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A Not-So-Nobel Prize for Growth Economists

William Nordhaus shaping vulnerable minds in his Yale classroom – Oct. 8, 2018.  (Photo credit: Yale/ ©Mara Lavitt)

by Brian Czech

How ironic for the Washington Post to opine “Earth may have no tomorrow” and, two pages later, offer up the mini-bios of William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, described as Nobel Prize winners.

Without more rigorous news coverage, few indeed will know that Nordhaus and Romer are epitomes of neoclassical economics, that 20th century occupation isolated from the realities of natural science. Nordhaus and Romer may deserve their prizes for economic modeling, but each gets an F in advanced sustainability.

Nordhaus won his prize (actually the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”— not the Nobel Prize per se) for his mastery of mathematical modeling. He applied his skills to carbon taxes for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. All along he prescribed economic growth – the key driver in greenhouse gas emissions—as the way to afford such taxes!

In 1991 Nordhaus uttered one of the most iconic sentences in the history of unsustainability: “Agriculture, the part of the economy that is sensitive to climate change, accounts for just 3% of national output. That means that there is no way to get a very large effect on the US economy” (Science, September 14, 1991, p. 1206).  Think about that. He must have set a graveyard’s worth of classical economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill…) to rolling. They’d be rolling in laughter if the folly of Nordhaus wasn’t so dangerous.

No follow-up should be needed to expose the ludicrous nature of Nordhaus’s statement, but just in case: Agriculture is the very foundation of the economy. No agriculture, no anything else. Think about it. Any hit on agriculture—whether from climate change, bad luck, or stupid policies—has a magnified effect on the entire, integrated economy. Nordhaus’s “3%” statement was a classic case of ivory-tower cluelessness.

Too many trees for seeing the forest?

Romer, meanwhile, deserves some credit for his elegant theory of “endogenous technological change,” which took the work of Robert Solow (the father of economic growth theory) to the next level by describing in nuanced detail how R&D leads to technological progress. That said, there has never been a bigger forest missed for so many trees. For him, all that mattered was capital and labor; he said nothing about land, natural resources, or the environment.

Some readers may recall Julian Simon, the ultimate Pollyanna who claimed in the 1980s (and I paraphrase after thoroughly reviewing his 813 page Ultimate Resource II during my post-doc studies), “Sure, there are environmental problems caused by growth, but the more people we have, the more brains we have to solve the problems. Therefore, the more people we have the better, without limit forever.” Romer’s work amounted to a highly nuanced repetition of Simon’s self-christened “grand theory.”

Romer said in a nutshell: We have capital and labor. Part of the labor force is devoted to research and development (R&D). As limits arise, we get over them with more R&D. So we need ever more people, with ever more devoted to R&D, to keep raising the bar for GDP.

For Romer, it was as if ideas alone could overcome water shortages, biodiversity loss, mineral depletion, soil erosion, pollution, and climate change. As if ideas could be perpetually borne out of human minds struggling in a degrading environment, a warming climate, and an imperiled agricultural base (not to mention a crowded, noisy, and stressed out society). Romer was like a cook thinking up recipes with no idea where the ingredients would come from.

A generation and then some of economists and business students have been led to the exceedingly dangerous myth that there is no limit to either population or economic growth. Nordhaus and Romer have done as much as anyone to lead them into such a fallacy. Yet politicians and publics heed their advice, while the media regurgitates their fallacious notions.

Does Earth have “no tomorrow,” as the Washington Post wondered? One thing is for sure: Any hope for a happy tomorrow on Earth means rejecting the neoclassical economics of today. Even when such economics wins the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”

 


Unlimited Competition Is Not Sustainable

by Gunnar Rundgren

Large farms are increasingly dominating crop production in the United States. In the early 1980s, most farms produced crops on less than 600 acres, but the majority of today’s farms grow crops on at least 1,100 acres. And many farms are ten times that size. Furthermore, in 1987 the midpoint dairy herd size was 80 cows; by 2007 it was 570 cows. The change in hogs is even more striking, from 1,200 hogs produced per year to 30,000. This long-term shift in farm size has been accompanied by greater specialization. Beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, livestock operations were moved to sites away from crops. In 1900 there were dairy cows and hogs on three-fourths of all farms, but in 2005 only one farm in twenty had either dairy cows or hogs. This separation has allowed crop farmers to devote more time and resources to crop production and gradually increase yields and acreages.

Larger crop farms perform better financially, on average, than smaller farms. The difference is mainly in the cost of production. According to a report of the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

Larger farms appear to be able to realize more production per unit of labor and capital. These financial advantages have persisted over time, which suggests that shifts of production to larger crop farms will likely continue in the future.

