A Medical Missionary’s Environmental Epiphany

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyDr. Paul Brand was the son of British missionary parents in South India where he grew up. He returned to England to study medicine, then went back to take care of people with leprosy in India, mainly doing reconstructive hand and foot surgery — some 3,000 operations over many years. He also spent some time in Ethiopia doing similar things, and finally ended up as director of the only leprosy hospital in the U.S., located in Carville, Louisiana. I believe that hospital closed about ten years ago, after Dr. Brand retired. He died in 2003. His son happened to be a student of mine at Louisiana State University (LSU), so that is how I met him. Medically he is credited with having established that leprosy is not the direct cause of decay or necrosis of the hands and feet universally observed in people with leprosy. Rather the damage to extremities is self-inflicted, resulting from the loss of sensation and inability to feel pain. Without pain there is no feedback to tell you that you are damaging yourself. Brand developed routines and practices to help avoid self-inflicted injuries, and wrote a book entitled Pain: the Gift that Nobody Wants. He also wrote the standard medical textbook on hand and foot surgery.

LSU is a big football school, and an assistant coach invented a super-cushioned helmet that much reduced head pain on impact. This was thought a great thing until Dr. Brand pointed out that head pain was what kept football players from breaking their necks. Would you rather have a headache or a broken neck?

So much for background. I want to focus on a paragraph that Dr. Brand wrote in 1985:

I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge. But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?

What led him to such a statement? Living in India, Ethiopia, and Louisiana — and witnessing the same thing in each place.

Rice Terrace

Dr. Brand prescribed practices to help his patients avoid self-inflicted injuries. He realized that similar principles apply to managing our ecosystems (photo by Alain).

In India he received his first lesson in soils management at age six, from an old Indian farmer who reprimanded him and some other boys who carelessly broke the little turf dams on the terraced rice paddies along the mountain side while chasing frogs in the wet level terraces. The old man scooped up a handful of mud and said, this soil will feed my family year after year. But the soil has to stay up here. The water wants to carry the soil down the mountain to the river, and then to the sea. Do you think the water will bring it back up? No, they answered. Will you be able to bring it back up? No, grandfather. Will rocky hillsides without soil feed my family? No. Well, that is why the dams must be cared for. Do you understand? Yes, grandfather, we’re sorry. Returning to this area many years later Brand observed barren rocky hillsides — the result of government programs to use ex-prisoners to grow potatoes, but without first teaching them the wisdom of the old farmer.

In Ethiopia most of his leprosy patients were farmers, and that brought him again to the farms where he witnessed terrible erosion where there had once been trees and grasses. The Nile carried Ethiopian soil to Egypt. Farms grew poor crops, and the fields were full of large stones. But the stones were not so large that they could not be levered up and rolled to the edge of the field where they could have made useful walls instead of obstacles to tilling and harvesting. Why were such simple improvements not made, Brand asked. The peasants explained that if they made their fields look good and productive they would lose them to the ruling class. Someone from the city would claim that his ancestors had owned it, and the peasants had no chance in court. So injustice, as well as water and wind, contributed to erosion of the soil. People with leprosy who returned to the eroded farms did not have a good prognosis even if their leprosy was now under control.

The leprosarium at Carville, Louisiana, was just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi river. It dated from before levies had been built to contain the river. Therefore all the buildings and houses were built on stilts — maybe four to eight feet high. For a week or so each year water swirled under your house, but you got around in a skiff or pirogue. (Nowadays a fiberglass bass boat with a 200 horsepower Mercury outboard engine is the standard mode of transportation in Louisiana bayous.) Meanwhile the water deposited its silt before returning to its banks, transferring Midwestern topsoil to the Louisiana delta or rebuilding the eroding marshlands or barrier islands. Now the river is contained between levies to eliminate annual floods, so the silt is deposited in the river bottom rather than on the land, necessitating higher levies. Or the silt flows all the way out into the Gulf of Mexico and over the continental shelf, no longer rebuilding coastal marshlands that are now disappearing — and would have served New Orleans as a buffer against Hurricane Katrina. In addition to silt, the Mississippi carries fertilizer and pesticide runoff from Midwestern farms into the Gulf, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey. “Cheap” corn and soybeans do not include the costs of lost seafood in the Gulf.

So in light of these experiences in Dr. Brand’s life, let us reread the first part of his statement:

I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge.

A physician treats our internal organs — heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, etc. in order that we may live longer and better. But our lives depend on external organs as well, environmental life support systems. What good are our lungs if there are no trees and grasses capable of photosynthesis? What good is our digestive tract if the land won’t grow food? What good are our kidneys if the rivers run dry, or are toxic? I think it is not much of a stretch for a good physician to realize that health and wellness now depend as much on care of our collective external organs as on our individual internal organs. Reconstructing a patient’s hands and feet, and then sending him to slowly starve on eroded farmland is at best a partial cure.

