brian CzechExtremely dangerous political rhetoric has proliferated over the past several decades, seducing the masses onto a path that leads to the destruction of nature and civilization. This rhetoric is centered on the claim that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Politicians are all about economic growth but, at the same time, none of them want to be seen as willful destroyers of the environment. Therefore they stretch, warp, and corrupt the truth with the win-win rhetoric that we can have our cake and eat it too.

Such is the world that CASSE—the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy—was born into on May 1, 2004. In fact, the win-win rhetoric about growing the economy while protecting the environment was the primary impetus for establishing CASSE. The CASSE position on economic growth sets the record straight that “there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection,” leading up to this fact with seven “whereas” clauses and following it with eight other “therefore” findings.

Those having a counter-reaction that “there doesn’t have to be a conflict; it’s not a fundamental conflict” should read the full CASSE position. The fundamentality of the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection stems from the first two laws of thermodynamics. “Laws of thermodynamics” might sound intimidating to the uninitiated, yet the first two laws can be summarized in such common-sensical terms as: Law 1) You can’t get something from nothing; Law 2) You can’t be 100% efficient in the production process. These laws set up a limit to economic growth, as well as the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, as evidenced most clearly by the erosion of biodiversity in lockstep with economic growth.

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Haydn Washington, co-editor of A Future Beyond Growth and co-director of the NSW chapter of CASSE, speaking at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Photo Credit: Anna Schlunke.

So read the CASSE position, and read this book. While the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection is not an overly simple matter, the key points are readily grasped by sober readers, with the benefit of a clearly written book such as A Future Beyond Growth.

Among the 13,000 signatories of the CASSE position are some of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers, including authors of A Future Beyond Growth. Over 200 organizations have endorsed the position. Despite growing support for its central position, CASSE has been David to the Goliaths of Wall Street, neoclassical economics, and mainstream politics worldwide. Economic growth remains the top domestic policy goal among nations and lesser states as well, even as it causes more problems than it solves in the 21st century.

Of course if you’re going to be a responsible critic of economic growth, much less a long-lasting one, you better have an alternative to offer. Fortunately it is easy to identify the basic alternatives to growth. There are but two: economic degrowth and the steady state economy. The best way to summarize the alternatives is with a reminder of what, precisely, is meant by “economic growth.”

Economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails increasing population and/or per capita consumption. Economic growth is indicated by increasing gross domestic product, or GDP. It entails higher demand for materials and energy, because “you can’t get something from nothing.”

Economic growth should be distinguished from “economic development,” which refers to qualitative change regardless of quantitative growth. For example, economic development may refer to the attainment of a fairer distribution of wealth, or a different allocation of resources reflecting the evolution of consumer ethics.

Degrowth, then, is simply defined as decreasing production and consumption in the aggregate, as indicated by decreasing GDP. Decreasing population and/or per capita consumption is required. The word “degrowth” tends to have political connotations in addition to meaning a smaller economy, especially in Western Europe where the degrowth movement originated as “La Décroissance.” (Frankly, “economic growth” also has marked political connotations, but society has gotten numb to them.) As with economic growth, degrowth in the sense of a shrinking economy is ultimately unsustainable.

The sustainable alternative to unsustainable growth and degrowth is the steady state economy, which has stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. “Stabilized” in this context means mildly fluctuating. A steady state economy has stabilized population and per capita consumption. Energy and material demands are gradually stabilized—in the aggregate and per capita—as the limits to productive efficiency are reached. All else equal, a steady state economy is indicated by stabilized GDP. The “all else equal” (as I described in Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) includes level of technology, inflation, the propensity to use money relative to other means of exchange, and environmental conditions. But the bottom line, so to speak, is that GDP is a fine indicator of one thing: the pure size of the economy. Which makes it a good indicator of one other thing: environmental impact.

Obviously the pursuit of a steady state economy invokes a thousand devils in the details of political and cultural reforms. Macroeconomic goals, tax codes, budgets, interest rates, terms of trade: these are some of the aspects of statecraft to be dramatically overhauled with steady statesmanship. In the private sector, what about the sociology of consumption? Imagine the attitudes toward conspicuous consumption in a world that finally gets it about limits to growth.

A basic measure of justice, with an equally basic measure of logic, suggests that the place to start in moving toward a steady state economy on Earth is with the wealthiest nations. Impoverished nations need economic growth, almost by definition. We all know who the wealthiest nations are—look for example at nighttime lighting imagery—and concerned citizens from these countries have helped raise awareness of the perils of pursuing perpetual growth.

Which brings us back to CASSE, the uphill-fighting, philanthropically disadvantaged, non-governmental organization with the mission of advancing the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support. CASSE is almost entirely a volunteer organization. Its “business model” should be referenced in quotes, as “business” tends to connote things like money, salaries, contracts, and related financial features that are rare in the context of CASSE. But CASSE has a volunteer model that includes international chapters unified by the CASSE position on economic growth.

