Rio+20 Needs to Address the Downsides of Growth

by Herman Daly

Note from the editor: The Natural Resources Forum asked 29 experts, including Herman Daly, “What do you think should be the two or three highest priority political outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in June 2012?”[1] His answer succinctly sums up the steady-state perspective.

Image overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro

Herman Daly explains the perspective of the steady state economy that the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development should prioritize. (Image: CC0, Credit: LhcCoutinho).

The conclusion of the 1972 Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome still stands 40 years later. Even though economies are still growing and still put growth in the first place, it is no longer economic growth, at least in wealthy countries, but has become uneconomic growth. In other words, the environmental and social costs of increased production are growing faster than the benefits, increasing “illth” faster than wealth, thereby making us poorer, not richer. We hide the uneconomic nature of growth from ourselves by faulty national accounting, because growth is our panacea, indeed our idol, and we are very afraid of the idea of a steady state economy. The increasing illth is evident in exploding financial debt, biodiversity loss, and the destruction of natural services, most notably climate regulation. The major job of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is to help us overcome this denial and shift the path of progress from quantitative growth to qualitative development, from bigger to better. Specifically, this will mean working toward a steady state economy at a sustainable (smaller than present) scale relative to the containing ecosystem that is finite and already overstressed. Since growth now makes us poorer, not richer, poverty reduction will require sharing in the present, not the empty promise of growth in the future.


[1]Vanpeperstraete, B. et al. 2011. What do you think should be the two or three highest priority political outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in June 2012? Natural Resources Forum: A United Nations Sustainable Development Journal 35, 4:334-342.

Herman DalyHerman Daly is CASSE Chief Economist, Professor Emeritus (University of Maryland), and past World Bank senior economist.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
3 replies
  1. Ronald Brown
    Ronald Brown says:

    A very happy and sustainable new year to you Herman. May you enjoy a long and rich life.

    All the best;

    Mr. Ronald Brown; Transformation Leader

  2. Mark Rego-Monteiro
    Mark Rego-Monteiro says:

    An important formulation of what is needed. Prof. Daly has proposed the ISEW index as an alternative to the GDP, along with tax proposals at this site and in his written work, such as Beyond Growth and his textbook, Ecological Economics.

    Ultimately, a UN conference will have difficulty making any significant progress because of the nature of political and economic power. The concentration of power at current levels fundamentally underlies the problematic existing practices that prevail. Perhaps if policies like the Renewable Energy Grid Access Payment laws so successful in Denmark and Germanys´pioneering efforts with wind and solar power served as an inspiration, much progress could be made. That policy itself, fortunately, has spread. Otherwise, the NGO forums that accompany these conferences offers more hope, in my view.
    Green America, a US NGO, has not long ago lead a campaign supporting consumers to withdraw their bank accounts from big banks and open accounts in local community banks, especially co-operative credit unions. The US National Co-operative Bank offers another exciting example in their promotion of local food co-operatives. New York´s South Bronx opened a food co-op that demontstrates hope in underdeveloped neighborhoods, while New York´s Park Slope Food Co-op and others, which have been around since the 1970s, have been buying wind or green power. The next step would be actually to construct micro-turbines, solar panels, and other clean micro-generators like villages in Denmark, Germany, and other members of the Sustainable Cities Network.
    Voluntary Simplicity and Slow Food represent two movements, along with the certifications like organic food, Fair Trade, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), offer people in communities all kinds of strategies.
    Taken altogether, and pursuing economic strategies of many green businesses and other NGOs, the steady state economy could easily be within reach, and Dr. DAly´s and CASSE´s formulations advanced significantly.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!
(No profanity, lewdness, or libel.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *