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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 Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics represents the extension into economics of the thermodynamic revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In physics, that revolution dethroned Newton and brought relativity. In biology, it was midwife to the birth of ecology, the study of ecosystems as wholes in which energy networks—food webs—are a defining structure. In chemistry the laws of thermodynamics brought clarity and rigor to a science that struggled to bring theoretical unity to diverse phenomena. So far, though, most economists are perfectly willing to treat their subject matter as if the laws of thermodynamics simply don’t apply to it.

2 models 5

But the thermodynamic revolution in economics can’t be permanently forestalled. For one thing, it’s getting harder and harder for the neoclassical model to reassure us that its system of Newtonian abstractions is a good fit to the real world. The Great Collapse of 2008 demonstrated that whatever else it is, the discipline of economics isn’t very good at predicting major economic phenomena. Climate change and the Sixth Extinction make it hard for economics to maintain its pretense that economic activity takes place in abstractia, on the clean white pages of textbooks or on whiteboards holding formulae, with no roots in or consequences for anything outside of itself. Truths derived on the model of Newtonian mechanism are supposed to be abstract and ahistorical, but our planet and our economy are most assuredly evolving concretely and over time.

The driving dynamic of this economic and planetary change—the driver of history for the past three centuries—has been human use of high-EROI fossil fuel. The driving dynamic of the history yet to come will be the declining EROI of our civilization’s energy sources.

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

Oil used to gush out of the ground under pressure, making for a very high Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). In the 1920s, wells like this gave the industry an average EROI of 100 to 1 or more. Today’s petroleum industry has a much lower EROI. Photo Credit: Texas State Archives

You can see some of the consequences of declining EROI already:

  • Despite a rising real per capita GDP, for a significant percentage of workers in OECD nations personal income has flatlined or is declining. An increasing concentration of income helps explain this but another dynamic is at work as well. As EROI falls, it takes more economic effort to get the energy that’s needed to support economic effort. Even as gross economic activity (GDP) grows, production of net benefit is shrinking.
  • Other sectors of the economy have been affected by this ongoing increase in the economy’s matter-and-energy overhead. “Austerity” has become the watchword for governmental budgets, even in the wealthiest nations in the world. Developed countries find it increasingly difficult if not impossible to pay maintenance and upgrade costs on infrastructure investments made in the heyday of 100-to-1 oil.
  • In its 2013 report card on America’s infrastructure, The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that the U.S. needs to invest $3.6 trillion over seven years to restore and maintain existing infrastructure.
  • Worldwide, many of the ecosystems that support human civilization are degraded and close to collapse. Forced by both ideology and declining EROI into austerity budgeting, governments are reducing their scope and energy at the exact moment that sustainability would have them take strong action to rein in the rational, free-market tendency of corporations to maximize profits by degrading the commons and externalizing other costs.
  • Pension-fund wipeouts are becoming common as one way to fulfill the economy’s structural need for debt repudiation—a need that lies in our system’s willingness to let debt grow faster than a declining EROI economy can pay back, even after growth has been stimulated by lifting or reducing regulations that limit the environmental damage done by economic activity.
  • The planetary carbon sink is full, producing climatic effects that even an abstraction-inhabiting, arithmo-morphizing economist has to acknowledge as a troubling reality.

Centuries from now economic historians are likely to understand the relationship between EROI and wealth creation much better than does the average economist of today. I think it likely that future political economists will express wonder not at the 20th century’s enormous economic success, but at how little we actually added to our stock of wealth for all the high-EROI coal and oil it was our pleasure to burn. They are almost certain to shake their heads in wonder that we, enjoying an energy supply and an EROI never seen on the planet before or since, could ever have experienced an economic downturn, could ever have let a human starve from want, could ever have been so programmatically blind to the physical origins of our fortunes.

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 1

Economics Ignores Thermodynamics

by Eric Zencey

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as a comment in the Great Transition Network Forum, which will appear on the Great Transition Initiative website next week along with a new essay by Herman Daly, “Economics for a Full World.”

