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.

Appropriate Scarcity

By Robert A. Herendeen

  … appealing to people to restrain themselves [by] self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time. By and large, we consume as much as our incomes allow…. changes… cannot take place without constraints that apply to everyone rather than everyone else. Manmade global warming cannot be restrained unless we persuade the government to force us to change the way we live.

—George Monbiot, Heat (2006/2009)

The results indicate that the likelihood of paying a positive amount for supporting renewable energy is higher under a mandatory scheme compared to a voluntary payment option in the UK.

—Elcin Akcura, “Mandatory vs. voluntary payment for green electricity,” Ecological Economics (2015)

 

herendeen.3I believe Monbiot says it true. And Akcura (who knew?) provides research-based confirmation.

I envision fulfilling, challenging, joyful lives within environmental constraints, but I can’t imagine that happening without societal signals to reinforce consistent behavior. If level of consumption is a problem, then scarcity is a necessary part of the solution. In the least disruptive and potentially fairest sense, this means using prices to determine demand. To cut to the conclusion: my favorite example is a carbon tax.

Monbiot’s statement is frightening, Draconian, and an apparent non-starter politically… almost. But the consequence of denying it leads to several futile proposals and viewpoints which permeate the literature, both scholarly and public. They are futile because they do not produce results that are big enough and fast enough to beat back anthropogenic climate change. Hearing them repeatedly frustrates me. These are:

1. We citizens are being sold the idea that economic growth (especially GDP) is good by government bureaucracies that need it to stay alive, and by corporations that want it because they are greedy (e.g., “the 1%”).

2. We are personally acquisitive because of intensive advertising. Otherwise, we would readily embrace “enough is plenty.”

3. A steady state economy will only be achieved when a new human consciousness emerges. That is not exactly imminent, but it’s in sight.

4. Peer pressure will solve the classic (game theoretic?) problems of free riders, defection, and over-riding competitive ambition in general.

The Temple to Ramesses II at Abu Simbel (II)

The Temple to Ramesses II at Abu Simbel (II). Photo Credit: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

The human beings that I observe, work and live with, and love, largely don’t fit these principles. This includes me. We need help. So, about these points:

1. Most of us don’t know or care what GDP is. However, we do have explicit or implicit desires for material/experiential growth at the personal or familial level. Such as: a larger house, a vacation cottage, a new car, a foreign eco-tour, increased travel to visit the grandkids, a secure college fund or retirement package, some new clothes—probably before the old ones wear out. Sum these aspirations over the population and you have pressure for overall growth.

Recently I asked who in my circle at the edge of academia in a progressive college town wants zero personal or professional economic growth. Not soon-to-graduate students looking for the first job. Not immigrants who arrive with almost nothing. Not newlyweds considering starting a family. Not academics building research programs or pursuing tenure. Not college presidents. Not development officers of green non-profit organizations. Not the mayor or city council. And of course not the usual suspects in the business community. I finally concluded that some well-off retirees seem to want zero growth….that’s about it.

2. Watch a TV auto ad and it’s difficult not to suspect—and resent—advertising’s role in fanning the flames of demand. (Mmmmm, a lone car on an otherwise unoccupied road accelerating against the shriek of the engine and the announcer’s deep n’ throaty voice…). But what advertising seduced Pharaoh Ramesses II into carving four 65-foot-tall likenesses of himself from native rock at Abu Simbel ca. 1250 BC? Or the government of Dubai into erecting the 2,722 foot (i.e, 0.52 mile) Burj Khalifa Tower in 2009 AD? I believe essentially all of us are hard-wired to want more of something for some reason. If there is good evidence that advertising is the culprit in overall consumption growth and not just in choosing between spending options, let’s see it.

3. Given the three-millennia separation of the two above construction projects, I think it is wishful thinking to expect Homo sapiens to spontaneously embrace zero growth collectively any time soon.

4. But even if 99+% of us do that, what about the non-cooperators? To the extent that the world is zero-sum (a politically incorrect but applicable description if there really are limits), it takes only a few competitively acquisitive individuals to produce a mess. If the few want more, sooner or later they will destabilize a group of otherwise modest, cooperative individuals. Envy kicks in, or defensive measures to avoid losing. An example of the latter: What to do when the tax bill on your modest abode skyrockets when Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger move in next door (aka the “Aspen effect”)? Try to maintain your modest lifestyle and move 40 miles downriver, or do what it takes to get into the high production/consumption game yourself?

All this brings me back to Monbiot’s bald and bold statement: there is negligible action without effective, broadly felt, implementable…scarcity. In other words, “appropriate scarcity” is not optional; it is necessary. Yes, increasing the price of “bads” is a frequent theme on these pages, but often only as one item in a longish list of principles based on Herman Daly’s powerful writings. Rather, it should be at the top of the list.

There is no question that accomplishing scarcity (for fossil energy, say) by caps and/or taxes is politically, socially, economically, and humanly difficult—a global top-ten red flag. I believe that at the U. S. national level at least, it is feasible. Equity impacts can be minimized by income tax rebates to lower-income households. Other impacts, especially regional, are tougher. In general, moving slowly reduces disruption, but we have scant time. What I hope for is national-level appropriate scarcity of fossil fuels. Done right (a daunting task, to be sure), we can reinforce our own behavior in doing what we (say we) must do to restrain global warming, and have good lives doing it.

 

Dr. Robert Herendeen is a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. His research interests include energy consumption, quantitative analysis of environmental issues, and environmental bookkeeping. He is a physicist who conducts economic input-output analyses to determine resource requirements and other impacts of consumption, following the parallels between economic and ecological systems and analysis of perturbed ecosystems. His most recent work covers the connection between net energy and the price of all consumer products.

rherende@uvm.edu

 

Where is Pope Francis on Economic Growth?

by David Kane

Maryknoll Center for Global Concerns, Washington DC Oct. 27, 2008 © Rick Reinhard 2008

Those who believe that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection will find Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si (Praised Be), a welcome addition to the literature; as well as an important tool in helping others, especially Catholics, to understand and accept the limitations of economic growth. Pope Francis explains how the environmental and social crises we are experiencing will require “profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.” Few in the world have as large a reach as the pope, so it is encouraging to hear him speaking so clearly on these crucial issues.

