Toward a Finite-Planet Journalism

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyThe Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park in southeastern Missouri was created in 1964 as the first National Park unit to protect a wild and scenic river system. Enclosing 184 miles of river and in many places scarcely wider than the banks of the rivers it protects, the park gets more than a million visitors in the summer, many of them from St. Louis (three hours to the northeast) and Springfield (three hours to the west). The park’s once-pristine waters are being damaged by overuse. Fecal coliform counts have led to the rivers’ being listed as “impaired” — unfit for their historic uses, including swimming, tubing, kayaking, and fishing. Some of the fecal pollution comes from horses (more than 3,000 are stabled in and near the park by trail-ride concessions, and many horse trails cross the rivers) and some comes from private septic failures in cabins, boats and RV campgrounds.

These and other human environmental impacts in the park could be reduced through tighter regulation and judicious redesign of usage patterns — moving trails out of the most sensitive areas, minimizing congestion at access points by separating them farther, that sort of thing. Clearly the park needs an update of its decades-old management plan.

The National Park Service has worked on that update, producing a draft management plan that outlines four possible paths forward, from “no change” — an unsustainable option, Park Service scientists say — to establishing the park as a Wilderness Area. The Service’s preferred option lies in between. It would:

  • close some historical river access points and open an equal number in less ecologically sensitive areas;
  • close 65 miles of unauthorized horse trails and open 25 miles of designated trails elsewhere;
  • set new regulations on where and when motorboats would be allowed; and
  • close some roads, converting them to hiking trails.

The Park Service has been holding public hearings on the proposals, and some of the hearings have been the occasion of protest and controversy as some park regulars and nearby residents expressed their dismay at the proposed changes. Protest and “push back” are entirely expectable when government policy falls on the border where infinite-planet custom meets finite-planet reality. The transformation of our perpetual-growth society into a steady-state society, though inevitable, is unlikely to be quiet or automatic. It would be less painful if it were eased by environmental journalism worthy of the name, journalism that understands what’s at stake, journalism capable of stepping outside the infinite-planet premises of our social and political system.

Sadly, the new management plan for the Current and Jack Fork Rivers didn’t get that kind of coverage.

On Sunday, January 26, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story about the new management plan. The prominence was appropriate; the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park generates plenty of environmental value, as well as substantial local and regional economic impacts. (As a summertime escape from Midwestern heat, it figures prominently in the psychic health of the region too, though that’s harder to measure.) But the implications of the story reach even farther, all the way out to the widest scale possible — that of human civilization in history. That’s because the story of the Park’s need for a new management regime, and of the opposition to that regime, is not simply a story about political wrangling between a federal agency and some citizens affected by its decisions; it’s a story about the troubling collision between participatory democracy and physical reality.

This was not how the story was framed by the paper. Instead, the paper gave it a distinctly conservative spin: long-established users of the park are finding their habits and traditions threatened by unfeeling bureaucrats and flaky environmentalists. The story made a point that those who protested against new park regulations “love” the river, while no mention was made of the love of the river that leads environmentalists to want to see it protected. The only environmentalist the story quoted said the park was a “temple” that had been “desecrated” — as if John Muir’s pantheism was the animating force behind all environmental regulation, and subtly suggesting that the protestors had Constitutional freedom on their side. The story made no mention of fecal coliform counts, noting only that environmentalists “claim” the water is being polluted and quoting one Park Service official who said current uses are “unsustainable.” Absent the science that would back up either statement, a reader could dismiss both as personal opinions. (Indeed, the official was said to “feel,” not think, that the park needed a new regulatory plan.)

Ozark Riverways

Continuous growth (in visitation to the Ozark Riverways, or more generally in population and consumption) requires regulation to address the consequences. Journalists should be reporting this principle (photo by David Porter).

Infinite-planet bias was present in the story in other ways. The report began within the first-person point of view of one of the citizens opposed to the new regulatory regime, immediately placing the reader on that side of the issue. Imagine if the story had begun with the work of one of the scientists whose findings shaped the report — or a swimmer who had bumped into raw sewage. The story gave a great deal of coverage to citizens worried that they might lose their livelihoods if tourist access to the park comes under greater control, but didn’t make the point that the river-supported economy of the area will collapse completely if the rivers aren’t kept healthy.

Basically, the news story pandered to populist sentiment against regulation. Yes, people don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do, especially when the rules cover behavior in a place that seems wild, natural, and incapable of being damaged by what we do. But looks can be deceiving. As climate change amply demonstrates, we no longer live on a planet so large that it can absorb any- and everything we care to throw at it. In the world we inhabit now, if we want to maintain the benefits and delights we derive from natural ecosystems — including necessities like clean water — we need regulations to manage our increasingly problematic ecological footprint.

