Steady State Herald Premiere

Unfurling the Banner at the Steady State Herald

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…



The Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics represents the extension into economics of the thermodynamic revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In physics, that revolution dethroned Newton and brought relativity. In biology, it was midwife to the birth of ecology, the study of ecosystems as wholes in which energy networks—food webs—are a defining structure. In chemistry the laws of thermodynamics brought clarity and rigor to a science that struggled to bring theoretical unity to diverse phenomena. So far, though, most economists are perfectly willing to treat their subject matter as if the laws of thermodynamics simply don’t apply to it.

2 models 5

But the thermodynamic revolution in economics can’t be permanently forestalled. For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for the neoclassical model to reassure us that its system of Newtonian abstractions is a good fit to the real world. The Great Collapse of 2008 demonstrated that whatever else it is, the discipline of economics isn’t very good at predicting major economic phenomena. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction make it hard for economics to maintain its pretense that economic activity takes place in abstractia, on the clean white pages of textbooks or on whiteboards holding formulae, with no roots in or consequences for anything outside of itself. Truths derived on the model of Newtonian mechanism are supposed to be abstract and ahistorical, but our planet and our economy are most assuredly evolving concretely and over time.

The driving dynamic of this economic and planetary change—the driver of history for the past three centuries—has been human use of high-EROI fossil fuel. The driving dynamic of the history yet to come will be the declining EROI of our civilization’s energy sources.

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

Oil used to gush out of the ground under pressure, making for a very high Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). In the 1920s, wells like this gave the industry an average EROI of 100 to 1 or more. Today’s petroleum industry has a much lower EROI. Photo Credit: Texas State Archives

You can see some of the consequences of declining EROI already:

  • Despite a rising real per capita GDP, for a significant percentage of workers in OECD nations personal income has flatlined or is declining. An increasing concentration of income helps explain this but another dynamic is at work as well. As EROI falls, it takes more economic effort to get the energy that’s needed to support economic effort. Even as gross economic activity (GDP) grows, production of net benefit is shrinking.
  • Other sectors of the economy have been affected by this ongoing increase in the economy’s matter-and-energy overhead. “Austerity” has become the watchword for governmental budgets, even in the wealthiest nations in the world. Developed countries find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to pay maintenance and upgrade costs on infrastructure investments made in the heyday of 100-to-1 oil.
  • In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion over seven years to restore and maintain existing infrastructure.
  • Worldwide, many of the ecosystems that support human civilization are degraded and close to collapse. Forced by both ideology and declining EROI into austerity budgeting, governments are reducing their scope and energy at the exact moment that sustainability would have them take strong action to rein in the rational, free-market tendency of corporations to maximize profits by degrading the commons and externalizing other costs.
  • Pension-fund wipeouts are becoming common as one way to fulfill the economy’s structural need for debt repudiation—a need that lies in our system’s willingness to let debt grow faster than a declining EROI economy can pay back, even after growth has been stimulated by lifting or reducing regulations that limit the environmental damage done by economic activity.
  • The planetary carbon sink is full, producing climatic effects that even an abstraction-inhabiting, arithmo-morphizing economist has to acknowledge as a troubling reality.

Centuries from now economic historians are likely to understand the relationship between EROI and wealth creation much better than does the average economist of today. I think it likely that future political economists will express wonder not at the 20th century’s enormous economic success, but at how little we actually added to our stock of wealth for all the high-EROI coal and oil it was our pleasure to burn. They are almost certain to shake their heads in wonder that we, enjoying an energy supply and an EROI never seen on the planet before or since, could ever have experienced an economic downturn, could ever have let a human starve from want, could ever have been so programmatically blind to the physical origins of our fortunes.

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 1

Economics Ignores Thermodynamics

by Eric Zencey

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as a comment in the Great Transition Network Forum, which will appear on the Great Transition Initiative website next week along with a new essay by Herman Daly, “Economics for a Full World.”

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics and its corollary, Steady State Economic thinking, represent a step forward for the discipline of economics and also a return to how it was practiced in the past. In the nineteenth century, economics was a part of a larger enterprise: political economy, the integrated treatment of morals and economics, ultimate ends and efficient means. Late in that century economics calved off from political economy, leaving behind political science and political philosophy as the residuum. It did this in service to the ideal of becoming rigorously scientific.

It’s odd, then, that alone among disciplines with any pretense to analytic rigor, economics has steadfastly resisted the thermodynamic revolution that swept physical and life sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Physics, biology, chemistry, geology, even the study of history were transformed, but not economics.

I think we can blame this on bad timing, willful ignorance, and oil.

Bad timing

In the late nineteenth century the archetypal science was physics and physics was Newtonian mechanism. Ignorant of what a young thermodynamic theorist named Albert Einstein would soon do to the Newtonian paradigm they emulated, Stanley Jevons and other economic “scientists” set about mathematically modeling the economy as sets and subsets of self-contained, equal-and-opposite actions and reactions, happily (and explicitly) assuming that all economic activity consists of ahistorical, which is to say completely reversible, processes. No one who has a nodding acquaintance with the law of entropy could have countenanced this. Entropy is Time’s Arrow, the law of irreversibility; it describes the one-way flow of energy use. A purely mechanical process can be run forward or backwards, but we’ll never invent a machine that can suck in exhaust gases, heat and motion and transform them into gasoline. The entropy law can tell you why. Newton couldn’t.

Just as a consumer might choose to keep a recently purchased appliance even though a newer, better model has been brought onto the market, neoclassical economists weren’t about to re-tool their brand-new thinking to reflect changes in the underlying metaphysics they had been so keen to adopt. It didn’t seem to them that there was any reason to.

“Seem” is the operative word here. Because the entropy process is time’s arrow, and because Ecological Economics places the entropy process at the center of its analysis, it’s entirely appropriate for Ecological Economics to understand its subject matter and itself as a discipline in historical terms. Like other paradigm-defining insights, this one seems obvious once it has been stated: elements of the neoclassical model that could pass for true on a large and forgiving planet a hundred years ago are obviously not true today, when the planet’s source-and-sink services are severely taxed, when natural capital is the limiting factor in production, when there are seven billion of us and our economic wants, capacities and expectations have been amplified by our access to the ancient sunshine of fossil fuels.

Willful ignorance

By modeling the economy as a closed and circular system, neoclassical economists have encouraged themselves to operate in a methodologically enforced state of denial about the physical roots and ecological consequences of our wealth-creating activities. And yet economics has experienced no paradigm-shaking crisis as a result. Neither climate change nor any of the other source-and-sink catastrophes facing civilization have been laid at the feet of bad economic theory. One reason: Neoclassical economists succeed in treating environmental costs as “externalities.” How could environmental degradation be the result of economic activity if it’s external to the economy?