Environmental and Social Crises

Pope Francis begins by describing the many ecological crises ravaging the planet today. While the media have focused almost exclusively on his inclusion of climate change, referring to it as the climate encyclical,” he actually discusses a host of other ecological crises as well, from the loss of biodiversity and forests, to water and air pollution.

The earth, our home is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.

He then delves into a number of social crises, including inequality, societal breakdown, and declining quality of life, directly relating them to the ecological crises.

Human beings too are creatures of this world, enjoying a right to life and happiness, and endowed with unique dignity. So we cannot fail to consider the effects on people’s lives of environmental deterioration, current models of development and the throwaway culture.

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Causes

Technocratic paradigm

Francis.presidencia.gov.ar

Photo Credit: presidencia.gov.ar

The pope suggests some fundamental causes of these crises including a very interesting discussion around technology. While some have accused Pope Francis of being against, or at least afraid of, technology, that is far from the truth.

Technology has remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings. How can we not feel gratitude and appreciation for this progress, especially in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications?

The problem for Pope Francis is not technology per se, but “the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.”

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them… [h]uman beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet having every last drop and more squeezed out of it.

In a thoughtful conversation around this technocratic paradigm and its effects, Pope Francis laments how this paradigm tends to dominate economics and political life, degrade the environment, benefit small sectors of society, magnify humanity’s effects on Earth, and create overspecialization, obfuscating the bigger picture.

Culture of relativism

A culture of relativism in which “human beings set themselves at the centre [and] give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative” is another root cause of our crises, according to Pope Francis.

 [The culture of relativism] is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.

This same ‘use and throw away’ logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.

Growth and consumption

Another fundamental cause of today’s crises proffered by Pope Francis is the almost exclusive focus on economic growth and ever-increasing consumption as solutions to social problems.

Social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity. These are signs that the growth of the past two centuries has not always led to an integral development and an improvement in the quality of life. Some of these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion.

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals…That paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power.

Solutions

If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.

On an individual level, Pope Francis speaks of the importance of people experiencing an “ecological conversion” in which they develop a deepened appreciation and love for life in all its forms: “a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” It becomes clear to them that “nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

Fortified by this conversion, people become more active in their communities usually through one of the “countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment, whether natural or urban.” Actively engaged citizens are more likely to become environmental educators at their school, in their family, at church, and elsewhere. This education includes “a critique of the ‘myths’ of a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the market without rules)…and helping people, through effective pedagogy, to grow in solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care.”

On a societal level, Pope Francis lays out some principles to guide our actions into the future. He says that for too long, political decisions have been made based on outdated economic ideologies and by specialized technicians seemingly incapable of seeing the bigger picture.

Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.

Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.

Another of Pope Francis’ guiding principles is the need for more long-term thinking. He believes that politics and business have been dominated by short-term thinking for too long, making important changes difficult. He speaks often of intergenerational solidarity and the need to consider future generations in our decisions today.

The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a farsighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.

Caring for ecosystems demands farsightedness, since no one looking for quick and easy profit is truly interested in their preservation.

Pope Francis says that it is wrong to believe that market-based solutions are always the best solutions.

Environmental protection cannot be assured solely on the basis of financial calculations of costs and benefits. The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.

We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?

As an alternative to market-based solutions, Francis suggests treating the climate and other important aspects of nature as common goods (a term he repeats twenty times throughout the document). Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom has documented hundreds of examples of communities organizing their resources as commons. For this to work, another important principle that Pope Francis stresses throughout Laudato Si is the need for subsidiarity—that people affected by decisions should be involved in making those decisions. Too much environmental and social destruction has been caused by decisions being made by people thousands of miles away who will never live with the results of those decisions.

Laudato Si is an important document written at an important time in the history of the cosmos. With the vast reach of the papacy, I hope it and Pope Francis’ exhortations will serve as a wake up call for many and a manual for change for those dedicated to changing the world. He is clear that it is important that we act now.

The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure their dire consequences.

 


 

David Kane (João Pessoa, Brazil) is a researcher for the Faith-Economy-Ecology project of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC). As a Maryknoll lay missioner from 1995 to 2012, he served in Brazil working with recyclers in city dumps and with the Jubilee Brazil campaign, as well as in Washington, D.C. Dave helped found Faith, Economy, Ecology, Transformation, a group of mostly faith-based organizations and individuals inspired to assist in the transition to a more sustainable and equitable economy. Currently, Dave educates and advocates for economic justice, particularly around trade, Latin America, and ecological economics. (David Kane photo credit: Rick Reinhard)

 

Five Myths About Economic Growth

by Brian Czech

Brian CzechMyth #1. It’s economic.

To be economic, something has to be worth more than it costs. Economic activity, per se, is more beneficial than detrimental. Technically speaking, “marginal utility is greater than marginal disutility.”

If you liked a rug, but liked your grandkids more, it wouldn’t be smart to grab the rug out from under them. That’s basic microeconomics. Yet if we look around and reflect a bit, doesn’t it seem like all that economic activity is pulling the Big Rug out from the grandkids at large? Water shortages, pollution, climate change, noise, congestion, endangered species… it’s not going to be a magic carpet ride for posterity.

Growth was probably economic for much of American history. But we have to know when times have changed and earlier policy goals are outdated. In the 21st century, when we’re mining tar sands, fracking far and wide and pouring crude oil by the ton into the world’s finest fisheries, trying to grow the economy even further is looking like a fool’s errand. That’s basic macroeconomics.

Myth #2. Economic growth is often miraculous.

Right now we’ve got the Chinese miracle. We’re supposed to be on the cusp of an Indian miracle. Seems like we already had a more general Asian miracle, having to do with “tigers.”

We’ve had Brazilian, Italian, Greek (yes Greek), Spanish and Nordic miracles. There’s been the Taiwan miracle, the miracle of Chile and even the Massachusetts miracle. Don’t forget the earlier Japanese miracle and more than one historic German miracle.

