A Sustainable True-Cost Economy Promises an Escape from Massive Water Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

Brent Blackwelder

A year ago, I wrote about how a true-cost steady state economy would deal with water pollution. Last August, the alarming green slime at the west end of Lake Erie was so bad that it shut down Toledo’s water supply for half a million people. Who would pay the tremendous damages caused by the green slime? Certainly not the industrial agricultural interests who were responsible for about two-thirds of the problem!

Our current U.S. economy routinely lets polluters off the hook and even rewards them with subsidies, and the same is generally true for the global economy. During the past twelve months, water pollution has gone from bad to worse as exploding rail freight trains loaded with tar sands oil have caught on fire, causing derailments and spilling contaminants into rivers.

Many people are under the mistaken impression that violations of the Clean Water Act are rare. The Potomac Riverkeeper Network has just completed an analysis of water pollution violators in a section of the Potomac River Basin. (full report forthcoming; for background, see the Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s Upper Potomac River Basin campaigns.) Basin wide, there are over 2000 facilities with permits to discharge pollutants into the Potomac River. Of the 293 facilities in the Upper Potomac region, more than 10% had violated their permit conditions during the last three years! Just think of the increased enforcement costs if a region jumps from 5% to 10% non-compliance. The enforcement workload doubles!

Reports from the Pacific coast, from California to Alaska, are disturbing because they indicate that some fisheries and shell fisheries may be on the tipping point of collapse. Worldwide, we are seeing industrial civilization screw up clean water through nutrient loading from gigantic crop monocultures and animal factory slums. It’s a recipe for catastrophe. Several dead zones at the mouths of great rivers like the Mississippi have gained notoriety, but the public is not aware that there are now hundreds of such zones worldwide.

Animas River.Schatzl and Pickles

The Animas River before the toxic metals of the Gold King Mine spill turned it bright orange. Photo Credit: Schatzl and Pickles.

The latest water pollution debacle occurred just this month (August 2015) in the Colorado Rockies. A state of emergency was declared as the Animas River turned orange when millions of gallons of toxic heavy metals and carcinogens from the Gold King Mine spilled and created a hazardous mess at the very peak of summer recreation.

Recreation in this part of Colorado is a crucial component of the economy. One river outfitter has had to lay off over twenty employees. Agencies have allowed the leakage at gold mines like the Gold King Mine to persist for years without being cleaned up.

These accidents would be far less likely to occur in a sustainable steady state economy. A steady state economy would not incentivize pollution. It would not allow externalization of pollution and health costs, and it would eliminate subsidies for extraction of hardrock minerals and fossil fuels. Globally, an estimated $600 billion per year in subsidies is provided annually to the fossil fuels industry, in contrast to $100 billion for wind, solar, and other renewable energies.

A sustainable economy would place genuine value on the many benefits provided by clean water and free flowing rivers, including diverse fisheries, a variety of recreation activities, beautiful scenery, and a healthy water supply. The global economy looks upon water more as a commodity, and trade agreements attempt to facilitate the privatization of water. A sustainable true-cost economy, on the other hand, does not externalize pollution impacts or exclude from economic calculation the numerous but less tangible benefits obtained from free-flowing rivers.

A sustainable true-cost economy holds so much promise, but the immense challenge of transitioning to such an economy can seem daunting. Tackling our water pollution crisis illuminates some highly actionable steps we could take immediately to start making a steady state economy a reality.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could take an initial step toward a true-cost economy by requiring the many companies reporting to it to disclose their pollution impacts (externalities). Impossible you say? A few years ago it seemed impossible to get the SEC to require disclosure of CEO salaries. But guess what? It just happened—thanks to leadership by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) along with tremendous grassroots pressure.

The SEC will now require publicly-owned corporations to disclose how much their CEOs make compared with the median wage of their workers. The Washington Post reported that the pay gap between executives and unskilled workers is about 300 to 1, not 30 to 1 as most Americans think. This precedent-setting action by the SEC should be followed by other campaigns directed at the SEC, starting with action on externalities.

In a true-cost economy, the price tag for goods and services that cause serious damage to life support systems would be so high that such products would not be produced. We would do well to recall that there is no economy on a dead planet. Critics who say that civilizations are nowhere close to causing ecosystem collapses do not consider the scientific evidence on planetary boundaries, nor the lessons from past collapses of societies. I think we should seize on the outrage over all the water pollution disasters in 2014 and 2015 and push for new economic structures that will provide long-term solutions.

The Pope Francis Encyclical And Its Economics

By Brent Blackwelder

Brent BlackwelderThe Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis is attracting extraordinary attention for its message on global warming, deforestation, loss of biological diversity, and other pressing environmental issues. What is less well known is the extensive critique of the global economy found in his 184-page Encyclical. This blog highlights some of the significant points that Pope Francis makes about the need for systemic economic change.

Although the Pope does not use the phrase “steady state economy” or “true-cost economy” his message provides a comprehensive moral argument for a systemicshift to a new economy.

2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea Closing Mass for Asian Youth Day  August 17, 2014  Haemi Castle, Seosan-si, Chungcheongnam-do  Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service (  Official Photographer : Jeon Han This official Republic of Korea photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way. Also, it may not be used in any type of commercial, advertisement, product or promotion that in any way suggests approval or endorsement from the government of the Republic of Korea. If you require a photograph without a watermark, please contact us via Flickr e-mail. --------------------------------------------------------------- 교황 프란치스코 방한 제6회 아시아 청년대회 폐막미사 2014-08-17 충청남도 서산시 해미읍성 문화체육관광부 해외문화홍보원 코리아넷  전한

Pope Francis. Photo Credit: Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism

I present a series of quotations to illustrate portions of the Pope’s forceful arguments. If we are to obtain systemic economic change, we need new, motivated allies. The Encyclical is a key tool to motivate religious congregations to be front and center in this economic debate to counter the greed and rapacious behavior of numerous governments and large corporations.

