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…

 

 

Guess What Trudeau Said About Growth?

By James Magnus-Johnston

James Magnus-JohnstonIn an appeal to Mr. Trudeau’s philosophical musings, I’ve written a letter to him listing five ways Canada can foster a better, more sustainable economy.

 

 

“There are a lot of people out there, environmental thinkers like Herman Daly and others, who talk about the fact that maybe endless growth within a finite system is not either possible or even desirable. Maybe we have to talk about shifting our focus so that instead of just growing, we’re actually developing and improving.” Maclean’s, “In conversation: Justin Trudeau” 2012

Justin Trudeau.Canadian Pacific

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Photo Credit: Canadian Pacific.

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

Congratulations on winning a majority government. While most of the world appears to be fixated on your admirable hair and bone structure, I’m caught reflecting on these words you uttered a few years ago. I’m not surprised that I haven’t heard you repeat them recently, since very few world leaders adopt the rhetoric of the post-growth paradigm. But it’s clear that you have some fundamental knowledge of alternatives to growth.

If your handlers wouldn’t dare let you say such things on the campaign trail, it’s perhaps unlikely to think that you’ll adopt a steady state agenda during your term in office. On the other hand, what you said wasn’t printed in some obscure blog, taken out of context, or overheard in conversation. It was in a national platform, Maclean’s magazine, one of Canada’s largest newsmagazines. Your remarks appear to reveal some sincerity about your view of the world we’re currently inhabiting—a world with definable environmental limits to growth, like climate change.

Of course, the norms of the majority and rhetoric of the status quo can overwhelm the greatest idealists, especially in a centrist big-tent party like Canada’s liberal party. So I’m going to appeal to your not-so-long-lost philosophy by reminding you that many young folks are facing a bleak future. And I don’t just mean low-wage jobs. I mean a fear of catastrophic environmental breakdown, as evidenced by rapid methane releases in the Arctic and ocean acidification—both characteristics of climate change—as well as mass extinction. These are real, tangible manifestations of the limits to growth.

It’s going to be very hard to turn our atmosphere around, but we could adopt policies immediately to shift our focus “so that instead of just growing, we’re actually developing and improving.” Here are five practical ways to move us towards a better, more sustainable economy. After all, you’re the one that keeps reminding us that “in Canada, better is always possible.”

  1. Start counting some of the costs associated with GDP growth (formally or informally). Tar sands growth, for instance, has myriad costs associated with its expansion, including insured losses due to extreme weather, droughts, and floods, among other things. At the community level, some indigenous communities have no trouble getting funding for incarceration and diabetes treatments but can’t get funding for healthy food and community development. You could help turn this around.
  2. Finish what your father started experimenting with in Dauphin in 1978 and implement a basic income for all Canadians. Senator Hugh Segal has made a great case for why this is a practical idea.
  3. Consider a formal, nationwide price on carbon. You mentioned that you’d leave it to the provinces, but the only reason different provinces have different carbon pricing systems is because it’s taken so long for the federal government to get started on this in the first place. Much like the emergence of a national healthcare system, you could learn from the provincial early adopters and go nationwide.
  4. We have a central bank. Let’s start using it again for low-cost or even no-interest borrowing. If you have an ambitious infrastructure agenda, and want to do it without creating long-term debt, borrow from your own bank rather than the private banks. The debt-based private banking system has rather stupidly inflated the prices of commodities and housing for folks under the age of 40. That’s called “uneconomic growth,” and it’s fostering a generation of exploited Canadians.
  5. Help free up the working day, week, and year by encouraging greater work flexibility, like some European models. Full time employment for everyone is impossible to provide with low growth rates (like the present). Young people are the ones getting the shaft, and we’re well beyond the need for everyone to spend their lives toiling in low-wage jobs.

So, Mr. Trudeau, if you truly believe (as you said) that “maybe we have to talk about shifting our focus so that instead of just growing, we’re actually developing and improving,” I’ve just provided five examples of how your government can start doing that right away.