Let’s hope these aren’t the kinds of miracles they use to determine sainthood. Saint Dukakis, anyone?

No, economic growth was never, anywhere, a “miracle.” It’s never been more than increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails an increasing human population or per capita consumption; these go hand in hand in a growing economy. It’s measured with GDP.

Whoop-de-do, right? Maybe Wall Street investors and journalists are an excitable lot, and it’s easy enough to be surprised by a growth rate, but “miracle?”

Container ship.NOAA's National Ocean Service

Photo Credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service

 

Myth #3. Growth isn’t a problem for the environment, because we’re dematerializing the economy.

Now that would be a miracle.

Let’s get one thing straight: The economy is all about materials. “Goods,” in other words. Oh sure, services matter too. But the vast majority of services are for purposes of procuring, managing or enjoying our goods.

The biggest service sector, transportation, is responsible for enormous environmental (and social) impacts. Transportation is instructive, too, about the relationship between goods and services. People don’t line up at cash registers demanding random acts of transportation. No, it’s all about moving materials—goods or people—from point A to point B, and moving them economically. Every form of transportation takes energy as well as copious supplies of materials (for vehicles and infrastructure) and space.

With all the talk of “de-materializing,” surely there must be services that transcend the physical, right? What about the Information Economy?

Myth #4. The human economy went from hunting and gathering through agriculture and on to manufacturing, and finally to the Information Economy.

Don’t forget our lesson from the transportation sector: no transportation for transportation’s sake. In the “Information Economy,” what’s all that information going to be used for? If it’s not going to be used in activities such as agriculture and manufacturing (and transportation) how is it going to matter for economic growth?

The fact is, there never was—or always was—an information economy. Pleistocene hunters needed to read mammoth tracks more than we need to read our Twitter feed.

Now when it comes to processing information, the computer was more or less a “revolutionary” invention, like the internal combustion engine was for transportation. But what’s less material about it? Just as today’s hunters have semi-automatic rifles with high-power scopes, they have (material) computers that help them gather information for buying more (material) guns, scouting more (material) terrain and shooting more (material) deer. Anything about that seem greener than before?

Information has proliferated alright, in lock step with the material goods and services it’s been used for. Yet to speak of the “Information Economy” seems like grabbing for some type of economic miracle, and we’ve all seen how cheap miracles are in economic rhetoric.

Myth #5. At least economic growth is egalitarian, because a rising tide lifts all boats.

Once upon a time the rising tide metaphor may have had some merit. In the 21st century—think resource wars, climate change, endang­ered species—it’s more like a rising tide flooding all houses. Which brings us back to Myth #1.

It seems like all the talk of economic growth was overblown, more the result of Wall Street excitement and political rhetoric than sober thought. Maybe what we really want is economic slenderizing.

 

 

Thoughts on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyAs a Protestant Christian my devotion to the Catholic Church has been rather minimal, based largely on respect for early church history, and for love of an aunt who was a nun. In recent times the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control, plus the pedophile and cover-up scandals, further alienated me. Like many others I first viewed Pope Francis as perhaps a breath of fresh air, but little more. After reading his encyclical on environment and justice, dare I hope that what I considered merely “fresh air” could actually be the wind of Pentecost filling the Church anew with the Spirit? Maybe. At a minimum he has given us a more truthful, informed, and courageous analysis of the environmental and moral crisis than have our secular political leaders.

True, the important question of population was conspicuous by its near absence. In an earlier offhand remark, however, Francis said that Catholics don’t need to breed “like rabbits,” and pointed to the Church’s doctrine of responsible parenthood. Perhaps he will follow up on that in a future encyclical. In any case, most lay Catholics have for some time stopped listening to Popes on contraception. The popular attitude is expressed in a cartoon showing an Italian mamma wagging her finger at the Pontiff and saying, You no playa da game; you no maka da rules.” Discussing population would not have changed realities, and would have aroused official opposition and distracted attention from the major points of the encyclical. So I will follow Francis’ politic example and put the population question aside, but with a reference to historian John T. Noonan, Jr.’s classic book, Contraception,1 which sorts out the history of doctrine on this issue.

The big ideas of the encyclical are Creation care and justice, and the failure of our technocratic growth economy to provide either justice or care for Creation. Also discussed was the integration of science and religion as necessary, though different, avenues to truth. And yes, the Pope supports the scientific consensus on the reality of climate change, but, media monomania to the contrary, the encyclical is about far more than that.2

Pope Francis.aletela.org

Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical “Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home” was released on June 18. Photo credit: Aletela.org

Francis’ voice is of course not the first to come from Christians in defense of Creation. In addition to his ancient namesake from Assisi, Francis also recognized Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has for two decades now been organizing conferences and speaking out in defense of rivers and oceans, including the Black Sea. The Orthodox Church lost a generation of believers to Communistic atheism, but is gaining back many young people attracted to the theology of Creation and the actions it inspires. Liberal mainline Protestant Christians, and more recently, conservative Evangelicals, have also found their ecological conscience. So Francis’ encyclical would seem to be a capstone that unifies the main divisions of Christianity on at least the fundamental recognition that we have a shamefully neglected duty to care for the Earth out of which we evolved, and to share the Earth’s life support more equitably with each other, with the future, and with other creatures. Many atheists also agree, while claiming that their agreement owes nothing to Judeo-Christian tradition. That is historically questionable, but their support is welcome nonetheless.

This theology of Creation should not be confused with the evolution-denying, anti-science views of some Christian biblical literalists (confusingly called “Creationists” rather than “literalists”). Mankind’s duty to care for Creation, through which humans have evolved to reflect at least the faint image of their Creator, conflicts headlong with the current dominant idolatry of growthism and technological Gnosticism. The idea of duty to care for Creation also conflicts with the materialist determinism of neo-Darwinist fundamentalists who see “Creation” as the random result of multiplying infinitesimal probabilities by an infinite number of trials. The policy implication of determinism (even if stochastic) is that purposeful policy is illusory, both practically and morally. Creation care is also incompatible with the big lie that sharing the Earth’s limited resources is unnecessary because economic growth will make us all rich. Francis calls this magical thinking. He skates fairly close to the idea of steady-state economics, of qualitative development without quantitative growth in scale, although this concept is not specifically considered. Consider his paragraph 193:

In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.

