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Aristotle in Connecticut

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyAs I tried to comprehend the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, my thoughts were with the victims and their families. The horror I feel is nothing compared to what they have been required to experience and absorb. Understanding what happened seems impossible — but attempt to understand it we must, if we are to reduce the occurrence of these devastating shooting tragedies in the future. As I wondered along with the rest of America how this could happen, my thoughts turned to ancient philosophy — specifically, to the teachings of Aristotle and what he said about causation.

Any act that has a cause, he said, actually has four different kinds of causes: material, efficient, final, formal.

The efficient cause of gun violence is a shooter who intends to kill. The material cause of gun violence is the gun. If you want to prevent school shootings, it makes sense to keep shooters and guns from coming together anywhere near a school. Focusing on these easy-to-see causes leads to calls for more thorough background checks before gun ownership, for other forms of gun control, for profiling of potential mass murderers, for pre-emptive arrests, metal detectors, and locked-down schools as prisons for kids — not to keep students in, but to keep violence out. And these are the kinds of solutions that some people are going to say — and are already saying — we need.

But we’re not going to solve the problem of gun violence until we get at the deeper causes that Aristotle called final and formal. The search for final causes leads us to ask questions like, “what was the shooter’s motivation? What could he possibly have hoped to accomplish?” The search for formal causes has us ask “what were the social dynamics, the social context, that shaped this event?”

The United States has the highest level of gun violence among supposedly developed nations in the world, a rate exceeded only by some impoverished countries and some that are host to rival factions that are at war. Mother Jones reports that “Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.” (The report counts as mass murder incidents in which a shooter takes the lives of four or more people.) We need to ask why “going postal” and “school shooting” have become such common terms in America. What are the deeper causes that give our culture tragedy after tragedy of this kind?

The answer to that question will no doubt be complex; final and formal causes are many and varied and difficult to sort out. But one avenue of causation might be found in this correlation: besides having the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world, the United States also has the world’s fullest expression of free-market consumerist ideology. Thinking about Aristotle’s categories, I suspect that there may be a connection.

Free-market consumerist ideology, supported by billions of dollars of advertising, has given us a society in which people are too often disconnected individuals who think that their satisfactions and the means of obtaining them are completely their own. We’ve been encouraged to think of ourselves first and foremost as consumers — not as citizens, as neighbors, as family members — and to think that as consumers we deserve to be satisfied. It’s a fairly small step from there to thinking that if we aren’t satisfied then we must have a grievance against someone who’s preventing it. The U.S. has become the richest, most commodious, and most powerful nation the earth has ever seen. In such a bountiful place, it’s all too easy for someone who is unsatisfied with their life to think that the reason must be that someone else has done or is doing something to block the way.

Taking bold action to satisfy personal grievance is perfectly in keeping with our All-American emphasis on individual empowerment and responsibility. Guns symbolize both. Guns are literally empowering: historically, the invention and dissemination of cheap firearms played a significant role in the spread of egalitarian, democratic systems. In Shogunate Japan, rulers declined to adopt the firearms that Westerners offered them in trade precisely because they brought about an unacceptable equality: an untrained musketeer could kill a highly trained Samurai warrior, a result that made no cultural sense whatsoever to the Japanese.

Most Americans accept that with our right to keep and bear arms come certain civic responsibilities, including the responsibility to respect the rights and prerogatives of others. In the traditional version of the American Dream, people are led by their longings and dissatisfactions to work harder to get what they need and want, and that’s good, as long as “working harder” doesn’t also mean “cranking through the planet’s finite resources faster and faster in order to have more and more stuff.” Few Americans stop to reflect that their longings and dissatisfactions have been shaped by a private enterprise system in which corporations profit by creating unhappiness and then by offering us the chance to assuage that unhappiness through consumption — consumption that has to grow to survive, which means it has to use the finite resources of the planet at ever-increasing rates.

Some Americans are perpetually disheartened by the gap between what they’ve been encouraged to want and what they can actually have; they find solace wherever they can. Some get so enraged by that gap that they lose track of the civic responsibility part of the equation. They begin to see other people as impediments that stand in the way of achieving their ambitions — impediments that must be outmaneuvered, defeated, “neutralized” or removed. And if you’ve been raised on a steady diet of first-person-shooter video games and have had your neurological wiring affected by continual doses of violence-as-titillation in movies and sports, you just might fetch up on violent action as a way to deal with your problems.

Still, I think that these causal factors alone are not sufficient. Aristotle, were he alive today, might point to another underlying cause of gun violence in America: cheap gas and the automobile. Far more than other nations, America has been shaped by both. Together they’ve given us an atomized society that contributes to this tendency to solve individual dissatisfactions with outbursts of violence.

