Posts

Neocornucopianism and the Steady State: Part I

The cornucopia is an age-old symbol of celebrating plenty. Today, the world has plenty and a new goal is needed. (Image credit: Yzrael. Image used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

By Josh Farley

Perhaps the main reason people reject the need for a steady state economy is some form of cornucopianism, the belief that technological progress will overcome all ecological and physical limits, allowing endless economic growth into the indefinite future. Cornucopianism has several flavors, and I will describe three: mainstream economics, eco-modernism, and singularity theory.

Mainstream Economics Fuels Cornucopian Ideas

First, let’s examine how mainstream economics feeds a belief in cornucopianism. Most mainstream economists argue that as resources become scarce, their prices increase and that this incentivizes suppliers to produce more, innovators to develop substitutes, and consumers to demand less. They claim centuries of empirical support for their beliefs. Take for example the need for energy sources to fuel societies. The English economist William Stanley Jevons once said there was no conceivable substitute for increasingly scarce supplies of coal, but then we discovered oil. Oil production in the U.S. peaked in the 1970s, declining rapidly thereafter, and global production would inevitably peak sometime around 2012. Then the oil industry found deep sea deposits and refined hydraulic fracturing, while innovators developed alternative energy technologies. Oil production in the U.S. has surged back to its previous levels, global production has continued to rise, and solar energy prices are plunging.

To mainstream economists, climate change is a bit pesky, but it just requires internalizing ecological costs into market prices. They argue that technological advance, together with economic growth, will save us from any scarcity. But the folly in this idea is that demand does not stabilize or reduce just because new innovative sources (of fuel, for one example) become available. Demand continues to rise in parallel as new sources are found, new technologies are created, and economic growth is pushed to accelerate—to find more and use more. Demand becomes a runaway train, one that drives not an overflowing cornucopia of supplies (fuels, products, or anything else humans need), but rather drives a perpetual cycle of endless need that is never satisfied, an overflowing cornucopia with food going rotten.

Eco-Modernism as Cornucopianism

The second flavor of cornucopianism I want to explore is eco-modernism. Eco-modernists recognize that human impacts on our global ecosystems are currently unacceptable, but they believe that humanity can refocus technological progress to reduce these impacts. Eco-modernism believes that technology can end our reliance on nature. That we can use nuclear power to extract atmospheric gases and terrestrial minerals to build food in a laboratory, eliminating the ecological damage from agriculture. That we can extract carbon from the atmosphere and convert it directly into hydrocarbons.  That if the climate grows too hot too fast, we can geo-engineer some cooling by throwing aerosols into the atmosphere. In their own words, eco-modernists say: “we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” (see the ecomodernism manifesto). They are saying that we need to accelerate, not move toward a steady state.

Singularity as Cornucopianism

Perhaps the most extreme flavor of cornucopianism is singularity theory. Singularity theorists are not concerned by the exponentially growing impacts of human activities on global ecosystems, because they say knowledge is growing super-exponentially, which means the power of human knowledge will become infinite by 2045.  With infinite knowledge, they say, we can undo all the previous harm done to earth’s ecosystems, or simply abandon the earth and even our human bodies all together. We can download our consciousness into solar powered computers floating in space and virtually experience any reality we choose. This may sound far-fetched, but the idea has gained traction among Silicon Valley hotshots.

Truly novel technologies are inherently unpredictable: Since we can’t know what will emerge, we can’t possibly know the odds that it will emerge on time or truly address the problems we think it might. Betting the future of civilization and biodiversity on gambles with unknown odds is unwise to say the least. Rather than arguing over an unpredictable future, I propose neo-cornucopianism as a new argument for a steady state economy.

Neocornucopianism: We Already Have Plenty

I coin the term “neocornucopianism” to describe the recognition that, in wealthy nations, the horn of plenty is already overflowing, so the desire to establish an endless plenty is an empty, misplaced, and problematic desire.

The average American home has nearly doubled in size since the 1950s, and consumption has grown even faster: Americans rent an average of 21 square feet of storage space per person and generate more than 250 million tons of garbage per year, including 40% of the food we purchase. It’s to the point where we are actually paying to get rid of useful things. Additional production now makes us worse off.

A growing awareness of these trends leads to neocornucopianism: an idea, a mindset, and a lifestyle. Neocornucopians recognize that many of the new things they want will be thrown away within a week. So wanting and demanding less (instead of the endless pursuit of more) makes sense for personal choices, individual finances, local, state and national policies and for the larger global economic system.

Want to learn more? Stay tuned for future essays on this topic at the Steady State Herald, including articles in which Farley will provide examples of cornucopian wealth, with insights into the extreme inefficiency, injustice and unsustainability of our current system, as well as exploring a just and sustainable steady state alternative.