The other part of Dr. Brand’s statement, his questions, is also important:

But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?

Environmental destruction, like other sins, is not just the result of ignorance. There is ignorance to be sure, but mostly we know what we are doing. We are caught up in structures that demand fast growth, rapid turnover, and quick profits. And that is facilitated both by ignorance of environmental costs, and by willingness to shift those costs on to others. Simple denial also plays a role — pie-in-the-sky savior fantasies of space colonization and belief in perpetual motion schemes — technological Gnosticism, I call it.

We all seem to suffer from a symptom of leprosy, we do not feel pain in our external organs and structures (our environmental extremities), and therefore do not stop the behavior that is damaging them. In part this is because often the benefits of the damaging behavior go to the people responsible for the behavior while the costs fall on others — the painful feedback is diverted to people who did not cause the damage. The fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico pay the cost of pesticide and fertilizer runoff caused by careless farming. Environmental costs have been shifted from those who caused them to those who did not.

It would be easy to say, “Well this is nothing new, just the same old prophets of doom in modern dress — there is nothing new under the sun.” But there is something new — the earth is now relatively full of us and all our stuff. In my lifetime world population has tripled, and the populations of livestock, automobiles, and refrigerators have vastly more than tripled. Meanwhile the size of the earth has stayed the same — so it is a lot more full. And the growing scale of the economy means that environmental and social cost-shifting is ever larger and more dangerous.

Consequently there are many more environmental problems than soil erosion. I focused on that because it was what led Dr. Brand to his realization. Other, newer environmental problems, many of them interrelated, include climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, oil depletion, etc. Not to mention modern warfare. I’ll spare you a complete litany.

Many environmentalists look at this list and despair. Humans, after all, they say, are just one more animal species and will over-consume and over-reproduce until they provoke a collapse — just like deer on an island or bacteria in a flask. But Christians like Dr. Brand, and other thoughtful people as well, cannot take that attitude. Yes, we are a part of the Creation, and share many commonalities with our fellow creatures, and we are kin to them by evolution. But we are inescapably the creature in charge — the one that bears the capability and responsibility of the imago Dei. Dr. Brand was an example and witness to that truth.

Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation

by Samuel Alexander

When industrial civilisation collapsed in the third decade of the 21st century, a community living on a small island in the South Pacific Ocean found itself permanently isolated from the rest of the world. With no option but to build a self-sufficient economy with very limited energy supplies, this community set about creating a simpler way of life that could flourish into the deep future. Determined above all else to transcend the materialistic values of the Old World, they made a commitment to live materially simple lives, convinced that this was the surest path to genuine freedom, peace, and sustainable prosperity. Seven decades later, in the year 2099, a narrator emerges to describe the results of this remarkable living experiment. That is the premise of my new book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, and I’d like to briefly address the question: why did I write it?

In recent decades, much has been written in criticism of growth-based economics, and ecological economists have been leading the way in developing the most coherent alternative model — the steady state economy. However, with very few exceptions, little has been written on what daily life would actually be like in an ecologically sustainable economy. This makes it difficult to envision the alternative society that a steady state economy implies, and this is problematic, I feel, because if people cannot picture the alternative society, it is very difficult to desire it. And if people do not desire it, no social or political movement will arise to bring it into existence. For this reason I attempted, in Entropia, to describe in detail what everyday life might be like in a steady state economy. How would we feed ourselves? What clothes would we wear? What forms of transport and technology would we use? How much and what types of energy would we require? And what material standard of living would we have if we were to successfully decarbonise the economy? Most importantly, perhaps, what would the quality of daily life be like? Those are some of the questions the narrator addresses as he documents the economy, culture, and politics of Entropia, in the aftermath of the industrial age.

EntropiaIn answering those questions, the narrator highlights the point that sustainability proper, as opposed to greenwash, implies an extremely radical agenda for change. True sustainability is not merely about taking shorter showers, composting, and turning the lights off; nor is it about a carbon tax here, and a few wind turbines there. It requires a fundamental reorientation of the nature and purpose of economic activity. In particular, Entropia labours the point that a steady state economy must be based on lifestyles of material sufficiency, with the focus being on providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever,’ not universalising consumer affluence. Presently, the global economy is in gross ecological overshoot, while billions of people still live lives of material deprivation. To achieve sustainability in the overdeveloped world, the richest nations need to go through a process of planned economic contraction — or degrowth — on the path to a steady state economy. Technology will never be able to globalise consumer affluence, and the sooner we can introduce this point into public discourse, the sooner we can begin reimagining ‘the good life’ beyond consumer culture. A central theme of Entropia is that working toward sustainability in an age of converging crises, far from being a hardship, is actually an opportunity to rethink the nature of human progress. It suggests that the Great Transition needed will actually be in our interests, provided we work together and negotiate the changes wisely.