When you’re in a car, your fellow citizens aren’t fellow citizens anymore, they’re people who get in your way, annoying you and making it harder to do what you want to do. And when you live in a landscape that’s been shaped by car culture, the networks of family and neighborly connection that grow naturally among people in communities aren’t as strong as they could be; they’re weaker than they are in communities with historical roots that reach deeper than the Age of Oil. (Finland has a per-capita rate of gun ownership about half that of the U.S., but its rate of death by gun violence is far less than half of ours.) Neighborhood networks of trust, mutual aid and common courtesy help restrain individual actors, keeping them more thoroughly embedded in social reality (which includes the basic principles that other people deserve to live and breathe and that schools should be the safest of places).

People living in such neighborhoods are also better positioned to identify community members who are so disturbed that they would perpetrate a tragedy like the one in Newtown. That part of Connecticut retains a sense of village life — Newtown has a vestigial grazing commons, and at the main intersection in one of its village centers, cars make an awkward left turn around an aged flagpole. But like elsewhere in America, it hosts shopping centers and modern suburban sprawl. No place in America can remain aloof from the individualist culture of consumerism, a culture in which true community is increasingly difficult to find. If there’s no true community, there can be no sturdy web of community relations that functions to integrate estranged individuals and either guide them toward positive expression of their urges or toward getting the help they need to deal with their sorrows and grievances.

To prevent future Newtowns and Columbines, I personally think that yes, we’ll need to address the efficient and material causes of gun violence. We’ll need to make it harder for shooters to get hold of assault weapons and make it harder for them to walk unopposed into our civic and public spaces — our schools, our movie theaters and shopping malls. Others will of course disagree, but I think action on these fronts is long overdue.

But we also need to get at the final and formal causes. That means rebuilding the sustainable communities that once held Americans in their supportive embrace, communities that were spun apart by cheap energy and the ease of automotive transport. We can recover them by demanding walkable neighborhoods; by refusing to participate in the infinite-planet economy of Mall and Sprawl America with its big boxes and anonymous spaces; by choosing instead to live, think, breathe, laugh, love, shop, own, create, recreate, educate, and be politically active locally, with people we know and can see face to face. Ultimately it’s impossible to take care of each other, our public spaces, our landscapes and our children on any other scale.

Re-localizing our lives in these ways won’t solve every problem and it’s unlikely to eliminate gun violence completely. There are always going to be people whose mental imbalances make them a challenge to society and sometimes a danger to others. But regrounding our collective lives in post-petroleum, sustainable neighborhoods opens one avenue of positive change, a change we must make if we are to reduce our levels of interpersonal violence to those in other industrialized nations.

This much seems clear: cheap energy and a physical and social world designed for cars and consumers aren’t ecologically sustainable. Neither is the perpetual-growth economy that produced them. We seem to be discovering that they aren’t socially sustainable either.

Regular contributor Eric Zencey is the author, most recently, of The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy and Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State.

Toward a New Bretton Woods and a Sustainable Civilization

by Eric Zencey

Early in April, an international community of sustainability theorists and practitioners gathered in New York City at a special High Level Meeting at the United Nations.

Titled “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm,” the High Level Meeting brought together 600 participants for the plenary session on Monday, April 2, with 200 invited experts staying an additional two days to form working groups to address key elements of the new economic paradigm. The meeting was called to begin the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 65/309, passed last year on unanimous voice vote. That resolution, brought forward by the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan and sixty-eight co-sponsoring nations, called for implementation of a dramatically different, more “holistic” understanding of economic development. It specifically rejected the GDP-based approach taken in the past and called for the creation and use of an alternative set of indicators that would more accurately measure human wellbeing. It also authorized Bhutan to call the High Level Meeting to articulate that indicator set, and to create a path toward its adoption.

But the meeting was about more than an indicator set. To decide what you’re going to measure, you have to know what you want to measure, and discussion of that — the ultimate purpose of an economy — subverts a great deal of traditional economic thought. And so the larger purpose of the meeting was to articulate the elements of a new economic paradigm, and to issue a call to world leaders to adopt its fundamental precepts.