Research shows that farms with more than 2,000 acres use 2.7 hours of work per acre of corn and pay equipment costs of $432. In contrast, farms with 100 to 249 acres require more than four times as much labor and spend double the amount for equipment.

This scaling-up of farms causes a seldom recognized paradox in agriculture. Increases in farm productivity coincide with periods of poor returns for farmers. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in his 1910 annual report, wrote, “Year after year it has been my privilege to record another prosperous year in agriculture.” What has been called a golden age for American agriculture — the period between 1900 and 1914 — was a period of almost no growth in the sector. Output per worker increased by only one percent between 1900 and 1910, and total farm output by only eight percent. Meanwhile the population increased by a whopping 21 percent. The result was higher food prices and thus the prosperous years.

Conversely in the 1950s, agricultural output increased at a rapid pace as a result of increased productivity. However, the decade is remembered as a time of hardship for most farm families. Input prices went up and farm product prices fell. A million and a half families ultimately gave up farming in this decade as they couldn’t make ends meet. Those that survived were able to buy up the land from those that lost out. A similar period came in the 1980s when productivity grew three percent annually, product prices fell, and input prices and interest rates soared. Willard Cochrane writes, “In terms of agricultural development for the national economy the decade of 1980s was a huge success; in terms of the financial well-being of most farmers it was an economic nightmare.”

Combines on a big farm

Can the benefits of increasing scale on farms cover the social and environmental costs? (photo credit: T.P. Martins)

Farmers are stuck on a treadmill. Competition forces them to increase productivity, but the increased productivity leads to lower prices and economic hardship for the farmers. This treadmill is the reason for enormous increases in both farm size and productivity. The vanguard farmers adapt, mostly by increasing size, at the expense of their less successful colleagues.

For farmers who can’t compete, there is no way out — or rather there is only one way out — get out! This weeding out of small farms has happened locally and regionally, but the system ultimately works the same way globally, where all farmers compete with each other. Compare, for instance, conditions in Europe to the largest grain-growing areas around the world. For a European farmer, the landscape is varied, and roads, rivulets, hills, and buildings cause fields to be small. Because of land scarcity, land prices are also high and not determined primarily by agricultural productivity. The scale of acreage and machinery can never be as large as on the plains of the United States, Russia, or Argentina. European costs will be higher, even if European farmers can intensify production and get higher yields per acre.

The treadmill is driven by specialization and drives further specialization, filling each farm with just one or two crops or huge livestock operations. The economic and social implications are huge, but the environmental implications are even bigger. Large-scale landscapes get stripped of variation and biodiversity. These lands don’t produce the ecosystem services we need, and we’re left to try producing them elsewhere at high costs, assuming that’s possible.

This large-scale, linear, industrial model of farming has replaced a local, cyclical, and ecological model. The new model has yielded undeniable short-term economic success as measured by financial figures, but unlimited competition will never be sustainable. It’s amazing how running in place on a treadmill can lead us further and further astray.

Gunnar Rundgren has worked in organic farming for more than thirty years. He established the Torfolk farm together with Kari Örjavik, and he is the author of Garden Earth – From Hunter and Gatherer to Global Capitalism and Thereafter.

Where Infinite Growth Meets Biophysical Limit

by Eric Zencey

Eric Zencey is the author of the recently released book The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy. This essay is adapted from Zencey’s forthcoming history of Vermont’s environmental movement, Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State, which he co-authored with Elizabeth Courtney.

To achieve a sustainable, steady-state economy, we’re going to have to limit matter-and-energy throughput in the economy to what the planet can sustainably give to us and what it can sustainably absorb from us. Against that physical limit, though, the economy continually exerts pressure: it’s structured for continual expansion of its matter-and-energy throughput, as we are encouraged to want, to seek, to produce and to own more and more and more. What we need are adaptive mechanisms that can reconcile the two.

One such policy adaptation is in place but hasn’t been fully developed or conscientiously applied.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 instituted a national cleanup of the nation’s waterways, which had too long been treated as an open-access sink into which anyone could freely dump wastes and pollutants. Under the CWA, wastewater treatment facilities were built or upgraded and point source discharges — those coming from a single facility — were regulated and controlled. Water bodies that were considered dead in 1972 made remarkable recoveries.

Even so, by 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had categorized over 20,000 bodies of water (more than 40% of all those it assessed) as “impaired” — too polluted to be used for their “designated beneficial uses.” Clearly, if water quality was to be fully restored, more needed to be done.