Selecting “Surrogate Species” for Conservation: How About an 800-Pounder?

by Brian Czech

These days the American conservation community is abuzz with the “surrogate species” approach to conservation. That’s where certain species are selected to represent all the others. Older conservation biologists see it as another iteration of the “umbrella species” concept, where managing for a critter like the grizzly bear would automatically protect a long list of species, simply because the grizzly bear occupies a vast sweep of terrain and habitats.

The rationale for taking this approach is clear enough. State and federal wildlife conservation agencies are tasked with conserving thousands of species of concern, including threatened and endangered species, migratory birds, marine mammals, all sorts of fishes and other “aquatic resources,” and biodiversity in general. These species are under pressure from left and right, above and below. Mountaintop removal, shale oil excavation, fracking, helicopter logging, stern trawling, factory farming, manufacturing, road construction, dams, invasive species, air pollution, water pollution, BP oil spills, climate change, genetically modified crops… all greased by the information sectors. “It’s the economy, buddy.”

To protect the thousands of accosted species, one by one, entails dealing with threat after threat after threat, in place after place after place. For a while during the first decade of the 21st century, notions were entertained of doing precisely that! Theoretically we could have worked up some computerized flowchart of species’ population goals, converted all the goals into habitat objectives, melded them all together, and spit out maps identifying precisely which parcels on the landscape were necessary to conserve.

And then of course we would have had to actually go out on the land and protect those parcels. Details!

This whole pipe dream was impossibly complicated, and wouldn’t be possible in the best of fiscal environments. It’s not even close to feasible today as we encounter limits to growth and declining budgets. That’s why we’re back to the umbrella species approach, bottling old wine with a new label, “surrogate species.”

There is another, mostly unspoken rationale for the surrogate species approach. The alternative approach to simplifying conservation — the “coarse filter” approach of conserving various ecosystem types — doesn’t connect so well with publics and politicians. It’s a lot easier to generate political support for a real live critter with fur or feathers than for a “submontane broad-leaved drought-deciduous woodland” or a “succulent extremely xeromorphic evergreen shrubland,” examples of ecosystem types.

Yet either way amounts to basically the same thing. You identify some conservation target — critter or ecosystem — then go out and protect it from the onslaught. Sure, you might have a marginally easier time of it politically by saying you want to protect the bear, wolf, eagle, salmon, black duck, or even some cold-blooded fella such as a desert tortoise. But whether it’s a species or an ecosystem, you either have to stop the economic sectors in their tracks, or buy some land out ahead of the bulldozer and then hope to stop the sectors (and their pollutants) when they reach the gates. That turns out to be not so simple after all. You still have to deal with the mountaintop removal, shale oil excavation, fracking, helicopter logging, stern trawling, factory farming… you get the picture. It’s still the economy, buddy, and it’s getting more unwieldy every day.

It’s time for the conservation community to wake up and smell the notoriety it’s courting for fiddling while Rome burns. If there is a surrogate species in need of attention, it’s the 800-pound gorilla called the economy. It sits there in the corner, growing bigger and more menacing by the day, while conservationists either pretend it doesn’t exist, claim it can grow forever without impacting the environment, or say it’s too big to mess with. None of these three approaches is worth a taxpayer’s dime.

How can we keep ignoring the 800-pound gorilla of economic growth?

If we really want to conserve wildlife and protect the environment, we’d better do exactly the opposite of what we’ve done so far with regard to the 800-pound gorilla. We had better acknowledge the critter, explain to the public why it can’t be reconciled with biodiversity conservation, and not shrink at the thought of it. It is, after all, nothing more than increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It’s measured by the supremely secular GDP. It’s not God, Godzilla, or even (despite the metaphor) King Kong! There’s plenty of precedent in American history for questioning the merits of economic growth, with real effects on public opinion (the demand side of the economy). Real, bold conservationists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson played a part in this history, as did real politicians such as Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

Conservationists need to learn this history and add a new chapter. Somebody has to lead the way to a new paradigm, away from economic growth and toward the balance of nature. This leadership is just not going to come from Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, or the World Bank. Big-picture leadership is required from conservationists — especially conservation professionals who get paid the big bucks — for developing clear and nuanced public understanding of the trade-off between growing the gorilla and conserving the rest of our fish and wildlife heritage.