We recognize that the devil is in the details, and we’re here to help sort through them with you.

For a thriving, sustainable future,

James Magnus-Johnston

Canadian Director, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)

 

What Kind of Future Does Your Degree Prepare You For?

by James Magnus-Johnston

James Magnus-JohnstonAs the fall chill sets into the air and farmers begin to harvest, universities invite another wave of impressionable young minds to think about the future—of society, and of their place in it. But preparation for the future requires us to consider exactly what kind of future we think we’re in for, and far too many schools are preparing students for a fictional business-as-usual future.

Do your universities and instructors acknowledge that the global temperature will likely rise by at least two degrees this century? Do they invite you to reflect on the kind of droughts that some argue have hastened Syria’s civil war and caused mass migration? Are you asked to draw connections and present solutions to these challenges, or are you instead invited to rehearse standard narratives and become job-bearing cogs in the growth economy?

Steady state economics acknowledges some unsettling facts, but very few undergraduates will be exposed to anything resembling steady state economics. They’ll be lucky if the name Herman Daly graces the syllabus of their economics class. The lack of interest in post-growth thought more generally signals a curious rot in the academy away from creativity and the synthesis of new ideas, in favour of what’s couched as “critical thinking” within conventional, rigidly defined, and well-rehearsed disciplinary frameworks.

Patrick Finn, author of Critical Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking with Creativity, argues that the contemporary academy provides us with “advanced mental tactics that can be taught for a price,” when we should rather be provided with opportunities to foster creativity through a kind of “loving thinking.” By “loving thinking,” Finn means that we should connect dots from a position of hope and realism rather than merely rehearse advanced mental tactics. Karim Lakhani, a thinker with the Harvard Business School, cautions, however, that new paradigms and ideas that synthesize strands of research from different disciplines face an uphill battle.

VA Tech campus.VA Tech

Virginia Tech campus, Blacksburg, VA. Photo Credit: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Ecological economics—the branch of thinking that includes steady state economics—is one such discipline. Some have labelled it a transdisciplinary field of research (Norgaard, 1989; Costanza et al., 1997; Costanza and King, 1999), which applies a wide array of techniques to analyse relevant issues from different disciplines. While we may face an uphill battle, I believe that steady state economics invites students to start working from a position of hope precisely because it invites cross-disciplinary thinking. There may not be a perfect consensus surrounding some steady state economic concepts, but the transdisciplinary framework is sufficiently open to foster adaptive, synthetic thinking without losing sight of important questions.

The charge that creative thinking is too general or “unproven” is not historically uncommon. For instance, in a review of Kenneth Boulding’s 1950 work A Reconstruction of Economics, reviewer Ralph Turvey charges that “the problem is that Professor Boulding touches on so many matters and makes so many stimulating or provocative remarks that another book would be required for an adequate discussion” (Turvey, 1951, p. 205). The same charge might be levelled against this author, or any other theorist concerned with the application of theory across and through disciplinary lines.

It is clear that what is acceptable to one discipline (such as environmental science) may be unacceptable to another (such as economics). Yet by understanding what sort of future we’re in for, and by knowing the stakes of the present moment, we cannot claim neutrality or indifference to the consequences of our arguments. Rather, we should work harder to understand the big picture economy-environment dynamics, and overcome inherent disciplinary biases.

Given the biosphere’s depleted regenerative capacity, Daly suggests that it’s too risky to simply research and develop further warrants for steady state economic reform before encouraging a transition. He explains:

As important as empirical measurement is, it is worth remembering that when one jumps out of an airplane, a parachute is more beneficial than an altimeter. First principles make it abundantly clear that we need an economic parachute. Casual empiricism makes it clear that we need it sooner rather than later. More precise information, though not to be disdained, is not necessary, and waiting for it may prove very costly (Daly, 2007, p.22).

Every discipline, and every student, should be (re)considering what kind of future they think they’re preparing for. A creative, unconventional framework is exactly what we need.

