“Steady State Economy” — a Positive Vision in International Affairs

by Brian Czech

Before we think about the steady state economy, let’s think for a moment about economic growth. Economic growth still has such positive connotations in domestic politics, especially American politics, that the vast majority of citizens simply assume that whoever can do more for economic growth is the better statesman (man or woman), better Federal Reserve chair, better economic advisor, etc. That’s why the definition of economic growth bears repeating over and over again, to pull the magic cloak from a purely material process. Economic growth simply means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.

In other words, economic growth means increasing population, increasing per capita consumption, or both. There’s nothing magical about it. Economic growth means more and more “stuff” – green stuff, brown stuff, pink stuff — and it takes more “stuff” to make it happen. That’s pretty obvious for the agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing sectors. But service sectors, even the information sector, take more stuff to grow, too.

And stuff tends to run out. Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Everything as Richard Heinberg called it; Earth has only so much to go around. Earth is big, but so is 7 billion — the number of people in the global economy. More importantly, guess which one is still growing.

Economic growth is indicated by increasing GDP. In nations with big ecological footprints — the United States, Japan, Germany, China, Brazil — economic growth has long been maxed out within the borders. Huge economies have to reach across their borders for natural resources, and their pollutants go international too. Economic growth is increasingly questioned as a positive vision in international affairs.

Many if not most nations recognize that economic growth has become more of a problem than a solution from a global perspective. That’s why Herman Daly calls it “uneconomic growth.” Resource shortages, pollution, climate change, congestion, and biodiversity loss are all results and indicators of economic (or uneconomic) growth.

In other words economic growth, indicated by increasing GDP, has become a bad deal, at least at the global level. It was a good deal some decades ago when it cost us little in clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife, and peace and quiet. But now it’s a bad deal and we need to recognize it as bad.

Calling economic growth a bad thing doesn’t make the steady state economy a negative vision. Far from it. In fact, when economic growth is a bad thing, only an alternative to growth can be a good thing, right?

So what are the alternatives to economic growth? This is where sticking to the standard, textbook, policy-relevant definition of economic growth comes in handy. Again, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, indicated by growing GDP. So we have only two basic alternatives: decreasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, or stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. The former results in declining GDP and the latter in stabilized GDP. The former is called “recession.” The latter is called a “steady state economy.”

Of these, which one sounds like the better deal? Which one evokes the more positive image? Which one should be advocated as the solution to the problem of economic growth?

I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s the steady state economy.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to test this hypothesis at the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, otherwise known as “Rio+20,” from June 20-22. There in Rio de Janeiro I talked with dozens of delegates from countries ranging in GDP from the gargantuan United States to the diminutive Comoros. Here’s what I found: nearly all favored the steady state economy as the positive solution to the problem of economic growth. Nearly all saw continuous economic growth as bad and the steady state economy as good.

That’s right, nearly all!

Doubt it? Think again. These diplomats ain’t no dummies. They know full well the planet is filling up with people and stuff, and that many national economies are beyond their sustainable levels.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some diplomats have the intellectual disadvantage of a background in neoclassical economics, leading them to believe there is no limit to economic growth. They can’t defend such a fallacious hypothesis, but they still believe it.

Then again, not all diplomats who agree about limits to economic growth will formally acknowledge such agreement. A distinct tendency was clear in Rio: wealthy-nation delegates were afraid to buck the party line of economic growth except in private conversation. The reasons should be obvious. In the United States, for example, we have Wall Street, the Federal Reserve System, and the Department of Commerce pushing hard for economic growth. No one should underestimate the power of these players to influence the language of statesmen, political appointees, and bureaucrats.

In small nations with widespread poverty, on the other hand, the general public, professional diplomats, and elected politicians have one thing in common: they’ve all experienced the unfairness of global economic growth and pro-growth policies. When it comes to natural resources, smaller countries tend to be deal takers, not deal makers, and the terms of trade are harsh.

That’s why the CASSE position on economic growth has garnered signatures from numerous small-country diplomats, ministers, and other delegates in international affairs. In Rio, I found delegate after delegate supportive of steady state economics for international diplomacy. Many were from African, South American, and Asian countries far removed from Wall Street and wary of international pro-growth institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization. I got the succinct impression that, if only we had the time and access to all diplomats of the world, and even to heads of state, we would find the vast majority of them calling for steady state economics just as the CASSE position describes. That means starting in large, wealthy countries and gradually expanding to other nations after an opportunity to catch up in per capita consumption, at least to a reasonable degree.

Yet many activists, scholars, and ‘think-tankers’ are afraid to talk openly in public about the steady state economy, much less to go on record as supporting it. They think the phrase “steady state economy” has negative connotations. They think this makes the steady state economy too difficult to promote.

The fact is that any macroeconomic goal (growth, steady state, recession) has negative connotations. It’s time to pick your negative connotations!

Some may think that negative connotations can be avoided by the use of feel-good rhetoric such as “green,” “blue,” or “new” economics. I hate to burst the bluegreen bubblegum, but these too have plenty of negative connotations. This was evident in Rio. “Green,” “blue,” and “new” are seen by diplomats for what they are: rhetorical ploys to skirt the tough issues we face in the real world.

Long-time explicit advocates of the steady state economy could, I suppose, be accused of a biased opinion. But I know what I saw in Rio: delegates almost invariably connected quickly with the phrase “steady state economy.” Although it’s a phrase that requires some thought for translation to other languages, it makes so much common sense that the translation occurs alright. For example, the CASSE position on economic growth is already posted in 19 languages. After all the followups from Rio+20, it will also be posted in Chinese, Turkish, Hindi, Bangladeshi, Japanese, and Hungarian.