Communication of that truth would have served the public interest. The problem is not that some people want more government just for the sake of more government, as a Post-Dispatch reader might justifiably conclude. The problem is that the human population and its high-throughput economy have collided with ecological limit, even in the backwoods of the Ozarks. If protestors want smaller government in general and less regulation of the Ozark Waterways in particular, they need to work to bring civilization back — far back — from the brink of ecological limits. The way to do that is to stabilize and perhaps even reduce population, decrease throughput, and increase the health and security of the planet’s ecosystems through conservation, restoration and preservation.

American political thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey have emphasized the importance of newspapers to the country’s democratic project. To their appreciations we can add another of equal importance: only an ecologically knowledgeable electorate can reconcile democracy with non-negotiable ecological limits. If the majority of voters remain ecologically illiterate, they must give up either civilization or democracy; it’s impossible to retain both.

The country could get the educated polity it needs through an ambitious program of teaching ecological literacy in our schools. But for this method to produce an ecologically literate majority would take decades, and we haven’t got that much time. If the American public is to learn what it must learn in order to maintain democracy in the face of the dynamics that are pushing us, inexorably and for our own self-preservation, toward illiberal technocracy, then news outlets have to step up to the task of reporting fairly by dropping their infinite-planet bias. At a minimum they need to report what finite-planet, sustainable thinking has to offer on environmental and economic affairs. Further than that, they could begin connecting their environmental and economic reporting, framing the two as inseparable in every story. And they could emphasize that every story on this combined beat offers evidence of one outstanding practical need: the need to preserve our democracy and promote our well-being through the development of a steady-state society.

Growth and Laissez-faire

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyHow do you envision a successful economy without continuous growth?

It helps to consider a prior question: how do you envision a successful planet earth without continuous growth? That is easy to envision because it exists! The earth as a whole does not grow in physical dimensions. Yet it changes qualitatively, it evolves and develops. Total matter on earth cycles, but does not grow. Energy from the sun flows through the earth coming in as a radiant low-entropy energy and exiting as high-entropy heat. But the solar flow is not growing. Nearly all life is powered by this entropic throughput of solar energy. There is birth and death, production and depreciation. New things evolve; old things go extinct. There is continual change. There is qualitative development. But the earth is not growing!

The economy is a subsystem of the earth. Imagine that the economy grows physically to encompass the entire earth. Then the economy would have to conform to the behavior mode of the earth because the two would be identical. The economy could no longer grow, and would have to live on a virtually constant solar flow with closed material cycles, approximating a steady state — an exceedingly large steady state to be sure. The economy would have taken over the management of the entire ecosystem — every amoeba, every molecule, and every photon would be allocated according to human purposes and priced accordingly. All “externalities” would be internalized as required by efficient markets, and nothing could any longer be external to the all-encompassing economy. The information and management problem would be astronomical — central planning raised to the thousandth power! Long before such a total takeover of the ecosystem, the human economy and the civilization it supports would have collapsed under the weight of God-like information requirements and managerial complexity.


Democracy doesn’t exactly bubble to the surface at the limit of carrying capacity.

Growth all the way to the very limit of carrying capacity has an unrecognized political cost as well. Excess carrying capacity is a necessary condition for freedom and democracy. Living close to the limit of carrying capacity, as on a submarine or spaceship, requires very strict discipline. On submarines we have a captain with absolute authority, not a democracy. If we want democracy, we better not grow up to the limit of carrying capacity — better to leave some slack, some margin for tolerance of the disagreements and errors that freedom entails.

The more obvious political cost of growth is war for access to rival resources — minerals, water, agricultural land, and the remaining commons. The hope that economic growth would mean ever more things for ever more people, and would therefore keep the hounds of war at bay, may have been temporarily credible in yesterday’s empty world, but not in today’s full world.

To arrive at a vision that promises success we must discard some dead-end dreams — not only the “American Dream” of consumerism, but also the mainstream economist’s dream of internalizing all ecological relationships into the monetary accounts of the economy. It is a fantasy to believe that we can devise a rigged market system in which “corrected” prices would tell the whole truth about the opportunity costs of everything in the world, and automatically optimize the scale of the economy relative to the ecosystem, as well as the allocation of resources within the economy. In T. S. Eliot’s words, this is “dreaming of a system so perfect that no one needs to be good.”

To be good includes keeping the economy from overwhelming the containing ecosystem with massive depletion and pollution. The way to do that is to leave most of the ecosphere alone, to limit our absorption of it into the economic subsystem — to keep a large part of the earth ecosystem in natura — as a future source for low-entropy matter/energy inputs and sink for high-entropy waste, and as a provider of life-support services and habitat for other species.