Midas.Giovanni Caselli from the Age of Fable

The power to create wealth gave Midas an unsustainable life as a complete solipsist. Oil’s power to create wealth has had a similar effect on Neoclassical economics. Illustration by Giovanni Caselli from The Age of Fable.

In its self-confirming isolation of the economy from nature and theory from reality, neoclassical economics amounts to a highly principled practice of solipsism. When this pathology is manifest in an individual it produces unpleasant consequences that might eventually prompt some reflection and personal growth. Not so with the collective delusion of mainstream economists. Evidence of our ongoing ecological catastrophe falls far from their purview—not just disciplinarily but geographically, as the wealthier nations (wherein the vast majority of economists reside) export their ecological footprint to the impoverished nations of the world. And for several generations (at least since Reagan defeated Carter, removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House and ushered in an era of GDP growth through de-regulation of the social and ecological consequences of economic activity), there has been a strong self-selection among students of economics. Undergraduates with any kind of deep personal connection to natural systems tend to find the study of standard economics unattractive, displeasing, even soul-deadening. This leaves the field to those most willing to bracket off as irrelevant to their professional purpose any question about the moral and ethical consequences of economic activity, any question about the health and maintenance of nature, any question about the economy’s relation to the larger social and natural systems within which it operates.


Even so, you might expect that a discipline with such a demonstrably deficient view of its subject matter would fail of its object—would fail to offer wise counsel about the collective project of augmenting the stock of wealth that humans can enjoy. But economics has had much apparent success. Despite regular downturns and financial crises, the wealth produced by our economies has grown and grown and grown. I think there’s a ready explanation that becomes visible through the conceptual lens of Ecological Economics, which tells us that energy isn’t a commodity like any other but a fundamental factor of production (part of a trio: matter, energy and human design intelligence). When your economy operates on an energy source that cranks out wealth-making value in a ratio of 100 to 1 or better—the estimated Energy Return on Energy Invested that petroleum offered us in the early 20th Century—you can believe any damn thing you want about how economies operate and your economy will still generate a great deal of wealth.

Which is to say, high-EROI oil granted the new science of economics immunity from being proven false by events. But falsifiability of principles and propositions is one solid measure of a science. (Non-falsifiable beliefs are called faiths.)

In effect the discipline of economics has a free rider problem—it’s been given a free pass by the enormous power of oil to misunderstand itself and its subject matter. You could also call it a Midas Problem, after the legendary king whose touch turned everything he touched into gold, including his dinner and his daughter. The power of wealth-generation that oil granted to our economy made it impossible for the discipline of economics to connect in any fundamental way with otherness, including the otherness of the planet and its role in the very processes that economics presumes to model.


Adjusting the Fifth to a Finite Planet, Part II

by Eric Zencey

Editor’s Note: This is the second piece of a two-part post. You can read Part 1 here.

Eric ZenceyAmong the avenues by which Takings case law could be adapted to the reality of a finite planet are these three:

One: Change the default by changing the definition of what constitutes a reasonable investment expectation. It is no longer reasonable for an individual to expect to profit from using property in ways that would destroy or diminish the property’s ability to provide ecosystem services to the public at large. Instead of the general public having to pay property owners the going market rate for land burdened by regulation–a rate that reflects the most intensive economic use of the land that can be imagined by infinite-growth-believing, financial-risk-taking optimists–land owners would have to compensate the general public when their acts diminish the flow of ecosystems services.

Two: Change the default by promulgating the notion of an ecological servitude. All property that abuts navigable waters in the U.S. is held under a navigational servitude: the public’s interest in maintaining navigable waters trumps the interests of waterfront property owners. As Justice Jackson put it in United States v. Willow River Power Co., “Rights, property or otherwise, which are absolute against all the world are certainly rare, and water rights are not among them.” Given the legitimate authority of government to pursue the public interest in establishing and maintaining navigable waters, he said, “private interest [in the disposition of waterfront property] must give way to a superior right, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, as against [the public interest represented through] the Government, such private interest is not a right at all.”

Under current interpretations of the servitude, when public authority exercises its power over navigation in ways that affect the interests of property owners, the public may not be required to pay compensation under the Takings Clause. Land abutting navigable waters has always been subject to this servitude, so the exercise of it does not necessarily constitute a taking or an unforeseeable loss for the property owner.

The notion of an ecological servitude would be constructed by analogy: the paramount interest the public has in maintaining the ecosystems on which civilization depends would supersede whatever particular interests individuals hold in parcels of property. Just as allowing uncontested trespass for a number of years establishes a presumptive public right of way, the public’s enjoyment of ecosystem services has long since established a presumptive right to the continued enjoyment of them. An ecological servitude would acknowledge this. A few cases decided on this ground would give undeniable constructive notice to property owners–a notice already implicit in legislation like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act–that the bundle of rights conveyed to them by title is subject to this limitation.

“Ecological servitude” is not yet a common phrase in legal circles. This should change as various strands of thought and action cohere around the concept, and as scholars discover that it is implicit in much common law and environmental legislation. A variety of groups and organizations (including the state of Louisiana) talk of conservation easements producing, in sum, a conservation servitude on particular parcels of land. An NGO in Costa Rica allows that it created the first ecological servitude in Central America in 1992.

Wetlands - Lisa Jacobs

Preserving the ecosystems that support civilization should not be financially prohibitive. Photo Credit: Lisa Jacobs

Three: Acknowledge that value in land is created as an externality of decisions made by others, and compensate accordingly. Under this approach, an environmental regulation might still offer grounds for a Takings claim, but the notion of what amounts to “just compensation” would be radically altered. Take the case that led the Court to decide that a demand for off-site compensatory restoration constitutes a taking. Developer Coy Koontz owned 15 acres near Orlando, mostly wetlands, and sought a permit to develop the land by filling some of it. He objected to the permit condition that he must pay for compensatory wetlands restoration elsewhere, refused the permit and brought suit. In a remarkable extension of Takings law, the court decided by a narrow majority that Koontz had suffered a taking even though wetlands filling permits are not granted automatically and even though he had not in fact had any property or money taken from him. What the St. Johns River Water Management District proposed to take from him was nothing more substantial than his expectation of getting a larger profit than he could get if he had to pay for mitigation. But why, exactly, could he expect any profit at all for developing and then selling his land? In central Florida as elsewhere, land values are mostly the result of decisions made by others–population growth and in-migration into the area, construction of nearby infrastructure including roads and schools and water service, and proximity to cultural developments that make the area an attractive place to live for some people. These are all decisions in which Koontz had no, or only a very minor, role. If much of the value of a piece of property is not a result of the owner’s efforts, but is a social creation, why should a private owner be compensated when part of that socially created value is retrieved by the public through regulation in pursuit of a legitimate public interest?