The linking of development policy, pursuit of wellbeing, and alternative indicators in a new economic paradigm is a strong step toward establishing a sane and sustainable civilization that focuses on meeting human needs with ecological efficiency. To get there, centuries of infinite-planet economic thinking have to be swept aside. Traditional development theory begins with the idea that some nations are underdeveloped — nations that don’t have a western, industrial, consumerist economy. It also supposes that all the nations of the world want that kind of economy and that they can have it. But all three presumptions are false. No nation on the planet has an ecologically sustainable economy, which means that every nation, without exception, faces a major development problem. Consistent with the principles and practice of traditional neoclassical economics, western-style consumerist development has been predicated on an enormous drawdown of the planet’s stock of stored antique sunlight — oil and coal — which is a finite resource; and it has completely ignored the fact that the planet’s “sink” services — its ability to absorb our effluents, including greenhouse gases, without ill effect — are fixed and finite.

Together these flaws in neoclassical theory mean that development on the traditional model simply isn’t sustainable. America, with just 6% of the world’s population, uses 24% of the world’s annual production of fossil fuels, and similar proportions of other resources, both renewable and non-renewable. A nodding acquaintance with arithmetic is all you need to see that the western model isn’t scalable to the entire planet.

The traditional model of economic development presumes that raising GDP (gross domestic product) is the central purpose of economic policy. Increasingly, world leaders are recognizing that GDP is a poor measure of economic wellbeing, which is itself just part of overall wellbeing. Thus, the High Level Meeting to explore, articulate, and adopt an alternative. Bhutan’s leadership of this movement traces back to its adoption of gross national happiness as a way of measuring economic and social progress. Their use of this broader, more accurate indicator set led them to reject western style development. Faced with a decision about joining the World Trade Organization, government officials did a kind of “GNH Impact Assessment” and found that joining the WTO would diminish, not increase, their country’s wellbeing. The Bhutanese propose that their indicator set could serve as a model for the development of alternative indicators in other countries.

The 600-strong turnout for the plenary session, with many attendees from the UN delegations of member nations, shows that other nations are inclined to agree. What was new and impressive about the meeting wasn’t so much the content of what was said in the plenary speeches; many of us have heard, and have been saying, these things for years. What was new and different was who was saying them. The call for an ecologically sustainable economy that meets human needs is now being issued by prime ministers and former prime ministers, by presidents and secretaries of the interior, by directors of environmental agencies, by high-ranking officials the world over. And UN member nations are listening.

I took to the meeting a white paper on a project I’m involved with in Vermont, where, as a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, I serve as coordinator of the Vermont Genuine Progress Indicator Project. The project brings together stakeholders — state and local officials, academics, leaders of non-profits, community leaders and interested citizens — to develop, articulate, and implement “GPI Plus,” a blending of the genuine progress indicator (one emergent standard among alternative indicator sets) and elements inspired by gross national happiness. The two complement each other. GPI is based on very clear, objective data, and measures physical things like net deforestation, net changes to air and water quality, net change in fertile farmland, and the costs of climate change. GNH is survey-driven and measures satisfaction with life in nine broad categories. Combining the two — using hard data about economic and ecological reality and survey research data about people’s experience — gives a fuller, more accurate picture of the economy’s sustainable, delivered wellbeing.

The Vermont project is moving forward, with a Data Inventory Meeting set for late May. (The first step in building the alternative indicator set is to convene producers and users of relevant data to see what we’ve got, what we can start with.) And a GPI Plus bill is making its way through the state legislature, having gained approval in both houses with minor differences; the Governor has indicated he’ll sign it. The bill commissions the GPI VT project as a state effort, identifies the Gund Institute as the leader, and would guarantee the participation of state agency heads and other officials in the process of development.

At the UN, the working groups that met April 3rd and 4th were tasked with laying the groundwork for a major international summit to be held in the summer of 2014. That meeting, UN officials hope, will result in a “New Bretton Woods Agreement,” a major rethinking and major reorganization of the economic and financial institutions that support the global economy. The Bretton Woods Agreement, signed in 1944, has been modified a bit — gone are the fixed exchange rates of the post-war era, just as Frederick Soddy advised — but it continues to embody an “infinite planet” model of economic development. With this High Level Meeting, the UN has acknowledged that it’s time to revamp our economic thinking and our institutional arrangements in light of the reality that the planet is, in fact, finite.

During the plenary sessions, there was little talk of steady-state economics or limits to growth from the keynote speakers, though the majority of the experts who participated in the working groups are well aware that the only sustainable foundation for the economy is a steady-state throughput that doesn’t increase (and indeed, will need to decrease) ecological footprints. I was part of a working group in which infinite-planet financing — debt-based money — was discussed. We tagged it as a driver of uneconomic, resource-destroying growth and marked it for change. Other groups entertained even more ambitious ideas: one proposal would simply do away with the $72-billion-a-year advertising industry, on the grounds that its reason for being is morally indefensible and, by the light of any appropriate indicator of well-being, economically dysfunctional: it encourages the planet’s wealthiest consumers to pursue whims and to feel idle wants as crucial needs, while the basic needs of a vast number of humans on the planet go unfulfilled.