One criticism that may be levelled against the book is that it is set on small island and therefore lacks relevance to the rest of us, especially to those of us who live in dense urban or suburban contexts. Although I feel it would be a terrible misreading to take the book so literally, it is an objection that is worth anticipating. Of all literary genres, utopian writing is the genre that readers must always read metaphorically. Utopias are never about the society itself — utopia, of course, means ‘no place.’ Beneath the surface, utopias are always about the place that is not utopia — which is here and now. In writing Entropia it was certainly my intention to speak to our present situation, and this should be perfectly clear to all those who are prepared to read between the lines.

A second objection that may be worth anticipating is the objection that the genre of Entropia is confusing. To be honest, it probably is a confusing genre, because it is a book of fiction, and yet not a novel, as such. When people pick up a book of fiction, they tend to expect a novel, with all that implies, but I would rather call Entropia a fictional documentary, with a twist. When reading other works of eco-fiction, I generally felt disappointed with the author’s attempt to turn ideas into a narrative, and so I wanted to avoid that literary pitfall. Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, for example, has many interesting and worthy ideas in it, but it tries to be a novel and, let’s face it, it is a terrible novel. In a similar vein, William Morris’s, News From Nowhere, which is the best in its genre, may well deserve its place in the history of ecological literature, but one can hardly deny that in many places Morris forces an essay into a narrative, without being able to disguise this clumsy literary technique. In my book, I was a bit more honest about the fact that what I wanted to do was describe a way of life, rather than tell a story. Again, Entropia is a fictional documentary not a novel, and should be read as such – not as entertainment (although I hope it entertains), but primarily as an attempt to enrich the conception of a steady state economy.

In all movements for change, including the movement for a steady state economy, it is important occasionally to hold up for examination what one understands to be the clearest expression of one’s highest hopes and ideals. That is what I have tried to do in Entropia, and that is how I would defend the inevitable charge of idealism. It is not that I think Entropia, as I describe it, will ever be achieved. It is just that unless we know where we want to end up, we can’t know in what direction we should be moving. My hope is that Entropia will provide some guidance on what it will actually take to transition to a steady state economy, as well as provide some deeper insight into what life might be like if we were ever to succeed.

Entropia was written by Dr Samuel Alexander, who is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, Australia. He teaches a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Paradigm: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ in the Masters of Environment. He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and co-founder of Transition Coburg. He writes regularly at the Simplicity Collective and posts most of his academic essays at the Sufficiency Economy.

Making Sense of the Protests through a Post-Growth Lens

by James Johnston

The world has recently seen protests on Wall Street, rioting in London, and tension in other parts of Europe as it deals with insolvent debtor nations. Mass confusion is in the air.

In New York, as the protesters try to explain why they feel exploited, critics and observers can’t seem to figure out what they’re crying about. Protesters have been labeled a bunch of entitled, rambling, half-naked young hipster eccentrics. In London, the world witnessed a similar process of bewilderment, where observers couldn’t initially put their fingers on why impoverished “working class” rioters were out causing a fearful stir (after all, most of the critics were motivated and had decent jobs, thank you very much). Meanwhile, stocks around the world continue to rally and tumble with unprecedented volatility. Growth forecasts and economic orthodoxy are proven wrong again and again. Job and wealth creation strategies don’t help the people who need it most.

If the protesters are rambling eccentrics, then traders, mainstream economists and policymakers must be lunatics because they continue to make the same mistakes and expect better results each time!

Frankly, neither side of the debate has a particularly firm handle on the reality of the problem, and hoping that the movement will simply fade away will prove to be wishful thinking. Among all the mass confusion, steady-state theory might help us account for not only the the economic problems, but also the ideological divide. Using the Wall Street occupation as our example, let’s assess the two sides of the debate and hypothesize how the two groups have come to inhabit such different planets.

First, the two sides of the debate are divided primarily along generational lines, not just ideological ones. The protesters might be characterized as a group of well-educated, disenchanted and heavily indebted young people who were raised to be grossly unprepared for the situation they find themselves in. They were told that when they completed their degrees, a growing economy would enable them to pay back their hyper-inflated loans and put a down payment on a massively overpriced home (relative to historical norms). Not only are these young people seriously indebted and underemployed, but they know the planet’s ecological line of credit is also maxed out, causing them to question what they should be working so hard for in the first place. They’re expressing legitimate frustration with a set of real, serious problems that go unaddressed in the U.S.

