Preempting a Misleading Argument: Why Environmental Problems Will Stop Tracking with GDP

by Brian Czech

Brian CzechI hate to say I told you so, and could be too dead to do so, so I’ll tell you in advance: One decade soon, environmental problems will stop tracking with GDP.

But the reasons? Well, they probably aren’t what you think, especially if you’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.

For decades, big-picture ecologists and eventually the “ecological economists” pointed out the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Every tick of GDP came with the tock of habitat loss, pollution, and, as we gradually realized, climate change. A growing GDP requires a growing human population or a growing amount of goods and services per person. In the American experience of the 20th century, it was easy to see both – population and per capita consumption – spiraling upward, and just as easy to see the environmental impacts reverberating outward. Much of the world saw the same, although in some countries GDP growth was driven almost entirely by population growth.

Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines, and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

Unfortunately, a lot of time was spent overcoming fallacious but slick-sounding shibboleths like “green growth,” “dematerializing” the economy, and the “environmental Kuznets curve.” It seemed these were – or easily could have been –designed by advertisers on Madison Avenue, Big Money in general, or economists in their service, to prevent consumers and policy makers from responding rationally to environmental deterioration. Suggestive phrases such as “consumer confidence” spurred the consumer along, buying more stuff to increase the profits of corporations and, in turn, the campaign purses of politicians.

Meanwhile, those who studied, wrote, or simply worried about the effects of economic growth on the environment (and therefore the future economy) were portrayed and marginalized as tree huggers, earth firsters, or, as I once heard them called by a Scotland Yard detective at an intelligence conference, “the great unwashed.”

Some of us had to go so far as debating economists and, shockingly, ecologists who parroted the 1990’s political rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” I even debated a future president of The Wildlife Society (TWS), who at the time was a biologist employed by the timber industry and a gadfly in TWS attempts to formulate a TWS position on economic growth. After our debate, I was told he was roundly defeated, and in subsequent years he refrained from the win-win rhetoric. (Hopefully it was that ability to reconnoiter with the truth that explains his electoral victory.)

Those of us who recognized the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection won the debates because we were right and we demonstrated it, ad nauseum, theoretically and empirically. We had to study the issue up and down, inside and out, because Big Money had far more resources to try defeating us at every turn. Eventually we published enough articles, organized enough conferences, and won enough debates that today, at least in professional natural resources circles, you’d seem, well… no smarter than a hedgehog if you tried to claim we can have our cake and eat it too.

So it is with ample irony that soon enough, we’ll enter an age where GDP won’t track with biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, and other indicators of environmental deterioration. Why? Because, at some point during the 21st century and perhaps very soon, there won’t be enough resources left for GDP growth. Just as surely as the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, there is a limit to growth, and it’s not as far off as the growth polyannas would have you think.

Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining.  Photo Credit: Smudge 9000

Let’s consider what happens to biodiversity – nonhuman species in particular – in the days beyond growth. Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining for two reasons. The first is that many of the environmental effects of earlier GDP growth will be delayed. For example, when a species’ habitat is degraded by a pipeline here and a timber sale there, the species doesn’t instantly disappear. Yet a marginal drop in the rate of reproduction and a marginal increase in the rate of mortality can put the species on a path to extinction just as surely as you pay taxes.

Furthermore, habitat degradation can itself be a drawn-out process. The polar ice caps are on their way out, and polar bears along with them. Yet the ice won’t be gone and the polar bear won’t be extinct for some decades, probably well after GDP has stopped growing. And the polar bear is on the tip of the iceberg, as species en masse may be ushered off the poles as if on some geological conveyor belt running at the speed of climate change.

The second reason biodiversity will continue to decline long after GDP stops growing is because the cessation of GDP growth doesn’t mean corporations and countries will stop trying to grow the GDP. Far from it. As long as economic growth remains the primary policy goal of nations, the environmental impact of pursuing such growth will worsen, because nations will be pulling out all the stops to achieve it. This too is a process already underway; witness the mining of tar sands for exceedingly crude oil.

