Real Dichotomies Are Not Made “False” by Soft Science or Political Pandering

 by Brian Czech

It’s a good thing, the proliferating discussion about economic growth and environmental protection among ecologists. Such discussion was sorely lacking just ten years ago. Without addressing the subject of economic growth, the ecological professions would be but marginally relevant to society and doomed to extinction. Money is running out for research that appears benign at best and wasteful at worst in the days of fiscal austerity, otherwise known as the 21st century.

Much of the discussion about economic growth may be attributed to scientific, professional societies that got the ball rolling by developing technical reviews and position statements over the past decade. Some of these positions are scientifically sound, while others stop short. None are perfect, of course, yet some of the professional societies have described in rigorous detail the “fundamental conflict” between economic growth and environmental protection with the fortitude of their scientific convictions. A short list would include The Wildlife Society, U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, and American Society of Mammalogists. The leadership provided by these societies has been invaluable and is finally reaping rewards for students, faculty, programs and universities.

How about an ice-cold glass of “sustainable growth?”

A few other professional societies haven’t yet run out of green Koolaid. The Ecological Society of America, for example, still calls for the supremely oxymoronic “sustainable growth.” Many ESA members who get it about limits to growth have been, to put it perhaps too frankly, victimized and embarrassed by a vocal and influential minority that refuses to shed their political training wheels on the racetrack of economic policy matters.

And so it came as no surprise to see the recent exchange (February and March, 2012) on the “Value of Nature” between Bernd Blossey and Michelle Marvier in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The fact that they carried out this discourse in Frontiers suggests exposure to ESA deliberations, publications, and politics. An ESA background can make an author susceptible to muddling the message on the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Consider Marvier’s second-from-last paragraph:

“I have found that many conservationists view striving for material gains and the prioritization of people above non-human nature as societal pathologies that need to be cured. This is an unproductive and misanthropic attitude…”

So far so good, for the most part. Her first sentence would be hard to argue with. Her second one has a large dose of truth as well. On the other hand, “liquidator syndrome” is every bit as misanthropic, as I described in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. Liquidator syndrome occurs when a conspicuous consumer gets psychologically mired down in Maslow’s fourth level (the pursuit of self-esteem) rather than progressing to the fifth (self-actualization). Liquidator syndrome manifests in such behaviors as Hummer driving, McMansion building, fur-coat wearing, etc. Let’s face it: it’s bad for the environment, biodiversity, and the grandkids.

But neither Marvier nor I are psychologists. We shouldn’t quibble about which end of the spectrum – extreme conservation or extreme consumption – is more misanthropic. We’re ecologists and, therefore, economists of nature. Therefore the bigger bone to pick starts with the next sentence:

“… Setting up dichotomies between economic growth versus protection of nature is a dead-end for conservation. In a separate survey of 800 American voters… 76% felt that ‘we can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs for Americans at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.’ Only 19% felt that ‘sometimes protections for land and water and a strong economy are in conflict and we must choose one over the other.’ However, when the question is framed such that people are forced to choose, the economy wins handily.”

There is enough wrong in these sentences to fill a small textbook, but let’s start with the most obvious. “Setting up dichotomies” sounds too close to “making up dichotomies” or “inventing dichotomies” for comfort. It reminds me of the time some colleagues and I were attacked for supposedly “assuming” there was a conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, when in fact our group had concluded, after many years of study, that indeed there was such a conflict. Meanwhile the accusers had virtually no background in the subject of economic growth.

In ecological terms, due to the tremendous breadth of the human niche, the human economy grows at the competitive exclusion of nonhuman species in the aggregate. That’s sound, peer-reviewed science. Those individuals and organizations that have conducted due diligence on the topic have invariably concluded as much.

We can’t make a dichotomy a false one by wishing it away and ignoring the ecological and physical sciences. But we can sure confuse readers by conflating economic growth with a “strong economy.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what Marvier does.

An economy can be strong, with low unemployment, fiscal soundness, and a stable currency, regardless of whether it is growing or non-growing. Ultimately, in fact, the only sustainable alternative is a steady state economy; neither growth nor recession may continue perpetually. More importantly, long before a growing economy breaches its long-run carrying capacity, economic growth starts causing more problems than it solves. In that sense it is “uneconomic growth” and not worthy of the label “strong.”