In Section 54 the Pope takes sharp aim at the control of politics and finance that prevent urgent changes from being made:

The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

Pope Francis repeatedly questions whether the global economy is furthering the common good. In Section 109 he writes:

The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings. Finance overwhelms the real economy. The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated…” In Section 189 he looks again at the financial collapse of 2008: “Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life. Saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price, foregoing a firm commitment to reviewing and reforming the entire system, only reaffirms the absolute power of a financial system, a power which has no future and will only give rise to new crises after a slow, costly and only apparent recovery. The financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.

Pope Francis waxes eloquent on the subject of externalities in Section 195:

The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity, or the increased pollution. In a word, businesses profit by calculating and paying only a fraction of the costs involved. ‘Yet only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,’ can those actions be considered ethical. An instrumental way of reasoning, which provides a purely static analysis of realities in the service of present needs, is at work whether resources are allocated by the market or by state central planning.

Pope Francis talks about product diversification and consumerism; in Section 129 he extols the virtues of the “great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples.”

As Pope Francis points out, he is building on the messages that popes such as John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have given on these problems. For example, Pope Benedict XVI proposed “eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correcting models of growth which have proved incapable of ensuring respect for the environment.” Pope Paul VI wrote: “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress will definitively turn against man.”

My hope is that the Pope’s message will be translated by religious congregations into tangible actions to make substantive changes in the economic drivers of environmental destruction. New allies are urgently needed.

One good place for tangible action is to go after the cheater economics being used by the G 20 nations to push tens of trillions of dollars into mega-infrastructure projects without regard to social, environmental, or climate impacts. (See my January 2015 blog for details on this subject.)


Seismic Political Shifts Reveal Desire for Serious Change

by James Magnus-Johnston

If you demonstrate to people that the NDP [New Democratic Party] can win in Alberta, suddenly anything seems possible. —Paul Fairie, University of Calgary political scientist


James Magnus-JohnstonOn the problematic political spectrum, neither the right nor the left have become wholesale champions of the steady state economy. Then again, embracing something perceived as ‘new’ has never been the strong suit of the politician. It takes years of ideological evolution among the grassroots before seemingly new and different ideas become politically palatable. Seismic political shifts like the one in Alberta suggest that big ideological evolutions are underway in the unlikeliest of places, and that steady state solutions may not be far behind.

The Canadian province of Alberta—which includes Canada’s oil patch—revealed its desire for serious change in its election of an NDP government last week. While the social democratic NDP doesn’t have an explicitly ‘green’ agenda, some policy shifts acknowledge the limits to growth—growth in the oil patch, growth in debt, growth in inequality, growth in carbon emissions, and growth in overall environmental costs. Growing the oil patch at all costs has left the province vulnerable to swings in the petroleum economy, and it isn’t building a stable economy for generations to come.

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

The political shift represents a strong movement away from a half-century of Alberta’s Conservative ‘conventional thinking,’ including relaxed regulations for the oil and gas industry as well as an export-first policy designed for economic growth as if there were truly no tomorrow. Time will tell whether or not Premier Notley will introduce measures to supplant carbon-intensive growth with a renewable steady state, but there are signs of movement in this direction.

In March, as opposition leader, Notley introduced a motion calling on the government of Alberta to phase out the use of coal for electric power generation in Alberta. Alberta’s oil sector produces almost as many GHG emissions as do the mining and extraction of oil from the oilsands.

This week, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Canada called upon Premier Notley to introduce a carbon tax, a measure which sits at number two on Herman Daly’s top ten list of steady state policies. The call counts as either a brilliant coordinated manoeuvre on the part of the NDP and the oil patch, or the beginning of a serious change in the way Canada’s oil and gas industry perceives its responsibilities in the face of climate change.

The NDP victory also signals a willingness to tackle point three on Mr. Daly’s top ten list—limiting the range of inequality in income distribution. While Premier Notley has not signalled a willingness to institute a ‘maximum income’ level, she has designs on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour from the country’s second lowest minimum wage of $10.20. The NDP have also vowed to reintroduce progressive income taxes, and raise corporate taxes.

This is not a promotion for social democracy per se. Social democratic governments in different jurisdictions, like my home province of Manitoba, can sometimes reflect neoliberal economic thinking rather than focus on designing an economy for fairness. But in Alberta’s example, folks have acknowledged the problems associated with half a century of growth in the extractive industry, environmental degradation, and inequality. As the political pendulum shifts in other jurisdictions, there is an opportunity for political parties of various stripes to reconsider how they can respond to growing grassroots frustration with a debt-ridden, environmentally destructive, inequitable economy.

As the costs of uneconomic growth continue to escalate, and as a new generation prepares to bear those costs, we can be sure that further movement in the direction of a steady state economy will not only become more palatable, but absolutely essential.


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.

Who Moved Obama’s Win-Win Cheese?

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechWhether or not you like President Obama or his policy preferences, you have to acknowledge his consistency. Even those with “zero regard” for the president confess, “At least Obama is consistent.”

But not consistently. There is one issue, at least, on which he hasn’t held still, moving in and out like an octopus in a sunken ship. That issue is the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Based on his state of the union address, his current tack is a mixture of avoidance and vague allusion.

Yet Obama’s inconsistency on this issue is nothing to be hypercritical of. In fact, given this recent turn, we might even say, “At least Obama is inconsistent.” As odd as that may sound, it’s better to be inconsistent when you were, at one time, dangerously wrong.