Yet tough times for the truth await because the next wave of polyannas will be busy perverting the truth from a different angle. Instead of arguing that GDP growth was a benefit to biodiversity  – with the shallow argument that it put more money into conservation programs – they’ll be pointing to the fact that species are declining despite no growth in GDP. “Where’s the correlation,” they’ll ask, “between GDP and biodiversity loss?”

Alas, we’ve been careful all along, as good scientists are, to note that correlation doesn’t prove causality. Likewise, a lack of correlation doesn’t disprove causality. Economic growth – increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, entailing a growing population and per capita consumption – has been the limiting factor for wildlife in the aggregate for the broad sweep of Homo sapiens’ reign on Earth. Beginning in the 1930s such growth was measured with GDP, and beginning in the 1970s species endangerment in the U.S. was measured by the length of the list of federally listed threatened and endangered species.

For decades the correlation between GDP and species endangerment was like the correlation between chickens and eggs. A statistic called the R-squared value was even used to measure just how tight. As such, the correlation was simply additional, circumstantial evidence for the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. It was never essential, though, for it was bloodily evident that the causes of species endangerment were a list of economic sectors, infrastructure, and byproducts. To think it wasn’t the economy causing all that species endangerment was like thinking all that lung cancer in the 70’s had nothing to do with cigarettes.

Now when the Marlboro man stopped smoking, he didn’t stop choking. No, he continued choking, all the way to death, from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But hey, in those final non-smoking years, the correlation between cigarettes and cancer cells was non-existent. Would anyone put it past Big Tobacco (the Seven Dwarves come to mind) to use this lack of correlation as evidence that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer?

Didn’t think so.

Well, Big Money – Wall Street, Madison Avenue, K Street too – we’re on to you. We know you’ll claim in decades to come that economic growth is not the cause of environmental deterioration. You’ll use the lack of correlation between GDP and species listings as one of your unscrupulous arguments. And you’ll be as wrong then as you have been heretofore.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it preemptively.

The Lurking Inconsistency

by Herman Daly

An earlier version appeared in Conservation Biology, August 1999, Vol. 13 No. 4, pp. 693-94.

Herman DalyEcological economics of course has roots in ecology and biology as well as in economics. Most of ecological economists’ and steady-state economists’ time has been well-spent correcting economics in the light of biology and ecology. And there is still more to do in this direction. However, we should be careful to avoid importing some deep metaphysical biases frequent in biology, along with its scientific truths.

According to biologists the existence of any species is an accident, and its continued survival is always subject to cancellation by the all-powerful process of random mutation and natural selection as it occurs anywhere in the interdependent ecosystem. This blind process, over long time periods, is held to explain not only the evolution of all living things from a presumed common ancestor, but also, in some versions, the “spontaneous generation” of the common ancestor itself from the “primordial chemical soup.” For human beings in particular, random mutation and natural selection are thought to determine not only such characteristics as eye color and height, but also intelligence, consciousness, morality, and capacity for rational thought. Neo-Darwinism has been extrapolated from a good explanation of many facts to the universal explanation of everything.

Powerful though it certainly is, the neo-Darwinist theory cannot explain consciousness and purpose. Even in the realm of materialism it faces some serious glitches. I refer to the problem of how it happens that many interdependent parts of a complex organ, each of which has no independent survival value, can both occur and be retained until the whole organ is assembled into a complete functioning unit, which only then can contribute to survival and thus be selected. Also there is the anomaly of altruism. Kin selection does not explain Mother Theresa or Oscar Schindler, and in any case is now disputed among biologists. But let me leave all that for future debate. My point for now is that biologists/ecologists who teach a materialist neo-Darwinist worldview to sophomores on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then devote their Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to pleading with Congress and the public to enact policies to save this or that endangered species are in the tight grip of a serious inconsistency.