Credit Herman Daly and Joshua Farley with asking the question in their introductory Ecological Economics textbook: “Are individuals entitled to wealth created by society . . . or should this wealth belong to society as a whole?” A reasonable answer to that question would have the effect of diminishing considerably what constitutes “just compensation” under the Takings clause–a result that makes ecosystem-preserving public action less expensive, and thereby puts the continuation of civilization within easier reach of a public treasury that will become increasingly straitened as the era of high-EROI fossil fuel comes to an end.


No matter what we do we’ll eventually have an ecologically sustainable civilization with a steady state economy, one that’s in dynamic balance with its host ecosystems. That’s because by definition an unsustainable system doesn’t last. We can make the transition haphazardly, through crisis, catastrophe, and collapse, at much cost in human pain and suffering, or we can anticipate the necessary changes and give ourselves a better, less brutal path forward. To find that path we’ll have to identify and correct infinite-planet suppositions wherever they are embedded in our system. Fifth Amendment Takings case law is one such place. Preserving the ecosystems that support civilization should not be financially prohibitive. Current Takings law says it should, and that’s why it needs to change.

The New Economy versus Today’s Flat Earthers

Editor’s Note: This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. 

by Eric Zencey

Eric Zencey

Only madmen and economists, Kenneth Boulding once said, believe exponential growth can go on forever.

Beyond all reason and evidence, standard economics remains dedicated to the idea of perpetual increase in our species’ stock of wealth, income, and material wellbeing. Their infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th century to Adam Smith in in the middle of the 18th, the planet was obviously capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by the extraordinary energies of coal and oil.

But the seven billion of us who are alive today live on a substantially different planet. It doesn’t have supposedly infinite tracts of untramelled, virgin land, ripe for being ravished by swaggering, overconfident exploiters. We need a new, steady state economy suited to the planet we have, not the one that economists thought we had two hundred years ago. We need a post-infinite-growth economy (and new breed of economist) respectful of the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity. Absent that, our civilization is set to destroy its root in nature.

But the New Economy Movement is about more than ecological sanity. It seeks other practical and desirable solutions, like:

  • a living wage for workers;
  • a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
  • sharp limits to the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich; and
  • a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors, and the planet.

We seek, in a word, economic justice.

That can seem a very different goal than sustainability, but it isn’t. Ironically enough, mainstream economists recognize the two goals are related. The remedy they offer for the injustice of poverty is the same remedy they offer for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental quality or solve the problem of poverty.

The New Economy Movement must show–must insist–that this is mistaken. It must show that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change, and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.

As absurd as this looks, it is no less absurd than an economic system designed for an infinite planet. Photo Credit: A Siegel

As absurd as this looks, it is no less absurd than an economic system designed for an infinite planet. Photo Credit: A Siegel

In the Infinite Planet Thinking of mainstream economics, human population growth is always a good thing: humans are “The Ultimate Resource,” capable of infinite imagination, infinite invention. But in the world as it is, human invention is limited by physical law: you’ll never have a car that you can push backwards and fill the gas tank. Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or the human economy degrades our quality of life, further increases our ecological footprint, and leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy–rule by environmental experts–or ignore ecological constraints and thereby condemn our civilization to collapse. Meanwhile, population growth produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class and dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs.

Economic growth and human population growth proceed as if the planet were infinite–and those who express concern are challenged with being anti-human, pessimistic, or “neo-Malthusian.” It’s time to change the discourse. With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “Infinite Planet Thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “Flat Earth Theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that CASSE and the New Economy Movement seek to advance will be on their way to general acceptance. I think that when they see it framed this way, most people will choose the new, steady state economy. Imagining the possible, and working to make it real, is more realistic than continuing to assume the planet is impossibly infinite.

Transformative Common Sense in Vermont

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyChances are that when you hear the phrase “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy,” you don’t immediately think of dramatic change in the established political-economic order of things. The words don’t seem revolutionary. They certainly don’t call to mind images of furtive guerillas toting rifles or of throngs in public squares using chains and ropes to topple statues. Chances are equally good that unless you hang out with economic development officers or land use planners, you’d have a hard time rounding up a dozen people who’d sit still long enough to hear what a CEDS is, let alone why it might be of interest to them. But despite the dry name, the document recently released by Vermont’s Department of Commerce and Community Development portends a quiet, far-reaching revolution in governance in the Green Mountain State–and perhaps on a larger stage.

The potential for this enormous change is signaled in a short, clear statement from the report’s Executive Summary:

…This CEDS sets out a unique, overarching goal: it proposes to not only grow jobs and wages and increase our Gross Domestic Product, but also to improve the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)…by 5% over baseline over the next five years.

With this language, Vermont becomes the first state to make explicit use of an alternative indicator in setting goals for economic development. The commitment to use the GPI in this way places Vermont in the forefront of a growing national movement to integrate the GPI into social and economic policy. Because GDP-based economic development is so wrong-headed, this commitment is a matter of common sense; and yet, because GDP-based economic development is so deeply woven into the substance and texture of our political economy, using basic common sense here is a powerfully transformative act.

The faults and flaws of GDP as a measure of economic progress are well known and don’t need to be repeated in detail here. It was never intended to serve as a measure of economic wellbeing, and one of the largest problems in using it for that purpose is that it doesn’t subtract environmental damage as a cost of economic development. Instead, it simply ignores these losses as externalities–until and unless money is spent to correct them, at which time the remediation of the cost is transformed, as if magically, into an apparent economic benefit. (This is a macroeconomic instance of what is generally called the broken window fallacy.) Negative environmental externalities occur when economic activity exceeds one of the planet’s local, regional, or global source-and-sink limits and thereby imposes harm, damage, cost or loss on innocent third parties–people who neither produce nor consume the goods whose production damages the environment. (Traditional economists don’t talk of “innocent” third parties when they discuss externalities, but the morally charged language is appropriate. Why should it be acceptable for profit-seekers to impose uncompensated loss on the general public?)

Because these externalities have their origin in ecosystem limits, and GDP treats the externalities as if they didn’t exist, it’s fair to call GDP an infinite planet statistic. Brian Czech has argued recently that what GDP measures best is environmental impact. While GDP isn’t a perfect measure of environmental impact—some of the things we consume cause less environmental damage per dollar than others—it seems a decent proxy, since in general it’s true that the larger the economy in GDP terms, the larger its environmental impact.