In the last sentence “decreased growth” seems an inexact English translation from the Spanish version “decrecimiento,” or the Italian version “decrescita” (likely the original languages of the document), which should be translated as “degrowth” or negative growth, which is of course stronger than “decreased growth.”3

Laudato Si is already receiving both strong support and resistance. The resistance testifies to the radical nature of Francis’ renewal of the basic doctrine of the Earth and cosmos as God’s Creation. Pope Francis will be known by the enemies this encyclical makes for him, and these enemies may well be his strength. So far in the US they are not an impressive lot: the Heartland Institute, Jeb Bush, Senator James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and others. Unfortunately they represent billions in special-interest money, and have a big corporate media megaphone. The encyclical calls out the opponents and forces them to defend themselves. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they may really think that Francis is rendering to God what actually belongs to Caesar’s oligarchy. But neither Caesar, nor the market, nor technology created us, or the earth that sustains us. Thanks to Francis for making that very clear when so many are denying it, either explicitly or implicitly.

 


Notes:

1. John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists, Belknap Press, 1986. Noonan demonstrates the lack of a biblical basis for opposition to contraception, as well as the origins of church doctrine in secular Roman law, which was absorbed into canon law. The ancient Roman meaning of “proletariat” was “the lowest class, poor and exempt from taxes, and useful to the republic mainly for the procreation of children.” Clearly contraception was not indicated for them, although tolerated for patricians. This literal meaning of proletariat as the prolific class was lost when Marx redefined the word to mean “non owners of the means of production.” But the Malthusian connection with overpopulation and cheap labor has remained real, even if downplayed by Marxists as well as Catholics.

2. The Pope’s condemnation of carbon trading reflects a common misunderstanding of the cap-auction-trade policy, unfortunately shared by some leading climate scientists. See Joseph Heath, “Pope Francis’ Climate Error,” New York Times, June 19, 2015.

3. Thanks to Joan Martinez-Alier for pointing this out.

 

Preempting a Misleading Argument: Why Environmental Problems Will Stop Tracking with GDP

by Brian Czech

Brian CzechI hate to say I told you so, and could be too dead to do so, so I’ll tell you in advance: One decade soon, environmental problems will stop tracking with GDP.

But the reasons? Well, they probably aren’t what you think, especially if you’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.

For decades, big-picture ecologists and eventually the “ecological economists” pointed out the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Every tick of GDP came with the tock of habitat loss, pollution, and, as we gradually realized, climate change. A growing GDP requires a growing human population or a growing amount of goods and services per person. In the American experience of the 20th century, it was easy to see both – population and per capita consumption – spiraling upward, and just as easy to see the environmental impacts reverberating outward. Much of the world saw the same, although in some countries GDP growth was driven almost entirely by population growth.

Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines, and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

Unfortunately, a lot of time was spent overcoming fallacious but slick-sounding shibboleths like “green growth,” “dematerializing” the economy, and the “environmental Kuznets curve.” It seemed these were – or easily could have been –designed by advertisers on Madison Avenue, Big Money in general, or economists in their service, to prevent consumers and policy makers from responding rationally to environmental deterioration. Suggestive phrases such as “consumer confidence” spurred the consumer along, buying more stuff to increase the profits of corporations and, in turn, the campaign purses of politicians.

Meanwhile, those who studied, wrote, or simply worried about the effects of economic growth on the environment (and therefore the future economy) were portrayed and marginalized as tree huggers, earth firsters, or, as I once heard them called by a Scotland Yard detective at an intelligence conference, “the great unwashed.”

Some of us had to go so far as debating economists and, shockingly, ecologists who parroted the 1990’s political rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” I even debated a future president of The Wildlife Society (TWS), who at the time was a biologist employed by the timber industry and a gadfly in TWS attempts to formulate a TWS position on economic growth. After our debate, I was told he was roundly defeated, and in subsequent years he refrained from the win-win rhetoric. (Hopefully it was that ability to reconnoiter with the truth that explains his electoral victory.)

Those of us who recognized the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection won the debates because we were right and we demonstrated it, ad nauseum, theoretically and empirically. We had to study the issue up and down, inside and out, because Big Money had far more resources to try defeating us at every turn. Eventually we published enough articles, organized enough conferences, and won enough debates that today, at least in professional natural resources circles, you’d seem, well… no smarter than a hedgehog if you tried to claim we can have our cake and eat it too.

So it is with ample irony that soon enough, we’ll enter an age where GDP won’t track with biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, and other indicators of environmental deterioration. Why? Because, at some point during the 21st century and perhaps very soon, there won’t be enough resources left for GDP growth. Just as surely as the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, there is a limit to growth, and it’s not as far off as the growth polyannas would have you think.

Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining.  Photo Credit: Smudge 9000

Let’s consider what happens to biodiversity – nonhuman species in particular – in the days beyond growth. Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining for two reasons. The first is that many of the environmental effects of earlier GDP growth will be delayed. For example, when a species’ habitat is degraded by a pipeline here and a timber sale there, the species doesn’t instantly disappear. Yet a marginal drop in the rate of reproduction and a marginal increase in the rate of mortality can put the species on a path to extinction just as surely as you pay taxes.

Furthermore, habitat degradation can itself be a drawn-out process. The polar ice caps are on their way out, and polar bears along with them. Yet the ice won’t be gone and the polar bear won’t be extinct for some decades, probably well after GDP has stopped growing. And the polar bear is on the tip of the iceberg, as species en masse may be ushered off the poles as if on some geological conveyor belt running at the speed of climate change.

The second reason biodiversity will continue to decline long after GDP stops growing is because the cessation of GDP growth doesn’t mean corporations and countries will stop trying to grow the GDP. Far from it. As long as economic growth remains the primary policy goal of nations, the environmental impact of pursuing such growth will worsen, because nations will be pulling out all the stops to achieve it. This too is a process already underway; witness the mining of tar sands for exceedingly crude oil.