Naturally the public asks the biologists what purpose would be served by saving certain threatened species? Since many leading biologists, as scientific materialists, claim not to believe in purpose (either in the sense of cosmic telos, or mere individual preferences that are independently causative in the physical world) this is not an easy question for them to answer. They tell us about biodiversity, and ecosystem stability and resilience, and about a presumed instinct of biophilia that we (who systematically drive other species to extinction) are nevertheless alleged to posses, encoded in our genes. But the biologists cannot affirm any of these descriptive concepts as an abiding purpose, or an objective value, because doing so would contradict the fundamental assumption of their science. For example, biophilia could be appealed to as a virtue, a persuasive value rather than a wishfully imagined part of the deterministic genetic code. But that would be to admit purpose. Instead, biologists try to find some overlooked mechanistic cause that will make us do what we believe we ought to do, but can’t logically advocate without acknowledging the reality of purpose. Absent purpose and value, the biologists’ appeals to Congress and the public for conservation are both logically and emotionally feeble.

Others have called attention to this problem in the past. The term “lurking inconsistency”, as well as its meaning, is taken from Alfred North Whitehead (Science and the Modern World, 1925, p.76) who expressed it in the following passage that repays careful reading:

A scientific realism, based on mechanism, is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and of the higher animals as being composed of self-determining organisms. This radical inconsistency at the basis of modern thought accounts for much that is half-hearted and wavering in our civilization… …It enfeebles [thought], by reason of the inconsistency lurking in the background… …For instance, the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved.

In other words, our scientific understanding of nature is based on mechanism, on material and efficient causation with no room for final cause, for teleology or purpose. Yet we ourselves, and higher animals in general, directly experience purpose, and, within limits, act in a self-determining manner. If we are part of nature then so is purpose; if purpose is not part of nature then neither, in at least one significant way, are we. Elsewhere Whitehead put the contradiction more pointedly: “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” Biologist Charles Birch, a keen student of Whitehead, has restated the lurking inconsistency in his insightful book On Purpose: “[Purpose] has become the central problem for contemporary thought because of the mismatch in modernism between how we think of ourselves and how we think and act in relation to the rest of the world”. Clearly, not all biologists are guilty of the lurking inconsistency.

The directly experienced reality of purpose or final cause must, in the view of materialism, be an “epiphenomenon” — an illusion which itself was selected because of the reproductive advantage that it chanced to confer on those under its spell. It is odd that the illusion of purpose should be thought to confer a selective advantage in the real biophysical world, while purpose itself is held to be a non-causative epiphenomenon — but that is the neo-Darwinist’s problem, not mine. The policy implication of the materialist dogma that purpose is not causative is laissez faire beyond the most libertarian economist’s wildest model. The only “policy” consistent with this view is, “let it happen as it will anyway.” Is it too much to ask the neo-Darwinist to speculate about the possibility that the survival value of neo-Darwinism itself has become negative for the species that really believes it as a metaphysical worldview? Does not this lurking inconsistency have lethal consequences for policy of any kind?

Teleology has its limits, of course, and from the Enlightenment onward it is evident that materialism has constituted an enormously powerful research paradigm for biology. The temptation to elevate a successful research paradigm to the level of a metaphysical worldview is perhaps irresistible. But materialism too has its limits. To deny the reality of our most immediately direct and universal experience (that of purpose) because it doesn’t fit the presuppositions of methodological materialism, is profoundly anti-empirical. To then refuse to recognize the devastating logical and moral consequences that result from the denial of purpose is anti-rational. For those of us who consider science a rational and empirical enterprise, this is extremely troubling. That people already unembarrassed by the fact that their major intellectual purpose is to deny the reality of purpose should now want to concern themselves deeply with the relative valuation of accidental pieces of their purposeless world is incoherence compounded.

One cannot rescue neo-Darwinism from the domain of purposeless and randomness by pointing to the role of natural selection. Selection may sound purposeful, but in the accepted theory of natural selection chance dominates. Random mutation provides the menu from which natural selection “chooses” by the criterion of the odds of surviving and reproducing in a randomly changing environment (consisting of randomly changing geophysical conditions, and other species that are also randomly evolving). It is a metaphysics of chance all the way down.

The relevance of the lurking inconsistency to conservation biology and steady-state economics should be evident — conservation and sustainable scale are, after all, purposes that are ruled out in a world governed only by chance.