The main problem was and continues to be “non-point” discharges — the diffuse pollution that is carried into waterways by runoff from land. Anything that is put on land can and will find its way into our waterways. The most problematic pollutants vary from basin to basin. Some of the most troublesome: the oil, gasoline, and road salt that find their way into our soils, streets, and parking lots as we use automobiles; untreated animal waste, including the burdens produced in some areas by farm animals and in others by pets; and fertilizers and pesticides, used by suburbanites to feed their lawns and by farmers to increase their yields in order to feed us.

The CWA outlined the manner in which non-point pollution was to be judged and limited: states were to identify impaired bodies of water and then set water quality standards for them. EPA rules written in 1985 and 1992 offered further guidance: states were to identify the pollutants that cause the impairment, and for each of those pollutants they were to identify the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that the body of water could absorb without being impaired. Their work would be reported to and reviewed by the EPA. How TMDLs would be enforced — how the scarce capacity of waterbodies to absorb effluents would be rationed — was left to state discretion.

Behind the notion of TMDL is sound, steady-state thinking: the capacity of bodies of water to absorb pollutants isn’t infinite, and the limits need to be discovered and respected.

Implementation and enforcement of the new rules wasn’t immediate. Some states, faced with significant expense, declined to comply with the law. Some sued to have the EPA do the job. The scientific work has been slow going. Between 1996 and 2003, a total of 7,327 TMDLs were approved nationwide, representing just 17% of the 42,193 bodies of water listed as impaired.

In Vermont, the issue of TMDLs came to a head in 1999, and experience there may be a guide to promoting the implementation of this finite-planet idea elsewhere. The controversy began with an application from Lowe’s, Inc. to build a store in South Burlington. The company received the necessary stormwater permits from the state in July of 2001, despite the fact that the store and its parking lot would force acres of runoff into Potash Brook, an impaired waterway. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) immediately appealed the permit decision. The appeal said that under the CWA, additional pollutants could not be discharged into the brook unless a mitigation and cleanup strategy were in place — a strategy that would require determination of the appropriate TMDLs, which hadn’t been prepared.

There were no TMDLs for Potash Brook for a simple reason: despite its carefully protected (and generally well-deserved) image as an environmentally aware state, Vermont hadn’t calculated any TMDLs at all. Meanwhile, well over 1,000 state-issued stormwater discharge permits had expired and were up for review. The Conservation Law Foundation had brought to light a major problem in the way that Vermont was managing its water resources and had revealed that the state was violating laws established under the Clean Water Act. “Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources,” said Chris Kilian, the CLF’s Natural Resources Project Director, “can no longer turn a blind eye to our serious water pollution problems. Rubber-stamping permits that will add more pollution is not acceptable.”

CLF appeals of the Lowe’s decision were pending when the two sides announced a settlement in May 2006. Lowe’s agreed to implement higher cleanup standards than the state had required. Measures included stormwater retention ponds and filtration systems for runoff not only for Lowe’s 12-acre site, but the entire commercial plaza of which the new store was a part. Taken together these remedies were designed to eliminate all impact on Potash Brook. As part of the agreement, Lowe’s agreed to monitor stream conditions both upstream and downstream of its discharge, to ensure that the “zero harm” standard would be met.

If the CWA can continue to encode finite-planet assumptions through its call for discovery of TMDLs of pollutants in the country’s bodies of water, and if those limits can be enforced through state action or by citizen lawsuits, one key element of a steady-state economy will be in place.

But it’s not going to be easy to reach that point. TMDLs remain a controversial and difficult topic, as might be expected of a regulatory device that operates at the intersection of human ambition and biophysical limit. And the state-by-state foundation of the law may hamper its effectiveness. For instance, of the fifty water bodies in Vermont that are officially classified as impaired because of acidification, the source of the pollutant — acid raid — is well beyond the power of the state to control. And much non-point-source water pollution in Vermont has its origin in agricultural practices, which Vermont legislators and regulators are loathe to tackle. As the strong base of the state’s economy and as a prime preserver of the working landscape, farming provides all Vermonters with many benefits, and the environmental movement is unanimous in wanting to see a healthy agricultural economy in the state. But farming practices are responsible for 38% of the phosphate pollution that leads to regular algae blooms in Lake Champlain (making it the second largest category, after urbanization at 46%). The blooms can be toxic to wildlife, humans, and domestic pets, and they prevent recreational use of the parts of the lake that are affected. If Vermont is to achieve its water quality goals, it will have to enforce TMDLs for all waters that drain into its lakes, even if those limits require changes in agricultural practice. By 2012, Vermont had established TMDLs for roughly 60% of the waters that had been identified as needing them.