Whether and how a New Bretton Woods Agreement will address the monetary system as a driver of uneconomic growth and environmental degradation remains to be seen. The nations of the world are on a learning curve, and how far along that curve they can be brought in two years will depend on how well the message is communicated — and on the kind of resistance that’s raised by beneficiaries of the current system, who can be expected to throw their considerable financial resources into an effort to stymie change. Ultimately our unsustainable global economy harms all humans, everywhere, now and yet to be born; but in the short term the harms do not fall equally. As I’ve argued elsewhere, on a finite planet, an infinite-planet financial system works as a pump, sucking money, wealth, and quality of life from the middle and lower classes and delivering it to the well-to-do. Kleptocracy — rule by thieves — is the technical name for it. History offers no examples of kleptocracies that withered away of their own accord.

No, success in bringing about a sustainable economic system won’t come simply as a result of the real-world lessons the planet will continue to offer us, as our infinite-planet system repeatedly crashes into non-negotiable, physical limits. It will come from a successful reframing of crisis as symptomatic of a need for dramatic and far-reaching change, and from mustering enough political power to implement that change.

Stay tuned.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, visiting faculty in architecture and urban planning at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, and Visiting Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies in the International Programs of SUNY Empire State College.

A best-selling novelist, he is also the author of Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture and the forthcoming The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy, to be published this fall by the University Press of New England.

Sir Thomas Enough: Utopia and the Steady State

by Christian Williams

Editor’s note:  The connotation of utopia has become somewhat negative over time.  Utopians are often labeled as being overly idealistic or impractical.  Yet the very point of formulating policy or running an economy is to strive for a better society – to move in the direction of utopia.  This essay was first published on Smacademia.

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was written almost 500 years ago, in the early 16th century.[1] The book has since influenced many a philosopher interested in the concept of Utopia, in theory or in practice. It is an attempt to outline the workings of an ideal state – in this case a small island state in the New World. Written originally in Latin, the book was dangerous in that it directly challenged the authority and wisdom of the ruling Crown – a standpoint that later resulted in the author’s execution by King Henry VIII. As I began to read this book, I was startled by the early realization that this book is nothing short of a 500-year-old vision of a steady state economy. In this article, I will review the book and show the many parallel aspects between the two visions; comparing Utopia with the vision of a steady state economy as outlined recently in the report from the Steady State Economy Conference, Enough is Enough. [2] (The following headings are chapters from the report, followed by comparisons with material in Utopia).

Enough Throughput: Limiting Resource Use and Waste Production [2, pg 42]

The Utopians are careful not to be wasteful, thereby minimizing their consumption and waste. They live a non-materialistic way of life with a focus on simplicity and quality. For example, “among the Utopians… men very seldom build upon a new piece of ground; and are not only very quick in repairing their houses, but show their foresight in preventing their decay.” [1; pg 36]

Enough People: Stabilising Population Growth [2; pg 50]

Maintaining a stable population was a priority in Utopia. The way they achieved this, however, is only possible in an “empty world” rather than today’s “full world.” Their cities are limited to 6,000 families. [1; pg 37] To aid in maintaining this balance, “they supply cities that do not breed so fast, from others that breed faster; and if there is an increase over the whole island, then they draw out a number of their citizens… and send them over to the neighbouring continent”. In essence, they use fertile colonies where the land has spare capacity to house any excess people. They likewise recall people from the colonies in the event of plague or any other natural disaster that reduces the population. This would not work in the modern world where all spare productive regions of the world are now populated, yet the importance of a stable population is recognized by the Utopians, as it is within a steady state economy.

Enough Inequality: Distributing Income and Wealth [2; pg 57]

In Utopia, even their chiefs are barely distinguishable from the general population, and all are considered equal. “There is no man so much raised above the rest of mankind as to be the only favourite of Nature, who, on the contrary, seems to have placed on a level all those that belong to the same species. Upon this they confer that no man ought to seek his own conveniences so eagerly as to prejudice others”. [1; pg 48-49] In a “full world,” excessive wealth for one means taking opportunity from another (e.g., one of the one billion people who are not getting enough food).