What about the other side? While some lucky or ambitious younger folks may also fall into this category, it can more generally be characterized as an older, more comfortable cohort on auto-pilot that has grown accustomed to the illusion of perpetual growth. They’ve witnessed it their whole lives: growth in asset values (including home values), growth in the economy’s energy use (more stuff, more suburbs, more oil), growth in levels of indebtedness (to afford it all), and growth in the supply of money.  They are perpetuating a system that is structurally engineered to collapse without feeding its addiction to growth (mainly by exploiting future generations).

Unfortunately, those advocating the status quo are firmly entrenched in their beliefs, and they have in their midst traders, economists and policymakers who can articulate those beliefs well.  Meanwhile the protesters have yet to present a unified and coherent set of theoretical principles to rebut conventional arguments and explain their worldview. They come off as disoriented, lost, and a little incoherent. But stupid they are not.

While the nuanced reasons for protest vary around the world, young people have a visceral grasp of something that the most comfortable in our global society are simply too sheltered to acknowledge — big problems in an economy that has been engineered for ecological and financial ruin.

It’s only a matter of time before confusion gives way to clarity, when we’ll have to come to terms with our post growth reality. It will begin with a set of pragmatic banking reforms: a gradual increase in the fractional reserve requirement, the reconnection of investment banking to the real economy, and the regulation of derivatives.

That’s just the beginning.

After Wall Street — or whatever comes next — we will all have to make an effort to inhabit the same finite planet and bridge the divide. We will have to find common purpose in the realignment of our overarching social and economic goals — not toward yesterday’s notions of solidarity or neoliberalism — but toward meaningful capital maintenance for prosperity without irresponsible growth.

Enough Childish Name Calling

by Sharon Ede

Supporters of the steady state may have been irked, if they had not been so bemused, by the content of a recent piece from the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which took issue with steady state economics.

The opening paragraph of the article by IEA’s Kristian Niemietz is:

Imagine Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx and Saddam Hussein were meeting somewhere in the afterlife, deciding to write a joint policy paper. Difficult to imagine? Not at all. The result would probably look a lot like Enough is Enough, the report which came out of the Steady State Economy Conference.

I am sure even Saddam would have been bemused at this randomly selected “who I’d have dinner with” list.

The article continues into familiar territory encountered by steady staters: there are no limits to growth; steady staters and their ilk are doomsday environmentalists trying to spoil everybody’s consumption party; seeking to debunk Malthus and Ehrlich because their predictions have not (yet) manifested – which, based on current trends that a lot of people are very, very worried about, is arguably a bit of premature congratulation.

If Niemietz thinks that Ehrlich missed the mark about ‘prophesying decades of mass starvation in the Third World’, I suggest he familiarises himself with the Millennium Development Goals, which include a target to halve the number of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015. Just because you are not starving, Mr Niemietz, does not mean many others are not. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, one in six people in the world are suffering. That’s over a billion people.

Niemietz also creates a straw man of epic proportions when he states that “proponents of Steady State Economics think of people as a swarm of locusts: left to themselves, they will blindly devour their own livestock. But this interpretation is misleading. Locusts cannot generate scarcity signals. We can: they’re called market prices.”

Locusts do create scarcity signals – collapse of their number when the food source runs out. But that’s another story. In the meantime, will somebody contact the Mayans, the Romans and the Easter Islanders and tell them there is nothing to worry about.

A few tips for Mr Niemietz:

1. Limits to nature and to growth are a fact. There is only so much planet. Ask an astronaut.

2. Market prices signal a resource’s availability in the marketplace – not in the biosphere. This is why, where I live, a liter of petrol is cheaper than a liter of Coca Cola.

3. If perpetual consumption is the path to happiness, why do many western nations have such high levels of stress, personal debt, depression/mental illness? Is there a connection between the focus on maximizing consumption via the identity of the individual at the expense of community life and social connection? No chance we are out of balance in this one, then?

The author also cites a nonsensical metaphor courtesy of Bjørn Lomborg – the logic of resource depletion is akin to somebody who looks into a fridge and concludes there is only food for three days in it, and after that, the owner will starve.

An accurate metaphor would be that we are pulling apart our house to burn on the fire to keep warm; we are liquidating our capital, the natural systems that sustain us. Ask any conservation biologist and they will tell you that this is a dumb approach to asset management.

In an article peppered with inaccuracies and faulty logic, the author makes a claim that is way off target – an accusation that those advocating a steady state economy are misanthropists.  On the contrary, we want to see good lives for all, now and into the future, secured through sound management of our ecological assets, and a quality of life that includes meeting material needs – but recognizing material needs as only one aspect of the totality of being human.

Although it’s pleasing to see that these ideas are starting to pop up as debates in this kind of forum, because it means that the growth monster is being perturbed, critics should try adding some basic physics, biology and a bit of history into their all-economics diet. Think of it as a bit of fiber!

Sharon Ede is a collaborating author of Post Growth and the curator of the Cruxcatalyst blog.