The concept of TMDLs can be extended to other sinks and pollutants. A TMDL could be set for diesel exhaust from trucks, limiting the amount to what a particular airshed can absorb without ill effect. Paired with a similar understanding of the limits of source services — like the maximum sustainable yield figures that can be calculated for forests and fisheries — TMDLs point to one way of achieving a balance between human activity and planetary systems.

The research necessary to determine a TMDL is costly, and comes at a time when public budgets are already being strained (by, among other causes, a declining energy return on investment for oil that means more and more of our economy’s energy is dedicated to getting that energy). If we don’t like the expense of government regulation, if it looks like we can’t afford all that governmental overhead, then we’ve basically got three choices: retreat into an infinite-planet state of denial and let our economy destroy our habitat; require private enterprise to fund the necessary research as part of the cost of doing business on what is undeniably a finite planet; or find ways (like a carbon tax or other uptake and throughput taxes) to meter inputs sufficiently to bring economic activity well within biophysical limit, thereby making the regulatory burden and research expense of TMDL enforcement less needed.

Occupy the G-8

by Brent Blackwelder

This is the text of an address delivered by Brent Blackwelder to the Occupy Movement, in Frederick, Maryland, May 18, 2012 on the occasion of the annual meeting of the G-8 at Camp David.

Terrible economic times are facing billions of people worldwide. Where are the jobs? Roughly half of new college graduates in the U.S. cannot find work. Who’s getting all the money? The gap is widening between the one percent and the 99 percent.

At the same time, the world’s oceans are being devastated by overfishing, forests are being obliterated, mountains are being blown apart to get at the coal, and rivers around the world are being dammed, diverted, and drained of their water. A quarter of the species on the planet are headed toward extinction. Compounding these effects, the earth’s climate is being destabilized by emissions of greenhouse gases.

Driving this fiasco are casino economics, cheater economics, and futureless economics. It’s not a pretty picture. Why can’t we do better? What can we do about it? Are the powerful leaders of the G-8 nations gathered here going to provide the solutions?

If the past record of the G-8 is any guide, promises will be made, the World Bank will be assigned the role of savior, but monetary pledges won’t be fulfilled, and nothing major will happen to shift the status quo.

I propose to you today a bold paradigm shift in our economy — away from the futureless economics, away from the casino economics, and away from the cheater economics that run the global economy. We need an economics for the earth, its people, and all the life on this planet.

I suggest that the Occupy Movement could bring about an economic paradigm shift by adopting the steady state economy as its macroeconomic policy goal. That means an economy with stabilized levels of production and consumption, which means stabilizing population and per-person consumption. It means an economy that operates within the carrying capacity of the Earth and does not threaten present and future generations with its overbearing, bloating size.

Cheater Economics, Casino Economics, Futureless Economics

The global economy treats natural resources as if the Earth were a business in a liquidation sale. The global economic system of today is undermining the life-support systems of our planet.

One major shortcoming of capitalism is that it does not reveal the real ecological costs of commercial products. Furthermore, today’s capitalism allows corporations to externalize the damaging health and environmental costs of their activities. Today’s capitalism also tolerates massive taxpayer handouts to highly polluting corporations.

In the Casino Economy billions in profits are made without providing any goods or services — they are made with complex financial instruments sometimes referred to as derivatives. Complex financial instruments enable the avoidance of taxes. The financial sector in today’s U.S. economy is now about three times as large as the manufacturing sector.

In the aftermath of the big bank bailouts and the passage of the Dodd-Frank law to curtail high-risk lending, JP Morgan Chase recently announced a loss of $2 billion from its risky trading (now the bank says it’s over $3 billion). Hand-in-hand with cheater economics, many huge corporations put their profits in offshore tax havens and escape paying an estimated $100 billion to the U.S. Treasury.

In current economic practice, corporations are evaluated on their quarterly returns. There is little long-range thinking. Mainstream economists tell us 100 years from now is not worth worrying about. (One dollar a century from now is only worth pennies today.)  But such thinking runs counter to the values of most people. Parents are concerned about what kind of world their children and grandchildren will live in.

Futureless economics, casino economics, and cheater economics have no place in a steady state economy. But here are some examples of the damage they cause in the current economic sectors of energy extraction, agriculture, mining, and forestry.

1) Fossil fuels. Extractive industries are going to the most remote and riskiest places, such as the Arctic Ocean, to obtain oil. Uncleanable spills will be the inevitable result. Some of the most biologically diverse regions, such as the tropical rainforests, are being decimated by oil drilling. Oil and gas companies are extracting the dirtiest of fuels, such as tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Coal companies are using techniques like mountain-top removal to get at the coal in West Virginia. In the process they are creating a Martian landscape by obliterating the forested green mountains and destroying the entire hydrologic cycle.