Eric ZenceyEcological Economics and its corollary, Steady State Economic thinking, represent a step forward for the discipline of economics and also a return to how it was practiced in the past. In the nineteenth century, economics was a part of a larger enterprise: political economy, the integrated treatment of morals and economics, ultimate ends and efficient means. Late in that century economics calved off from political economy, leaving behind political science and political philosophy as the residuum. It did this in service to the ideal of becoming rigorously scientific.

It’s odd, then, that alone among disciplines with any pretense to analytic rigor, economics has steadfastly resisted the thermodynamic revolution that swept physical and life sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Physics, biology, chemistry, geology, even the study of history were transformed, but not economics.

I think we can blame this on bad timing, willful ignorance, and oil.

Bad timing

In the late nineteenth century the archetypal science was physics and physics was Newtonian mechanism. Ignorant of what a young thermodynamic theorist named Albert Einstein would soon do to the Newtonian paradigm they emulated, Stanley Jevons and other economic “scientists” set about mathematically modeling the economy as sets and subsets of self-contained, equal-and-opposite actions and reactions, happily (and explicitly) assuming that all economic activity consists of ahistorical, which is to say completely reversible, processes. No one who has a nodding acquaintance with the law of entropy could have countenanced this. Entropy is Time’s Arrow, the law of irreversibility; it describes the one-way flow of energy use. A purely mechanical process can be run forward or backwards, but we’ll never invent a machine that can suck in exhaust gases, heat and motion and transform them into gasoline. The entropy law can tell you why. Newton couldn’t.

Just as a consumer might choose to keep a recently purchased appliance even though a newer, better model has been brought onto the market, neoclassical economists weren’t about to re-tool their brand-new thinking to reflect changes in the underlying metaphysics they had been so keen to adopt. It didn’t seem to them that there was any reason to.

“Seem” is the operative word here. Because the entropy process is time’s arrow, and because Ecological Economics places the entropy process at the center of its analysis, it’s entirely appropriate for Ecological Economics to understand its subject matter and itself as a discipline in historical terms. Like other paradigm-defining insights, this one seems obvious once it has been stated: elements of the neoclassical model that could pass for true on a large and forgiving planet a hundred years ago are obviously not true today, when the planet’s source-and-sink services are severely taxed, when natural capital is the limiting factor in production, when there are seven billion of us and our economic wants, capacities and expectations have been amplified by our access to the ancient sunshine of fossil fuels.

Willful ignorance

By modeling the economy as a closed and circular system, neoclassical economists have encouraged themselves to operate in a methodologically enforced state of denial about the physical roots and ecological consequences of our wealth-creating activities. And yet economics has experienced no paradigm-shaking crisis as a result. Neither climate change nor any of the other source-and-sink catastrophes facing civilization have been laid at the feet of bad economic theory. One reason: Neoclassical economists succeed in treating environmental costs as “externalities.” How could environmental degradation be the result of economic activity if it’s external to the economy?

Midas.Giovanni Caselli from the Age of Fable

The power to create wealth gave Midas an unsustainable life as a complete solipsist. Oil’s power to create wealth has had a similar effect on Neoclassical economics. Illustration by Giovanni Caselli from The Age of Fable.

In its self-confirming isolation of the economy from nature and theory from reality, neoclassical economics amounts to a highly principled practice of solipsism. When this pathology is manifest in an individual it produces unpleasant consequences that might eventually prompt some reflection and personal growth. Not so with the collective delusion of mainstream economists. Evidence of our ongoing ecological catastrophe falls far from their purview—not just disciplinarily but geographically, as the wealthier nations (wherein the vast majority of economists reside) export their ecological footprint to the impoverished nations of the world. And for several generations (at least since Reagan defeated Carter, removed Carter’s solar panels from the White House and ushered in an era of GDP growth through de-regulation of the social and ecological consequences of economic activity), there has been a strong self-selection among students of economics. Undergraduates with any kind of deep personal connection to natural systems tend to find the study of standard economics unattractive, displeasing, even soul-deadening. This leaves the field to those most willing to bracket off as irrelevant to their professional purpose any question about the moral and ethical consequences of economic activity, any question about the health and maintenance of nature, any question about the economy’s relation to the larger social and natural systems within which it operates.