What About Innovating Beyond the Growth Trap? A Challenge to the Ecofiscal Commission’s Growth Fixation

By James Magnus-Johnston

James Magnus-JohnstonA new voice has emerged recently in Canada called the “Ecofiscal Commission,” which could have the funding, clout, and determination to steer the country in a more promising direction. The group includes high-profile economists, former political leaders, and high-powered financiers. They define “ecofiscal policy” as something that “corrects market price signals to encourage the economic activities we do want (job creation, investment, and innovation) while reducing those we don’t want (greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our land, air, and water).” There seems to be a semblance of steady state thinking among this otherwise rather conventional lot.

Not so fast. The Ecofiscal Commission recently clarified that it “believes that our economies can continue to grow, even as we improve the environment by polluting less and using our natural resources more efficiently.” I found it noteworthy that this group of high-profile individuals decided that it was necessary to address the question of growth. Perhaps that’s because folks like myself don’t believe their policies are sufficient to address 21st century challenges, such as anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction.

One of their commission members, Dr. Dick Lipsey, is a “renowned expert in the field of economics and innovation,” and Professor Emeritus of Simon Fraser’s Department of Economics. In a recent Ecofiscal blog post, he rehearsed a standard narrative of innovation and technological progress that many ecological economists are familiar with. His narrative makes mention of neither the rebound effect nor of exactly what technologies will systematically reduce our material footprint. He even seems to suggest that if we don’t grow the economy, our health outcomes will decline due to a lack of medical innovation.

Locomotive.SMU, Central Univ. Libraries, DeGolyer Library

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” -William Stanley Jevons. Photo Credit: Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library.

He goes on to write about how “those who, like this commentator, think only of today’s commodities and today’s technologies, do not see the possibilities of raising living standards, while also dealing with pollution, through technological advance.” This seems straightforward enough—we don’t know what we don’t know. New technologies will emerge over time. He then proceeded to make a sweeping claim by listing a number of technologies that have made life more convenient, including “dental and medical equipment, antibiotics, bypass operations, safe births, control of genetically transmitted diseases, personal computers, compact discs, television sets, automobiles, opportunities for fast and cheap world-wide travel, air conditioning…” And so on. For the record, I’m quite happy for all of these advances, yet I still don’t see how anything on this list is addressing our self-inflicted mass extinction, though I suppose it’s making us comfortable in the meantime.

I could spend time addressing the factual basis of his claim that innovation requires growth, but we’ve been doing that since the 1970s, when Henry Wallich discounted the findings of Limits to Growth (DH Meadows et al.), arguing that technology would save us from the ecological crisis. We’re still waiting for this claim to ring true, and there’s a raging contemporary debate, which speaks to some lingering uncertainty about the claim. For my part, I see the invention of new technology as a response to a specific technical problem (or set of problems) rather than merely the offspring of pro-growth economic conditions.

What I find far more curious is (a) why Dr. Lipsey’s sweeping claim avoids mention of mass extinction or climate change; and (b) how this opinion can reflect the voice of so many high-profile public figures. It is true that, as Lipsey writes, “…our Victorian ancestors could not have imagined what to do with ten times as much of all of the goods that they knew about.” Yet it is also true that we have far more than ten times the goods that they knew about, and that our aggregate material footprint is still going up. Efficiency gains are a “feel good” story, but the gains have yet to reduce our aggregate material footprint at the global level.

I’m not an ideological enemy of innovation or entrepreneurship. In fact, I’m a bit of a techno-geek—I (rather shamefully) like new technologies and toys. I get irrationally excited when I see developments in green technology and transportation, and I’ve started a business. I can’t wait to use a hyperloop. But, as Lewis and Conaty write in The Resilience Imperative, I embrace the principle that efficiency without sufficiency is lost. Or to put it another way, it feels intellectually dishonest to suggest that efficiency has the potential to deliver us from a cultural propensity for overconsumption. I’m not certain why we should focus our energy on miniaturizing goods or “cleaning” our production process to the exclusion of simply consuming less. We need both.