In political science, a central principle is name recognition. All else equal, the name recognized is the name favored. This applies to politicians, policies, and platforms. That’s why it matters when a professor, activist, diplomat, minister, or head of state chooses a label for a particular economic goal. “Green” has name recognition, but its meaning is fuzzy. “New” has little recognition or meaning, at least as applied to economics. “Steady state economy” has modest recognition, so far, but it clearly expresses the primary principle; a stabilized economy that is neither growing nor shrinking, but fluctuating around a sustainable level.

“Steady state economy” is a positive, proactive phrase that’s productive in international affairs. It has decades of academic reputation from the work of Herman Daly and others. It speaks clearly of the need to stabilize the size of the human economy. It has plenty of backing by dignitaries in sustainability science, policy, and diplomacy, and the list of dignitaries (not yet updated from Rio) is growing fast. We should encourage the purveyors of “green,” “blue”, and “new” economics to adopt it.

Aren’t there reasons enough?

What’s “Rio+20” and Why Should We Care?

by Brian Czech

For those of us working in ecological and economic sustainability, Rio+20 is a big deal, and in our circles, just about everyone knows about it. Yet we have to wonder, what proportion of the general public has even heard of Rio+20, much less knows what it is? It’s a big question for a forum like the Daly News, where we’re all about mainstreaming sustainability. When we mention Rio+20, do we quickly lose readers who vaguely assume it’s some international, esoteric event with little relevance to mainstream society?

Rio+20 is short for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It’s a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, which also was held in Rio de Janiero. The biggest environmental conference of all time, the Earth Summit produced the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Agenda 21. It was a beacon of hope on a planet in peril.

On the other hand, anarchists, nationalist extremists, and paranoid conspiracy theorists (and Sarah Palin, who warrants her own category) rue the Earth Summit because it evoked a certain level of international governance. It threatened the free world with that S word: sustainability.

The Earth Summit was also memorable for President George H. W. Bush snubbing his nose at the Convention on Biological Diversity, despite its signing by 150 countries and the European Union. He did sign the Framework Convention on Climate Change, but only after it lost its teeth by calling for voluntary instead of mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In general, Bush dampened spirits and hampered diplomatic progress. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” he iconically announced, and he pitched that classic 90’s win-win rhetoric: “Economic growth provides the resources for environmental protection, and environmental protection ensures that growth is sustainable.”

I am quick to add that, despite explicitly identifying two prominent Republicans above, the win-win rhetoric was far from a partisan project. The Clintons, for example, were fond of win-winning with, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

And the rest is history: decades lost, for the most part, in win-win one-upsmanship when we could have been preparing smartly for limits to growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. But that’s enough about history. What does Rio+20 offer in its wake? I think it offers perhaps the single biggest opportunity yet for “steady statesmanship” in international diplomacy.

Signs are abounding that the win-win rhetoric is giving way to common sense and sound science. No clearer sign exists than the CASSE position on economic growth and its growing list of signatories and commenters. One long-time conservation leader who recently signed the CASSE position noted, “I’ve been waiting for you for 40 years.” The time is ripe for steady state economics in academia, non-governmental organizations, and public policy.

But it’s not just we at CASSE and our list of signatories who signify a paradigm shift away from the obsession with economic growth. Why, just today the Huffington Post published an interview with Jeff Rubin about his new book, The End of Growth. The title is less noteworthy than the fact that Rubin was chief economist with CIBC World Markets. It seems like almost every day another well-known economist or ex-Wall Streeter is looking limits to growth square in the eye and not flinching. Rubin sees the end of growth as an opportunity for the planet to recover from the destruction inevitably wrought be growth.

These folks have a lesson for mainstream environmental and conservation organizations who can’t kick the win-win growth habit: Better get out of the way as real conservation leadership is coming from elsewhere. History will show that the big conservation NGOs have done us a major disservice by failing to raise awareness sooner — much sooner — of the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. To the degree they actively propagated the win-win rhetoric, their legacies will suffer.

I’ve digressed slightly from Rio+20, but only for some context. The proceedings of massive, bureaucratic UN conferences are not always unhitched from reality or relevance. What the various statesmen and women, ambassadors and diplomats are cogitating is the same thing we are: How can we all get along in the world when we know that many countries are consuming resources at a rate that is unsustainable and threatening to others on the planet? And yet those same countries continue calling for economic growth? There’s got to be a better way. Let’s hope the better way is achieved through diplomatic means, and not less peaceably.

Several weeks ago I moderated a session of the UN General Council in New York called “Harmony With Nature.” The session was sponsored by the Bolivian government, whose diplomats were completely understanding of limits to growth, and of the alternative policy goal of the steady state economy. My fellow panelists (including Joshua Farley, Herman Daly’s co-author of Ecological Economics) were aligned on the matter, and I daresay we literally brought “steady statesmanship” into the UN lexicon, or at least the proceedings. The tired old win-win rhetoric was debunked, and the feedback was enthusiastic.

This experience mirrored one from the Eastern Economic Association conference a few years ago, but on a much larger scale. The economists at the EEA conference were very unlike the neoclassical economists that pander to politicians with perpetual growth theories. They got it about limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy. So too with the diplomats from countries not so raveled up with Wall Street. The days of the win-win rhetoric are waning; the world at large is moving on, ready for steady statesmanship.

Are you?