Oil

Even so, you might expect that a discipline with such a demonstrably deficient view of its subject matter would fail of its object—would fail to offer wise counsel about the collective project of augmenting the stock of wealth that humans can enjoy. But economics has had much apparent success. Despite regular downturns and financial crises, the wealth produced by our economies has grown and grown and grown. I think there’s a ready explanation that becomes visible through the conceptual lens of Ecological Economics, which tells us that energy isn’t a commodity like any other but a fundamental factor of production (part of a trio: matter, energy and human design intelligence). When your economy operates on an energy source that cranks out wealth-making value in a ratio of 100 to 1 or better—the estimated Energy Return on Energy Invested that petroleum offered us in the early 20th Century—you can believe any damn thing you want about how economies operate and your economy will still generate a great deal of wealth.

Which is to say, high-EROI oil granted the new science of economics immunity from being proven false by events. But falsifiability of principles and propositions is one solid measure of a science. (Non-falsifiable beliefs are called faiths.)

In effect the discipline of economics has a free rider problem—it’s been given a free pass by the enormous power of oil to misunderstand itself and its subject matter. You could also call it a Midas Problem, after the legendary king whose touch turned everything he touched into gold, including his dinner and his daughter. The power of wealth-generation that oil granted to our economy made it impossible for the discipline of economics to connect in any fundamental way with otherness, including the otherness of the planet and its role in the very processes that economics presumes to model.

 

Progress Toward a True-Cost Economy Now Comes From Developments in Renewable Energy

by Brent Blackwelder

Brent BlackwelderA renewable energy revolution is sweeping the planet. This revolution has profound implications because it signals that the global economy is moving to stop the growth of our human carbon footprint.

The global economy has run for a century primarily on fossil fuels but is now undergoing a rapid transition to a global economy based significantly on rooftop solar, wind, and efficiency. This is a tangible movement toward a steady state economy because with wind and solar, the amount we use today does not affect tomorrow’s supply; and unlike fossil fuels, the pollution externalities are small and do not harm fellow competitors or the public.

This revolution is more than a technical fix because it is shifting the ingredients of the material products and services of the economy from toxic, polluting, non-renewable substances and ingredients to ones that are renewable and dramatically lower in pollution. It is demonstrating that renewable energy can avoid imposing dangerous impacts onto the public or onto future generations.

Skeptics over the last two decades have argued that renewable sources such as wind and solar are trivial and simply incapable of providing the power needed by the global economy—that all they will ever do is provide only a small percentage of the world’s electricity. I remember the days when utility executives belittled renewables, warning that more than about 5% of wind or solar electricity in a region would crash the grid!

Photo Credit: janie.hernandez55

The renewable energy revolution is a stepping stone toward a sustainable true-cost economy. Photo Credit: janie.hernandez55

I want to present a few startling and uplifting facts that demonstrate the dramatic progress recently made by solar and wind power around the world. 1 These facts give the lie to the phony assertions made by utilities in their efforts to block renewable energy.

Rooftop solar is growing worldwide by 50% per year. In 1985 solar cost $12 per watt, but today’s prices are closer to 36 cents per watt. Every five hours the world adds 23 MW of solar—which was the global installed capacity in 1985.

In January of 2014 Denmark got 62% of its electricity from wind. In 2013 Ireland got 17% of its electricity from wind, and Spain and Portugal both exceeded 20% from wind. Today China gets more electricity from wind (91,000 MW) than it does from nuclear reactors. The United States is second in the world in installed wind turbines, with South Dakota and Iowa obtaining over 26% of their electricity from wind.

As we look to achieve a true-cost, steady state economy, questions are constantly raised about the behavior of other powerful nations that might appear to have no interest in a sustainable economy. The renewable energy revolution provides breakthrough opportunities here. China is already putting its energy future into more and more renewable energy. It plans to more than double its current wind capacity with an expansion goal of 200,000 MW by the year 2020.

Even the French, who rely on nuclear reactors for 75% of their electricity, are planning on increasing their wind generating capacity to 25,000 MW from their present 8,300 MW.

The renewable energy revolution will enable civilization to stop the growth of highly polluting fossil fuels. It will enable society to leave the majority of the remaining reserves of fossil fuels alone and unburned. Acceleration of this revolution helps in solving many problems and is a key to restoring and maintaining the life support systems of the earth.