Underpinning some of Dr. Lipsey’s claims is the epistemological assumption that innovation is merely a technological, material, or financial phenomenon. What precludes us from innovating ethically and socially, towards more desirable ends? John Maynard Keynes considered the day when society could focus on happiness and well-being rather than economic growth. He wrote, “The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems—the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.” If innovation is so predetermined, why might one suggest it is possible to innovate technologically, but not towards a more sustainable economic size? That is, after all, what this growth debate is really all about.

I can’t also help but wonder whether or not Dr. Lipsey recognizes that his narrative emerged during a time when one could not see or feel the effects of a deteriorating planetary life support system. I don’t blame him for his choice to rehearse this narrative—like many 20th century thinkers, his whole identity has been constructed to promote the idea of growth. But at some point, we will all need to accept our planetary prognosis and act accordingly. It’s become exceedingly clear that price signals alone won’t preserve forests, oceans, or climate stability. Peter Victor has argued that while D.H. Meadows et al. possibly underestimated the price-mechanism’s role in adjusting economic outcomes, their critics have overestimated it.1 By the time we’ve settled on a carbon price, the planet will already have become several degrees warmer and we’ll no longer have the luxury of technocratic tinkering. Behavioral economists have also debunked the myth that humans are motivated only by price signals. Human beings are complex, irrational actors who are influenced by far more than just the almighty dollar. Many of us have given up on the neoclassical paradigm precisely because of this new knowledge. Call it innovation.

It’s not necessarily true anymore that economic growth increases our incomes and always transforms our lives for the better. Today, some features of economic growth are increasing the incomes of the richest, stagnating the incomes of the poorest, and depleting the innovative spirit of the economy. Who has the time to worry about climate change and mass extinction when they’re just getting by or more concerned about how to cash their next pension check? Ask any Greek citizen.

Perhaps we can be thankful that growth didn’t stop in 1900 or 1950, as Dr. Lipsey argues. But this isn’t 1950. We have to solve a new set of problems. There’s never been a better time to innovate the discipline of economics, and with it, our definition of progress.

 

 

Seismic Political Shifts Reveal Desire for Serious Change

by James Magnus-Johnston

If you demonstrate to people that the NDP [New Democratic Party] can win in Alberta, suddenly anything seems possible. —Paul Fairie, University of Calgary political scientist

 

James Magnus-JohnstonOn the problematic political spectrum, neither the right nor the left have become wholesale champions of the steady state economy. Then again, embracing something perceived as ‘new’ has never been the strong suit of the politician. It takes years of ideological evolution among the grassroots before seemingly new and different ideas become politically palatable. Seismic political shifts like the one in Alberta suggest that big ideological evolutions are underway in the unlikeliest of places, and that steady state solutions may not be far behind.

The Canadian province of Alberta—which includes Canada’s oil patch—revealed its desire for serious change in its election of an NDP government last week. While the social democratic NDP doesn’t have an explicitly ‘green’ agenda, some policy shifts acknowledge the limits to growth—growth in the oil patch, growth in debt, growth in inequality, growth in carbon emissions, and growth in overall environmental costs. Growing the oil patch at all costs has left the province vulnerable to swings in the petroleum economy, and it isn’t building a stable economy for generations to come.

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

The political shift represents a strong movement away from a half-century of Alberta’s Conservative ‘conventional thinking,’ including relaxed regulations for the oil and gas industry as well as an export-first policy designed for economic growth as if there were truly no tomorrow. Time will tell whether or not Premier Notley will introduce measures to supplant carbon-intensive growth with a renewable steady state, but there are signs of movement in this direction.

In March, as opposition leader, Notley introduced a motion calling on the government of Alberta to phase out the use of coal for electric power generation in Alberta. Alberta’s oil sector produces almost as many GHG emissions as do the mining and extraction of oil from the oilsands.

This week, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Canada called upon Premier Notley to introduce a carbon tax, a measure which sits at number two on Herman Daly’s top ten list of steady state policies. The call counts as either a brilliant coordinated manoeuvre on the part of the NDP and the oil patch, or the beginning of a serious change in the way Canada’s oil and gas industry perceives its responsibilities in the face of climate change.