It behooves ecologists who want to weigh in on economic growth to stop and think about precisely what it is. Of course you can always try to reinvent the phrase when your argument is failing. But that’s unproductive because economic growth is what it is, and the policy maker knows what it is. Economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. (It’s not the growth of the bicycle sector while the SUV sector crashes.) Economic growth absolutely entails a growing human population and/or per capita production and consumption. It is indicated by increasing GDP, or gross domestic product. It’s a policy goal with clear-cut fiscal, monetary, and trade policy levers and buttons. It’s also a policy goal with widespread public support.

Which brings us to the final flaw (for our brief purposes) of Marvier’s editorial. Her argument seems to be: “The public is enamored with economic growth. Therefore, we should not talk about the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.” But that slope is so slippery that we should expect someone further down to chime in, “Yup, in fact we should say that there is no conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.”

Now that’s a dead-end for conservation. Yet that is exactly what many ecologists — not to mention economists and politicians — have said for decades. It is a fallacy of epic proportions and, in my opinion, the single biggest failure of the ecological professions and the environmental community thus far.

It’s also a failure that is being rectified as one professional organization after another puts its scientific integrity where its mouth is, clarifying the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.

Let’s not underestimate the public’s ability to deal with a conflict, once it’s been clarified. The American public eventually dealt strongly with the use of organochlorines, the deterioration of the ozone layer, and even with smoking. In each case, step 1 was coming clean on the science and refuting such revolting rhetoric as “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.”

In this case, step 1 is coming clean on economic growth, refuting the revolting rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Let’s tell it like it is, plainly but also with the nuance earned by studying the matter. By telling it like it is, we’ll have a message that resonates with the public’s common sense. That’s what produces respect, relevance, and ultimately effectiveness in the policy arena.

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6 replies
  1. Burak
    Burak says:

    Well said. Policy and incentives for economic growth ultimately result in waste of resources, whether they be natural such as (water, oil or biodiversity) or other. Humans and their economy would benefit much more from incentives for efficient use of goods and services. The real issue is that economic growth, at least that resulting from increased consumption/production per capita, is bad for the economy itself in the long run.

  2. Dave McNaught
    Dave McNaught says:

    I read and enjoy the Daly news commentaries without fail. This one identifies an issue with which I have had an intimate connection. After almost 3 decades of work as a professional environmental advocate I — prematurely — took early retirement because I was uncomfortable with the pragmatism of even the best (my opinion) environmental organizations in the world. They simply believed that direct demands for reform of the notions of contemporary capitalism were beyond their purview as “environmental advocates”. This issue was deemed “too big” to address. My question to my superiors was always, “If we don’t advocate these fundamental challenges, who will?”

    I was elated when people like Gus Speth in his 2008 book, began to acknowledged the inherent weaknesses of these organizations. He acknowledged that environmental protection could not be adequately achieved without significant reform of contemporary structures of capitalism (some modification of the relentless preoccupation with economic growth). This in no way requires abandonment of general capitalist processes, but it surely entails a modification of the narrow and provincial form of the economy we have thus far created.

  3. John Field
    John Field says:

    I suggest that mismatch rather than dichotomy is the problem. The mismatch is between environmentally sustainable economic growth and economic growth perceived to be still essential in advanced economies in order to maintain a high level of remunerated employment, which in turn is seen as a key element in the functional distribution of income. The solution must be to cease focusing on growth as though it were an end in itself, even though ample is being produced already, and to turn our attention to the systems for distributing purchasing power and the cultures behind them, which were born in times when incentive to produce was all important.

  4. G
    G says:

    It appears that while criticizing some for toning down the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection in (presumed) appeasment of the voting public, we continue to ignore the real elephant in the room–unsustainable human population growth. I’m somewhat disappointed that this point is mentioned only briefly in one sentence of this article, yet also am glad that it is acknowledged at all.

    A steady state economy cannot remain strong with low unemployment rate if the human population is to increase uncontrollably. Unfortunately, any hint at the idea of population control for humans is to be greeted with ten times more verbal lapidation than those suggesting the fallacy of “sustainable growth”, even from many ecologists. The result is few daring to tell it like it is about the ultimate reason for economic growth.

  5. Randy Bangert
    Randy Bangert says:

    I decided several months ago that I can no longer tolerate the ESA position on economic growth. I will NOT renew my membership in ESA even though I have been a member for 20 years. I am an ecologist and I had hoped that a professional ecological organization, of all people, would easily understand such a BASIC concept as the trade off between growth and conservation, especially since it is fundamentally rooted in a hard science!

    I am encouraging other ESA members to follow suit.



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