For a number of reasons, this renewable energy revolution is a stepping stone toward a sustainable  true-cost economy. First, unlike fossil fuels, the footprint of wind and rooftop solar is minimal. Wind turbines erected on farmland use very little land and allow farming to continue. Rooftop solar can be placed on flat commercial and industrial roofs in metropolitan areas where connections to the grid are available.

In comparison, extraction of fossil fuels can create some of the worst pollution and habitat destruction ever seen. Consider the devastation being caused in the biologically diverse mountain forests of West Virginia by mountaintop removal coal mining. Or look at the obliteration of Alberta’s landscape and contamination of its lakes and rivers from tar sands mining.

This point is substantial because far too many of the products of the global economy involve externalization of enormous pollution costs.

Second, the usage of wind and solar today does not affect the amount of wind and solar available tomorrow. They are renewable. Furthermore, wind and rooftop solar are basically waterless technologies, whereas fossil fuel and nuclear power plants use enormous quantities of water for cooling. As water shortages multiply worldwide as a result of population and industrial growth, and climate disruption, this benefit will become even more significant.

Third, wind and solar are big job creators. In Germany the number of jobs in wind and solar is about 400,000 versus 200,000 in coal and conventional fuels. This amazing boost in clean energy jobs has happened in the last decade. Job creation is a major concern in any transition to a sustainable economy.2

Those who are serious about getting to a true–cost economy should help accelerate the renewable energy revolution as a way to achieve it.

 

Notes

  1. See The Great Transition by Lester Brown and colleagues at the Earth Policy Institute for a superb account of the global renewable energy revolution that offers hope to all.
  1. See Energiewende for the job figures; see also Peter Victor in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth for a discussion of transition scenarios and jobs.

Potential New Allies in the Effort to Achieve a Sustainable True Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThose who want a true cost, steady state economy need some new, powerful allies. We need allies that stretch across the political spectrum, from liberal to conservative. We need allies that can speak from a values perspective to bring moral considerations to bear on the discussion.

Neither the environmental movement nor the progressive movement possesses enough political strength to overcome the most powerful economic interests in the world. These potent interests include the oil and coal industries, banks, agribusiness, mining and chemical companies, Wall Street, etc. Congress will not act on big economic changes because too many members depend on election money from these very same economic interests.

Faith-based communities could play an important role because they can reach across the conservative-liberal spectrum, have member congregations that convene on a weekly basis, and can speak with a moral voice that moves people to action. Such an approach may work well with the growing number focused on serious environmental problems because the root cause of many of such problems is the system of cheater economics that dominates today’s economy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, some of us worked with churches on various environmental concerns. These efforts have been expanding and today, the environment is a common topic among the faithful. For example, consider the mission statement of Interfaith Power & Light, established over a decade ago by Reverend Sally Bingham:

The very existence of life–life that religious people are called to protect–is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every major religion has a mandate to care for Creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.

Interfaith Power & Light has engaged hundreds of congregations, has affiliates in 38 states, educated thousands of people of faith about the moral mandate to address global warming, and helped pass California’s landmark climate and clean energy laws. Christian environmentalists such as Matthew and Nancy Sleeth have formed an educational group, Blessed Earth, to equip faith-based communities to become better stewards of the earth and have written books about the duty of caring for creation, including Almost Amish; The Gospel According to the Earth; and Go Green, Save Green. To illustrate this point, I present a sample of five defects in today’s unsustainable economy, followed by the kind of response faith-based communities could make.

  • Defect: Assigning future generations close to zero value and obsessively focusing on the quarterly return. Rapacious commercial logging, for instance, can wipe out forests that are needed to sustain future generations with water, fuel, fish, and wildlife.

    Moral Response: We care about future generations and have a responsibility to care for the environment and not leave a polluted earth for our children and grandchildren.

  • Defect: Pushing for massive expansion of the consumer economy. Today’s economy is involved in a relentless drive to sell a never-ending array of consumer goods.