Yet tough times for the truth await because the next wave of polyannas will be busy perverting the truth from a different angle. Instead of arguing that GDP growth was a benefit to biodiversity  – with the shallow argument that it put more money into conservation programs – they’ll be pointing to the fact that species are declining despite no growth in GDP. “Where’s the correlation,” they’ll ask, “between GDP and biodiversity loss?”

Alas, we’ve been careful all along, as good scientists are, to note that correlation doesn’t prove causality. Likewise, a lack of correlation doesn’t disprove causality. Economic growth – increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, entailing a growing population and per capita consumption – has been the limiting factor for wildlife in the aggregate for the broad sweep of Homo sapiens’ reign on Earth. Beginning in the 1930s such growth was measured with GDP, and beginning in the 1970s species endangerment in the U.S. was measured by the length of the list of federally listed threatened and endangered species.

For decades the correlation between GDP and species endangerment was like the correlation between chickens and eggs. A statistic called the R-squared value was even used to measure just how tight. As such, the correlation was simply additional, circumstantial evidence for the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. It was never essential, though, for it was bloodily evident that the causes of species endangerment were a list of economic sectors, infrastructure, and byproducts. To think it wasn’t the economy causing all that species endangerment was like thinking all that lung cancer in the 70’s had nothing to do with cigarettes.

Now when the Marlboro man stopped smoking, he didn’t stop choking. No, he continued choking, all the way to death, from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But hey, in those final non-smoking years, the correlation between cigarettes and cancer cells was non-existent. Would anyone put it past Big Tobacco (the Seven Dwarves come to mind) to use this lack of correlation as evidence that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer?

Didn’t think so.

Well, Big Money – Wall Street, Madison Avenue, K Street too – we’re on to you. We know you’ll claim in decades to come that economic growth is not the cause of environmental deterioration. You’ll use the lack of correlation between GDP and species listings as one of your unscrupulous arguments. And you’ll be as wrong then as you have been heretofore.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it preemptively.

War and Peace and the Steady-State Economy

by Herman Daly

DalyMy parents were children during WW I, the so-called “war to end all wars.” I was a child in WW II, an adolescent in the Korean War, and except for a physical disability would likely have been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Then came Afghanistan, Iraq, the continuous Arab-Israeli conflict, ISIS, Ukraine, Syria, etc. Now as a senior citizen, I see that war has metastasized into terrorism. It is hard to conceive of a country at war, or threatened by terrorism, moving to a steady state economy.

Peace is necessary for real progress, including progress toward a steady state economy. While peace should be our priority, might it nevertheless be the case that working toward a steady state economy would further the goal of peace? Might growth be a major cause of war, and the steady state a necessity for eliminating that cause? I think this is so.

More people require more space (lebensraum) and more resources. More things per person also require more space and more resources. Recently I learned that the word “rival” derives from the same root as “river.” People who get their water from the same river are rivals–at least when there are too many of them each drawing too much.

War and Peace - Jayel Aheram

Contrary to popular belief, growth in a finite and full world is not the path to peace, but to further conflict. Photo Credit: Jayel Aheram

For a while, the resource demands of growth can be met from within national borders. Then there is pressure to exploit or appropriate the global commons. Then comes the peaceful penetration of other nations’ ecological space by trade. The uneven geographic distribution of resources (petroleum, fertile soil, water) causes specialization among nations and interdependence along with trade. Are interdependent nations more or less likely to go to war? That has been argued both ways, but when one growing nation has what another thinks it absolutely needs for its growth, conflict easily displaces trade. As interdependence becomes more acute, then trade becomes less voluntary–more like an offer you can’t refuse. Unless trade is voluntary, it is not likely to be mutually beneficial. Top down global economic integration replaces trade among separate interdependent national economies. We have been told on highest authority that because the American way of life requires foreign oil, we will have it one way or another.

International “free trade pacts” (NAFTA, TPP, TAFTA) are supposed to increase global GDP, thereby making us all richer and effectively expanding the size of the earth and easing conflict. But growth in the full world has become uneconomic–increasing costs faster than benefits. It now makes us poorer, not richer. These secretly negotiated agreements among the elites are designed to benefit private global corporations, often at the expense of the public good of nations. Some think that strengthening global corporations by erasing national boundaries will reduce the likelihood of war. More likely we will just shift to feudal corporate wars in a post-national global commons, with corporate fiefdoms effectively buying national governments and their armies, supplemented by already existing private mercenaries.

It is hard to imagine a steady state economy without peace; it is hard to imagine peace in a full world without a steady state economy. Those who work for peace are promoting the steady state, and those who work for a steady state are promoting peace. This implicit alliance needs to be made explicit. Contrary to popular belief, growth in a finite and full world is not the path to peace, but to further conflict. It is an illusion to think that we can buy peace with growth. The growth economy and warfare are now natural allies. It is time for peacemakers and steady staters to recognize their natural alliance.

It would be naïve, however, to think that growth in the face of environmental limits is the only cause of war. Evil ideologies, religious conflict, and “clash of civilizations” also cause wars. National defense is necessary, but uneconomic growth does not make our country stronger. The secular west has a hard time understanding that religious conviction can motivate people to both to kill and die for their beliefs. Modern devotion to the Secular God of Growth, who promises heaven on earth, has itself become a fanatical religion that inspires violence as much as any ancient Moloch. The Second Commandment, forbidding the worship of false gods (idolatry) is not outdated. Our modern idols are new versions of Mammon and Mars.

A Population Perspective on the Steady State Economy

by Herman Daly

DalyA steady state economy is defined by a constant population and a constant stock of physical capital. In a way it is an extension of the demographer’s model of a stationary population to include non living populations of artifacts, with production rates equal to depreciation rates, as well as birth rates equal to death rates. The basic idea goes back to the classical economists and was most favorably envisioned by John Stuart Mill.