If purpose does not exist then it is hard to imagine how we could experience the lure of value. To have a purpose means to serve an end, and value is imputed to whatever furthers attainment of that end. Alternatively, if there is objective value then surely the attainment of value should become a purpose. Neo-Darwinist biologists and ecologists, who deny the reality of purpose, owe it to the rest of us to remain silent about valuation — and conservation as well. If they simply cannot remain silent, then they must rethink their deterministic materialism. Distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel has offered to help them in his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. But his “help” requires more recantation than the naturalists can bear, and, even though Nagel is a fellow atheist, he has been excommunicated from the Church of Neo-Darwinism for heresy.

Economists, unlike many biologists, do not usually go to the extreme of denying the existence of purpose. They recognize purpose in attenuated form under the rubric of individual preferences and do not generally consider them to be illusory. However, preferences are thought to be purely subjective, so that one person’s preferences are as good as another’s. Unlike public facts, private preferences cannot be right or wrong — there is, by assumption, no objective standard of value by which preferences can be judged. Nevertheless, according to economists, individual preferences are the ultimate standard of value. Witness economists’ attempts to value species by asking consumers how much they would be willing to pay to save a threatened species, or how much they would accept in compensation for the species’ disappearance. The fact that the two methods of this “contingent valuation” give different answers only adds comic relief to the underlying tragedy, which is the reduction of value to taste weighted by income.

Economics too suffers from the lurking inconsistency, but not to the extent that biology does. Purpose has not been excluded, just reduced to the level of tastes. But even an unexamined and unworthy purpose, such as unconstrained aggregate satisfaction of uninstructed private tastes weighted by income — GDP growth forever– will dominate in the absence of purpose. So, in the public policy forum, economists with their attenuated, subjective concept of purpose (which at least is thought to be causative) will dominate the neo-Darwinist ecologists who are still crippled by the self-inflicted purpose of proving that they are purposeless. Consequently GDP growth will continue to dominate conservation.

Whitehead’s observation that, “it is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved,” remains true 85 years later. This willful neglect has allowed the lurking inconsistency to metastasize into the marrow of modernity. The Enlightenment, with its rejection of teleology, certainly illuminated some hidden recesses of superstition in the so-called Dark Ages. But the angle of its cold light has also cast a deep shadow forward into the modern world, obscuring the reality of purpose. To conserve Creation we will first have to reclaim purpose from that darkness. I say Creation with a capital “C” advisedly, and not in denial of the facts of evolution. Rather, if we think that our world, our lives, and our conscious, self-reflective thinking are just a random happenstance of matter in motion — a temporary statistical fluke of multiplying infinitesimal probabilities by an infinite number of trials — then it is hard to see why we should make any sacrifice to maintain the capacity of the earth to support life, or from where we would get the inspiration to do so. This is the lurking inconsistency’s bottom-line consequence for conservation biology and steady-state economics. Our problem is not just faulty economics or biology; it is deep underlying metaphysical and philosophical contradiction.

The Visible Hand: Manipulating Market Prices by Influencing Laws and Regulations

by Max Kummerow

Recently a member of a mailing list for resource economists asked how to value endangered species given that they are not bought and sold in markets. A common method is to infer prices (“existence values”) by indirect methods such as answers to surveys (e.g., “How much would you be willing to pay to keep tigers from going extinct?”). An issue raised in the online discussion was whether species grow more valuable as they become more scarce and their numbers fall toward zero. If prices keep changing, what is the “right” price?

Thought experiment: suppose a keystone species is about to go extinct, but few people know about the threat. Oh, heck, let’s be more realistic. Leading ecological authorities believe that the effects of climate change will drive 1/3 or more of the world’s species to extinction by 2100 with unpredictable system-wide effects. Meanwhile, the owners of $17 trillion of fossil-fuel reserves are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to convince the public that the threats from climate change are overstated or non-existent (See Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article or Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt).

How can we have any idea about fundamental values (that is, “correct” utility-maximizing efficient market prices) with so much misinformation floating around? Advertising creates a set of consumption preferences tilted towards items sold by companies more concerned about profits than benefits to society.

Prices depend on preferences, and preferences depend on information. Knowledge of the unhealthy and even fatal effects of smoking changed preferences about and prices of tobacco. Such changes would also occur over time as people gain knowledge about the threats of extinction and climate change.