    Moral Response: Most denominations preach against excessive materialism. (“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moss and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.” Matthew 6:19)

  • Mt Top Removal - James Holloway

    Faith-based communities can become powerful allies in the fight to stop growth at all costs, including the once forested Kentucky mountains. Photo Credit: James Holloway

    Defect: Offering economic justifications for extraordinary environmental destruction, such as mountain-top coal removal mining.

    Moral Response: Such practices are an attack on the earth and cause serious harm to local residents–their health, their water supply, and their homes, leaving the once biologically forested mountains of West Virginia with a Martian landscape.

  • Defect: Permitting enormous pollution externalities to be shoved off on fellow competitors and on the public. Today’s economy tolerates cheater economics in which products do not reflect the real ecological costs of their manufacture and usage.

    Moral Response: We are charged with loving our neighbors, not poisoning them. Prices of consumer goods should reflect the damages being done to obtain the raw materials and energy used in their production and in their usage or consumption.

  • Defect: Counting population growth as an asset when in most places it is a liability that pushes localities as well as states to exceed the carrying capacity of their environment. None of the great challenges to the health of the earth’s life-support systems are made easier by having more people. World population today exceeds 7 billion and is headed to between 9 and 11 billion by 2050. The tax code in many places encourages more population growth and the global economy depends on a growing supply of cheap labor.

    Moral Response: While there is a large rift among religious denominations over the question of abortion, the population question is directly addressed in Chapter 1 of Genesis. The blessing “be fruitful and multiply” is first given to every kind of animal, including crawling things, then to humans. Thus, humans must take their blessing in the context of the previous blessings by God and live so that the earth is flourishing with many kinds of life.

In summary, those who seek a true cost, steady state economy should work with faith-based communities to discuss how the crucial linkage between serious problems like climate disruption and new economic policies to achieve a sustainable economy fit into their work.

By raising objections to cheater economics, to pollution externalities, and to phony benefit-cost analyses used to justify grotesque environmental practices (such as tar sands oil and mountain top removal), faith-based communities will make a difference. These coummunities can speak with moral authority about caring for future generations, about caring for God’s creation, and about loving one’s neighbors–not polluting them.

Note: Brent Blackwelder received a Ph.D. in moral philosophy from the University of Maryland in 1975 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary in May of 2014.

Giant Mats of Green Slime in Lake Erie Signal a Need for New Economic Approaches to Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderFor the past 40 years, I have spent family summer vacations in Northern Michigan to enjoy a fresh water paradise of small lakes and rivers, along with the Great Lake Michigan.

Ghanbani, Slimeade

What does this have to do with economic growth? Photo Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari of AP

This year, not all of the Great Lakes turned out to be great: Lake Erie was covered with massive algal mats at its western end, forcing the closure of Toledo’s water supply that serves 400,000 people. A sample of the intake water for Toledo looked like a glass of thick green slimeade.

So, what is the link between this latest water pollution debacle, economic growth, and a true-cost economy? I will argue that in a steady state, true-cost economy, there would be much less reliance on pollution regulations. The chief tool would be bans, along with significant harm charges, on those products and processes that threatened public health or jeopardized the functioning of life support systems for the earth.

What causes me to advocate such a major change in the U.S. approach to pollution can be seen in three big water pollution events this year. My CASSE blog in March dealt with two significant water pollution events earlier this year–the coal-processing spill that shut down the water supply to Charleston, West Virginia, and the bursting of a coal waste storage pond in North Carolina, sending toxic sludge 70 miles downstream in the Dan River.

In my March blog, I discussed better economic approaches to pollution that would be pursued in a true-cost, steady state economy.  Before going into these approaches, it is important to understand the huge frustration that the American public was experiencing in the 1960s from hundreds of water pollution incidents and the failure of governmental bodies to put a halt to this.

In the early 1970s, many of us worked to obtain the 1972 Clean Water Act that featured the promise of making waters of our nation fishable and swimmable by 1986. Two remarkable examples helped drive public awareness and force Congress to enact this law: the Cayahoga River catching on fire and Lake Erie becoming a dead lake.

If someone had told us that 40 years later Lake Erie would experience massive green slime algal mats, we would have said, “No thanks, we need a truly strong law that would bring back Lake Erie from the dead, not a law so permissive that four decades later we would have a monster slime blob in 2011 stretching 120 miles from Cleveland to Toledo, followed by yet another huge slime mass in 2014.”

