by Gary Gardner
The looks I get are familiar at this point: the blank stare screaming What do you mean, a no-growth economy? The frown of doubt that silently demands, Are you crazy? This is how skepticism about degrowth and steady-state economics manifests in my own life.
The work of a steady-state proponent is not for the faint of heart, to be sure. Steady state economies are sorely needed today but are far from being widely understood, much less adopted. Yet we’d better become more skilled in promoting the cause, because we don’t have decades to build mass support for it (unless we’re willing to settle for a much smaller steady state with a threadbare cupboard of natural capital).
How can we talk about degrowth, steady state economies, doughnut economics, and the like in a way that gets a hearing? Here are a few thoughts from my experience.
Play the Logic Card
The first step is to use simple, irrefutable logic: Infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet. Economic activity requires resources, from water to lumber to iron ore, that exist in finite supply. People with common sense readily grasp this self-evident truth. (But note must be made of economist Robert Bradley’s straight-faced observation that “Natural resources originate from the mind, not the ground, and therefore are not depletable.” So there’s that.) Yet even as skeptical friends concede the point of resource finitude, they also seem confident that their quiver of counterarguments remains full. Any number of objections flow forth, all deserving of a hearing and a response.
A common initial objection is that “nobody actually says we should grow forever.” True enough; “infinite growth” seldom appears in national economic policy statements. But it’s there by default, in the absence of any mention of an endpoint to growth. Rare is the prime minister or president who declares, “We’ve grown enough and now must stop,” or “Our goal is to grow for the next five years, then be done.” A refreshing exception is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who lamented last week that “Many economists remain stuck in an inexorable growth narrative…” and who called for an effort to “rebalance economy, ecology and ethics.”
Most political leaders uttering messages like these would surely be looking for new work soon. But in their insistence on growth and their fierce resistance to discussing a no-growth economic future, they might as well declare, “Growth forever!” So when skeptical friends play the “nobody says infinite” card, challenge them to name any political or business leader—beyond Higgins—who even hints at an expiration date for growth.
Another objection is that a steady state economy suggests permanent recession, an ongoing downward spiral of despair. This misconception is likely rooted in the loose definition of recession: “a marked slippage of economic activity.” But while degrowth would indeed mean a brake on economic activity, it would not be applied haphazardly but designed to establish patterns of nature-bounded resource use. This would be done by, as one policy example, adopting cap-auction-trade systems in the commons sector for allocating basic resources, the caps being based on biophysical limits.
To be clear, a steady state economy can and should advance development, defined as qualitative development that requires no increase in throughput. Brian Czech and Herman Daly wrote two decades ago that a steady state economy would involve a reorganization of economic activity, not an across-the-board slashing of it: “…organic farms may supplant factory farms, the proportion of bicycles to Humvees may increase, and professional soccer may attract more fans while NASCAR attracts fewer. As long as the physical size of the economy remains constant in the long run, a developing economy is a steady state economy.”
Of course, we could all be poor and despairing in a steady state economy. But that depends on the endowment of natural capital we have to work with, which in turn depends on how soon the world’s economies stop liquidating that endowment. The point for skeptical friends is that while despair and impoverishment are possible in a steady state economy, they are certain if we maintain our current course, because ongoing liquidation of natural capital is a regular practice of economies today.
“Aren’t We Already on It?”
Other friends, attuned to the structural makeup of modern economies, object that growth need not mean material growth, that GDP can grow without adding to resource use. Firms are forever finding new ways to increase the efficiency of their operations, for example. Economic activity is increasingly shifting to services—banking, insurance, dry cleaning, and the like—whose resource footprint is less than that of goods. Won’t innovations like these, which strive to do more with less, end the need for mines and landfills, reduce our materials footprint, and deflate the argument for steady state economies?
No as much as you’d think.
Resource efficiency can be helpful but it doesn’t necessarily lead to lower levels of resource use overall. Total resource use grows even as efficiency increases, whether because population increases, people on average boost their consumption, companies aggressively pursue growth, or because developing more efficient technology requires growth with previous (less-efficient) technology. These characteristics are all in play in much of the world, so expect efficiency increases to be regularly and systematically undercut by these dynamics. Make sure your friends understand this often-overlooked truth.