Enough Debt: Reforming the Monetary System [2; pg 64]

In this respect, the Utopians go far further than the proposals of the modern steady state movement. These proposals aim for currencies issued by public institutions and without being created by debt as a loan from a bank. The Utopians live without any currency in an economy along the lines of a resource-based economy as proposed by Jacques Fresco, where resources are distributed freely among the population according to their needs.  There is no debt in Utopia. Furthermore, “since they content themselves with fewer things, it falls out that there is a great abundance of all things among them.” [1; pg 37]

Enough Poor Indicators: Changing the Way We Measure Progress [2; pg 34]

“We who measure all things by money, give rise to many tasks that are both vain and superfluous, and serve only to support riot and luxury.” [1; pg 34] Residents are not particularly concerned with measuring anything in Utopia, for there is little need for it, but this quote from the narrator’s perspective describes the folly and consequence of a poor indicator (GDP was still more than 400 years short of its invention).

Enough Job Losses: Securing Employment [2; pg 80]

In Utopia, they work little, yet almost everyone is employed. “[The chief] is to take care that no man may lie idle… yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil, from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden…” [1; pg 34] They appoint only six hours for work – sufficient because it is not wasteful. As is proposed within this chapter of the report, they use working time policy to moderate production and maintain full employment. “When no public undertaking is to be performed, the hours of work are lessened. The magistrates never engage the people in unnecessary labour, since the chief end of the constitution is to regulate labour by the necessities of the public, and to allow all the people as much time as is necessary for the improvement of their minds, in which they think the happiness of life consists” [1; pg 37]

Enough Excess Profits: Rethinking Business and Production [2; pg 87]

In Utopia, most production is done for the community, and is distributed freely to all. It is a society based on cooperation rather than competition, where people support those in need, yet demand an honest contribution from all, achieving this through strong social institutions. This is a vastly different model than our current society. “In all other places… while people talk of a commonwealth, every man only seeks his own wealth.” [1; pg 81]

Enough Unilateralism: Addressing Global Relationships [2; pg 95]

The Utopians are a peaceful society, yet they are still forced to deal with threats from abroad. They maintain close ties with their neighbors although they do not enter into formal leagues or alliances. “[They] believe that if the common ties of humanity do not knit men together, the faith of any promises will have no great effect.” [1; pg 62-63] The Utopians strive for peace, provide help to neighbors when needed, and require unassailable justification for entering into war. The steady state movement recognizes the importance of international cooperation, including the need for overly consumptive nations to enact reforms and support those nations where people are not consuming enough to meet their needs.

Enough Materialism: Changing Consumer Behaviour [2; pg 101]

The Utopians are an extremely non-materialistic society, a prerequisite for it to function without scarcity. There are many examples of this shown in the text. “They take care, by all possible means, to render gold and silver of no esteem.” [1; pg 44] “The Utopians wonder how any man should be so much taken with the glaring doubtful lustre of a jewel or a stone, that can look up to a star, or the sun himself; or how any should value himself because his cloth is made of a finer thread… as if he were a thing that belonged to his wealth.” [1; pg 45-46]

There are also many instances where the general principles of sustainability are visible, aside from those described above.  “They define virtue to be living according to Nature” [1; 48].  They shun short term benefits over long term costs, and think to the future: “No pleasure ought to be pursued that should draw a great deal of pain after it… They take great care that… pleasure may never bread pain.” [1; 47] Meeting all the needs of the population, without compromising future welfare is easily achieved.

Certainly some concepts in the book are less applicable and would be less readily accepted today. For example, it was a surprise to find mention of slaves within this egalitarian society, but after reading further, I realized that their slaves are what we call prisoners or criminals. Even in Utopia, some people in society break the laws and customs of the land, and punishments are handed down. In another example, the uniformity of Utopia – of its towns and its people – seems to under- value diversity. “He that knows one of their towns, knows them all, they are so like one another.” [1; pg 30]  And having “no taverns, no alehouses” [1; pg 42] may be hard to swallow for some.

Regardless of the details, it is hard to miss the similarities between Sir Thomas More’s vision of Utopia and modern recommendations for a steady state economy.  The question is whether it is achievable, and beyond this there are questions of whether it can exist without an opposite. Without hate, would there be love? Without sickness, could we feel healthy?  The Utopians could only appreciate their society through observing the follies of their neighbors. Maybe we can only appreciate the hopeful possibilities of a steady state economy once we’ve observed the profound ecological and economic problems of the growth paradigm.  All the same, both Utopia and Enough is Enough provide striking visions for achieving a better future.

[1] More, Sir Thomas (1997); Utopia. Published by Dover Publications Inc (Dover Thrift Editions), Toronto, Canada.

[2] O’Neill, D.W., Dietz, R., Jones, N. (Editors), 2010.  Enough is Enough: Ideas for a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources. The report of the Steady State Economy Conference. Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and Economic Justice for All, Leeds, UK.
Available for download at: https://steadystate.org/enough-is-enough/

Christian Williams is a New Zealander working in Sweden on a master’s degree in sustainable development.  His thesis is about the benefits of a shorter working week, based partly on the need for a new, non-growing economic model.