In contrast, the Genuine Progress Indicator subtracts environmental and other costs from the ledger, giving a more accurate bottom line. In doing so, GPI applies the principles of double-entry bookkeeping to the economy as a whole. The invention of double entry bookkeeping was a crucial to the growth of capitalism; a business can’t stay in business for long if its managers have no idea how its debits stack up against its credits, how its costs compare to revenues. And what’s true at the micro scale is true, in this instance, at the macro scale: because GDP systematically miscounts costs as benefits, we’re about to go environmentally broke–the entire economy may go out of business as climate change and loss of biodiversity bring dramatic, civilization-threatening change.

Mushroom Ecosystem

Economic growth will eventually cost more in ecosystem damage than it brings in economic gains. Photo Credit: Scott McCracken, Cambridge, VT

There is nothing in the Genuine Progress Indicator that says, explicitly, “there are ecological limits to economic growth.” But because it subtracts environmental costs from economic benefits, the GPI is a finite planet indicator that will, if implemented accurately, lead policy makers to this realization. Consistent, accurate compilation of the GPI will make clear that for any given ecosystem, at some point economic growth that is rooted in that system costs more in ecosystem service losses than it brings in economic gains.

This means that there are limits to the amount of economic production the planet’s ecosystems can support. Obviously, that fact has implications for economic development and the policies that promote it. Foremost among those implications is the necessity of abandoning the traditional “jobs and GDP” focus of development policy. As noble as it may be to aim to assure every aspiring worker the dignity of useful work, and as comforting as it is to think that we can continually add to our national stock of wealth by perpetually growing our national income, neither goal can be accomplished forever (or even, arguably, in the near term) through policies that take GDP growth or job growth as their sole and solitary focus. A commitment to perpetual full employment that is not also connected to an effort to limit population growth is at bottom a commitment to perpetual economic growth, a chimerical ideal. And because GDP so badly miscounts costs and benefits, failing to keep them separate, any policy effort that aims solely at increasing GDP is destined to be fatuous.

In announcing a development goal that is couched in terms of the GPI, Vermont has put itself on a path that will lead away from traditional “jobs and GDP” thinking–though the divergence of the two paths is not yet fully clear to policy makers. (Recall that the CEDS document aims not only at improving the GPI but also to “grow jobs and wages and increase…GDP.”) No doubt many of the legislators and policy makers who supported the state’s adoption of GPI as a better accounting system did not and would not embrace the notion that there are limits to economic growth. But the contrast between new-think and old-think, between finite and infinite planet thinking, between promoting sustainable economic activity and continuing the “growth forever, business-as-usual” mindset can only become clearer with time. As awareness of the GPI and its precepts filters into state decision-making processes, Vermont will find itself increasingly led to develop in ways that are sustainable and that do not damage the delivery of ecosystem services to its citizens. That kind of development will give the state a competitive edge in the region and nation, as it lays a foundation for the sustainable, post-petroleum, post-perpetual-growth economy that must come to the entire planet, in one version or another, sooner or later. (After all, the one thing you can know about an unsustainable system is that it won’t last.) Vermont’s policy use of the GPI is transformative common sense that will make that inevitable transition smoother and less disruptive for all Vermonters.

Toward a Finite-Planet Journalism

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyThe Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park in southeastern Missouri was created in 1964 as the first National Park unit to protect a wild and scenic river system. Enclosing 184 miles of river and in many places scarcely wider than the banks of the rivers it protects, the park gets more than a million visitors in the summer, many of them from St. Louis (three hours to the northeast) and Springfield (three hours to the west). The park’s once-pristine waters are being damaged by overuse. Fecal coliform counts have led to the rivers’ being listed as “impaired” — unfit for their historic uses, including swimming, tubing, kayaking, and fishing. Some of the fecal pollution comes from horses (more than 3,000 are stabled in and near the park by trail-ride concessions, and many horse trails cross the rivers) and some comes from private septic failures in cabins, boats and RV campgrounds.

These and other human environmental impacts in the park could be reduced through tighter regulation and judicious redesign of usage patterns — moving trails out of the most sensitive areas, minimizing congestion at access points by separating them farther, that sort of thing. Clearly the park needs an update of its decades-old management plan.

The National Park Service has worked on that update, producing a draft management plan that outlines four possible paths forward, from “no change” — an unsustainable option, Park Service scientists say — to establishing the park as a Wilderness Area. The Service’s preferred option lies in between. It would:

  • close some historical river access points and open an equal number in less ecologically sensitive areas;
  • close 65 miles of unauthorized horse trails and open 25 miles of designated trails elsewhere;
  • set new regulations on where and when motorboats would be allowed; and
  • close some roads, converting them to hiking trails.

The Park Service has been holding public hearings on the proposals, and some of the hearings have been the occasion of protest and controversy as some park regulars and nearby residents expressed their dismay at the proposed changes. Protest and “push back” are entirely expectable when government policy falls on the border where infinite-planet custom meets finite-planet reality. The transformation of our perpetual-growth society into a steady-state society, though inevitable, is unlikely to be quiet or automatic. It would be less painful if it were eased by environmental journalism worthy of the name, journalism that understands what’s at stake, journalism capable of stepping outside the infinite-planet premises of our social and political system.

Sadly, the new management plan for the Current and Jack Fork Rivers didn’t get that kind of coverage.

On Sunday, January 26, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story about the new management plan. The prominence was appropriate; the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park generates plenty of environmental value, as well as substantial local and regional economic impacts. (As a summertime escape from Midwestern heat, it figures prominently in the psychic health of the region too, though that’s harder to measure.) But the implications of the story reach even farther, all the way out to the widest scale possible — that of human civilization in history. That’s because the story of the Park’s need for a new management regime, and of the opposition to that regime, is not simply a story about political wrangling between a federal agency and some citizens affected by its decisions; it’s a story about the troubling collision between participatory democracy and physical reality.

This was not how the story was framed by the paper. Instead, the paper gave it a distinctly conservative spin: long-established users of the park are finding their habits and traditions threatened by unfeeling bureaucrats and flaky environmentalists. The story made a point that those who protested against new park regulations “love” the river, while no mention was made of the love of the river that leads environmentalists to want to see it protected. The only environmentalist the story quoted said the park was a “temple” that had been “desecrated” — as if John Muir’s pantheism was the animating force behind all environmental regulation, and subtly suggesting that the protestors had Constitutional freedom on their side. The story made no mention of fecal coliform counts, noting only that environmentalists “claim” the water is being polluted and quoting one Park Service official who said current uses are “unsustainable.” Absent the science that would back up either statement, a reader could dismiss both as personal opinions. (Indeed, the official was said to “feel,” not think, that the park needed a new regulatory plan.)