Obama’s rhetoric on the issue has basically been through three phases, which can be categorized and paraphrased as:

  • Integrity phase. “Economic growth is ultimately not sustainable, and that’s becoming more apparent. We need a new economic model that protects the environment, like a steady state economy.” This was the pre-presidential, relatively innocent phase, a distinctive feature of the original Obamanomics.
  • Win-win phase. “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Obama ventured onto this slippery slope of win-win rhetoric during the run-up to his re-election.
  • Avoidance phase. “Economic growth is my top priority, and let me elaborate on that… (Oh and by the way, we also have to protect the planet.)” In the state of the union address, this notion of protecting the planet was limited to climate change mitigation, and even this was kept in a separate compartment from growing the economy. No more win-win, growth and environmental protection. In fact, Obama used the word “environment” exactly zero times.

The progression from Obamanomics to the win-win rhetoric, while cynical, was predictable, but what happened next? What caused the President to retreat from win-win, nearly all the way back to a position of environmental irrelevance? After all, win-win has held a central spot on the Politician Bingo card for as long as baby boomers and younger can remember. Furthermore, the shining example of win-win since the late 1980s has been the marriage of economic growth to environmental protection. The wedding of these opposites allowed presidential candidates, from left to right, to appeal to pro-growth and pro-environment interests simultaneously. It didn’t matter that it was a scientifically fallacious shotgun wedding. It worked at the political altar.

Bingo Card

So what happened? Did Obama move his own win-win cheese, or did some speechwriter move it for him? It’s not like we have a trail – say a money trail – that’s easy to follow. With a lot of issues it’s easy to backtrack a politician from his or her mouth all the way back to Big Money. It might be big gun money generating rhetoric like “a good guy with a gun in every school,” or big tobacco money puppeteering, “I believe tobacco is not addictive.” No matter how wrong, such well-endowed rhetoric sticks around long after everybody understands how fallacious it is. Eventually, though, it either goes away or becomes an icon of ridicule.

Yet Obama’s dropping of the win-win rhetoric is different, because there is no money to be had from doing so. Big Money, even its better side in the grant-awarding foundations, will have nothing to do with talk about stabilizing the size of the economy or even slowing the rate of growth. In fact, Little Money doesn’t want much to do with it either. This explains the plethora of organizations promoting various notions of a “new” economy or a “green” economy without coming clean on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. They’re all chasing the money to keep their boats afloat.

Will the ironies ever cease?

Yet there are two things – both extremely powerful – that clarify the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, loud and clear. One is science; the other is common sense.

The science is sound and sufficient, but it’s not like the libraries are overflowing with it because, again, there’s little money available for such research. Therefore this type of research–ecological macroeconomics we might call it–tends to be swamped out by Big-Monied, “neoclassical” economics with its fallacious theories of perpetual growth. But ecological macroeconomics is there for the reading: theoretical and empirical detail about the trade-off between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, a stable climate, and ecological integrity in general. And we know that Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, has a background in the environmental impacts of economic growth.

So Obama’s relinquishing of the win-win rhetoric probably stems from a mixture of scientific awareness, plain old common sense, and perhaps a sense of pride. Obama recognizes that, with a short two years of presidency remaining, his legacy is ever more on the line. It would be a shame to end up like President Clinton, for example, who is haunted by the inconvenient irony of his own unmitigated and relentless win-win rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Whatever the explanation may be, let’s hope Obama sticks with phase 3, or even comes full circle to phase 1, the more innocent Obamanomics with its recognition that economic growth is unsustainable and increasingly harmful in a century already slated for extinctions, climate change, water supply shocks and the like, all in proportion to our obsession with increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, otherwise known as economic growth.

Let’s also hope he starts using the word “environment” again, prominently and eloquently. This is the 21st century: the environment should be a central feature when assessing and discussing the state of the union. Let’s even hope Obama starts re-connecting the two issues–environment and economy–but this time so publics and policy makers on both sides of the aisle get used to dealing frankly with the trade-off. Only then can we hope for policies that protect the environment, sustain the economy, re-secure the United States, and help to stabilize the international community.

Krugman’s Growthism

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly


Paul Krugman often writes sensibly and cogently about economic policy. But like many economists, he can become incoherent on the subject of growth. Consider his New York Times piece, published earlier this month:


…let’s talk for a minute about the overall relationship between economic growth and the environment.

Other things equal, more G.D.P. tends to mean more pollution. What transformed China into the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases? Explosive economic growth. But other things don’t have to be equal. There’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.

People on both the left and the right often fail to understand this point…On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth…[Krugman says both are wrong]…But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment [emphasis mine].

Krugman distances himself from “leftist” environmentalists who say we must give up the idea of an ever-growing economy, and is himself apparently unwilling to give it up. But he thinks the “right-wingers” are wrong to believe that protecting the environment will devastate growth. Krugman then advocates the more sensible goal of “becoming richer,” but fails to ask if growth in GDP is any longer really making us richer. He seems to equate, or at least fails to distinguish, “growing GDP” from “becoming richer.” Does he assume that because GDP growth did make us richer in yesterday’s empty world it must still do so in today’s full world? The usual but unjustified assumption of many economists is that a growing GDP increases measured wealth by more than it increases unmeasured “illth” (a word coined by John Ruskin to designate the opposite of wealth).

To elaborate, illth is a joint product with wealth. At the current margin, it is likely that the GDP flow component of “bads” adds to the stock of “illth” faster than the GDP flow of goods adds to the stock of wealth. We fail to measure bads and illth because there is no demand for them, consequently no market and no price, so there is no easy measure of negative value. However, what is unmeasured does not for that reason become unreal. It continues to exist, and even grow. Since we do not measure illth, I cannot prove that growth is currently making us poorer, any more than Krugman can prove that it is making us richer. I am just pointing out that his GDP growthism assumes a proposition that, while true in the past, is very doubtful today in the US.