Laissez-faire takes on a new meaning — it is the ecosystem, not the economy that must be “left alone” to manage itself and evolve by its own rules. Of course the ecosystem cannot really be “left alone” because we absolutely depend on it to support life and production. But our rate of use must be confined within the regenerative and absorptive capacities of the ecosystem. The metabolic throughput from and back to nature cannot keep growing without eventually destroying ecosystem services faster than it produces production benefits, thereby becoming uneconomic growth. When the value of costs external to the market overwhelms the value of benefits internal to the market, then it is past time to transfer the privileges of “laissez-faire” from the economy to the ecosystem.

Once the economy is constrained in aggregate scale to stay within the limits imposed by the ecosystem, we could then fine-tune its allocative efficiency by internalizing remaining external costs into market prices. But it is critical to understand that even a perfectly efficient economy with optimal pricing can grow too big for the finite ecosystem to sustain, and once it is too big then improving allocative efficiency within the too-big economy is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

The Infinite-Planet Approach Won’t Solve the European Debt Crisis

by Eric Zencey

Last week European leaders met in Brussels and, like sophomores cramming before a final, pulled an all-nighter. Their exam was a real-world project: restore investor confidence in the Eurozone. A lot of pressure was put on David Cameron to bring the UK into the new agreement; he was adamant in his refusal. Even without the UK, the measures that the Eurozone nations have announced may restore investor confidence, but one thing is certain: they shouldn’t, because they’ll fail miserably at staving off future financial crisis.

That’s because “restoring investor confidence” and “fixing the broken system” are two very different goals.

If more investors were like Jeremy Grantham, who’s got a clear view of the origin of the financial crisis, the two would line up a lot better. But most investors, like all of the policy makers who met in Brussels, are working out of an old-fashioned and mistaken economic model. Restoring confidence in a system built on that model isn’t going to fix what’s wrong.

What, exactly, is wrong? The New York Times articulated the conventional thinking when it opined, a few days before the all-nighter in Brussels, that the root of the debt crisis is “lack of growth.” The first step toward success in solving any problem is to define it accurately, and the conventional diagnosis gets it wrong because it looks at just half the problem. A more complete diagnosis: Some of the European economies haven’t been able to grow fast enough to pay back the burden of debt that has been wagered on them.

This formulation lets us see the path to a sturdy solution: if we want to avoid crises of debt repudiation, we need to limit the total creation of debt, public and private, to the amount that we can reasonably expect to be paid back through economic growth.

But instead of solving the problem of recurrent (and increasingly painful) crises of debt repudiation by looking at the system as a whole, the policy makers who met in Brussels went after just the most recent and obvious symptom: government deficits and threatened government defaults by the weaker economies of the Eurozone. When deficits are created by sovereign governments — governments that have the power to print money to cover them — they’re inflationary, and inflation is one way that a system’s need for debt repudiation can be met. But within the Eurozone, the European Central Bank holds inflation in check, so the necessary and expected debt repudiation has to take a different form. It has come this time as Greece’s move to renegotiate bond liability under threat of default — holders of Greek government bonds will get fifty cents on the dollar, not the full amount they expect. The conventional view sees that and thinks, “if Greece didn’t run deficits it wouldn’t have to default.”

That’s true, but too limited to get at the root of the problem. What the conventional frame of analysis doesn’t foresee: If you let the burden of total debt grow unchecked, and if you control both inflation and governmental default by mandating balanced budgets, you’ll simply displace the pressure for debt repudiation to somewhere else in the system. It will come out as bankruptcies and foreclosures or other private defaults, as stock market crashes, as cuts in pension promises or wage contracts, as loss of paper assets or expected future income of any kind. We can’t forestall the next crisis of debt repudiation unless we rein in the total creation of debt.

The new EU plan would take a major step toward making the Eurozone monetary union into a fiscal union, with stronger centralized control of inflationary deficits. Under the new rules, Eurozone member nations will have to balance their budgets over the economic cycle (if they go into deficit in times of recession, they’ll have to run a surplus in times of growth) and submit their budgets to the European Commission for review and approval. Currently member nations face penalties if they run persistent deficits — penalties that Greece consciously chose to ignore rather than see its economy sink into unemployment and recession under the onslaught of cheap imports from countries running a surplus. The new plan would have Eurozone member nations suffer larger, automatic penalties if they don’t obey the budget-balancing rules.

That will control inflation and bond default as methods of debt repudiation by imposing austerity budgets on struggling Eurozone members. (There are no penalties for the countries, like Germany, that create the other half of the problem by running trade surpluses.) Governments will have to cut social services and regulatory enforcement — cuts that will be touted as the best way to restore growth, and which will work to the benefit of the 1%. The rich get richer and government gets smaller — just what neocons and moneyed interests like to see.

