The New Economy versus Today’s Flat Earthers

Editor’s Note: This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. 

by Eric Zencey

Eric Zencey

Only madmen and economists, Kenneth Boulding once said, believe exponential growth can go on forever.

Beyond all reason and evidence, standard economics remains dedicated to the idea of perpetual increase in our species’ stock of wealth, income, and material wellbeing. Their infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th century to Adam Smith in in the middle of the 18th, the planet was obviously capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by the extraordinary energies of coal and oil.

But the seven billion of us who are alive today live on a substantially different planet. It doesn’t have supposedly infinite tracts of untramelled, virgin land, ripe for being ravished by swaggering, overconfident exploiters. We need a new, steady state economy suited to the planet we have, not the one that economists thought we had two hundred years ago. We need a post-infinite-growth economy (and new breed of economist) respectful of the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity. Absent that, our civilization is set to destroy its root in nature.

But the New Economy Movement is about more than ecological sanity. It seeks other practical and desirable solutions, like:

  • a living wage for workers;
  • a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
  • sharp limits to the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich; and
  • a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors, and the planet.

We seek, in a word, economic justice.

That can seem a very different goal than sustainability, but it isn’t. Ironically enough, mainstream economists recognize the two goals are related. The remedy they offer for the injustice of poverty is the same remedy they offer for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental quality or solve the problem of poverty.

The New Economy Movement must show–must insist–that this is mistaken. It must show that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change, and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.

As absurd as this looks, it is no less absurd than an economic system designed for an infinite planet. Photo Credit: A Siegel

As absurd as this looks, it is no less absurd than an economic system designed for an infinite planet. Photo Credit: A Siegel

In the Infinite Planet Thinking of mainstream economics, human population growth is always a good thing: humans are “The Ultimate Resource,” capable of infinite imagination, infinite invention. But in the world as it is, human invention is limited by physical law: you’ll never have a car that you can push backwards and fill the gas tank. Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or the human economy degrades our quality of life, further increases our ecological footprint, and leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy–rule by environmental experts–or ignore ecological constraints and thereby condemn our civilization to collapse. Meanwhile, population growth produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class and dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs.

Economic growth and human population growth proceed as if the planet were infinite–and those who express concern are challenged with being anti-human, pessimistic, or “neo-Malthusian.” It’s time to change the discourse. With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “Infinite Planet Thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “Flat Earth Theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that CASSE and the New Economy Movement seek to advance will be on their way to general acceptance. I think that when they see it framed this way, most people will choose the new, steady state economy. Imagining the possible, and working to make it real, is more realistic than continuing to assume the planet is impossibly infinite.

Enough Is Enough

by Brian Czech

I have a running dialogue with my steady state friends and colleagues. The subject is best described with the metaphor of a horse and cart. I say, if we want to succeed in replacing the outdated goal of economic growth with a steady state economy, we have to put the horse before the cart. The horse is the public opinion and political will needed for this change. Without this horse, I say, we have little hope of pulling a cart of steady state policies into the economic policy arena.

Many of my friends and colleagues, however, say otherwise. They say I have it backwards. Citizens won’t be ready, they say, to support steady state policies unless it is clear in advance just what those policies are.

Sometimes I think my friends and colleagues are right. Certainly one of the most common questions I get, after pontificating on the perils of growth and the need for steady state economics, is “Yes, but how do we do it?” When I describe the horse and cart, emphasizing the horse, some of the audience don’t buy it. They want to know more about the cart before offering their horsepower.

I suppose we are all onto something. The horse and the cart may have to materialize more or less in tandem. Otherwise the horse may say “that’s enough of this” and walk away, as the grass may seem greener in more conventional “sustainability” pastures. On the other hand, even the sturdiest cart of steady state policies would mire down and rust without the horse of public opinion and political will to lead it into action.

So it was mentally agonizing for me to miss the first ever Steady State Economy Conference, especially with CASSE as co-organizer with our partner, Economic Justice for All. I went instead to a different conference (Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences) in Portland, Oregon, where many new recruits to the steady state cause were assembled. Meanwhile, the steady state conferees in Leeds, UK were busy constructing and filling a cart full of steady state policies. Theirs was an exciting undertaking. My belated contribution is to wholeheartedly endorse the report of their conference!

Actually the report, aptly titled Enough is Enough, provides more than just a cart of public policies for achieving a steady state economy. Part One is mostly about the horse, describing why economic growth has become uneconomic — dangerously so — and describing the alternative: economic degrowth toward a steady state economy. However, the bulk of Enough is Enough is found in Part Two, which is all about the cart of policies. This constitutes the single most complete collection of steady state policy initiatives, tools, and reforms in the literature. That alone makes the report worth its weight in steady state gold. As if that were not enough, Part Three puts it all together into a plan to get the horse and cart moving together to begin the economic transition.

Enough is Enough is an extremely interesting and unique document. It is academic and book-like in length and style, and as well-documented as a Jared Diamond bestseller. Yet it also puts the reader into the venue of a wonderfully orchestrated, interactive, and productive conference. One can almost hear the plenary talks from the podium in Part One, walk the halls to the diverse workshop sessions in Part Two, and reconvene with the conferees in Part Three.

Most conference proceedings, book-like or not, go quickly onto a dusty shelf. I doubt this is the fate of Enough is Enough. For one thing, the university instructor may easily construct a summary slideshow from the plethora of colorful figures, tables, and graphs. Some of the graphics will be familiar to students and practitioners of ecological economics; others were developed at the conference or in the aftermath of this creative burst of energy. Beyond its academic uses, Enough is Enough has the potential to become a manifesto in the hands of policy reformers working on issues of environmental protection, economic sustainability, and social justice.

But most importantly, in my opinion, is that steady statesmen and ambassadors, present and future, won’t miss a beat when confronted with the challenging question of “Yes, but how do we do it?” With a sturdy cart of policies hitched to a horse of public opinion that grows stronger by the day, we are ready to set out towards the steady state economy.

Click here to download a free copy of the full report (130 pages).

Click here to download a summary (10 pages).