By similar means, misinformation and strategic uncertainty lead to mispricing. If such mispricing in the carbon market continues, the predicted result is a “tragedy of the commons” (collective irrationality, market failure) with features like Miami, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles ending up below sea level, mass species extinctions, crop failures, etc.

Economic systems are complex, and many external costs and benefits are not factored into prices or people’s decisions in the market. Time lags add to the complexity. What if it will take 2,000 years before climate change makes the planet too hot for human life? Such a time lag makes it harder to come to the best decision about whether to build a new coal-fired power plant.

Species extinctions may be portents of broader problems (e.g., climate change), akin to canaries in a coal mine. The same factors driving them extinct — various impacts of growing human populations and economies — may be driving us extinct in the longer run. Does it make sense to value threatened species without considering the linkage to these other related problems? An endangered species itself might be worth $1, yet the factors driving it toward extinction might cause $100,000 worth of damage over the long run, or maybe even infinite damage from our point of view if extinction extends to humans. We need a better benefit-cost picture — a larger, genuine, and more complete accounting.

Another major problem with prices is that they only reflect the preference of those who hold power in markets. Perhaps polar bears should have standing when it comes to determining prices. They are intelligent, sentient beings with the most at stake when ice melts, so maybe their preferences ought to be factored into decisions about the Keystone Pipeline and exploitation of tar sands oil. What about future generations? Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz called this problem “incomplete markets” leading to market failure and universal mispricing.

There are some things markets do very well, but only if the institutional framework (rules of the game) ensures that prices reflect all costs and benefits. Laws, lobbying, culture, taxes, regulations — all kinds of institutions collectively created by societies — have enormous influences on market prices or even the existence of markets. So, to some degree, through these institutions, we choose price levels through a “visible hand” of policies and institutions. Stiglitz points out that the deregulation policies that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 did not come out of nowhere, but rather from intense lobbying by stakeholders at banks and other people whose profits were restricted by regulations — a situation in which prices were set by something like a visible-policy hand instead of the invisible hand of the market.

Because of the difficulty of getting prices right, we might do better to regard creation as sacred and take the conservative position of Aldo Leopold who said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

Valuations always depend on preferences. Economists call prices “revealed preferences.” If we “prefer” to settle for a world without many wonderful creatures, then we won’t attach much worth to them. But if we value them for their intrinsic beauty and their relationship to us (we do share DNA with every living thing), then we’ll attach more worth to them. So rather than measuring values, perhaps we should be trying to create value by improving preferences.

Examples of worldwide mispricing and market failures that need institutional corrections include:

  • Energy — too cheap due to climate change, extinctions, and negative effects on future generations.
  • Having children — too cheap since growing population will raise real prices of land, food, and energy, and contribute to climate change and other global environmental problems.
  • Endangered species — too cheap because ecosystem interrelationships are poorly understood, and indirect effects could be enormous.
  • Economic growth — overvalued because growth negatively affects aggregate utility and public goods (“the commons” such as air, water, soil, species diversity, ecosystem health, and climate) once we begin to reach the limits to growth.

Most economics students are still taught that following market price signals leads to the best of all possible worlds (market efficiency and maximum aggregate utility). But the examples of under- and over-valuation contained in the short list above suggest that humanity is headed for trouble if we choose to let market prices and self-interested institutions’ manipulation of prices control outcomes. The markets we rely on fail to generate utility-maximizing prices for goods and services and for the future of humanity. Thinking of ourselves as an endangered species, what is it worth to keep us alive?

Max Kummerow has a Ph.D. in urban and real-estate economics.  He is currently studying population issues in Perth, Australia.

Obama Steps onto Slippery Slope

by Brian Czech

Brian Czech PhotoHe’s finally done it.  Barack Obama has taken the tantalizing trail to a notoriously slippery slope.  In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last week, the President promised, “federal agencies (will) ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth.”  In other words, we will have our cake (the environment) and eat it too (for economic growth), and federal agencies will be there to dish it all up.

Obama was explaining the executive order he issued that day (January 18) and touted in the State of the Union address.  The order was clearly designed with political convenience in mind, and who could begrudge him a bit of that?  He is, after all, a politician.  However, the order – and the rhetoric used to describe it – could tarnish his legacy as a true defender of the environment and the economy.