Everyone knows that conservation professionals don’t make economic policy. They’re better off not even talking economic policy. But neither did Rachel Carson regulate DDT. Her leadership came in the form of telling the inconvenient truth about organochlorines. The policy implications were obvious. Likewise, leadership to address the 800-pound gorilla starts with rigorous public education. With enough such leadership, citizens will temper consumption from the demand side and economic policy engineers won’t be pulling out all the stops from the supply side. Together — conservationists, citizens, policy makers — we can get that surrogate critter on a sustainable diet!

The Triumph of Fantasy over Science, Part 2

Restoring Science as the Basis for Economic Policy

by Rob Dietz

Right now “economics” means “neoclassical economics,” especially in the halls of government and business boardrooms.  At the same time, ecological economics remains an under-appreciated and under-utilized sub-discipline of economics. To reverse this situation, such that when people talk about economics, they’re talking about ecological economics, we need to address the three factors described in Part 1 of The Triumph of Fantasy over Science:

  1. The psychology of inclusion drives people to follow the dominant economic philosophy (neoclassical), even if it comes straight out of Fantasy Camp.
  2. Neoclassical economics has become entrenched in the culture.
  3. The fanciful stories that support neoclassical theories are more emotionally compelling than the logic (straight out of Science Camp) that underlies ecological economics.

Overcoming these three factors requires three countermeasures.

Countermeasure 1. Frame the limits to growth and ecological economics in a way that prevents people from feeling threatened.

For decades, the denizens of Science Camp have been broadcasting messages about the shortcomings of neoclassical economics and the problems posed by its obsession with growth. To a lesser degree, they have also been promoting ecological economics (and its focus on well-being) as a positive alternative. But to bypass protective cognition — the defense mechanism that allows people to accept faulty premises — Science Campers need to frame their ideas differently.

Many people, when confronted with the possibility that the economic paradigm they’ve embraced may be harming society and causing significant environmental damage, react defensively. I know that I’ve been called all sorts of names (even the “C” word — communist) for presenting an alternative economic view. The key to disarming the defensiveness that comes along with protective cognition is to focus the conversation on needs that all people share (e.g., subsistence, security, and participation) and how an ecological economy can meet these needs without growth. Such framing can dampen denial and open minds.

For example, one time I was part of an “economic vitality” team tasked with providing ideas to a city council about how to achieve a prosperous local economy. The team included a sustainability guru, a business owner, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, and a banker, among others. In one of our first meetings, I gave my standard spiel about the difference between a prosperous economy and a growing one. Since it was a small group seated around a table, I could see right away the misgivings some of my teammates had about my ideas. The banker must have set the world record for quantity of disapproving head shakes. We ended up butting heads for the next several meetings until I tried a different approach. I drafted a short document about our “areas of agreement,” which focused on the city’s needs. By steering the conversation toward things we all hoped to achieve in the city’s economy, such as available jobs, meaningful work, sufficient infrastructure, healthy ecosystems, and local production and consumption, we were able to have a constructive discussion and develop useful strategies for the city.  Once the walls of protective cognition have been toppled, people can access their considerable capacity for logic when assessing policy options.

Countermeasure 2. Use student demand to supplant neoclassical economics in universities.

Since this countermeasure focuses on university economics, let’s use a couple of standard economic graphs. First let’s consider the production possibility frontier for teaching in economics departments (see graph). An economics department can offer only a certain amount of economics courses, defined by the production possibility frontier. If it is spending that “certain amount” on neoclassical economics, then it can teach very little ecological economics. The goal is to move along the curve from point A (where we currently reside) to point B where we want to be.

Now let’s use supply and demand to see how to move from A to B. The quantity (and price) of neoclassical economics offered by universities is determined by student demand and departmental supply (see graph). To lessen the quantity of neoclassical economics supplied, students need to lower their demand for it. This is a natural place to start, since neoclassical economics offers students very little in the way of long-term prospects for healthy and happy lives. Student uproar over the downsides of neoclassical economics is already percolating, and activists have begun organizing efforts to increase demand for ecological economics.

If students decrease their demand for neoclassical economics, then the quantity supplied will decrease.

For example, Adbusters started a campaign called Kick It Over that invites students around the world to join the fight to revamp Econ 101 curricula and challenge the myopic views of neoclassical professors. Another outstanding effort is Kate Raworth’s work with Oxfam on the “doughnut economy.” Raworth is trying to unseat neoclassical orthodoxy and replace it with an economic framework based on meeting society’s needs within nature’s limits. Besides offering a sound premise for structuring the economy, she suggests that students engage in a guerilla campaign to rewrite economics textbooks.

As students decrease their demand for neoclassical economics, casting it into the dustbin of obsolescence, economics departments will move along their production possibility frontier to point B where their core will become ecological economics. At that point professors will focus their research on how to achieve sustainable and equitable well-being, and new generations of students will be grounded in the principles of Science Camp.

Countermeasure 3. Tell a better story.

Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement has poked fun at the standard Science Camp story. He says, “Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination — some seedy bed and breakfast… with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast — and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.” We need to tell a more inspiring story about the transition to a steady-state economy.

That’s exactly what CASSE authors have been up to, and two new books will be available in early 2013.  Enough Is Enough (by Dan O’Neill and me) and Supply Shock (by Brian Czech) will serve as a one-two punch to knock out the neoclassical obsession with growth. These two books can accompany the ecological economics textbook by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley to provide options for new economics courses along the path from point A to point B on the production possibility frontier.  As more such books and resources come out of Science Camp, professors, politicians, and pundits will have fewer excuses for remaining in Fantasy Camp.

From reframing to organizing, from protesting to storytelling, there’s a lot of work to do to get past the collective mental block and start walking a sustainable economic path. For decades, we’ve shown ourselves to be incapable of accepting facts, unable to modify failing social institutions, and unwilling to adjust our lifestyles. But now is the time to overthrow the academic programs and economic institutions that got us into this mess in which we undervalue our most important assets. Now is the time to tell the story of ecological economics — the hopeful story of long-term prosperity on a healthy planet. Now is the time to demand the economy that we want and that the planet needs.

Fictitious “Facts” Spur Students to Liquidate the Planet

by Rob Dietz

One reason that we have a culture dedicated to the myth of perpetual economic growth (a dedication that produces a pile of consequences such as climate chaos, financial fiascos, ecosystem eradication, and dismal disparity between the haves and have-nots) is that students are learning fictitious “facts.”  College students in the most common majors are repeatedly told that unlimited economic growth is a good thing, with no thoughtful analysis of the costs of growth.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most popular major for U.S. college students is business.(1)  A whopping 21% of American undergraduates declared business as their major in the 2007-2008 school year.  All of these students take introductory business courses that describe rudimentary principles of economics.  After all, the economy is the environment in which businesses operate, so business students need to understand the economy.  They learn about supply and demand, business cycles, inflation and unemployment.  So when the topic of economic growth comes up in such a course, what sort of message do they receive?

It just so happens that my wife teaches an introductory college business course.  She was kind enough to let me borrow the textbook for her course – Exploring Business by Karen Collins – for a quick review.(2)  I took a look at it with great interest.  Chapter one is called The Foundations of Business, and right at the beginning, I came across a section on economic goals.  In this section, Collins states:

All the world’s economies share three main goals:

  1. Growth;
  2. High employment; and
  3. Price stability.

She goes on to explain the concept of prosperity:

During prosperity, the economy expands, unemployment is low, incomes rise, and consumers buy more products.  Businesses respond by increasing production and offering new and better products.

For anyone who has studied both the upsides and downsides of economic growth, a statement like, “All the world’s economies have a goal of growth,” raises some red flags.  Follow-up statements that equate prosperity with increased consumption raise even bigger and redder flags.  These assertions can be rewritten as 2 simple (and unsubstantiated) equations:

  1. Growth = Number 1 goal; and
  2. Prosperity = More stuff.

These equations raise the following questions in my mind:

  • Should all economies have growth as a goal?
  • Isn’t there a deeper meaning of prosperity – don’t we tend to value things in our lives beyond accumulation of more and better products?
  • With economic growth straining ecological health around the globe and compromising human health in the high-consuming nations,(3) shouldn’t we at least consider an optimal size for the economy rather than limitless expansion?

Exploration of such questions is not a part of the standard curriculum – Exploring Business doesn’t explore any of them.  With so much at stake (after all, a complete understanding of economic growth may help us build economic institutions that fit within ecological capacity), what can we do to help ensure that students obtain a more complete picture of economic growth?  Let’s turn to economics for help.  If we want professors and textbook writers to supply balanced coverage of economic growth, we need to demand it.  We can do so with civility and persistence.  These professors and writers aren’t villains – they are simply passing along knowledge, some of which is dangerously misguided, that was handed down to them.

Adbusters Magazine has launched a campaign called Toxic Textbooks to encourage schools and universities to use economics textbooks that engage honestly with the real world.  You can get involved with that campaign.  You can ask the writers of college textbooks (perhaps starting with Karen Collins) to make some changes.  If you’re taking a course in business or economics, you can certainly ask your professor to explain how we can have infinite growth on a finite planet.  And if these sorts of attempts fail, perhaps students will begin to select majors that are more in touch with what’s happening in the real world.


What exactly are we learning here?


(1)   U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.  Note that the second most popular major (with 10.7% of the student population) is social science and history, which includes an awful lot of economics majors who receive similar messages to business students.