Ozark Riverways

Continuous growth (in visitation to the Ozark Riverways, or more generally in population and consumption) requires regulation to address the consequences. Journalists should be reporting this principle (photo by David Porter).

Infinite-planet bias was present in the story in other ways. The report began within the first-person point of view of one of the citizens opposed to the new regulatory regime, immediately placing the reader on that side of the issue. Imagine if the story had begun with the work of one of the scientists whose findings shaped the report — or a swimmer who had bumped into raw sewage. The story gave a great deal of coverage to citizens worried that they might lose their livelihoods if tourist access to the park comes under greater control, but didn’t make the point that the river-supported economy of the area will collapse completely if the rivers aren’t kept healthy.

Basically, the news story pandered to populist sentiment against regulation. Yes, people don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do, especially when the rules cover behavior in a place that seems wild, natural, and incapable of being damaged by what we do. But looks can be deceiving. As climate change amply demonstrates, we no longer live on a planet so large that it can absorb any- and everything we care to throw at it. In the world we inhabit now, if we want to maintain the benefits and delights we derive from natural ecosystems — including necessities like clean water — we need regulations to manage our increasingly problematic ecological footprint.

Communication of that truth would have served the public interest. The problem is not that some people want more government just for the sake of more government, as a Post-Dispatch reader might justifiably conclude. The problem is that the human population and its high-throughput economy have collided with ecological limit, even in the backwoods of the Ozarks. If protestors want smaller government in general and less regulation of the Ozark Waterways in particular, they need to work to bring civilization back — far back — from the brink of ecological limits. The way to do that is to stabilize and perhaps even reduce population, decrease throughput, and increase the health and security of the planet’s ecosystems through conservation, restoration and preservation.

American political thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey have emphasized the importance of newspapers to the country’s democratic project. To their appreciations we can add another of equal importance: only an ecologically knowledgeable electorate can reconcile democracy with non-negotiable ecological limits. If the majority of voters remain ecologically illiterate, they must give up either civilization or democracy; it’s impossible to retain both.

The country could get the educated polity it needs through an ambitious program of teaching ecological literacy in our schools. But for this method to produce an ecologically literate majority would take decades, and we haven’t got that much time. If the American public is to learn what it must learn in order to maintain democracy in the face of the dynamics that are pushing us, inexorably and for our own self-preservation, toward illiberal technocracy, then news outlets have to step up to the task of reporting fairly by dropping their infinite-planet bias. At a minimum they need to report what finite-planet, sustainable thinking has to offer on environmental and economic affairs. Further than that, they could begin connecting their environmental and economic reporting, framing the two as inseparable in every story. And they could emphasize that every story on this combined beat offers evidence of one outstanding practical need: the need to preserve our democracy and promote our well-being through the development of a steady-state society.

Slumlord Nation

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyAccording to architectural critic Charles Jencks, modern architecture died forty one years ago, on March 16, 1972. That’s the day that dynamite charges brought down the first of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing towers in St. Louis, Missouri. You’ve probably seen the pictures: a cloud of dust swirls out into the street while the tops of the buildings, still square, sag and tilt crazily. The photo captures rectilinear form giving way to dust and rubble: an iconic moment, an image that reminds us that entropy — the law of increasing disorder — haunts all our acts and works. In the distance you can make out another St. Louis icon, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, that gleaming stainless steel monument to the city’s role as mustering yard for the nation’s western expansion.

Jencks was wrong about modern architecture. So are those who blamed the residents of Pruitt-Igoe for the buildings’ decay and destruction. What brought those buildings down is a dynamic that’s very familiar in our modern economies — a dynamic that the conceptual lens of ecological economics lets us understand very clearly.

Pruitt-Igoe was a federally funded urban renewal project comprised of thirty-three high-rise apartment buildings, eleven stories each, on a 57-acre plot. It represented the best design practices for high-density urban development when it was built. It had green space (a benefit of building up instead of out). It had community function rooms on the ground floors and every third floor (which is where the novel, skip-stop elevators went, encouraging residents to think of every three floors as a neighborhood, since they’d pass and meet in stairwells). Within the limits of Missouri law, it was desegregated. The Pruitt towers, named for a black WWII aviator from Missouri, were for blacks, and the Igoe towers, named for a white Congressman, were for whites. The whole complex was designed for mixed incomes. Some apartments were rented at market rates to middle class families; others were subsidized, with rent limited to a percentage of household income. (Under welfare rules, these apartments could not have telephones or televisions and were available only to families that did not have an able-bodied wage-earner in the household.)

New and ultra-modern when they were built in the early 1950s, after less than two decades’ use the buildings had become a filthy, crime-infested, broken-windowed, high-rise slum, as bad as (and in many ways worse) than the housing they had been built to replace. In desperation the St. Louis Housing Authority consolidated the remaining tenants into a few buildings and demolished the others. The attempt at retrenchment failed. By 1976 the last remaining tenants had been relocated, the buildings razed, the site bulldozed. Today the acreage holds a couple of schools and the country’s largest accidental urban forest.

What brought the towers down, says one conventional (and racist) narrative, was the behavior of its residents. Despite the plan for a mix of income groups and separate-but-close mingling of races, the towers soon held just low-income African Americans, and they were responsible for trashing the buildings. The architect, Minoru Yamasaki (who went on to design the World Trade Center Towers, which came down under very different circumstances) gave credence to this interpretation when he allowed, “I never thought people were that destructive.” A slightly less racist version of this narrative notes that adolescent boys are always the prime perpetrators of vandalism, and that welfare regulations had the unintended effect of breaking up families, ensuring that quite a few adolescent males in the complex had no father figure at home. Vandalism and crime were the predictable result.

A different conventional narrative is told by some architectural critics, like Jencks, who find that the building themselves were at fault. The projects were too massive, too anonymous, too soulless to be successful in fostering neighborliness and a shared sense of pride in place. The public spaces of the complex, this theory says, became no-man’s-lands that residents avoided and hurried through. With no one caring for them, they fell into disrepair and bred crime, vandalism, trash, brutality.