Here’s a recent example of growth undercutting efficiency: Last month, Starbucks proudly announced expansion of its “Greener Store” program, which it claims reduces water and energy use by 30 percent compared to historic store practices. But if the company also expands as it did in the past decade, nearly doubling the number of Starbucks properties, its growth would offset efficiency gains, and then some. From a resource-saving perspective, Starbucks would be better off shelving its Greener Store program and instead committing not to open new stores (and not to increase sales in any way). Of course, its best course of action would be to do both, to increase efficiency and stop growing.
The message for your friends: Efficiency may be helpful, but it’s sure not the same as conservation, which requires a capping, if not a reduction, in total resource use. Which companies can claim to have achieved that?
Even activity that seems nonphysical has a real physical impact. What could be more immaterial than Bitcoin, whose very essence is algorithms and mathematical formulae? Yet the computations at the heart of cryptocurrency operations require the enormous computing power of servers housed in warehouse-sized buildings. Bitcoin alone consumes more energy than all of Norway does in a year.
The fact is that all activity requires energy and resources. Even meditating on a mountaintop requires food energy for the meditator. Challenge your friends to find the energy and materials in supposedly “dematerialized” economic activity, because they’re there.
“Plenty of time, Cassandra!”
Other skeptics assume we have time to figure things out. Any environmental and social catastrophes created by incessant growth are decades or centuries in the future. In this perspective, a steady state economy is a rash and reckless response to distant and avoidable crises.
The truth is that we are driving off environmental cliffs today, not in some distant future. Every environmental headline represents economic activity whose side effects could not be absorbed by nature. Some of these are local and easily resolved: a polluted river can be healed by applying filters that can prevent discharges. But a growing number of challenges are global in scope and have no simple technological fixes. These include climate change, species loss, and the creation of the ozone hole. Spin-off effects of climate change like sea-level rise and ocean acidification are also global in extent. Water scarcity, soil erosion, deforestation, and air pollution manifest independently across our planet, but their occurrence on every inhabited continent makes them effectively global.
In sum, we experience large-scale excesses never seen by any previous generation, all of which are driving catastrophes-in-the-making. Point to the evidence and ask your friends: Is the cliff miles down the road, or directly ahead?
Go on Offense, Positively
Perhaps the most powerful argument available to proponents of the steady state economy is that re-made economies could increase our wellbeing. Far from resigning ourselves to a grand sacrifice, we could be signing on to, on balance, a happy advance. Degrowth would allow us to recover from the addiction to consumption, as people would no longer use purchases to satisfy needs for affection, self-esteem, and self-actualization. It could also bring an end to mass poverty and ease societal stresses, because of the equity emphasis found in steady state economies. Meanwhile, the natural environment would begin its long road to recovery.
Dangle these advantages in front of friends. Make it real. Ask if they, like many people surveyed, would choose more time off over a salary increase, if given the option. Have they ever wondered why nobody swims in the river in their city, and wouldn’t it be a great amenity if everyone could (as promised in the 1972 Clean Water Act)? Have they noticed that their windshields are no longer covered with bugs after a long summer drive (as they were decades ago), if they can understand this as representative of widespread species loss, and if this shouldn’t be a high priority for correction. And do they really believe the current course of frequent environmental catastrophes, social stress, and growing inequality can continue, and if this is a world they want to live in.
The debate over a steady state economy is one we can win. And it’s increasingly relevant as environmental and social catastrophes multiply in scale and frequency. While crazed looks from skeptical friends may still be the norm, progress is evident. Look at the commitments of Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Barcelona to set maximum and minimum limits, using principles of doughnut economics. These advances are built on a base of popular support, advances that can energize our own evangelizing efforts. If we learn to develop effective talking points and internalize inspirational examples, we’ll be ready to meet the moment unfolding before us.
Gary Gardner is CASSE’s Managing Editor.