Most extractive industries enjoy substantial handouts from governments. The U.S. is set to provide $110 billion over the next decade to the oil and coal industries. That’s right — some of the world’s richest companies enjoy taxpayer handouts, and some do not even pay income tax.

The health and environmental costs of oil extraction in places like Nigeria over the last 50 years are huge, but oil and gas companies like Shell have not cleaned up the more than 5,000 spills that have wrecked fisheries, polluted drinking water, and harmed the health of local people who have borne the brunt of the contamination.

2) Agricultural lands. Powerful agribusiness giants like Monsanto are trying to patent all seeds and control agriculture from top to bottom. Major meat companies like Smithfield operate gigantic animal factory slums that cause serious water pollution and load the air with noxious fumes that harm people’s health and displace local family farms.  As with fossil fuels, governments subsidize the polluters. Time Magazine showed that some of the biggest animal factory farms receive all sorts of handouts from state and local governments.

3) Forests: the world’s forests are rapidly being destroyed. The U.S. has set a horrible example going back to the 1800s when, for example, the state of Michigan was almost totally deforested. Instead of creating sustainable logging operations for the state, the timber industry abandoned Michigan and kept moving west. After seeing some of the horrendous logging along the West Coast, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “I hope the bastards who did this are roasting in Hell.”

The U.S. Forest Service is notorious for providing “below cost timber” sales in our National Forests. Corruption and bribery characterize logging operations around the world.

Friends of the Earth England and Friends of the Earth Ghana combined efforts to show that lumber in Ghana was being extracted, but taxes were not being paid on the real volume of timber being cut.

4) Minerals. Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Blood Diamond illustrates a typical problem with mining operations that seek gold, copper, diamonds, and other minerals. The use of cyanide to extract gold causes major pollution all over the world. The mining lobby in the U.S. has been so strong that the 1872 Mining Law and its subsidies have not been changed. The “pollute-and-run” practices of the past continue today on steroids.  As with oil, coal, and gas extraction, the damages to health, crops, and the air, land, and water are externalized on the public.

Elements of an Economics for the Earth: A Steady State Economy

There is no magic formula that can move the world to a sustainable, steady state economy. However, by pursuing any of the following actions, countries and localities can move in the right direction and set the stage for a paradigm shift to occur.

1) Get rid of polluter subsidies.  Give subsidies only to clean energy; no more subsidies for fossil fuels, agribusiness, and the like. About half the states exempt pesticides from their sales tax. Senator Sanders (I-VT) and Congressman Ellison (D-MN) have introduced legislation to eliminate all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry — a measure that would save $110 billion over the next decade.

2) Shift to a clean-energy basis for the global economy. It is technically feasible to run the global economy on a carbon-free and nuclear-free basis. Amory Lovins has a new eloquent description of his plan. Arjun Makhijani in Carbon Free, Nuclear Free provides another. California physicists Jacobson and Delucchi offer a slightly different plan in Scientific American (Nov, 2009) as does Lester Brown in World on the Edge.

3) Adopt the measures proposed by Senator Levin on tax dodging. Senator Levin (D-Michigan) is chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Investigation Subcommittee and has exposed a wide range of scandalous tax-dodging activities by corporations in American that deprive the Treasury of over $100 billion annually. A miniscule tax on global financial transactions and on currency transactions would yield hundreds of billions, while forcing players in the casino economy to pay at least something.

4) Change the indicators. The gross domestic product (GDP) is taken as a measure of society’s well-being, but in reality it measures how fast a nation is converting its natural resources into waste. It fails to account for the depletion of natural resources. Some states, including Maryland, have adopted the genuine progress indicator. And Bhutan has adopted Gross National Happiness as a better measure of well-being.

5) Restructure jobs. Adopting a four-day workweek can help reduce unemployment, spread the work, and provide time for people to spend with their families. The clean energy strategies described above would provide vastly more jobs per dollar than the fossil fuel industry. These jobs can materialize from dispersed renewable energy projects while our energy dollars remain in the community.

6. Support local investing. Michael Shuman’s new book Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street provides evidence that local investment does better than Wall Street stock purchases. The book presents a variety of examples of opportunities for investing in local businesses, local banks, and local exchanges. About two dozen studies have shown that such local spending and investments can provide several times as many jobs compared to investments in nationwide business. For example, for every $100 spent in a national book chain about $13 would remain in the local economy, whereas with $100 spent at a local bookstore, about $45 would remain.

Is a steady state economy just an idle utopian dream? Tim Jackson’s report, Prosperity Without Growth, prepared for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, provides a detailed discussion that makes a convincing case. Canadian economist Peter Victor has shown how the transition to a new economy can be accomplished in such a way that per capita income increases, unemployment declines, and poverty decreases.