Neither of those narratives comes anywhere close to capturing the complex truth, which is that the Pruitt-Igoe towers were brought down by an unfortunate collision of factors. Federal funding paid for construction, but operating costs were the responsibility of the city. The intended occupancy rate would have enabled rental income to cover these. But the population of St. Louis was undergoing an historic change; it fell from 857,000 to 622,000 between 1950 and 1970. Some of this was a general postwar exodus to the suburbs, fuelled by cheap gas, Veterans Administration mortgages, and the assembly-line methods of suburban construction pioneered in Levittown. Some — a great part of it — was white flight. In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision mandated the desegregation of public schools, and two years later a Missouri court ordered desegregation of public housing in the city. Middle-class whites left St. Louis for the suburbs, where housing costs and racial discrimination in sales and rentals — “redlining” — would preserve segregated schools for decades to come. With its middle-income apartments emptying and being re-let to impoverished black families, the Housing Authority could no longer support Pruitt-Igoe’s maintenance expenses.

The slum housing that Pruitt-Igoe replaced had become degraded and unhealthy for sound economic reasons. A slumlord maximizes his income stream by zeroing out maintenance costs, consuming the stored integrity of a building as income, and letting the building depreciate down to nothing. Tax law, which allows deductions for depreciation, makes this an even more lucrative strategy. Faced with an inadequate income stream, the public housing authority of St. Louis did what slumlords do: they reduced their budget gap by zeroing out maintenance expenses and sucking the integrity and usefulness out of their property.

The Pruitt-Igoe demolition offers a clear warning about resorting to the slumlord model (credit: St. Louis Post Dispatch).

The Pruitt-Igoe demolition offers a clear warning about resorting to the slumlord model (credit: St. Louis Post Dispatch).

As any businessman can tell you, if your operation can’t afford routine maintenance of its productive assets, your operation is in deep trouble. What you’ve got then isn’t a business plan but a plan to be a parasite.

Nature knows three kinds of parasites. One lives in a symbiotic relationship with its host, never diverting so much of the host’s life-energy as to constitute a threat to its continued well-being. (You don’t even notice the mites that live on your dead skin cells.) Another kind of parasite flourishes by consuming its host to death; like smallpox or the plague, it destroys what it feeds on and then jumps to another host. A third kind of parasite falls in between. It sucks a considerable amount of life from the host but doesn’t actually kill it; it achieves a kind of equilibrium, imposing a degraded and diminished life on its host. Tapeworms fall into this category, along with some chronic diseases, such as leprosy, malaria, and tuberculosis. Call it the slumlord model: sustainable, under certain conditions.

Unlike the things humans build, ecosystems (and, by and large, individual organisms within them) are capable of a high degree of self-repair. Any act of maintenance involves resisting entropic decline in a system by importing matter, energy, and design intelligence into a system to restore a valued and orderly arrangement. Broken windows don’t fix themselves. For that you need new glass and a glazier to install it. But damaged ecosystems do repair themselves, if they haven’t been degraded beyond recovery: they use physical nutrients, solar throughput, and the design intelligence of evolution to maintain and deepen their systems of orderly relations.

In his 1952 classic Soil and Civilization, Edward Hyams pointed out that humans have always been parasites on their host ecosystems. We divert some of the resource-energy of those systems and channel it through our bodies and societies before exhausting it, degraded, back into the host. Many, even most hunter-gatherer tribes lived in symbiotic relationship with ecosystems, colonizing part of nature’s food-energy flow but rarely threatening the integrity and continued life of the system as a whole. As agriculturalists, humans sometimes lived in balance with the soil community, never extracting more of its energy-fertility than the system could rebuild from annual solar inflow. But some agricultural societies mined their soil fertility, drawing it down faster than it could be replenished. They consumed the maintenance-energy of their host soils, and either jumped to another host or disappeared as their once-fertile land became sterile sand and gravel.

Today, the bulk of humanity functions as hydrocarbon-fueled industrial parasites — life-suckers whose ambitions include not just food security and reproduction but the accumulation of great material wealth. To gratify those ambitions we’ve used the stored capital of the planet (a finite stock of fossil fuels) to increase the rate at which we suck the maintenance out of planetary ecosystems. We’ve become a slumlord species: we cash out nature’s maintenance flows and spend our gains as income.

Symbiotic parasitism, which allows the host to flourish, is the only one of these roles that will give us an ecologically sustainable economy with a relatively high standard of living. The find-another-host strategy is clearly out: we’ve only got one planet, and we’ve built out to the edge of its capacity to hold us. The slumlord strategy won’t work, either. The typical slumlord doesn’t have to live in the slum that his self-interested behavior creates; his home is somewhere else. On a fully developed, fully occupied planet, there is no “somewhere else.”

Once upon a time, when the world held fewer humans, it seemed that there was room in it for slumlord parasitism. Saarinen’s Gateway Arch memorializes an epic transit, the opening of the American West, and it’s fitting that you can see it on the distant horizon in those iconic pictures of the Pruitt-Igoe demolition. Whatever else it memorializes, the Arch also marks the transit of a parasitic species looking for a new host, migrating in search of fresh ecosystems whose stocks of capital and maintenance energy could be sucked down, cashed out and spent as current income.

Eventually some humans learned that we ought not to turn our own environmental neighborhood into a slum. Many developed nations passed laws — in the U.S. there was the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Water Pollution Control Act — to ensure that we didn’t completely zero out the maintenance of the ecosystems that support us. But like slumlords comfortably housed in the suburbs, those in the industrialized countries continued to benefit from the draw-down of maintenance elsewhere in the system. Mostly we who live in the United States exported our damage to the undeveloped and less developed nations of the world, places willing to sacrifice natural capital and ecosystem integrity to the promise — not always fulfilled — of economic gain.

In St. Louis, slumlording depended on the existence of a class of renters who had no other choices: poverty and racism held African Americans in place, in housing that no one should have to endure. In the world at large, our slumlord practice is maintained by the dogmas of infinite-planet economics. We rely on the ideology of free trade, and the spurious argument that environmental quality is a luxury good, to tell the impoverished citizens of the world that if they’re patient enough and smart enough, they will someday live as we do — as if a political economy in which 5% of the world’s population uses 25% of the world’s resource flow could be expanded to include everyone. But there is just enough material progress to make the dogmas seem accurate: thanks to frantic expansion of the matter-and-energy stream that humans suck out of the planet, and to a decline in the U.S. share of that stream as its middle class disappears, once-poor countries like China and India are developing their own middle class consumerist economies. Meanwhile, our planetary habitation is being damaged and degraded even more rapidly. To most of us, in most places it looks okay, but that’s because we haven’t been schooled in the understanding we need in order to see the damage. Our ecological ignorance allows us to ignore the fact that we’re sucking the life-maintenance out of the planet.

The fate of the Pruitt-Igoe towers shows us the likely outcome of continuing to do that.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and also teaches in the Graduate Architecture and Urban Planning programs at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author most recently of Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State and The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy.