So now we are confronted with the abysmal failures of the regulatory system at the state and federal level, along with the tepid responses to the latest pollution disaster in Lake Erie. The time has come to demand a change to our economic approaches to pollution and begin the transition to a true-cost, sustainable economy.

To get down to brass tacks on the Lake Erie green slime, we must recognize that the chief cause is agricultural runoff. According to Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, “the primary driver is the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie from agriculturally dominated watersheds.” The state of Ohio reports that two thirds of the phosphorus comes from farm lands.

So let’s start calling for a national ban on gigantic animal factory farms with hundreds and hundreds of animals crowded together. Such factory slum operations would not occur in a steady state economy. They are a microcosm of what happens with too much growth in numbers and pollution. When any population of animals or people get into overly crowded conditions, pollution overwhelms the carrying capacity of the land and water, disease increases, and violence breaks out.  Today, industrial agriculture is increasing in size and adverse impacts, although organic farming is making inroads.

While pushing for bans, we should also demand harm charges for the damages bad agricultural practices have on lakes. Look at the cost of losing a city’s water supply, the health costs, and the costs to the recreation economy in the region. Today animal factory operations and industrial agriculture escape monetary responsibility for the many harms they cause.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could require businesses to disclose their pollution externalities when they file their annual financial reports. The Dodd-Frank Act requires companies to disclose conflict minerals in their supply chains, thus setting a precedent for the SEC to act. Revelation of these pollution externalities would constitute the first step in forcing the creators to cover their true costs of production.

My argument runs counter to the major thrust taken to deal with air, land, and water pollution since Earth Day 1970, which was primarily a regulatory approach. Some of the pollution laws have worked quite well, providing crucial health benefits and safeguarding ecosystems, but many are not set to deal with the magnitude of the pollution issues of the 21st century. For example, powerful bee-killing pesticides are causing collapses of bee colonies nationwide. Such pesticides should be banned since they threaten human food supply, about two thirds of which depends on the pollinators. Other pesticides and herbicides kill vegetation relied upon by butterflies such as the monarch that needs milkweed to lay its eggs on.  Bans are possible. Several European countries banned the powerful herbicide atrazine in the early 1990s, but this poison is widely used in the United States despite substantial scientific evidence about its health impacts.

The response taken by environmental groups and official state and federal agencies to the grotesque pollution of Lake Erie has been primarily to call for better regulation, which leads to more bureaucratic procrastination and few results. No one has called for a ban on bad practices of industrial agriculture or called for a shutdown of the big, filthy animal feedlots that are a cesspool of pollution and disease. These should be outlawed! It is not impossible. The Michigan legislature did ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer.

The industrial agriculture system has grown so large in the United States that it is transgressing planetary boundaries, causing algal blooms and dead zones in lakes, bays, and estuaries. Certain parts of the economy, like those associated with industrial animal slums, need to shrink. Bans and harm charges must become frequently used economic tools.

Transformative Common Sense in Vermont

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyChances are that when you hear the phrase “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy,” you don’t immediately think of dramatic change in the established political-economic order of things. The words don’t seem revolutionary. They certainly don’t call to mind images of furtive guerillas toting rifles or of throngs in public squares using chains and ropes to topple statues. Chances are equally good that unless you hang out with economic development officers or land use planners, you’d have a hard time rounding up a dozen people who’d sit still long enough to hear what a CEDS is, let alone why it might be of interest to them. But despite the dry name, the document recently released by Vermont’s Department of Commerce and Community Development portends a quiet, far-reaching revolution in governance in the Green Mountain State–and perhaps on a larger stage.

The potential for this enormous change is signaled in a short, clear statement from the report’s Executive Summary:

…This CEDS sets out a unique, overarching goal: it proposes to not only grow jobs and wages and increase our Gross Domestic Product, but also to improve the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)…by 5% over baseline over the next five years.