As plenty of commentators have noticed, fiscal integration under the new budget rules and procedures means a loss of national sovereignty within the Eurozone. As only some of those commentators have cautioned, this makes government in Europe less democratic and less responsive to citizen concerns. “No problem,” say bankers and financiers. Democratically empowered citizens are likely to demand the level of governmental services and environmental protection that well-to-do nations are expected to provide — and those are luxuries their country can’t afford, not if it’s to grow rapidly enough to pay back the burden of debt it labors under.

The movement toward fiscal union and budget austerity thus represents the victory of growth-for-the-sake-of-growth over democracy-for-the-sake-of-democracy.

On an infinite planet, the two need not be at odds, and in fact can be seen to support each other. They certainly seemed to track together through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as market economies expanded into an underdeveloped world. But in a world built out to the limits of what ecosystems can handle, it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s a tradeoff.

As should be obvious to policy makers, the expansionary phase of human economic history is over. It is no longer possible to have both democracy and robust, footprint-expanding growth. The freewheeling creation of debt, whether public or private, drives the latter. To preserve it as a very profitable feature of the economy, bankers and financiers are perfectly willing to sacrifice the former. That’s the deep and troubling lesson of the European Debt Crisis: today, the largest threat to democratic forms of government is the fact that the planet hosts a human debt-creation system suited for perpetual growth on an infinite planet.

Because an economy deals in physical reality — that is, it runs on matter and energy drawn from a finite planet — it is impossible for economic production to grow infinitely. Debt, being entirely imaginary, can grow however rapidly we choose to let it. A crisis of debt repudiation is the unavoidable result of a mismatch between the two. The conventional frame does not admit this, and it leads us straight toward regressive and destructive policies, including the elimination of environmental and social safeguards. Those safeguards set limits to what we let ourselves do in pursuit of economic growth, and thereby give us a higher standard of living by protecting us from environmental harms and economic insecurity.

Since a higher standard of living, and not growth for its own sake, is the ultimate purpose of the economy, it makes sense to allow for the possibility that the solution to our system’s regular crises of debt repudiation lies in controlling the creation of debt. The alternative — demanding more and more economic growth, ever larger throughput of matter and energy — is impossible to sustain on a finite planet.

Even in the short run, the infinite growth model is counterproductive. It leads to a declining standard of living and a loss of democratic freedom for the majority of the world’s population — Americans no less than Greeks, Italians and other Europeans. It does so because whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, we’ve reached the limits to growth. More often than not, further growth in GDP is uneconomic growth, because it costs us more in lost ecosystem services and other “disamenities” than we get in benefits.

Pro-growth people don’t see it that way, of course, no doubt because many of them are the ones who receive those benefits by imposing losses on the rest of us. Many of those losses emanate from, and aren’t fully contained within, the rapidly developing nations of China and India — countries whose leaders have mistakenly accepted a demonstrably flawed element of neoclassical thinking, the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This is the idea, much beloved of pro-growth advocates and members of the 1% everywhere, that environmental quality is a luxury that nations will be able to afford only after they develop more — which they can do by cashing out their natural capital for sale on world markets, and by hosting “sink” services, poisoning their land and mortgaging their future by absorbing the global economy’s waste stream.

The ecological footprint of the global economy is currently larger than the globe it inhabits. But you don’t have to believe that we’ve reached the limits to growth in order to see that the basic problem behind the European Debt Crisis is the mismatch between our rate of debt creation and the rate at which we can grow real wealth in order to pay that debt off.

How much can real wealth grow under reasonable environmental safeguards and with reasonable protection of worker (and citizen) health and safety? The answer is, in part, empirical. The non-empirical part has to do with those environmental and health and safety standards: what counts as “reasonable”? Opinions will differ, but only an out-and-out infinite planet theorist can argue that environmental constraints need to be lessened, and only an unreconstructed robber baron could argue that workers ought to be free — “free” — to starve or take on employment that could kill them.

Here’s how to begin to fix the broken system: Agree to minimum standards for environmental and health and safety regulation, such as those promulgated by the UN; find the sustainable rate of economic activity that’s possible within those limits; and limit the growth in debt — all debt, public and private — to what’s needed to support that activity. With such a fix, the human standard of living would be raised not though footprint- expanding growth, but through technological innovation that allows us to achieve more benefit from a constant, sustainably sized throughput.

If more investors understood that the excessive creation of debt in all its forms — not just government deficits — is the driver of our crises of debt repudiation, this reining in of the creation of debt would be the only way to restore their confidence.

Educating investors and policymakers about the economic and financial realities of a finite planet is a huge task, but eventually they’ll come around. They’ll have to. The planet is, after all, finite, and it’s going to keep offering the lesson until everybody gets it.