To see why it is doubtful, just consider a catalog of negative joint products whose value should be measured under the rubric of illth: climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere; radioactive wastes and risks of nuclear power plants; biodiversity loss; depleted mines; deforestation; eroded topsoil; dry wells, rivers and aquifers; the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; gyres of plastic trash in the oceans; the ozone hole; exhausting and dangerous labor; and the un-repayable debt from trying to push growth in the symbolic financial sector beyond what is possible in the real sector (not to mention military expenditures to maintain access to global resources).

Deforestation–one of the many “illths” created by continual GDP growth

These negative joint products of GDP growth go far beyond Krugman’s minimal nondescript category of “pollution.” Not only are these public bads un-subtracted, but the private anti-bads they make necessary are added to GDP! For example, the bad of eroded topsoil is not subtracted, but the anti-bad of fertilizer is added. The bad of Gulf and Arctic oil spills is not subtracted, but the anti-bad of clean-up is added. The natural capital depletion of mines, wells, forests, and fisheries is falsely accounted as income rather than capital draw-down.

Such asymmetric accounting alone is sufficient to refute growthism, but for good measure note that the growthists also neglect the most basic laws of economics, namely, the diminishing marginal benefit of income and increasing marginal cost of production. Why do they think these two curves will never intersect? Is Krugman just advocating temporary growth up to some level of optimality or sufficiency, or an ever-growing economy? If the latter, then either the surface of the Earth must grow at a rate approximating the rate of interest, or real GDP must become “angel GDP” with no physical dimension.

Krugman is correct that that there is no necessary “one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution.” But there certainly is a very strong positive correlation between real GDP growth and resource throughput (the entropic physical flow that begins with depletion and ends with pollution). Since when do economists dismiss significant correlations just because they are not “one-to-one”?

Probably we could indeed become richer (increase net wealth) while reducing our impact on the environment, as Krugman hopes. But it will be by reducing uneconomic growth (in throughput and its close correlate, GDP) rather than by increasing it. I would be glad if this were what Krugman has in mind, but I doubt that it is.

In any case, it would be good if he would specify whether he thinks current growth in real GDP is still economic in the literal sense that its benefits exceed its costs at the margin. What specifically makes him think this is so? In other words, is GDP growth currently making us richer or poorer, and how do we know?

Since GDP is a conflation of both costly and beneficial activity, should we not separate the cost and benefit items into separate accounts and compare them at the margin, instead of adding them together? How do we know that growth in GDP is a sensible goal if we do not know if the associated benefits are growing more or less rapidly than the associated costs? Mainstream economists, including Krugman, need to free their thinking from dogmatic GDP growthism.

What to Do When You Suspect We’re Headed for Collapse

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoIf you’ve been paying attention to the environmental news, then you know people are pummeling the planet. Because of the way we run the economy, with continuously growing population and consumption, we are destabilizing the climate, depleting topsoil, drawing down aquifers, acidifying the oceans, and driving species to extinction. Even as we impoverish the Earth’s ecosystems, billions of us struggle daily to find enough food for a decent dinner.  In this age of worldwide environmental and social turmoil, it’s natural to want to help. It’s also natural to wonder how you can possibly make a difference. These troubled times prompt each of us to ask a simple, but absolutely critical question: “What should I do?”

Before tackling what to do, let’s get something out of the way — what not to do:

  • Deny the severity of the problems. Suppose you go swimming along a beach and notice an agitated 20-foot-long great white shark swimming directly below you. No matter how much you refuse to acknowledge its existence, the shark will still be there, cruising along and considering whether you’d make a satisfying snack. You are more likely to survive if you assess your situation accurately and react to your new reality. (The chances of actually meeting a great white shark are slim because of overexploitation — just like humanity’s relationship with so many species, but that’s another story).
  • Refuse to take responsibility. Too many people deny not only the severity of the problems, but even the very existence of the problems. A disconcerting number of climate change denialists (perhaps better termed de-nihilists) live in virtual bomb shelters they constructed to avoid having to confront reality. It’s up to the rest of us — those who live in the real world and understand the severity of humanity’s plight — to take responsibility. We have to move with purpose and we have to move now.
  • Stick with the status quo. As environmental scientists continue to overload us with sobering findings, the easiest thing to do is to keep walking the business-as-usual path. There’s a certain solace to having a “normal” career, carrying on without making sacrifices or changing behavior in ways that may cause difficulty and even pain. As social creatures, we are pre-programmed to conform to the dominant culture. But the difficulty of taking a countercultural path pales in comparison to the chronic difficulties you’ll experience if your way of life contradicts your core beliefs.
  • Leave it to a higher power. Calling on a spiritual or technological force to save the day offers a soothing strategy for escaping from our environmental and social traps, but it’s also an unconscionably irresponsible strategy. People have good reasons to believe God or Google can deliver some amount of help, but that doesn’t absolve us from doing our part. We got ourselves into this mess — we must look to ourselves to find a way out.

Back to the central question: “What should I do?” Like a flock of vultures, the problems circle ominously overhead. The solutions are more like songbirds; they hide in branches and thickets, but they’re there. Despite their presence all around us, it’s still hard to spot proper solutions. It would be a huge relief to have one simple method for scuttling the vultures, but it just doesn’t exist. Solutions come with a certain degree of complexity (e.g., multiple partial solutions that are related to one another). To begin piecing together your answer to “What should I do,” then, it’s helpful to divide actions into three categories: (1) learn something, (2) say something, and (3) do something.