The NDP victory also signals a willingness to tackle point three on Mr. Daly’s top ten list—limiting the range of inequality in income distribution. While Premier Notley has not signalled a willingness to institute a ‘maximum income’ level, she has designs on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour from the country’s second lowest minimum wage of $10.20. The NDP have also vowed to reintroduce progressive income taxes, and raise corporate taxes.

This is not a promotion for social democracy per se. Social democratic governments in different jurisdictions, like my home province of Manitoba, can sometimes reflect neoliberal economic thinking rather than focus on designing an economy for fairness. But in Alberta’s example, folks have acknowledged the problems associated with half a century of growth in the extractive industry, environmental degradation, and inequality. As the political pendulum shifts in other jurisdictions, there is an opportunity for political parties of various stripes to reconsider how they can respond to growing grassroots frustration with a debt-ridden, environmentally destructive, inequitable economy.

As the costs of uneconomic growth continue to escalate, and as a new generation prepares to bear those costs, we can be sure that further movement in the direction of a steady state economy will not only become more palatable, but absolutely essential.

 

A Business Built for Resilience

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoWhat does business look like in a steady state economy? I’m often asked whether or not a steady state economy would somehow lead to the stagnation of free enterprise. Yet all around us today, we’re witnessing the flourishing of ‘social enterprise,’ a business model designed to maximize human and environmental wellbeing rather than accumulate profits for shareholders. From not-for-profit and cooperative models to the birth of the B Corp (benefit corporation), we find ourselves in the midst of a profound shift in business–away from growth and profit as an organizing principle, and towards one that respects the social and ecological limits to growth. With a planet under profound stress and a Ponzi-inspired economy poised for decline, there’s no harm in trying something a little different.

As policymakers waste time hand-wringing about embracing alternatives to growth, social enterprise provides individuals and communities with the ability to demonstrate the viability of the post-growth paradigm. Measuring social and ecological outcomes can be challenging, but some models (such as the B Corp) have adopted a specific method to measure outcomes using a point-based system. Others are using simple tools to reduce waste and ensure a fairer, more equitable working environment.

Fools&Horses

I have recently been involved in starting a pair of social enterprises, which stand as humble examples of business models for resilience rather than growth. The first is RISE Urban Incubator, which promotes and mainstreams innovations to reduce waste; the other is Fools & Horses, a coffee shop with a triple bottom line. Both businesses have been structured according to a relatively simple principle–do more good than harm–by tackling problems such as inequality and environmental degradation. Fools & Horses was named after the beloved British sitcom Only Fools and Horses, about a group of people who spend all their time trying to come up with “get rich quick schemes” and, ironically, work all the time. What better way is there to describe an economy designed for growth-at-all-costs?

Our Fools & Horses wants to demonstrate the benefits of a more flexible, equitable work arrangement for its employees. Workers earn a living wage when they join us, are invited to have a say in how the business should be run, and are given the opportunity to become owners. Worker-owners look forward to more than the accumulation of money and a periodic hike in their hourly rate. They are given greater autonomy in their work, freedom to experiment and innovate according to their talents, and enough flexibility in their schedule to pursue other interests or spend time with family and friends. Autonomy and flexibility are not just tolerated, they are encouraged.

More interestingly, perhaps, the coffee shop is designed to provide the incubator with the cash it needs to experiment with projects that systemically reduce waste, including the use of permeable pavement and solar technology. Any waste streams we do have are audited so the businesses will offset more waste and emissions than they create.

The businesses have also been designed to provide benefits to the local economy by keeping dollars circulating locally. Fools & Horses is designed to re-localize the economy wherever possible by supporting budding entrepreneurs in the local food industry, including farmers, bakers, craft brewers and roasters, and chefs. Eventually, we hope to help foster a network of local suppliers, which also helps reduce fossil fuel requirements. Each of our producers offers only the highest-quality products, fostering an economy of quality rather than an economy of quantity.