What if We Stopped Fighting For Preservation?

A Response to Murray

by Tom Butler

Tim Murray’s essay “What If We Stopped Fighting for Preservation and Fought Economic Growth Instead?” is provocative for sure. Murray is a compelling writer, and I admire his unflinching focus on the root causes of ecological collapse including human overpopulation, consumerism, mass migration, and the religion of endless growth. He’ll get no argument from me about these factors as systemic drivers of biodiversity loss, and I share his frustration that many reform-minded environmentalists and large NGOs often are unwilling to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction between wild nature’s flourishing and the intrinsic logic of a techno-industrial growth society based on corporate capitalism. Certainly conservationists of all persuasions should be more vocal about challenging the growth machine that is chewing up wild nature.

But for Murray to turn his wrath on protected areas, and suggest that preserving places for wildlife and wild processes to thrive unmolested is futile or even counterproductive as a conservation strategy, is a dangerously misguided idea. I hope it will be rejected by everyone who cares about the health of the biosphere.

Let’s consider his points:

Murray contends that “Each time environmentalists rally to defend an endangered habitat, and finally win the battle to designate it as a park …the economic growth machine turns to surrounding lands and exploits them ever more intensively, causing more species loss than ever before, putting even more lands under threat.”  Here Murray is casting blame in the wrong direction—the parks and preserves secured by activism—and not toward the growth machine itself. By his logic, if there were no protected areas anywhere, no parks or preserves or wilderness areas of any kind, the growth machine would treat the entire landscape with less rapaciousness and the overall status of the Earth would be better. I know of no evidence to support this opinion and much to refute it. The ecosystems showing the most health, beauty, and integrity left on the planet correlate well with designated protected areas.

It is a little startling to hear a conservationist like Murray echo a talking point of the pro-exploitation forces who regularly oppose protected area designations. Timber industry boosters in my home state, for instance, have fought new wilderness areas on public land by claiming that “locking up the land” here meant they’d then have to go cut trees elsewhere in the world where regulatory oversight is even weaker than on US national forests. Should conservationists bow to that perverse threat, or work ever harder to mount a defense to industrial resource extraction everywhere it is proposed?

Murray says that two acres in Canada are developed for every acre conserved. I don’t know enough about that country’s development patterns to argue with his numbers but if that ratio of new protected areas to developed land is correct, the destruction to preservation equation in Canada is far preferable than the status quo in most parts of the world. It may be bad, but could be and would be a whole lot worse without tenacious activists working to establish protected areas. Absent those legal safeguards, the growth machine would chew up every acre.

That protected areas alone are not sufficient to halt the extinction crisis does not mean they are unnecessary. Protected areas are crucial, the best available tool for slowing the extinction crisis in the short term until its root causes (human overpopulation, technology, worldview, and growth-based economic organization) can be changed. Murray essentially argues that environmental action is a zero sum game, that conservationists can’t address symptoms and systemic drivers concurrently, so quit treating symptoms. When a heart attack victim gets to the hospital, the doctors don’t say, “this fat bloke eats poorly and doesn’t exercise; it would be silly for us waste any time saving him. Let’s direct all our energy to childhood nutrition and physical exercise programs.” As in a medical crisis, the first job in nature conservation sometimes is to treat the symptoms.

Historically, conservationists who have worked to save parks and wilderness areas have often highlighted the threats to nature inherent in the growth economy. When Robert Marshall put out his call in the 1930s for a new organization of “spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness,” he said that such people were “the one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth.” The genesis of The Wilderness Society came as an explicit reaction to the growth machine.  Every wilderness area, park, or nature preserve established today, places where natural processes rather than humans will direct the ebb and flow of life, are tangible examples of resistance to the ideology of limitless growth spread by the dominant culture.

What about Murray’s contention that environmentalists “are like a fire brigade that never rests, running about, exhausted, trying to extinguish one brush fire after another, year after year, decade after decade, winning battles but losing the war”? Are we losing the war? Sure. It is indisputable that the overall trajectory for wild nature is toward destruction, but winning some battles (saving specific wild habitats) is certainly better than losing every battle by choosing to quit fighting. To extend Murray’s metaphor, he would have the fire brigade simply abandon the fire fighting business. Or, to be fair, redirect its energies to the root causes of fire, namely oxygen, fuel, and heat.