Learn Something

Seek out colleagues who also recognize the problems, but especially people working on creative solutions. I have found myself in the most amazing, life-enriching company while trying to learn more about how to build a sustainable and fair economy. Listing the scholars and leaders who have taught me how to think in systems and see the world through an ecological lens seems like an ill-advised exercise; I know I would omit someone, and I would feel like a name dropper. But when I think about people I’ve met on my quest to learn something, I feel so fortunate (here’s a short list of heroic “Bills”: Bill McKibben, Bill Rees, Bill Ryerson, and Bill Twist).  I’m thankful to all my colleagues, even those not named Bill!

The upshot: you don’t have to slog your way through boring tomes in the dusty corners of the library. On the contrary, you can engage with some of the most compassionate and insightful people on the planet, just as long as you share their desire to help, and you commit to learning something.

Say Something

"Keep Consuming" Poster by Adbusters

As the writers and artists at Adbusters effectively demonstrate, there are always opportunities to speak up and ask, “Why?”

Saying something (at least saying something intelligent) is tougher than learning something, especially for us introverts. My method of saying something consists mostly of writing. I co-wrote a book. I wrote articles (for example, this one in USA Today). I wrote Daly News essays. It’s easier for me to say something clear with a pen or keyboard than with my vocal chords (although I occasionally work up the courage to stand in front of a live audience and pass along what I’ve learned).

If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you’ll find opportunities to say something, and it doesn’t have to be on some grand stage. If you’re a student, ask your professors and classmates probing questions:

Why does the economy have to keep growing? How much consumption is enough for a person, a community, or a society? What are the ultimate goals of our economy?

If you read news reports, write comments and send letters to the editor. A continuous procession of articles in praise of continuous economic growth marches across the front pages of mainstream media sources, providing ample opportunities to respond.

If you participate in a book club, try Enough Is Enough or something similar. Where my coauthor, Dan O’Neill, lives in Leeds, UK, a dedicated group of activists is strategizing how to build the kind of economy described in the book. The same thing has happened where I live in Corvallis, Oregon, and we’ve heard about other groups forming in Bermuda and Wisconsin. Changes begin with the simple act of discussing and sharing ideas. We can all engage our families and friends — you never know what positive events will emerges from your conversations.

Do Something

Doing something represents another step up in commitment. In choosing what to do, the most important point is to make your behavior match your knowledge and values. For example, you can reduce consumption, especially fossil fuel. You can engage in acts of protest. You can give your time and money to organizations that are championing causes dear to you. I have chosen to live with my family in an aspiring ecovillage. We do our best to support the local economy and disengage from the unsustainable, cost-externalizing, globalized economy. We ride bikes. We make music. The idea is to spend time fostering needed changes and have fun doing it.

It’s in that spirit that I embark on my next career adventure. I’ve said enough for the moment as the editor of the Daly News. To understand the motive behind my move, consider this quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I am excited to be helping Farmland LP build a better agricultural model. We are out to prove that organic, ecologically sound farming practices outperform the outdated model we have been saddled with. The old model, based on 19th- and 20th-century ideas of industrial production, offers no future. In the new model, we manage farmland as an ecosystem — not a mine from which we extract and deplete resources. Farmland LP, founded by Jason Bradford and Craig Wichner, is doing something simple, elegant, and brilliant. The company raises money to buy conventional farmland and convert it to organic. The point is to bolster regional food systems, improve environmental conditions, create meaningful jobs, and provide investors with a good place to put their money. In a sense, we are performing an aikido move. We’re using the momentum of current financial and business systems to create a better way of managing landscapes and providing sustenance. I’m proud to play a role.

I’m also proud of my work on the Daly News. I’ve done my best to move the conversation along, and I look forward to learning more as CASSE continues to curate this forum. I’m engaged in a lifelong journey of learning something, saying something, and doing something. I hope you are too and that you’re bringing friends along. It’s not easy, but you’ll never regret doing what needs to be done. Onward!

Remembering Robert Goodland

by Brent Blackwelder and Herman Daly

Robert Goodland, a true friend of CASSE and the Daly News, passed away shortly after Christmas. Brent Blackwelder and Herman Daly herein describe the exemplary life and contributions of their friend and colleague. Robert’s life story will inspire all who care about the environment and social justice.

Robert Goodland

Robert Goodland (1939 – 2013)

Robert Goodland was the first ecologist hired by the World Bank and worked hard for thirty years to improve that institution’s environmental and human rights practices. Robert also wrote more than twenty books on environmental and social issues and many more monographs. The Library of Congress lists more than forty of his titles. He was the first winner of the World Conservation Union’s Harold Jefferson Coolidge medal for lifetime achievement in the conservation of nature. In contrast to colleagues who avoided controversy, Robert pressed to work on the most challenging of environmental and social issues. He saw that his job at the World Bank necessitated his being a vigorous “sparring partner,” providing constructive criticism and sparking improvement. He was known as the “conscience” of the World Bank, a role in which he sought the views of environmental leaders around the world.

Robert earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from McGill University in 1960. For his master’s degree, he researched tropical ecology in a remote part of Guyana with no roads or electricity. The Canadian Government awarded him a scholarship for PhD research on ecosystems in Brazil.

Robert became a professor in 1974 at the University of Brasilia, where he established a program to teach tropical ecology and environmental assessment. Then he moved to the Instituto Nacional de Pesquiasas da Amazonia in Manaus, where he designed Brazil’s first graduate course in applied tropical ecology. Its key case study was the trans-Amazonian highway. That led Robert to co-author with his friend and mentor Howard Irwin the book Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert. It attracted much favorable review, and became viewed as a seminal work in the birth of the international environmental movement.