The population problem should be considered from the point of view of all populations–populations of both humans and their things (cars, houses, livestock, crops, cell phones, etc.)–in short, populations of all “dissipative structures” engendered, bred, or built by humans. Both human bodies and artifacts wear out and die. The populations of all organs that support human life, and the enjoyment thereof, require a metabolic throughput to counteract entropy and remain in an organized steady state. All of these organs are capital equipment that support our lives. Endosomatic (within skin) capital–heart, lungs, kidneys–supports our lives quite directly. Exosomatic (outside skin) capital supports our lives indirectly, and consists both of natural capital (e.g., photosynthesizing plants, structures comprising the hydrologic cycle), and manmade capital (e.g., farms, factories, electric grids).

In a physical sense, the final product of the economic activity of converting nature into ourselves and our stuff, and then using up or wearing out what we have made, is waste. What keeps this from being an idiotic activity–depleting and polluting, grinding up the world into waste–is the fact that all these populations of dissipative structures have the common purpose of supporting the maintenance and enjoyment of life. As John Ruskin said, “there is no wealth but life.”

Ownership of endosomatic organs is equally distributed, while the ownership of exosomatic organs is not, a fact giving rise to social conflict. Control of these external organs may be democratic or dictatorial. Our lungs are of little value without the complementary natural capital of green plants and atmospheric stocks of oxygen. Owning one’s own kidneys is not enough to support one’s life if one does not have access to water from rivers, lakes, or rain, either because of scarcity or monopoly ownership of the complementary exosomatic organ. Therefore all life-supporting organs, including natural capital, form a unity with a common function, regardless of whether they are located within the boundary of human skin or outside that boundary.

Our standard of living is traditionally measured by the ratio of manmade capital to human beings–that is, the ratio of one kind of dissipative structure to another kind. Human bodies are made and maintained overwhelmingly from renewable resources, while capital equipment relies heavily on nonrenewable resources as well. The rate of evolutionary change of endosomatic organs is exceedingly slow; the rate of change of exosomatic organs has become very rapid. In fact the collective evolution of the human species is now overwhelmingly centered on exosomatic organs. We fly in airplanes, not with wings of our own. This exosomatic evolution is goal-directed, not random. Its driving purpose has become “economic growth,” and that growth has been achieved largely by the depletion of non renewable resources.

Although human evolution is now decidedly purpose-driven, we continue to be enthralled by neo-Darwinist aversion to teleology and devotion to random. Economic growth, by promising more for everyone, becomes the de facto purpose, the social glue that keeps things from falling apart. But what happens when growth becomes uneconomic, when it begins to increase environmental and social costs faster than production benefits? How do we know that this is not already the case? If one asks such questions, one is told to talk about something else, like space colonies on Mars, or unlimited energy from cold fusion, or geo-engineering, or the wonders of globalization, and to remember that all these glorious purposes require growth, in order to provide still more growth in the future. Growth is the summum bonum–end of discussion!

In the light of these considerations, let us reconsider the idea of demographic transition. By definition this is the transition from a human population maintained by high birth rates equal to high death rates, to one maintained by low birth rates equal to low death rates, and consequently from a population with low average lifetimes to one with high average lifetimes. Statistically such transitions have often been observed as standard of living increases. Many studies have attempted to explain this correlation, and much hope has been invested in it as an automatic cure for overpopulation. “Development is the best contraceptive” is a related slogan, partly based in fact, and partly in wishful thinking.

Planned Obsolescence - James Provost

Our products must transform from high production and planned obsolescence to low production and durability. Photo Credit: James Provost

There are a couple of thoughts I’d like to add to the discussion of demographic transition. The first and most obvious one is that populations of artifacts can undergo an analogous transition from high rates of production and depreciation to low ones. The lower rates will maintain a constant population of longer-lived, more durable artifacts. Our economy has a GDP-oriented focus on maximizing production flows (birth rates of artifacts) that keeps us in the pre-transition mode, giving rise to low product lifetimes, planned obsolescence, and high resource throughput, with consequent environmental destruction. The transition from a high maintenance throughput to a low one applies to both human and artifact populations independently. From an environmental perspective, lower throughput per unit of stock (longer human and product lifetimes) is desirable in both cases, at least up to some distant limit.

The second thought I would like to add is a question: does the human demographic transition, when induced by rising standard of living, as usually assumed, increase or decrease the total load of all dissipative structures on the environment? Specifically, if Indian fertility is to fall to the Swedish level, must Indian per capita possession of artifacts (standard of living) rise to the Swedish level? If so, would this not likely increase the total load of all dissipative structures on the Indian environment, perhaps beyond capacity to sustain the required throughput?

The point of this speculation is to suggest that “solving” the population problem by relying on the demographic transition to lower birth rates could impose a larger burden on the environment, rather than the smaller burden hoped for. Of course indirect reduction in fertility by automatic correlation with rising standard of living is politically easy, while direct fertility reduction is politically very difficult. But what is politically easy may be environmentally ineffective.

Also, even if a nation follows the demographic transition and achieves a balance between births and deaths, there is still the problem of immigration. In the US, Canada, and Western Europe, for example, nearly all population growth is due to net immigration. A mix of genuine humanitarianism and legitimate refugee needs on the one hand, with class-based cheap labor policies and ethnic politics on the other, has made immigration control politically divisive. If population pressure in pre-transition countries is eased by net emigration, while the benefits of population equilibrium in post-transition countries are erased by growth from net immigration, does that not weaken the basic causes of the demographic transition itself? In the face of increasingly open borders, high fertility seems less likely to be brought down by the automatic demographic transition. True, high-fertility immigrants into low-fertility countries eventually adopt the fertility behavior of the receiving country, but that takes a generation or more.

In a finite world, some populations grow at the expense of others. Homo sapiens and Mechanistra automobilica are now competing for land, water, and sunlight to grow either food or fuel. More nonhuman “bodies” will at some point force a reduction in human bodies. This forced demographic transition is less optimistic than the voluntary one induced by chasing a higher standard of living by engendering fewer dependents. In an empty world we saw the trade-off between products and people as motivated by desire for a higher standard of living. In the full world, that trade-off is forced by competition for limited resources.