But what if the fire brigade has only marginal capacity to affect those underlying factors? Or, more immediately, what if it is your house that may burn up tomorrow? Would the caribou of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain care about our high-minded strategic shift if conservationists gave up defending that landscape from the oil and gas industry? We could name a thousand other places where wild habitat and the creatures who call it home would be immediately extinguished if conservationists stopped “fighting brush fires,” as Murray suggests. On the day we make that decision, the conflagration burning up the earth’s wild beauty will flare ever hotter, and the people who benefit from the inferno will grow even richer and more powerful.

What should we make of Murray’s central point, that if environmentalists and conservationists would “stop investing time and effort in fighting for park preservation, and instead direct that energy into stopping economic growth,” then the growth machine would have been halted in its tracks and a wonderful steady state utopia would be at hand? Murray confidently claims: “If the same energy that has been put into battles to save the environment piecemeal had been put into lobbying for a steady state economy, development pressure everywhere would have ceased, and habitat would be safe everywhere.”

Of course there is no way to prove or disprove this opinion but even a cursory examination of the idea suggests it is wildly implausible. How much “energy” could be generated to lobby for a steady state economy, and how effective might these land conservationists-turned-lobbyists really be? What form, precisely, might this steady state economy take that they are to lobby for? As that is just now a ripe area of discussion among progressive economists, with no consensus view, how could the environmental movement have been lobbying for it in past decades? (Those decades when, if Murray is right, we’ve been wasting our time saving parks.)

In the present socio-political landscape, it is industrial growth based on corporate capitalism that generates the surplus affluence which makes charitable giving possible; every large NGO depends on philanthropy derived from the growth economy. The idea that all large conservation and environmental groups could be convinced to directly, publicly, and effectively oppose the growth economy is fanciful. But for argument’s sake, let’s say every habitat preservation group from local land trusts to The Nature Conservancy got on board with Murray’s agenda, every wildlife advocacy group from Patagonia to Ottawa signs up too. These organizations, in total comprising the conservation movement, have not even been able to reform industrial growth civilization, only stave off its worst abuses. What gives Murray such confidence that if they just tried, they could abolish it entirely?

Moreover, assuming this new mass of environmental organizations became a unified growth monster-fighting coalition, what are the specific mechanisms for them to direct their energy into killing the beast? What are the practical levers of engagement and influence that the coalition could wield to counter the existing global model of economic organization? There are relatively few, and if one of the most important means of resistance—direct work to preserve and defend wild habitat—has been abandoned, then the ability of activists to fight the growth monster is greatly hampered.

Even if every self-identified environmentalist joined Murray’s “lobbying” campaign (he doesn’t say who that lobbying effort would target) it would do little to slow down the techno-industrial growth economy. The tiny fraction of the population worldwide that would fit in this camp has so little leverage politically and economically that it would be insignificant. The growth economy will fail (it is already faltering) of its own terrible weight, brittleness, and complexity, regardless of active opposition or active support. It will fail because it must, as an economy based on unlimited expansion on a finite planet is a practical impossibility.

It is well and good for anti-growth agitators to agitate, for anti-globalization forces to organize, for creative thinkers to develop visions and models for a steady state economy—and for environmentalists to support those efforts. But the relatively small number of dedicated conservationists active in the world—particularly those who have a biocentric worldview and will work hard for wilderness and wildlife—are most effective using their time and energy to save particular places. Real habitat, real creatures, as much and as fast as possible, so that when the big unraveling comes there will be the seedbed of recovery for wildness to begin the long dance of evolutionary flowering again after this dark episode of human-caused extinction.

Can these protected areas remain secure during a time of economic and political collapse, should that come to pass? That will be difficult for sure, but again, nature is likely to fare better during civilizational collapse if big, wild, interconnected systems of conservation lands (at least some of which are far away from population centers) are already established and enjoy a historic legacy of public support.

Over the past 150 years, a relatively small number of visionary conservationists have preserved many thousands of protected areas around the globe. Those places, and the intellectual foundations of the conservation movement built by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess, and others are what makes this kind of dialogue about strategy possible. Without them, we’d not even have the philosophical, legal, and tactical tools to oppose the growth machine. Without the parks and wilderness areas earlier conservationists protected, we’d not have a broad base of cultural appreciation for wildlands and wildlife. The wilderness movement, in asserting that some places should be self-willed, unyoked from human dominion, free to exist for their own sakes, offers the best hope to counter the growth economy’s underlying philosophy that the world is a commodity for human use and profit.

What if we stopped fighting for preservation? In the short term, that would consign many wild places and creatures to destruction. It may seem a Sisyphean labor to Murray, but wilderness conservation and defense is work that matters, and hopefully, endures. Abandoning it would be bad strategy, and an ethical breach with our fellow members of the biotic community.