(2)   Collins, Karen (2010). Exploring Business, Flat World Knowledge.

(3)   See, for example, Egger, Garry and Boyd Swinburne, 2010.  Planet Obesity: How We’re Eating Ourselves and the Planet to Death, Allen & Unwin.

Demand a Supply of Common Sense; Just Don’t Price It

by Brian Czech

“Natural resources originate from the mind, not from the ground, and therefore are not depletable.” Robert Bradley, President, Institute for Energy Research.

Ah, the confusion of economics students when they encounter the subject of supply and demand in introductory “micro.” They learn that prices are determined by supply and demand. Then they’re taught that the quantities supplied and demanded are determined by… prices!

There happens to be no lurking inconsistency here, no magic trick to dazzle us; not even a ridiculous fallacy to accuse the professor of. It’s just a matter of semantics; supply is not the same as “quantity supplied” and demand is not the same as “quantity demanded.” But these semantics do open the door for shenanigans!

The supply (per se) of raw diamonds, for example, is determined primarily by how many diamonds are in the ground and the technology available for mining them. Supply clearly does influence price; diamonds are expensive partly because they are so hard to find and extract. On the other hand, the “quantity supplied” is what is brought to the market by diamond sellers. Price clearly does influence the quantity supplied; the higher the price, the higher the quantity supplied.

So the relationships among supply, price, and quantity supplied are really not so mysterious, at least not until a linguistically reckless or unscrupulous growthman wades in to muddy up the waters. As an example, the late Julian Simon comes to mind, but there are plenty of living counterparts. Robert Bradley, president of the Institute for Energy Research, believes that “Natural resources originate from the mind, not from the ground, and therefore are not depletable. Thus, energy can be best understood as a bottomless pyramid of increasing substitutability and supply.” In other words, innovators supply the world with natural resources, including energy, from their minds. Therefore, the supply of such resources is no problem.

Clearly such a theory induces a healthy supply of corrupt political dialog, in which the word “supply” is, well, over-supplied. I may as well partake!

Consider the number of smokers in a room and the amount of smoke they supply. When we crowd more smokers into the room, we get higher supplies of smoke. As the smoke supply increases, however, non-smokers start to leave. Eventually even the smokers leave, beginning with the lighter smokers who don’t like heavy smoke. So at first, more smokers means a higher supply of smoke, yet eventually a higher supply of smoke means less smokers. In a goofy sort of way, with a touch of linguistic liberty-taking, more smokers means less smokers and cleaner air. (Some of the ex-smokers may have taken up plug tobacco, however, increasing the spittle supply on the sidewalk.) This can be twisted into an insinuation, self-deception, or bald-faced lie that smoking is a self-correcting problem, and that the key to less smoking in society is more smoking!

This ludicrous example mirrors the claim that the invisible hand of the market will “fix” any resource shortages that might arise, which is based on the assumption that increasing price will increase not only the “quantity supplied” but the bona fide supply. After all, supplies come from the mind. It’s smoke-and-mirrors, so to speak.

We’ve all been downwind of cigarette smoke. (Hopefully, few of us have been downstream of plug spittle!) Certainly we have the right to poke a little fun, especially at Big Tobacco’s “Seven Dwarves,” who perjured before a U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee, “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.” The resulting news broadcast was unforgettable to many Americans, who learned a lot about Big Money that day. We fully expected the Seven Dwarves to announce, as an encore, the Tooth Fairy’s engagement to Santa Claus.

So Americans know quite well how Big Money can pollute the truth. Can we expect the mother of all money-making theories, unlimited growth theory – along with its crazy correlates – to come to us on wings of truth? Sure, sure, higher prices stemming from lowered supplies actually “increase” supplies because they provide an incentive to “supply” even more. And more smoke makes the air “cleaner” by providing an incentive for smokers to increase the “supply” of clean air. More traffic increases the “supply” of open road. More noise actually leads to a greater “supply” of quietness. Less of a good thing leads to more of it! More of a bad thing leads to less of it! Or, if you prefer, less of a good thing leads to less of a bad thing, and more of a bad thing leads to more of a good thing!

So if the growthmen want to claim that oil supplies, for example, are actually increasing, not decreasing, as evidenced by a downturn in price, let them play with the word “supply” like the Seven Dwarves play with “addictive!” Let them use “supply” to mean more, less, an OK mess, anybody’s guess … whatever. But may the rest of us not sound, as one old hand used to say, “Dummer’n a doggone boot!” Supply is how much there is, after all, and as you use it, less remains.

Diamond ring: $5,000.00. Neoclassical economics textbook: $100.00. Common sense: priceless.