The usual counter to such thoughts is that we can improve the efficiency by which resource throughput maintains dissipative structures. For example, a car that lasts longer and gets better mileage is still a dissipative structure, but with a more efficient metabolism that allows it to live on a lower rate of throughput. Likewise, human organisms might be genetically redesigned to require less food, air, and water. Indeed smaller people would be the simplest way of increasing metabolic efficiency (measured as number of people maintained by a given resource throughput). To my knowledge no one has yet suggested breeding smaller people as a way to avoid limiting the number of births, and neither do I. We have, however, been busy breeding and genetically engineering larger and faster-growing plants and livestock, as well as building larger exosomatic organs, so that we become smaller relative to the other organisms we depend on, although we remain the same size absolutely. So far, in the empty world, the latter dissipative structures have been complementary with populations of human bodies, but in our finite and full world, the relationship has become competitive.

Indeed, if we think of population as the cumulative number of people ever to live over time, instead of those simultaneously living, then many artifact populations have long been competitive with the human population. That is, more consumption today of terrestrial low entropy in non-vital uses (Cadillacs, rockets, weapons) means less terrestrial low entropy available for tomorrow’s vital use of capturing solar energy (plows, solar collectors, dams, windmills). The solar energy that will still fall on the earth for millions of years after the material structures needed to capture it are dissipated, will be wasted, just like the solar energy that currently shines on the barren moon.

If our ethical understanding of the value of “sustainability” (longevity with sufficiency) is to “maximize” cumulative lives ever to be lived, subject to a per capita consumption level sufficient for a good life, then we must limit the load we place on the earth at any one time. Fewer people, and lower per capita resource consumption, facilitated by more equitable distribution, mean more (and more abundant) lives for a longer, but not infinite, future. There is no point in maximizing the cumulative number of lives lived in misery, so the qualification “sufficient for a good life” is important, and requires deep rethinking of economics, and a shift of focus from growth to sufficiency, including sufficient habitat for other species. It also requires rethinking of the traditional pro-natalist dogmas of the fundamentalist branches of most religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The modern secularist religions of Marxism and Scientism likewise proselytize for the Ecumenical Church of Growthism while ignoring population.

Peace, Love, and the Gift

by James Magnus-Johnston

“You can’t have community as an add-on to a commodified life” Charles Eisenstein

Johnston_photoFor many Westerners, Christmas Day is one of the most sacred days of the year. Perversely, perhaps, the holidays are also marked by excessive materialism, consumerism, and the creation of false needs. Today happens to be “Boxing Day” in Canada, Black Friday’s Christmas equivalent, marked by mad and even obscene rushes for the best post-holiday deals. How have we reached such a disconnect between the meaning of our traditions and the way we practice them?

It might be hard to see with our consumer lens, but there is a deeply important connection between the sacredness of December 25th and the practice of gifting. As Charles Eisenstein has eloquently and passionately argued, gifts are an expression of love that begins with the gift of life itself:

We didn’t earn being born, being fed as babies, having an earth to live on, air to breathe, water to drink. All came as a gift. Ancient cultures often recognized this explicitly; theirs was a gift cosmology that was echoed in their economic systems.

Therefore our natural state, he says, is gratitude. And therefore, we have a built-in desire to give and be generous.

An obsession with money, on the other hand, has contributed to “alienation, competition, and scarcity, destroyed community, and necessitated endless growth.” Today, money acts as a profane separator when seen as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Rather than understanding money as a tool that helps facilitate the exchange of goods or truly improve our quality of life, we tend to see money–its accumulation and growth–as the ultimate end. Undoubtedly, money is required to move us towards a level of material sufficiency, but beyond sufficiency, more money won’t make you happier. Are you dissatisfied with your life regardless of how much money you’re making? Will the growth imperative behind the accumulation of money improve the planet’s life support system?

Millennia of ancient thought–including that of the Christian tradition–reminds us that traditional gift practices are expressions of love. Expressions of love aren’t luxury items any more than the planet’s life support system is. Expressions of love keep human beings connected, because they remind us that we actually need one another! Eisenstein writes,

One thing that gifts do is that they create ties among people–which is different from a financial transaction. If I buy something from you, I give you the money and you give me the thing, and we have no more relationship after that. . . But if you give me something, that’s different because now I kind of feel like I owe you one. It could be a feeling of obligation, or you could say it’s a feeling of gratitude. What’s gratitude? Gratitude is the recognition that you’ve received, and the desire to give in turn. And that’s why we are driven to give. Because everything we’ve received is a gift.

Gifts - Andy Noren

Let’s take a step back from the excessive materialism of the holiday season to think about why we really give gifts. Photo Credit: Andy Noren

Peace, love, and community are fostered through the gifts we provide for one another not only on December 25th, but throughout every day of the year. In the grand cosmic scheme of things, gift practices can make us more aware of the miracle of life itself, and the gift of existence we received–and continue to receive–from planet earth and the universe, or God, depending on your inclination.

The purpose of our existence can’t be quantified in monetary terms. Perhaps as this year comes to a close, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the gifts you received at birth or the gifts you have honed and developed throughout your life. Why are you here? Are you able to express your innate gifts? Do you need to unplug from the formal economy to explore and give of yourself more meaningfully?

If you can’t make more money exploring your gifts and skills, embrace the challenge. If we are to degrow the economy towards a steady state, we’re going to need to be a whole lot more generous, a whole lot happier, and more grateful for what we have already. Gift practices might shrink the formal economy a little, but they will engender precisely the love and community that we often feel is missing in modern life.

Charles Eisenstein’s full book “Sacred Economics” is available on his website at http://sacred-economics.com.

The One Percent: Not Kristallnacht but Lebensraum

By Brian Czech

BrianCzechRemember Tom Perkins? Probably nobody wants to, but with all the talk about the profligacy of the one percent, Perkins comes iconically to mind. He’s the billionaire who nauseated the ninety-nine percent by suggesting that American “progressive” (his word) thinking was tilting toward Kristallnacht, due to an attitude toward the one percent. As if he and his capitalist captain cronies were innocent street-corner merchants and the rest of us jack-booted Nazis. What a way to win friends and influence people!