From 1975 through 1978, Robert served as a consultant for World Bank projects. He designed environmental and social programs to mitigate damages being caused by the Itaipu project, then the world’s biggest hydroelectric project. He also worked on addressing environmental issues and the welfare of Orang Asli forest dwellers for the first time in Malaysia’s national development planning. Separately, he was recruited by the New York Botanical Garden to help establish what became the Cary Center for Ecosystem Studies to complement the Cary Arboretum in Millbrook, New York.

In 1978, Robert was recruited to become the first full-time ecologist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. He was initially assigned to the task of screening every single proposed World Bank project, and selecting for scrutiny those with the largest potential impacts, for which he would draft recommendations. But project designers resisted implementing his recommendations.

As a remedy, Robert took a lead role in drafting environmental and social policies for the World Bank Group, notably covering Environmental Assessment (now Operational Policy 4.01), Indigenous Peoples (Operational Policy 4.10), Natural Habitats (Operational Policy 4.04), and Physical Cultural Resources (Operational Policy 4.11).

In 1979, Robert joined an early mission for the World Bank’s Polonoroeste project in the northwestern part of the Amazon rainforest. Vulnerable ethnic minorities were a key issue in the design of the project, and Robert protected Amerindians by incorporating elements of the then-draft policy on indigenous peoples. So Robert’s focus on policies involved not just drafting text, but also testing its implementation. Even harder work was to persuade one committee after another to approve the adoption of the policies. To foster their implementation, Robert arranged for numerous workshops, conferences, training programs, colloquia, lectures, and guidance materials. Distinguished specialists and a variety of stakeholders were involved in internal World Bank events and activities as well as external ones.

The policies and guidance materials pioneered by Robert essentially served as environmental and social standards for many countries that lacked appropriate regulatory frameworks to provide such standards. Other development banks and aid agencies became interested in adapting them for their own purposes. Robert pressed for those banks and agencies to coordinate among themselves and with the World Bank Group and others, using methods that have continued functioning to this day. Commercial banks became interested too, and Robert worked with a group of bankers called the “Gnomes of Zürich,” and with others in London and New York. He also organized workshops for major engineering and consulting firms that would have to comply with the policies.

The World Bank established a Projects Policy Department, and Robert served as Senior Environmental Affairs Officer from 1983 through mid-1987. Then the Bank created the Environment Department, and Robert became Division Chief for Latin America. He recruited specialists including George Ledec, now Lead Ecologist in the Bank’s Africa Region, and Maritta Koch-Weser, who went on to become President of IUCN. Next came a role for Robert in the Central Environment Department, where he recruited ecological economist Herman Daly.

Robert’s work on indigenous peoples led the institution to hire a cadre of anthropologists. They took up the issue of preventing forced resettlement, and mitigating its adverse impacts when it did occur. Robert also worked to complete the “Environmental Assessment Sourcebook,” which became a crucial worldwide reference on various aspects of environmental assessment. As a capstone to Robert’s work on the principles of environmental and social assessment, he served a term as president of the International Association of Impact Assessment in 1994-1995.

Robert developed ways to bolster his policy initiatives with sectoral work. This included stopping the World Bank Group from financing projects involving tobacco and asbestos. It also included avoiding the most destructive types of agricultural and forestry projects, such as those featuring transmigration, logging, and ranching in tropical forests, as well as land colonization. When internal resistance arose within the World Bank Group, Robert and his colleagues got their work published for a worldwide audience in the 1984 book Environmental Management of Tropical Agriculture. Later, after he analyzed the impacts of some of the world’s largest hydroelectricity projects, he played a key role in the establishment of the World Commission on Dams in 1997, led by Achim Steiner (who later became the head of IUCN and then of UNEP).

In the 1990s, when Robert had become Lead Environmental Advisor at the World Bank, he sought practical ways for the institution to “walk the talk” that it delivered externally, by improving its own environmental and social performance. So he volunteered to chair the Staff Association’s environmental working group. He motivated the Bank’s facilities management to commission an independent audit of their environmental and social performance. The world-renowned energy expert Amory Lovins led the audit. Based on its results, Robert successfully pressed senior management to offer staff incentives for using public transit and bicycles for commuting. He also helped implement coordinated internal sustainability programs.

Robert wanted project proponents to be held accountable to people adversely impacted by development projects. So he helped advance the work of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, and he was shortlisted to become the first Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman in the International Finance Corporation. He also tried for many years to get the International Monetary Fund to do something about the adverse social impacts of its operations, which tend to have much broader reach than do most projects financed by the World Bank Group.

Robert cooperated with Salah El Serafy , Herman Daly, and Roefie Hueting to develop a series of conferences throughout the 1980s on “Greening the UN System of National Accounts.” Robert also worked with Herman and Salah in addressing their concerns over the draft 1992 “World Development Report” on development and the environment. Because the draft was rather bland, they developed a parallel, but more forceful publication entitled “Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development: Building on Brundtland.” They managed to get this published by UNESCO even before the “World Development Report” came out.

Robert obtained major grant funding from the government of Canada to help the government of Indonesia develop its environmental ministry, under the stewardship of Emil Salim. After Robert’s official retirement from the World Bank in 2001, Emil was appointed to head the independent Extractive Industries Review at the World Bank Group. Emil recruited Robert to play a key role, and they recommended various ways to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Also after Robert’s official retirement, he served as a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, where he co-authored a report on human rights. In retirement he worked all over the world as a consultant, often pro bono, in protection of the environment and indigenous peoples. He once remarked that in retirement he was doing much the same things as when in the World Bank, but the difference was that now the people he worked for were more appreciative.