There are other sustainable business models out there, and people doing far more important and captivating things to shift the economy in a new direction. But this is one example of a small effort to demonstrate the shift in thinking at the macro level. One of the other, less intangible things Fools & Horses will foster is a sense of conviviality and good living. In Dutch, it’s called ‘gezellig,’ and in German, it’s called ‘gemütlichkeit,’ both of which connote a sense of warmth, coziness, and belonging. In a steady state economy, what we need to accomplish above all else is the re-connection of people with one another. Perhaps it says more about the present state of business–and the prevalence of monopolies–that it’s considered novel to do so.

When Growth Trumps Freedom: the Chill in Canada Comes from our Government, not the Weather

by James Magnus-Johnston

[it] smells like the biggest bait and switch this country has ever seen”

Wes Regan, Vancouver Observer

Johnston_photoWith the introduction of Canada’s so-called “secret police” bill, there is increasing concern the rights of the oil patch will trump the rights of ordinary citizens in a new and chilling way–through the kinds of fear tactics you’d sooner expect in Soviet Russia than a western liberal democracy.

Sound like exaggeration? Please prove me wrong.

Bill C-51 would give Canadian national security and intelligence forces the right to monitor ordinary citizens, and even detain them for up to seven days at a time if they are perceived to “interfere with the economic or financial stability of Canada or with the country’s critical infrastructure.” This includes what the government has branded the “anti-petroleum” movement, whose participants have been labelled ‘extremists’ by the Prime Minister and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The legislation would subject environmental activists to increased surveillance and intimidation under the guise of preventing terrorism. I wonder how, exactly, a government with strong ties to the oil patch will define ‘economic or financial stability.’

The truly chilling development as a result of Bill C-51 is that a citizen doesn’t have to actually organize a demonstration to trigger the use of new powers. Under this legislation, the agency simply has to suspect that you might do something that interferes with ‘critical infrastructure’ in order to monitor you or pay you a visit.

By stifling free speech and democratic engagement, this effort demonstrates just how far some will go in order to cling to an aging growth-at-all-costs narrative–absurdly pitting human beings against one another and against the planet itself. At worst, this is carbon-fuelled neoliberal fanaticism disguised as pragmatic politics, given that the oil sands contribute about 2% to Canada’s GDP.

I’m not bothered by the notion of confronting terrorism, if that were indeed the explicit purpose of Bill C-51. To confront a problem as complex as terrorism, new techniques need to be adopted to monitor communication activities. But strong monitoring requires strong and transparent oversight, particularly if environmental activists can so casually be described as ‘deliberate threats,’ if not terrorists. And while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should prevail in the courts, it’s the lack of oversight that has former legislators and judiciary officials concerned that the courts won’t be able to intervene quickly enough if the security officials go too far.

CSPS Quiz

This screenshot comes from the Facebook page of Andrew Weaver, MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, and was originally captured from the Government of Canada’s new online training course entitled ‘Security Awareness,’ which is being offered by the Canada School of Public Service.

In a show of virtually unprecedented solidarity, a handful of former prime ministers, solicitors general, and Supreme Court justices published a joint statement in a national newspaper last week. They believe this bill represents a decline into underhanded abuse and excessive state intrusion. Already, Canada’s tax agency has been used to spy on Canadian environmental organizations and citizens in what is apparently a coordinated effort between oil companies, the National Energy Board, the RCMP, and Canadian Security Intelligence Services (CSIS). One editorial describes the changes in tax laws as a “dishonourable attack meant to intimidate environmental groups.” These incremental changes have prompted Edward Snowden and Ralph Nader to chime in and issue their own warnings.

Do our elected officials believe it’s acceptable to stifle dissent in a democracy through the use of fear? Are they actually as afraid of extremists who behead others as they are of environmentalists who challenge old conceptions of economic justice? Or is Prime Minister Harper, trained by the University of Calgary as a neoclassical economist, so beholden to the narrative of carbon-intensive growth, that he believes it should undermine the bedrock of a just society–our freedoms and right to self-expression? A functioning democracy requires dissent so citizens can hold their leaders accountable when they go too far.