If we’re going to use World War II analogies, let’s at least use the correct one.  In this case it’s not Kristallnacht, but Lebensraum. And the one percent would be the perpetrators, not the victims.

Recall that the pursuit of Lebensraum — living space — was Hitler’s stated excuse for invading Poland, the beginning of World War II. It’s a doctrine to be ever wary of, and it might not always be as explicit as Hitler made it. (The relevance to Putin and Ukraine, for example, is left for others to speculate on.)

To understand the logic of Lebensraum, we need a quick review of structural economics. The economy has three basic sectors: agricultural/extractive, manufacturing, and services. (The “financial sector” is fairly distinct, but falls within the general category of services.) It seems like this basic structure ought to be conventional wisdom, but in the age of the Internet, economic wisdom is disappearing by the bitcoin. If we’re not careful we’ll end up like King Midas, a foolish one percenter if there ever was one.

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The three basic sectors of the human economy, with agriculture/extraction lumped together as “producers” of food, energy, and raw materials.

 

Every economy on the planet — and every political state — depends on its agricultural and extractive base for everything else. It doesn’t matter where the agricultural base is situated, or who controls it. Whether it’s the financial sectors of Hong Kong, the ecotourism of Costa Rica, or the State of Rhode Island, it’s agricultural and extractive surplus, coming from somewhere, that frees the hands of society for the division of labor. Adam Smith noted as much in Wealth of Nations. It’s the stuff of statecraft. Thomas Jefferson knew all about it.

 

 

TL with Arrows with Caption

The basic sectors re-arranged as trophic levels. Strictly speaking, the producers (farmers and extractors) and manufacturing sectors (from heaviest to lightest) are true trophic levels. Service sectors operate throughout the trophic structure, much like pollinators, scavengers, and decomposers operate in the “economy of nature.”

The basic economic sectors amount to the “trophic levels” of economic activity, to borrow a term from ecology. It’s a term worth borrowing, too, given that ecology is all about the “economy of nature.” A little ecology goes a long way toward understanding the plight of Homo sapiens in the 21st century. Humans are stuck with the same physical and biological laws that operate in the economy of nature.  There’s no making something from nothing — Lebensraum for example — and no waving a magic wand to make all the competitors disappear. Guns and bombs are not magic wands.

Of course we all know that the American economy has a lot more than the basic farms, factories, and financial firms. For example there are some really fancy watches, 289-foot yachts, and even personal submarines. You know, the kind of stuff Tom Perkins has to have. Well, with plenty of agricultural and extractive surplus at the base, there’s enough money left over in society for such luxuries, at least for those who commandeer a high enough percentage of the money.

Note that word “money” in the context of trophic levels. This is the “trophic theory of money” — more and more real money (adjusted for inflation, technological progress, and purchasing power) requires more and more agricultural and extractive activity at the base of the economy.  In other words more and more money takes more and more resources.  It takes more… Lebensraum.

Now who among us contributes most to the pressure for Lebensraum? (Hint: It’s easy to tell with the trophic theory of money.) All else equal, it’s those who require and spend the most money, because the amount of money indicates the level of agricultural and extractive surplus that had to be issued from the base of the economy.

The point here seems even more obvious when the expenditure is on luxury material goods, say for example “your typical football field size yacht,” as Perkins referred to his “Maltese Falcon.” The point is more nuanced when it comes to spending hundreds of millions on, say, derivatives in Hong Kong or ecotourism in Costa Rica. But whether the millions are spent on nuts, bolts, or pure nonsense, the origination of the money required Lebensraum at the base.

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Unsustainable consumption of the one percent and pressure for Lebensraum. Note how disproportionate the extremely luxurious goods and services are. The alarming disproportionality indicates how the base of the economy must grow outward to support the acquisition of such goods and services. In other words, if agriculture and extraction is at full capacity within the borders, the nation must commandeer Lebensraum to support the luxurious consumption (Photo Credit: Greg Covey.)

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, George H. W. Bush said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” The problem with that attitude is the American way of life, taken as a whole, includes an unhealthy dose of Perkins-like consumption. If that’s not up for negotiation, war is a matter of time.

And please, don’t tell us the real onus is on the 99%. Obviously every bit of conservation helps, but how much do you spend in a year? Somewhere between $20,000 and $60,000? That means a guy like Perkins or Trump or Schwarzman spends not 10 times as much as you, not 100, but more like a thousand or even 10,000 times as much. That requires a helluva lot more Lebensraum! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that should be part of the American way.

This is not to say the one percent is guilty of conspiring to precipitate a war for Lebensraum. It’s hard to imagine the Donald, for example, having any type of geopolitical strategy. And if there is one thing I have learned as a visiting professor of natural resource economics, it’s just how deeply misinformed people are about the trophic origins of money. Our society, political system, and even academia abound with fuzzy notions of “dematerializing” the economy and “green growth.” It would be hard to blame the one percent for an ignorance of ecological economics.

On the other hand, somewhere around 99% of us, if stopped for violating a relatively obscure statute or regulation, will be told, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” In this case we are talking about natural law; the physics and biology establishing the trophic structure of the economy.  A guy like Perkins is supposed to be a cut above the rest; a brilliant captain of industry, high-tech industry no less. Shouldn’t we expect more acumen with regard to the functioning of the economy he has supposedly mastered?

Frankly, I’m not so sure Perkins is blissfully ignorant after all.  His 60 Minutes interview suggested he knows something is wrong with the gaudy expenditures on yachts and moats and such.  In fact, he was too embarrassed to say how much he spent on the Maltese Falcon because he admitted the money could have been used for far more beneficial and charitable purposes.  Yet he just can’t control the urge to have the biggest and most expensive toys, largely to stroke his ego, he admits.

Now in America there are other behaviors, stemming from supposedly uncontrollable urges, that wreak havoc in society. These behaviors are not only frowned upon but punishable by law. Why are there no deterrents to reckless levels of consumption?

It bears repeating that pushing for perpetually more stuff — especially luxury goods and services, the biggest, best, and most expensive — is tantamount to Lebensraum doctrine. It may not be intentional, but it’s basic economics. And bad economics.