In a world where propaganda and big money have undermined governance and the media, the Occupy Movement has a vital role to play by confronting decision makers, protesting polluting corporations, calling for an economic paradigm shift, and giving visibility to the paths for a healthier future.

Call Me a FOCer: Big Ideas under a Big Sky

by Rob Dietz

My final week as the director of CASSE was beyond belief. It included oddities such as bear poop, a speeding ticket, a discussion of steady state economics on horseback, and the juxtaposition of ostentatious consumption (an iconic billionaire’s vacation mansion) and humble sharing (an iconic poet/philosopher’s willingness to impart his lifelong wisdom). It also offered an opportunity to pause and reflect on humanity’s predicament, a reflection that produced feelings of hope for the future. All the while, I felt like the dumbest guy in the room.

Five or six months ago, I got a call from Charlie Sing, a prominent professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan. Charlie is one of those larger-than-life people that you occasionally meet.  In his presence, you quickly come to appreciate his Midwestern roots, and, even though he’s nearing retirement, he radiates farmboy charm. At the same time, his intellect is on full display. He likes big ideas, and he likes to think about out how society can make a transition to a resilient and sustainable future. Even more, though, he likes to share good-natured stories and see what new ideas and actions can emerge from the storytelling.

When he called, he invited me to participate in a gathering that he organizes at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. He told me that he was pulling together a meeting of friends to discuss ecological economics, sustainable agriculture, and public health, while cultivating a deeper understanding of what’s necessary to achieve a livable future on our overpopulated, overburdened, and over-polluted planet. Charlie is a fan of Herman Daly, and he wanted people at this meeting who could present Herman’s economic vision (Peter Victor, Josh Farley and I were all invited because of our Dalyist point of view). I hesitated to accept the invitation, mostly because I’ve been working to reduce the amount I travel (I’ve been avoiding air travel and trying to adjust to a more local existence). But Charlie’s charms won out, and I agreed to attend, although I determined I would drive to the meeting. I know that driving 900 miles is a sorry way to save on carbon emissions, but it was the best I could do, and I’m glad I did it.

The friends of Charlie (FOCers) are a remarkable gang. On paper, their credentials and accomplishments are formidable. In real life, they’re not only the “best and brightest,” but they’re also caring, hard working, and utterly unpretentious. They chair university departments, manage public programs, conceive and conduct major research projects, run nonprofit organizations, and write influential books. It’s comforting to know that these brilliant minds are hard at work finding ways to make society sustainable.

A couple of months before the meeting, I received a thick brown envelope in the mail. It contained a packet of reading material, including some of my favorite essays by Herman Daly, a selection of insightful papers from other FOCers, and an agenda. On the agenda, I saw that my name was attached to a presentation scheduled for the first night entitled “Strategies for Conserving Ecological Integrity.” My first thought was, “If I knew the strategies for conserving ecological integrity, my services would be in much higher demand!” To put it mildly, I was anxious about the presentation. I’ve given plenty of public talks, but those talks focus on the limits to growth and steady-state economics. I knew Peter Victor would comprehensively cover these topics in the morning, and I felt I had little to add that would enhance the FOCers’ knowledge. So I asked myself a couple of questions:

  1. What can I say that will be useful?
  2. What can I tell a room full of geniuses, most of whom know more than I do about ecological integrity?

Deadlines often provide inspiration. As the meeting approached, it hit me. The only story I could tell them that they didn’t already know was my own experience in trying to conserve ecological integrity. And the most useful thing I could do is speak from the heart and bring the emotional aspects of conservation to the forefront. I had a lot of time to contemplate these thoughts on the 15-hour drive to Mountain Sky. And what a drive it was: through the Columbia River Gorge, across the Palouse Prairie, over the Continental Divide, and along the Yellowstone River and Absaroka Mountain Range to the ranch. Two contrasting thoughts, both originating from the view beyond the windshield, conspired to distract me from focusing on my presentation during the drive:

  1. I am lucky to be able to see such an expansive and inspiring landscape, even from the confines of my Hyundai rental car, and
  2. I am stunned by the way this landscape displays the signs and scars of economic growth (e.g., Bonneville Dam and other massive dams on the Columbia River; wind farms along the gorge; agricultural fields on the prairies; highways that connect sprawling cities like Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Missoula; the mega-sized abandoned copper mine in Butte; the Anaconda Smelter Stack, which could encase the Washington Monument; and the irrigated ranches along the rivers and streams that drain the mountain snowfields).