CASSE’s New South Wales Chapter, led by Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke, has demonstrated the potential of this volunteer model. When they invited me to give the keynote address at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference (the AAS’s annual environmental conference), with the conference’s theme being the steady state economy, I had to check if it was April Fool’s Day. To convene a major academy on the steady state economy in the United States, where Big Money calls the shots even in “academic” affairs, would have been inconceivable. The fact that the CASSE New South Wales Chapter (and its partners) managed to deliver the goods on a national academy conference for the steady state economy says a lot about the New South Wales CASSE chapter, the Australian Academy of Science, and even Australia itself.

What exactly does it say? For starters, it says Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke are diligent scholars, determined organizers, and capable communicators. It says that the Australian Academy of Science is a faithful champion of its scientific communities. It suggests, too, that an inquisitive, open-minded spirit prevails at least in Australia, which offers hope to the international community. Open minds in Australia have gleaned crucial insights from CASSE’s tireless Australian National Director, Geoff Mosley (Melbourne), and from one of the world’s leading steady state economists, Philip Lawn (Adelaide), and other Australians who presented at the 2014 Fenner Conference.

A Future Beyond Growth grew out of the proceedings of the 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Not everything from the conference made it to print. My own talk, for example, stays mostly in the pages of Supply Shock, plus the current prefatory remarks. But much of the highly memorable Fenner Conference is presented herein, and I feel delighted to preface the chapters with one more thing:

The next time you hear the win-win spin that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment” or the equivalent in your regional culture, don’t just throw up your hands in resignation to the rhetoric. Think instead about a future beyond growth. That’s where there’s no conflict with protecting the environment, national security, and international stability.

 

First Cut: No Five-Kid Presidents

By Brian Czech

(With apologies to the Octomom, who didn’t ask for this kind of attention.)

Brian CzechMention the Octomom, and the first thing that comes to mind is that ridiculous fecundity. If she tried running for President, she’d never make it to the first debate, because everyone would take the 14-kid factoid (yes, she had 6 before the 8) to indicate some type of extremist propensity. More astute analysts would also point out that, as an example for the nation, the Octomom would be a demographic disaster of unparalleled proportions.

Anybody for the second coming of Easter Island?

If everyone bred like the Octomom, the population would double every 11 years!* In less than 50 years, then, the population would be 16 times the current bloated level. And you think your ride to work is congested now? The only good thing about it—regarding congestion at least—is that the vast majority of those offspring wouldn’t be driving to work in the first place. In a country unable to provide full employment now, imagine it trying to provide twice as many jobs, not to mention 4 times as many, then 8 times, etc. And with no more water, soil, and frackable Dakotas than it already has!

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Five-kid presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore

So much for Octomom. If she ever had any presidential timber, it was clearcut with the parturition of that last round of 8. For that matter, wasn’t the original 6 (by the age of 28) already a patently poor precedent for a presidential candidate? She still would have been leading the way for a doubling time of 14 years.*

The fact is, no matter what you think about limits to growth, a population growth rate way—way—over the replacement rate is as sustainable as a shrimp at the local Red Lobster. Who wants to vote for an example setter for shrimp-like sustainability?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t vote for a candidate with any more than 3 kids, and 2 or 1 would be much better. By all accounts, the nation is not yet with me on that. But as a polity, where do we draw the line? Should we—or any country—have a president who is five-eighths of the way to Octo-fecundity?

Well, we have one candidate who has proven precisely that fecund. Shockingly enough, a couple of them are even more so.

Drumroll, please, amidst the falling presidential timber…

Name Kids Analysis
Rick Santorum 7 What the hell? “Champion Breeder for President!”
Jim Webb 6 You got your Octomoms and you got your Sextodads.
Donald Trump 5 Donald Trump, you’re… you know what!
Chris Christie 4 Too much congestion on those bridges already.
Martin O’Malley 4 One to each cardinal direction.
George Pataki 4 Does it really matter?
Marco Rubio 4 Doubling time, 22 years.
Lincoln Chafee 3 May Rhode Island not Easter Island become.
Ben Carson 3 Sing along, “And it’s once… twice… three times, irrelevant.”
Mike Huckabee 3 Presumably a relatively holy trinity.
Bobby Jindal 3 Politically correct enough, again!
Jeb Bush 3 They’re also running for president.
Rand Paul 3 Triple threat to the Federal Reserve!
Ted Cruz 2 One for machine guns and one for bacon.
Carly Fiorina 2 Executive competency.
John Kasich 2 Although one of them can’t recall who Kasich is.
Rick Perry 2 Although Perry can’t recall who one of them is.
Scott Walker 2 He lets them eat cake.
Hilary Clinton 1 Not for lack of effort on Bill’s part.
Bernie Sanders 1 Demographic socialism.
Lindsey Graham 0 Whatever.

 

So there you have it. Vote with your heart and your mind. And with demographic diligence.

 


Notes:

* The population dynamics practiced here are suitable for rough estimates. Doubling times were calculated using a Population Growth Rate Calculator with the reproductive history of the Octomom as summarized at Wikipedia. The primary variable not accounted for in these doubling time estimates is deaths. However, the USA is characterized by high survival rates and relatively long life spans (e.g., the Octomom is 40 years old and each of her children is alive).