***

Writer and wilderness advocate Tom Butler is the former editor of the journal Wild Earth. His books include Wild Earth: Wild Ideas for a World Out of Balance, Wildlands Philanthropy, and Plundering Appalachia. He currently serves as the editorial projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the president of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, a regional land trust.

From Black Friday to a Better Way

Rethinking Consumer Spending and Enjoying the Holidays

by Brent Blackwelder

The day following Thanksgiving Day in the United States is called Black Friday. For retailers the day marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. While the origin of the term is debated, it is today associated with special sales and extraordinary promotions that retailers use to induce shoppers into spending the holiday weekend on a shopping spree.

Our modern economy is structured such that its stability depends upon ever increasing consumer spending. In my first economics course in college in 1961, the professor told the class to go out and shop because it is good for the gross national product (GNP). Then and now, mainstream economics continues to treat the Earth as if it were a business in a liquidation sale.

At a time of high unemployment in the United States, it may seem like an act of madness to question the growth economy, but relentless pursuit of growth has failed to deliver again and again on the promise of economic stability and security. Its recipes are not making people any happier, and it is undermining the ecological life support systems of our planet. It has failed about one third of the world’s population who live on less than $2 per day, while simultaneously producing an exclusive club of gratuitously wealthy individuals. Those of us advocating a steady state economy seek a new way to maintain full employment that does not incentivize employers to seek dirt-cheap labor or to replace people with machines.

Professor Tim Jackson’s 2009 report to the UK Sustainable Development Commission entitled Prosperity without Growth provides an outstanding foundation for any discussion of consumerism and the growth economy. For those interested in a steady state economy, it is worthwhile to think in this holiday season about the nature of shopping in such an economy.

Throughout history religious leaders have expressed concerns about the accumulation of stuff. Two thousand years ago Jesus cautioned about excessive attention to material possessions, saying: “Lay not up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.”

Over 100 years ago the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill recognized that eventually humanity would have to move toward a stationary state of capital and wealth, but that condition need not entail a stagnation of human improvement.

Two centuries ago the poet William Wordsworth expressed alarm at the consumerism he witnessed in England: “The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away…”

Today’s economy is five times bigger than in the 1950s, and at current growth rates stimulated by commercial promotions, it is headed to a global economy 80 times as large.

The consumer rampage is in part fueled by slick advertising for novel consumer products, and much of this advertising is targeted at youth. Ralph Nader questions who is watching what young people worldwide are being enticed to buy? He writes: “Undermining parental authority with penetrating marketing schemes and temptations, companies deceptively excite youngsters to buy massive amounts of products that are bad for their safety, health and minds.”

Excessive packaging accompanying today’s products attracts ecological criticism, but it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of waste. The volume of raw resource extraction required in the manufacture of products dwarfs the packaging waste. For example, many mining operations for valuable metals leave behind as waste over 90% of the material excavated, and such rocky rubble often releases a mass of toxicity onto the land and into the water.

Has happiness been improved by having all these products? Studies over the past two decades have suggested that a certain amount of material comfort and ease provided by various products increases one’s happiness, but beyond a certain point – one study suggested $75,000 income – more stuff doesn’t produce more happiness. In fact, it can yield the perverse result of adding stress, worry and depression.

It is amazing that times of holiday celebration in the United States are frequently the very times of peak stress. What should be a fun and cheerful experience becomes a week or even a month of worry.

The holiday season is a good time to reexamine the kinds of purchases we make to see whether they are reducing the use of natural resources and encouraging more sustainable ways of growing food and conducting commercial business.

Many religious congregations are looking toward a different approach to reclaim the holidays from preoccupation with material gifts. Some offer ways to reduce the volume of purchasing and to make different kinds of purchases that reduce throughput and pollution.

For example, Interfaith Power and Light seeks to get religious congregations to purchase renewable energy and to reduce energy use in their homes and their places of worship. Through Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, our family now purchases all our electricity, sourced from wind farms, at a surcharge of about $130 a year.

By voting with their food dollars many Americans have already sent powerful signals in favor of local farm markets and organic food. With some due diligence, people can determine whether their purchases lend further support to child labor and slave conditions, whether the purchases harm women or empower women, and whether the product came from an animal-slum factory farm operation. The Fair Trade label allows consumers to identify imported products that avoid harmful labor and environmental degradation in their manufacture.

We have options.  We can do better than liquidating our natural bounty for consumer novelty, we can refrain from pitching unnecessary products to our children, and we can stop pursuing growth for growth’s sake.  The steady state economy is a better choice than continuous pursuit of economic growth, but the transition starts with better choices about what and how we consume.