For much of his first year in the White House, the President steered clear of fallacious win-win rhetoric.  His economic and environmental agendas had clear and separate goals.  His economic focus was on rescuing the financial system and creating jobs.  He seldom used the phrase “economic growth,” and there was even some evidence that he supported a “paradigm shift” away from unsustainable growth toward a truly sustainable steady state economy.  Meanwhile, he promised to protect the environment, period, and the BP oil spill gave him a platform (pardon the pun) to put the environment first.

Some would argue that Obama was necessarily promoting economic growth when he bailed out the banks and called for job creation.  But they wouldn’t necessarily be right.  Bailing out banks and saving the insurance industry was necessary for stabilizing the financial system, which needed to happen with or without economic growth.  It was needed especially to protect the modest lives of relatively innocent borrowers and customers (even though wealthier swindlers benefited too).

As for jobs, it is true that GDP growth is seen as a job creator through the lens of conventional economics.  Technically, though, more jobs can be created while capital expenditures decline.  In other words, employment can increase without growing GDP, and a president can call for more jobs without promoting economic growth.  Such “labor intensification” has its limits, naturally enough, but it can solve short-term unemployment problems while more important issues are dealt with.

And what issues are more important than full employment?  For starters, how about full employment for your kids, say five years from now, or for your grandkids in a couple of decades?  How about the environment – air, water, soil, minerals, timber, fisheries, etc. – the foundation and building blocks of the economy?  How about the other species on the planet?

Unfortunately, it’s too easy for critics to hone straight in on “other species” and rant, “Who cares about other species – we’re talking about the economy!”  But we better care, because these other species are like canaries in the coalmine of the grandkids’ economy, and we’ve been shooting them down like targets at a county fair.  Splat goes the spotted owl, poof goes the polar bear; 1,372 federally listed species on the ropes and, with very rare exceptions, down for the count.  And what took the environmental building blocks from these unfortunate flora and fauna?

It’s not a mystery.  The causes of endangerment in the U.S. are well-documented.  They’re a veritable Who’s Who of the American economy.  They reflect a human economy out of control, sweeping across the countryside, wiping out the economy of nature and using up the building blocks faster than new ones can be crafted by Mother Nature or imitated by Monsanto.

Yet for decades we’ve been subjected to the rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”  Though developed by environmentalists hoping to counter opposition to environmental protection, such rhetoric backfires incessantly.  It results in policies (such as regulation-loosening executive orders) that allow us to pluck the grandkids’ goose while presuming to protect it.

Fortunately, the days of this rhetoric are numbered.  Recent research has demonstrated conclusively the fundamental trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection, as so many prominent scientists have agreed.  The trade-off is fundamental because it is based on physics and ecology.

What we need now is a president who will parlay this knowledge into public support for policy reform.  The President can clarify once and for all that we can’t have our cake and eat it to.  Can you almost hear him?  “We need to balance our concerns about environmental protection with our concerns about full employment, and that doesn’t square with growth everlasting.  What we need is a healthy, steady state economy balanced with a healthy environment, not an overgrown economy and a shrunken environment.”

How would a president and other policy makers help concoct a steady state economy, even if it was publicly supported?  First, policies designed to “grow the economy” would be discontinued.  Next, steady state policy tools (such as resource capping) would be employed.  There is no shortage of policy options.  But the horse must come before the cart.  The steady state economy has to be a goal with widespread public support before a suitable policy framework can be constructed.  Presidential leadership is needed to generate such support.  Then, with widespread public support, a steady state economy would be engendered from the “demand side,” too, with temperance trumping conspicuous consumption.  In other words, with widespread public support, less policy reform would be required for establishing a sustainable steady state.

It’s not too late for Obama to be the Truth Teller in Chief.  He’s tested the slippery slope of win-win rhetoric – gotten his foot muddied a bit – but he hasn’t committed himself to a mudslide yet.  The trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection is perhaps the most inconvenient of all truths to acknowledge, but it’s better than a full slide down the slippery slope of green growth rhetoric.  That could be a legacy breaker.