China’s Infinite-Growth Haze

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyA few weeks ago, air quality at the U.S. embassy in Beijing registered 755 on a scale to 500. A thick, choking haze enveloped the entire city. You couldn’t see from one high-rise office tower to the next; flights were cancelled, some highways were closed, schoolchildren were kept indoors, hospital admissions soared. China’s air quality problems aren’t limited to Beijing — a 2010 study found that air pollution led to 1.2 million premature deaths nationwide — and killer air is just one of the country’s ecological sorrows. One-half of its surface water is so polluted it can’t be treated to make it drinkable, and half of that is so bad it can’t even be used for industrial purposes. Seventy percent of the country’s rivers and lakes receive raw sewage or untreated industrial toxins. Cancer rates are up, and the country has been losing an area the size of Connecticut every year to desertification, brought on by unsustainable farming practices in grassland ecosystems.

In protest, Chinese people have begun taking to the streets in demonstrations that have increasingly become clashes, sometimes bloody, with riot police.

Between 1978 and 2008 the Chinese economy grew tenfold, outpacing the rest of the world. (For comparison: U.S. real GDP tripled in that period.) The growth has come at considerable and notorious cost in contaminated air and water and other “disamenities” — pulmonary disease, cancer, riots.

Are these the necessary costs of development? Of course not. So why is China paying them? As with most real-world questions there is no single answer, but one of the clearest, strongest, and saddest parts of a complete answer is this: China listened to the wrong economists.


Theorized relationship between pollution and income

Those economists are neither crazy nor blind. They can see the human cost of pollution and environmental degradation. But they’ve got a theory that reassures them the problem is only temporary and will fix itself: the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), which plots a supposed relationship between pollution and income as an upside-down U. Before development, this theory says, pollution levels are low; pollution then increases as economic activity and income both rise; and then, at some tipping point, pollution hits a peak and begins to decline with additional income, as a wealthier population demands and can afford better environmental quality.

This, the standard economics textbooks say, is “intuitively appealing.” And it is — if your intuition has been shaped by traditional economic theory. If ecological damage can always be reversed, and if environmental quality isn’t a God-given gift or a basic human right but a commodity like any other, then it makes sense to think that you can buy a better environment when you get more income. Implication: “Growth is the Key to Protecting the Environment, Not its Enemy,” as one article on the EKC puts it.

This logic leads to an absurd conclusion (always a bad sign for a theory): the reason we have climate change is that the richest countries the planet has ever seen are still not rich enough to afford the environmental good known as “climate stability.” Nor can the EKC be defended on empirical grounds, as good science. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics acknowledges that most EKC studies “are designed to yield inverse-U-shaped pollution-income paths, and succeed [in doing so by] using a variety of assumptions and mechanisms” — an approach more consistent with preservation of a faith than with scientific inquiry.

The faith that’s at stake are the dogmas of infinite growth. If pollution doesn’t at some point decrease permanently as income increases, we have to admit that there are ecological limits to economic activity.

While the inverted U of the EKC does describe the relationship between some key pollutants and GDP growth in most developed countries, that finding has fatal conceptual flaws. “Key” pollutants are not all pollutants, and particular pollutants aren’t the sole and permanent marker of ecological degradation. Policies that control one kind of pollutant (and which thereby send its EKC down) may simply encourage a shift to manufacturing processes that produce other kinds of pollutants — ones that aren’t (yet) regulated and haven’t ever been measured, so there’s no possible way to chart their history on an EKC.


Beijing’s gamble with the EKC has become a health hazard (photo credit: AnimaSuri)

Another kind of shift establishes an EKC for a pollutant in one country because the manufacturing process itself moves somewhere else. No EKC study has ever definitively excluded the possibility of this “pollution haven” effect. If exporting a dirty industrial process to a country with little or no regulation is cheaper than meeting regulatory standards at home, why would a profit-maximizing company do anything else?

In the effort to shift an economy’s pollution footprint to another country, the EKC is a big help. It reassures the recipient nation that poisoned air and water are a necessary phase of economic development; that someday it too will be rich enough to restore the environmental quality it once had. What the EKC doesn’t say: ecosystems can be degraded past any hope of repair or reclamation, as many a previous civilization learned the hard way. It doesn’t say: loss of biodiversity is a definitive element of ecosystem degradation, and an EKC for it is a logical impossibility. It doesn’t say: we live on finite planet, and there’s no guarantee that when you want to restore your country’s environmental quality, you’ll be able to find fresh pollution havens willing to accept your economy’s footprint.

Thus, China. In 2005, Pan Yue, then the vice minister of environmental protection, lamented his country’s acceptance of the EKC: “The assumption [was] that the economic growth [we pursued] will give us the financial resources to cope with the crises surrounding the environment, raw materials, and population growth.” Whether China can now reverse the damage and outsource the pollution-dump services that its environment has been asked to provide remains to be seen. One thing is clear: other parts of that country’s ecological footprint are being exported. China is now shopping for farmland in Africa and long-term agricultural leases in South America because its degraded landscape can’t support the human population it holds.

Still, the EKC has its defenders and continues to be treated as a sturdy economic finding — probably because if the EKC isn’t true, then a discipline dedicated to infinite growth will have to face up to the fact that there are limits to what nature can give to us and to what it can absorb from us. Evidence and logic — and the air quality in Beijing — say that yes, there are limits. It’s time for economists to stop seeing the world through the distorting, poisonous haze of an unsupportable theory and to start seeing the world as it is. The fate of our civilization depends on it.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. He is the author, most recently, of The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy, from which this essay is drawn.

Aristotle in Connecticut

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyAs I tried to comprehend the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, my thoughts were with the victims and their families. The horror I feel is nothing compared to what they have been required to experience and absorb. Understanding what happened seems impossible — but attempt to understand it we must, if we are to reduce the occurrence of these devastating shooting tragedies in the future. As I wondered along with the rest of America how this could happen, my thoughts turned to ancient philosophy — specifically, to the teachings of Aristotle and what he said about causation.

Any act that has a cause, he said, actually has four different kinds of causes: material, efficient, final, formal.

The efficient cause of gun violence is a shooter who intends to kill. The material cause of gun violence is the gun. If you want to prevent school shootings, it makes sense to keep shooters and guns from coming together anywhere near a school. Focusing on these easy-to-see causes leads to calls for more thorough background checks before gun ownership, for other forms of gun control, for profiling of potential mass murderers, for pre-emptive arrests, metal detectors, and locked-down schools as prisons for kids — not to keep students in, but to keep violence out. And these are the kinds of solutions that some people are going to say — and are already saying — we need.