I hope this is all simply a sick intimidation exercise, because if Bill C-51 actually represents the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in the name of carbon-intensive growth, this could very well signal the beginning of a dark time. Peaceful resistance to burning fossil fuels cannot be futile.

I should clarify that I’m not just embodying the voice of the left wing fringe in Canada. In fact, I happen to believe the principles of a steady state economy–an economy that is truly economically stable–is fully coherent with traditional ‘conservative’ values. Former conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark is one of the leading voices cautioning against allowing national security services to administer justice without proper oversight. As he mentioned, the problem is that secret police services perform “in the shadows,” and can destroy lives by allowing suspicion to run rampant before the appropriate checks and balances can be applied in the courts. C-51, he argues, could be more damaging than no bill at all.

The only thing that would be more disturbing than the idea that our government believes these actions are just, is the prospect that Canadians might be too afraid and passive to challenge this bill. Perhaps we adore our oppressors more than we ought to. And by oppressors, I’m not just referring to the authors and supporters of C-51. I’m talking about our own propensity to consume and accumulate ad nausem, amusing ourselves to death as our civil liberties are eroded in plain sight.

So let’s hope all this talk of secret police is indeed exaggerated. While some environmentalists may feel afraid and needlessly manipulated, others will speak out and shame Canada on the international stage. If this whole charade becomes too absurd, some of us may even consider moving to Denmark, or Germany, where more sophisticated governments have chosen to confront a challenging future with foresight rather than intimidation.

Or more optimistically, maybe we can see this as a promising step on the road to real change. Arthur Schopenhauer said that “all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Perhaps we have arrived at stage two, with the government playing the role of the violent opposition. If so, I look forward to stage three–acceptance–being right around the corner.

Oil and Real Estate Bubbles in Canada: What Goes up Won’t so Smoothly Come Down

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoFive years ago, I noted how unsustainable Canadian economic growth is fuelled by debt, which is leveraged to increase the prices–and ‘profitability’–of assets like oil holdings and real estate. It might as well be called “phantom growth,” because it’s bound to disappear in due course. When prices are high, the debt-based Ponzi scheme functions; when prices sustain lows, the scheme unravels. With Canada’s oil and real estate sectors both apparently slowing down, will it lead to a ‘Minsky moment?’

Economist Hyman Minsky studied financial instability as a result of debt accumulation, and his work was largely ignored by mainstream economists. He noted that debt-heavy capitalist economies exhibit inflations and deflations that tend to spin out of control–inflation feeds inflation and deflation feeds deflation. The ‘Minsky moment’ is the moment where our financial system begins to experience deflationary stress due to price shifts. Historically, government interventions to contain debt spirals were not terribly competent, and–other factors notwithstanding–the sheer volume of debt that has been leveraged makes the global economy poised for contraction. Canada’s recent dependence upon asset inflation makes it particularly vulnerable.

Where has all the Money Come From?

Debt has been leveraged in several investment streams, including derivatives, securities, and ordinary debt. After 2008, international quantitative easing–essentially the creation of money from nothing–has partly facilitated further investment in unconventional and costly oil production methods. As long as international prices and investment levels remain high, it is feasible for unconventional oil to achieve a return on the huge amounts of money and energy required to get it out of the ground. But the longer oil prices remain low, the longer investors will be exposed to defaults.

Investors include ordinary folks by virtue of our holdings in pension funds and RRSPs. Laricina Energy has defaulted on financing extended by Canada’s largest pension fund, the public Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board. We can likely expect defaults to international investors as well, which should create upward pressure on interest rates as investors try to cover exposure to losses.

Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

These debt-fuelled investments likely won’t come down as smoothly as they went up. Photo Credit: Robert Fairchild

Optimism in the resource extraction industry–despite its disproportionately small role in creating jobs for Canadians–has fostered optimism in other parts of the economy, including real estate. One Canadian commentator remarked that the causes for slowdown in the two sectors are “completely unconnected.” They’re quite well-connected when you notice that in both areas, investors are ‘conservatively’ lending their money to what they think are sure bets, with the expectation of certain returns. In both cases, debt has been leveraged systemically to push prices higher.

Deutshe Bank has proclaimed that Canada is the most overvalued real estate market in the world, by as much as 63%. Canada’s current Bank Governor, Stephen Poloz (who is subject to ‘home country bias’) concedes that the market is overvalued, but by only 30% in his estimate–if only prices were quite so objective! As defaults in other sectors of the economy put upward pressure on interest rates, investment slows. Sure bets become bad bets, and real estate ‘growth’ will evaporate, too.

Debt and the Growth Imperative

Growth–even when it’s illusory or damaging–is an imperative in debt-heavy economies because the economy must expand by at least the rate of interest; if this doesn’t happen, the risk of default is potentially catastrophic. As Richard Douthwaite writes, the choice is between growth and collapse in a debt-based banking system due to the contagion of default–not growth and stability. In order to feed the growth imperative, we’ve normalized the practice of using debt to gamble on unsound high-return investments. In a saner banking system that didn’t require growth at the rate of interest, deflation might be cause for relief among millennials who have been priced out of the real estate market, or among those who have general concerns about the long-term consequences of unconventional oil production.

But in an overgrown lending system that feeds phantom growth, what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down. After a string of defaults in the unconventional oil sector, credit would tighten, oil prices would react with further unpredictable volatility, and the banking system could require either the kind of government bailout we saw in 2008, or a ‘bail-in,’ where bondholders would cover some of the losses by providing equity for the bank. Canadians have likely forgotten by now that the federal government passed legislation in 2013 that allows banks to take money from bondholders.

Most importunately, unsustainable debt drives the expansion of the physical economy as a self-reinforcing (‘positive’) feedback, despite the fact that we’re pushing up against the planet’s physical limits. Debt is the engine of growth which drives climate change and rapid biodiversity loss.

The Steady State Solution to Overleveraging

It’s insane to require growth just to pay for the invented convention of ‘interest,’ which is at odds with basic physics and the fundamental geochemistry of the planet. But that’s how we roll these days. We celebrate the overexuberant rise in home values, all too willing to count this rise as positive GDP growth. We encourage spending money on products faster than it’s earned, and the debt-backed economy commands us to repeat this inherently unstable practice until the bubbles burst and the financial system collapses.

If we’re staring down the barrel of another inevitable financial crisis due to the fact that instability is built right into the system, why don’t we try doing things a little differently next time? When confronted with another need for a bail-out, rather than “priming the pump” and resurrecting a dead financial system, governments should gradually reduce the ability of banks to leverage so much. Maybe we could even begin to invest in more meaningful things, like small businesses that re-localize and de-carbonize the economy.

As Herman Daly suggests, increasing the fractional reserve requirement would have the effect of reducing risky lending. He writes,

With 100% reserves every dollar loaned to a borrower would be a dollar previously saved by a depositor (and not available to him during the period of the loan), thereby re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. With credit limited by saving (abstinence from consumption) there will be less lending and borrowing and it will be done more carefully–no more easy credit to finance the massive purchase of “assets” that are nothing but bets on dodgy debts.

By decreasing the potential to ‘leverage’ assets, the relationship between real savings and investment would be restored, and we wouldn’t be encouraging periodic wild swings in the economy and spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need. After all, when confronted with rapid biodiversity loss, climate change, and other serious planet-wide problems, indulging the whims of a risk-prone banking system seems to me an unnecessary distraction, particularly if what goes up doesn’t so smoothly come down.

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.

Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoIn my last post, I asked whether human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, which would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.

What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?

A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.

Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.

But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.

Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy

The survivalists among us are easiest to spot. Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy

We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined $h!t hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.

Then there are the hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?

And finally, the denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe–just maybe–human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.

I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between the ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn spaceship earth around.