By the time I arrived, distractions notwithstanding, I had a decent idea about what I wanted to say. And that was a good thing, because from the moment I set foot on the ranch until the time I left, my brain was operating at full capacity.

On the opening morning, Charlie laid out the game plan for each day. We’d have a morning session, grounded by a presentation. Preselected respondents would provide additional information, and then the whole group could ask questions and offer insights. Afternoons would be free so that participants could explore the ranch and its vertical surroundings and enter into less structured discussions. Evenings would feature another presentation with time for discussion.

That first morning, Peter Victor delivered his entertaining and information-rich synopsis of his work on Managing without Growth. During the discussion, I felt a sense of relief. It’s good to know that some of the smartest and most thoughtful people (confession: in their presence I felt downright ignorant and dim-witted) reject the notion of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. They also readily understood the need to stabilize population and consumption. And they made some astute observations about our situation. The most memorable comment originated from the wonderful mind of Wendell Berry.

He said that in our predicament, neither optimism nor pessimism is particularly useful. An optimistic outlook enables people to set aside problems, along with any sense of urgency about solving them. If you’re optimistic that ingenuity and technology can overcome the limits to growth, then why would you worry about the size of the economy? On the flipside, if you’re pessimistic about the future of humanity (i.e., you think the ship is sinking and we’re all going down with it), it’s hard to muster the energy to fight for the necessary changes. Wendell concluded this line of thinking by recognizing that hope is the key. We may feel stymied by profound problems like climate change, and we may feel saddened about the species being trampled under our collective feet, but by maintaining hope, we nurture a spark that can ignite a movement for change.

Shared meals and shared activities outside the meeting room offered more opportunities for discussion. I went for a hike on that first day with 8 or 10 other FOCers. Besides sustainable world population, we talked about bears, mountain lions, and other animals that sport big teeth and claws (we even got to hear a tale of leopard wrestling that was too bizarre to be made-up). I’m used to walking in bear country, but I always get a little nervous in places where grizzlies roam. I was the first to spot the dinner-plate-sized paw prints in the middle of the trail. A little further up, our intrepid pack came across a dried pile of bear poop. A little further up the trail, we spied a less-dry pile of bear poop. A little further, we found a wet one. By then I was expecting to see the bear around the next turn, but we never did catch up to it. Too bad — if I had gotten eaten, I could have stopped worrying about my talk.

I’ve never given a presentation quite like that. I expressed more emotion in front of a crowd than I’m comfortable with. But I think it was worth it. I used personal stories to exemplify three basic strategies for conserving ecological integrity:

  1. Conserve land and water (coincides with my experience in conservation at the Fish and Wildlife Service).
  2. Promote an economic shift (coincides with my experience at CASSE).
  3. Tell an inspiring story (coincides with revelations from my family experience).

More importantly, I think in some small way, I opened space in the gathering to explore what’s alive in each of us.

With my talk out of the way, I got to listen more intently on the second and third days of the meeting, which were all about sustainable agriculture and medicine. The listening paid off, as I had an ah-ha moment. I already knew that the root of the problem in economics is that humanity’s relationship to nature has been misconstrued. Mainstream economists view the economy as the whole and the environment as a part of the whole. This view is inside out. The industrial agriculture model exhibits the same inside-out flaw. People who run factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations tend not to notice that they are embedded in a local ecology. The same goes for healthcare. A common viewpoint is that people are at the mercy of their genetics and hordes of external germs on the attack. A more enlightened view recognizes that our genetic makeup and microbes both respond in remarkable ways to the ecological systems in which they’re enclosed. It seems, then, that the root of our problems across a wide range of human endeavor is a distorted view of our place in the natural world. Thus a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable healthcare scheme, agricultural system, or economy is a widespread philosophical change of heart. We must view ourselves and our societies as strands in nature’s web rather than dominators of that web.

I’d like to say that my ah-ha moment was the highlight of my trip, but it was really the personal discussions I got to have with the other FOCers. I discussed steady-state economics with Peter Victor while riding horses through golden mountain meadows. I told Wendell Berry how much his essay, A Good Scythe, had influenced my thinking and actions. The topics and the pace were unbelievable. From the origins of life to Tuvan throat singing. From economic policy to how to run a dairy farm. From cycling and tai chi to gut microbia and mass communication.