Robert also continued to build on his previous work that had gotten the World Bank to agree in 2001 that development finance should no longer fund large-scale livestock projects. He co-authored with Jeff Anhang a 2009 article entitled “Livestock and Climate Change,” which assessed how replacing some livestock products — and reforesting land thereby freed from livestock and feed production — could be the only pragmatic way to stop climate change before it might be too late. This work became widely cited by many prominent sources, including Bill Gates and Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign. Robert was invited by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to speak about this work in Rome and Berlin, and also invited to deliver a keynote speech to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. To develop further awareness, Robert worked to launch a website called “Chomping Climate Change,” and worldwide interest in this work seems likely to grow well into the future.

In the1980s Robert married Jonmin. Their son Arthur is studying for his PhD in renewable energy at Leeds, England. Robert enjoyed mountain trekking and had recently completed his favorite trek in Nepal, with Jonmin and Arthur, when he died, December 28, 2013.


The Five Dumbest Things You’ll Hear About Sustainability

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechThis one’s about dumb, dumber, and dumbest, plus two intermediate levels for good measure. Ready for the inglorious countdown?

5. “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Might as well say there’s no conflict between plowing a field and protecting the prairie, or logging the woods and protecting the forest, or mining copper and protecting the landscape. No conflict between plastic production and pure water, or paper production and pure air. No conflict between a gazillion cars and the air, water, and climate.

What the heck were the dummies thinkin’?

Maybe it would help if they thought about how the world looked before there was an economy. Or what the American West looked like as Lewis and Clark described it in 1805. Back when GDP was next to nothing. That’s when there was pristine air and water, forests tall and vast, bison in mind-numbing herds, wolves and grizzlies commonplace.

What happened to it all? Why? And does anything describe it better than growing GDP?

It’s hard to believe we’re only at #5!

4. In the information economy, we can dematerialize economic growth.

What did the dummies think all that information would be used for? Invisible inspiration? Immaterial mental massaging? Unmentioned appreciation of unplayed music?

And did they think such immaterial imaginaries would somehow be bought and sold in a free market, contributing to economic growth?

It doesn’t take more than common sense to realize what all that information is used for. If it’s going to contribute to economic growth, it’s going to be used for more competitive farming, logging, mining, paper-making, transportation, and all the other regular old sectors. Oh sure, it can be used for some lighter things too – there’s singing and dancing for example –but if it’s going to be relevant to economic growth, a substantial portion of the information must be used for agricultural and extractive activity.

Maybe common sense is a scarce commodity in the age of video games, derivatives, and e-stuff. Maybe some book-learning is in order, starting with some basic ecology and economics. Here’s a relevant tidbit: Due to the trophic structure of the human economy, economic growth requires increasing agricultural and extractive surplus at the base of the economy. It’s that surplus, and a very material surplus indeed, that frees the hands for the division of labor in the “information economy.”

3. “If the economy’s not growing, it’s dying.”

This one is less illuminating than a 1-watt lightbulb. Might as well say, “If it’s not speeding up, it’s stopping.” Or, “If it’s not getting louder, it’s no longer making noise.”

Tractor plowing a field

The tractor protects the prairie, just like economic growth protects the environment.

Or consider the human body. It’s highly relevant because all the human bodies combined constitute the producers and consumers of the macro-economy. Yet those bodies who insist on growing forever; they’re gonna die! And along the way they’ll causes shortages for the rest of us. The only chance of survival is to maintain that body — and the body economic — in a relatively steady state.

It may be true that some familiar institutions can’t co-exist with a steady state economy, such as the fractional reserve banking system. But that’s a problem with the banking system (a big problem), not a problem with the steady state economy, which is the only sustainable alternative in the long run. It’s not exactly rocket science: perpetual growth is unsustainable, perpetual degrowth is unsustainable. That leaves stability, or the steady state economy, as the sustainable alternative.

2. The wealthiest countries have the most environmental protection, which shows we need economic growth to protect the environment.

A common theme with dummies everywhere is linking a grain of truth with the validity of the entire field. For example, Sarah Palin says Russia is near Alaska. That is true. Therefore, says Dummy, she must be an expert in the field of foreign policy.

In this case, the field is neoclassical economics, where economists far removed from the land came up with a crazy construct called the “environmental Kuznets curve.” These economists acknowledge that, as the economy grows, it harms the environment. But then, they say, when enough growth occurs, society has the money to fix the environment!

Next they’ll be telling us the Biggest Loser needs more food to go on a diet.

The fact of the matter is that we have to get serious about going on an economic diet. We don’t need more economic fat to do it; we need only willpower and the common sense to realize that pushing for evermore economic growth is the same as pushing the planet to the brink of disaster. And that includes economic disaster.

Almost to the Dumbest

So we’ve covered dumb and dumber; almost to the dumbest. And there’s been a common theme: a lack of awareness of basic ecology and economics, leaving dummies susceptible to pipe dreams and pro-growth salesmanship. Ready to echo what most pleases Big Money: “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!”

That’s why it may surprise readers to find that the dumbest thing you’ll hear about sustainability comes from an entirely different corner. This is the one spoken by select, educated dummies who may have scientific background to understand the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, but are oblivious to the sociology of sustainability. They are the quintessential example of the Donald Rumsfeld lament, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Drumroll please…

1. “Everybody knows there’s a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.”

This one is so dumb you may not have even heard it before. It’s a statement uttered by those who think what they know — in this case about the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection — should be self-evident to others. It’s a lazy sort of dumbness based on ignorance of the social facts.