But we’re not going to solve the problem of gun violence until we get at the deeper causes that Aristotle called final and formal. The search for final causes leads us to ask questions like, “what was the shooter’s motivation? What could he possibly have hoped to accomplish?” The search for formal causes has us ask “what were the social dynamics, the social context, that shaped this event?”

The United States has the highest level of gun violence among supposedly developed nations in the world, a rate exceeded only by some impoverished countries and some that are host to rival factions that are at war. Mother Jones reports that “Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.” (The report counts as mass murder incidents in which a shooter takes the lives of four or more people.) We need to ask why “going postal” and “school shooting” have become such common terms in America. What are the deeper causes that give our culture tragedy after tragedy of this kind?

The answer to that question will no doubt be complex; final and formal causes are many and varied and difficult to sort out. But one avenue of causation might be found in this correlation: besides having the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world, the United States also has the world’s fullest expression of free-market consumerist ideology. Thinking about Aristotle’s categories, I suspect that there may be a connection.

Free-market consumerist ideology, supported by billions of dollars of advertising, has given us a society in which people are too often disconnected individuals who think that their satisfactions and the means of obtaining them are completely their own. We’ve been encouraged to think of ourselves first and foremost as consumers — not as citizens, as neighbors, as family members — and to think that as consumers we deserve to be satisfied. It’s a fairly small step from there to thinking that if we aren’t satisfied then we must have a grievance against someone who’s preventing it. The U.S. has become the richest, most commodious, and most powerful nation the earth has ever seen. In such a bountiful place, it’s all too easy for someone who is unsatisfied with their life to think that the reason must be that someone else has done or is doing something to block the way.

Taking bold action to satisfy personal grievance is perfectly in keeping with our All-American emphasis on individual empowerment and responsibility. Guns symbolize both. Guns are literally empowering: historically, the invention and dissemination of cheap firearms played a significant role in the spread of egalitarian, democratic systems. In Shogunate Japan, rulers declined to adopt the firearms that Westerners offered them in trade precisely because they brought about an unacceptable equality: an untrained musketeer could kill a highly trained Samurai warrior, a result that made no cultural sense whatsoever to the Japanese.

Most Americans accept that with our right to keep and bear arms come certain civic responsibilities, including the responsibility to respect the rights and prerogatives of others. In the traditional version of the American Dream, people are led by their longings and dissatisfactions to work harder to get what they need and want, and that’s good, as long as “working harder” doesn’t also mean “cranking through the planet’s finite resources faster and faster in order to have more and more stuff.” Few Americans stop to reflect that their longings and dissatisfactions have been shaped by a private enterprise system in which corporations profit by creating unhappiness and then by offering us the chance to assuage that unhappiness through consumption — consumption that has to grow to survive, which means it has to use the finite resources of the planet at ever-increasing rates.

Some Americans are perpetually disheartened by the gap between what they’ve been encouraged to want and what they can actually have; they find solace wherever they can. Some get so enraged by that gap that they lose track of the civic responsibility part of the equation. They begin to see other people as impediments that stand in the way of achieving their ambitions — impediments that must be outmaneuvered, defeated, “neutralized” or removed. And if you’ve been raised on a steady diet of first-person-shooter video games and have had your neurological wiring affected by continual doses of violence-as-titillation in movies and sports, you just might fetch up on violent action as a way to deal with your problems.

Still, I think that these causal factors alone are not sufficient. Aristotle, were he alive today, might point to another underlying cause of gun violence in America: cheap gas and the automobile. Far more than other nations, America has been shaped by both. Together they’ve given us an atomized society that contributes to this tendency to solve individual dissatisfactions with outbursts of violence.

When you’re in a car, your fellow citizens aren’t fellow citizens anymore, they’re people who get in your way, annoying you and making it harder to do what you want to do. And when you live in a landscape that’s been shaped by car culture, the networks of family and neighborly connection that grow naturally among people in communities aren’t as strong as they could be; they’re weaker than they are in communities with historical roots that reach deeper than the Age of Oil. (Finland has a per-capita rate of gun ownership about half that of the U.S., but its rate of death by gun violence is far less than half of ours.) Neighborhood networks of trust, mutual aid and common courtesy help restrain individual actors, keeping them more thoroughly embedded in social reality (which includes the basic principles that other people deserve to live and breathe and that schools should be the safest of places).

People living in such neighborhoods are also better positioned to identify community members who are so disturbed that they would perpetrate a tragedy like the one in Newtown. That part of Connecticut retains a sense of village life — Newtown has a vestigial grazing commons, and at the main intersection in one of its village centers, cars make an awkward left turn around an aged flagpole. But like elsewhere in America, it hosts shopping centers and modern suburban sprawl. No place in America can remain aloof from the individualist culture of consumerism, a culture in which true community is increasingly difficult to find. If there’s no true community, there can be no sturdy web of community relations that functions to integrate estranged individuals and either guide them toward positive expression of their urges or toward getting the help they need to deal with their sorrows and grievances.

To prevent future Newtowns and Columbines, I personally think that yes, we’ll need to address the efficient and material causes of gun violence. We’ll need to make it harder for shooters to get hold of assault weapons and make it harder for them to walk unopposed into our civic and public spaces — our schools, our movie theaters and shopping malls. Others will of course disagree, but I think action on these fronts is long overdue.

But we also need to get at the final and formal causes. That means rebuilding the sustainable communities that once held Americans in their supportive embrace, communities that were spun apart by cheap energy and the ease of automotive transport. We can recover them by demanding walkable neighborhoods; by refusing to participate in the infinite-planet economy of Mall and Sprawl America with its big boxes and anonymous spaces; by choosing instead to live, think, breathe, laugh, love, shop, own, create, recreate, educate, and be politically active locally, with people we know and can see face to face. Ultimately it’s impossible to take care of each other, our public spaces, our landscapes and our children on any other scale.

Re-localizing our lives in these ways won’t solve every problem and it’s unlikely to eliminate gun violence completely. There are always going to be people whose mental imbalances make them a challenge to society and sometimes a danger to others. But regrounding our collective lives in post-petroleum, sustainable neighborhoods opens one avenue of positive change, a change we must make if we are to reduce our levels of interpersonal violence to those in other industrialized nations.

This much seems clear: cheap energy and a physical and social world designed for cars and consumers aren’t ecologically sustainable. Neither is the perpetual-growth economy that produced them. We seem to be discovering that they aren’t socially sustainable either.

Regular contributor Eric Zencey is the author, most recently, of The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy and Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State.