On the last day, just before my return trip, I took a walk with Alan and Katherine Geubert and Tracy Sides. I spent most of the time talking with Alan — he was kind enough to entertain my questions about his distinguished career as a columnist. Toward the end of our walk, we passed by the vacation home of the ranch’s owner, the billionaire businessman Arthur Blank. It’s not what I would call a cabin in the woods, although Alan and I joked that Arthur Blank probably does refer to it as a cabin or cottage. A few minutes later, we saw Wendell (with binoculars hanging from his neck) and Tanya Berry walking across a grassy field. We waved and they waved back. The mansion behind us sure seemed out of place next to the inspiring humility of this Kentucky farm couple. That scene sums up the situation in our world today — inconsistencies (e.g., 1 billion people are malnourished and 1 billion people are obese) are everywhere. I left the ranch that afternoon with a mind full of ideas. One of the best was the realization that simple sights, stories, and connections with colleagues could generate such substantial hope. I was lost in such thoughts when I saw the police motorcycle in the rearview mirror. He issued me the first speeding ticket of my driving career. I guess I was in a hurry. I really wanted to get back home and share my hope with my family.

Food and Agriculture in a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

The annual book festival of the Library of Congress just featured Jonathan Safran Foer who spoke about his book Eating Animals. He writes about his grandmother who survived World War II on the run from the Germans, scavenging from garbage cans and always on the verge of starvation. However, she refused to eat a piece of pork given her by a kindly farmer because “if nothing matters, nothing is worth saving.”

This fall (what better time than harvest season?), I will focus my Daly News essays on the ethics and policies that would characterize food production in a steady state economy. These essays will offer answers to questions such as: What would people eat and how would it be grown? Would almost everyone be a vegetarian or vegan? Would genetically engineered food play a big role? What about farm subsidies and the role of biofuels? How many of the current agricultural practices in the United States would even continue as part of a steady state economy?

Since sustainable scale is the most important feature of a steady state economy (i.e., the economy must fit within the capacity of the ecosystems that contain it), the first issue to investigate is how environmental systems are responding to agricultural practices – in particular, the effects of agricultural practices on climate. There is growing evidence that animal agriculture is the number one cause of global climate destabilization, contributing more than all global transport put together. Former World Bank ecologist Robert Goodland has produced an analysis showing that at least half of the human-caused greenhouse gases come from the production of domesticated animals. Livestock and their byproducts account for over 32.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, or roughly 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gases (see Worldwatch Nov./Dec. 2009).

Here is the unsettling irony: factory-farm dominated agriculture, as a major climate destabilizer, is creating long-term weather changes that compromise the ability of the earth to produce food.

Plant ecologists estimate that for every 1 degree Celsius temperature increase, grain yields drop 10%. Climate disruption has led to serious melting of snowpacks and glaciers in most places. In the Western U.S. where snowpacks store about 75% of the water supply, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that climate change could reduce this to 40% by 2060. Similar concerns exist for the great Asian rivers like the Ganges and the Mekong that originate in the Tibetan plateau.

These impacts are not being imposed on a planet whose soils and grasslands are in wonderful condition and whose groundwater has been safeguarded and not pumped beyond recharge. These impacts are not being imposed on a planet whose human population has stabilized but rather is likely to reach 9-11 billion by 2050.

In contrast to this grim picture of the agricultural capacity of the planet, many encouraging trends in food production are emerging. Examples include growth of organic food consumption, expansion of farmers markets, the local food movement, the slow food movement, the food-miles movement, and initiatives to get healthy food into schools – all of which are heading in promising directions.

A steady state economy would bolster these trends. It would move away from control of food by transnational corporations and toward an increased number and diversity of small and medium-sized farms, and healthy rural communities. Revamped agricultural systems would provide many varieties of food in ways that conserve soil and water and maintain long-term fertility of the land.

These promising developments are taking place not because of, but in spite of, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has for the most part been a giant promoter of animal slum operations and presider over the demise of the family farm.

Over 10 million animals are slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. in factory slum operations that produce over 95% of the nation’s meat. It is abundantly clear that meat-dominated megafarm agriculture is not sustainable (even from the climate/energy standpoint alone), and it could not be part of the food system in a steady state economy.

A steady state economy would not feature perverse subsidies as a cornerstone of the economy. Yet in the U.S. a curious mathematical formula governs the dispensing of subsidies: the more environmentally damaging and harmful to public health the practice or project, the larger the state and federal handouts.

Thus, industrial agriculture enjoys all sorts of subsidies from the Farm Bill. Its extensive use of energy-intensive pesticides and fertilizers is supported by the numerous subsidies the fossil fuel industry receives. Gigantic animal factory slums not only get subsidized, but they externalize their environmental and health costs onto their neighbors and the public. Time magazine documented the competition among states to see who could dole out the most tax money to lure one of these animal slum operations into their state. In contrast, the encouraging trends in agriculture that I cited receive very little governmental support.

Note:  CASSE also has a briefing paper on the topic of agriculture in a steady state economy.