Just because something should be the case doesn’t make it so. Everybody should know there’s a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, yes. But if you know anything about sustainability, you’re aware of a massive literature describing how neoclassical economics, as played by “win-win” politicians, has led the public astray from common sense. Americans, especially, are all too programmed to believe, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Nationwide public opinion surveys have provided evidence for this win-win rhetoric seeping into the American mind.

So when you hear somebody say, “Everybody knows there’s a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection,” you know something is wrong. It could be sheer ignorance, or it could be something worse. There are highly paid yes-men and women in government, business, the non-profit sector, and even academia who refuse to raise a finger to educate the public on the perils of economic growth. They’re afraid of the personal consequences of telling the truth. But they make up plenty of excuses. They’ll say we don’t need to raise awareness of the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, because “Everybody knows it.”

So you might object, “When they say such a thing, maybe they’re just being sneaky and cynical, not necessarily dumb per se.”

Ironically enough, only the dummy who says such a thing could actually know.

Bill Clinton, The Nature Conservancy, and The Old Win-Win Rhetoric

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechWhen The Nature Conservancy decides to talk, the environmental community listens. Even some of Wall Street listens. Despite TNC’s low-key approach, no other conservation organization is remotely close to TNC in political connection and resources. Therefore, one of the most influential environmental books of the year is likely to be Nature’s Fortune by virtue of the fact that the author is none other than TNC’s president, Mark Tercek.

It’s easy to like Mark Tercek, or at least to suspect he is likeable. His preface alone suggests this ex-investment banker from Goldman Sachs has become a passionate conservationist. The criticism to follow has nothing to do with Tercek or the true content of Nature’s Fortune. The problem is that the production of the book and the way it is being portrayed could have the ironic effect of doing more environmental harm than good.

It helps book sales to have a blurb from a past president — “William Jefferson Clinton” in this case — proudly displayed on the front cover. Yet for serious scholars of conservation, the blurb undermines the book like a rash blurting of Rush Limbaugh would undermine serious scholarship on balancing the budget. While a Limbaugh blurb is largely bluff, Clinton’s blurb is largely fluff.

It’s interesting that TNC’s own website for Nature’s Fortune does not include Clinton’s blurb. Evidently there is a tension with regard to the use of Clinton’s name vs. the spurious content of the blurb, which flies in the face of ecological economics and sound science.

One also has to wonder if Clinton really read the book, or simply used the opportunity to roll out one of his most famous win-win shibboleths. For those of us in sustainability science, some of the most reckless rhetoric of the 20th century was Clinton’s fallacious, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” If you were paying attention around the turn of the century, you would have heard this zany zinger uttered by one political appointee after another. Word in the DC beltway had it that appointees were instructed to issue this pap when it came to discussions about the environment and the economy.

For appointees on the side of sound science and integrity in public service — and for those with common sense — such political puppeteering must have been odious. But as they say, power corrupts, and appointees uttered the odious awkwardly and often.

So what is the most recent version of Clinton’s win-win happy horsey that disgraces the front cover of Nature’s Fortune? “By breaking conservation down into dollars and cents, Mark Tercek shows that economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals. Nature’s Fortune takes a pragmatic approach to an important issue, and turns the conversation from ideology to arithmetic.” Yet Tercek shows no such thing.

Bill Clinton

“Economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals… but that depends on your definition of ‘environmental’.”

It’s true that Tercek breaks conservation “down into dollars and cents,” and he does take “a pragmatic approach to an important issue.” He does avoid ideology and he does utilize arithmetic. But no way does Tercek show “that economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive.” In fact, Tercek avoids the phrase economic growth, and certainly doesn’t define the term or describe the process of economic growth. He simply traverses the world, pointing out the essential economic values of natural resources. The fact that corporations, cities, and municipalities are capable of capitalizing on such value gets nowhere near a proof that economic growth may be reconciled with environmental protection.

It’s easy enough to see why politicians and even conservation organizations talk about reconciling economic growth with environmental protection. Economic growth is a long-sought, primary domestic policy goal, partly because it was indeed so appropriate for so much of the 20th-century world when nature wasn’t so scarce. Politicians are still so wedded to economic growth that we can forget about hearing from them about the trade-off between economic growth and competing goals such as environmental protection, long-term economic sustainability, national security, and international stability. Most conservation organizations won’t touch the conflict between growth and conservation with a ten-foot pole, either. TNC is no exception, and in fact would be one of the last organizations to acknowledge the conflict, with its close ties to Wall Street.

But let’s remember (since you won’t find it in Tercek’s book) that economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It requires increasing human population and/or per capita consumption. It is measured with GDP. It is a rock-solid indicator of environmental impact, and there’s no way to reconcile it with environmental protection. “Green growth” is the oxymoron of the decade; less-brown growth is the best that could happen. Scientific, professional societies have taken the time to clarify this for the public and policy makers. And some of us have written extensively on this topic. We won’t get the imprimatur of Bill Clinton, though, because Clinton is the consummate win-win politician who will go to his grave as such. However, we will set the record straight with support from scientists such as E. O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and David Suzuki, as well as the likes of common sense and integrity.

Having spent much of the past 14 years writing a book on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, on the heels of Ph.D. research on the subject, I have learned plenty about why and how the win-win rhetoric is promulgated. Books such as Supply Shock and Enough Is Enough should be leading the way in educating the public and policy makers about the real costs and benefits of economic growth. These are serious books by serious scholars of sustainability science. These are books that deal forthrightly with the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, and they should be complemented by the likes of Nature’s Fortune, which helps to reinforce the primacy of natural resources in supporting economic activity.

Instead, serious sustainability scholarship in today’s bookstore is supplanted by titles gallivanting with presidential rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” The win-win rhetoric makes for plenty of bookstore dollars, but only some cynical sense.