With this language, Vermont becomes the first state to make explicit use of an alternative indicator in setting goals for economic development. The commitment to use the GPI in this way places Vermont in the forefront of a growing national movement to integrate the GPI into social and economic policy. Because GDP-based economic development is so wrong-headed, this commitment is a matter of common sense; and yet, because GDP-based economic development is so deeply woven into the substance and texture of our political economy, using basic common sense here is a powerfully transformative act.

The faults and flaws of GDP as a measure of economic progress are well known and don’t need to be repeated in detail here. It was never intended to serve as a measure of economic wellbeing, and one of the largest problems in using it for that purpose is that it doesn’t subtract environmental damage as a cost of economic development. Instead, it simply ignores these losses as externalities–until and unless money is spent to correct them, at which time the remediation of the cost is transformed, as if magically, into an apparent economic benefit. (This is a macroeconomic instance of what is generally called the broken window fallacy.) Negative environmental externalities occur when economic activity exceeds one of the planet’s local, regional, or global source-and-sink limits and thereby imposes harm, damage, cost or loss on innocent third parties–people who neither produce nor consume the goods whose production damages the environment. (Traditional economists don’t talk of “innocent” third parties when they discuss externalities, but the morally charged language is appropriate. Why should it be acceptable for profit-seekers to impose uncompensated loss on the general public?)

Because these externalities have their origin in ecosystem limits, and GDP treats the externalities as if they didn’t exist, it’s fair to call GDP an infinite planet statistic. Brian Czech has argued recently that what GDP measures best is environmental impact. While GDP isn’t a perfect measure of environmental impact—some of the things we consume cause less environmental damage per dollar than others—it seems a decent proxy, since in general it’s true that the larger the economy in GDP terms, the larger its environmental impact.

In contrast, the Genuine Progress Indicator subtracts environmental and other costs from the ledger, giving a more accurate bottom line. In doing so, GPI applies the principles of double-entry bookkeeping to the economy as a whole. The invention of double entry bookkeeping was a crucial to the growth of capitalism; a business can’t stay in business for long if its managers have no idea how its debits stack up against its credits, how its costs compare to revenues. And what’s true at the micro scale is true, in this instance, at the macro scale: because GDP systematically miscounts costs as benefits, we’re about to go environmentally broke–the entire economy may go out of business as climate change and loss of biodiversity bring dramatic, civilization-threatening change.

Mushroom Ecosystem

Economic growth will eventually cost more in ecosystem damage than it brings in economic gains. Photo Credit: Scott McCracken, Cambridge, VT

There is nothing in the Genuine Progress Indicator that says, explicitly, “there are ecological limits to economic growth.” But because it subtracts environmental costs from economic benefits, the GPI is a finite planet indicator that will, if implemented accurately, lead policy makers to this realization. Consistent, accurate compilation of the GPI will make clear that for any given ecosystem, at some point economic growth that is rooted in that system costs more in ecosystem service losses than it brings in economic gains.

This means that there are limits to the amount of economic production the planet’s ecosystems can support. Obviously, that fact has implications for economic development and the policies that promote it. Foremost among those implications is the necessity of abandoning the traditional “jobs and GDP” focus of development policy. As noble as it may be to aim to assure every aspiring worker the dignity of useful work, and as comforting as it is to think that we can continually add to our national stock of wealth by perpetually growing our national income, neither goal can be accomplished forever (or even, arguably, in the near term) through policies that take GDP growth or job growth as their sole and solitary focus. A commitment to perpetual full employment that is not also connected to an effort to limit population growth is at bottom a commitment to perpetual economic growth, a chimerical ideal. And because GDP so badly miscounts costs and benefits, failing to keep them separate, any policy effort that aims solely at increasing GDP is destined to be fatuous.

In announcing a development goal that is couched in terms of the GPI, Vermont has put itself on a path that will lead away from traditional “jobs and GDP” thinking–though the divergence of the two paths is not yet fully clear to policy makers. (Recall that the CEDS document aims not only at improving the GPI but also to “grow jobs and wages and increase…GDP.”) No doubt many of the legislators and policy makers who supported the state’s adoption of GPI as a better accounting system did not and would not embrace the notion that there are limits to economic growth. But the contrast between new-think and old-think, between finite and infinite planet thinking, between promoting sustainable economic activity and continuing the “growth forever, business-as-usual” mindset can only become clearer with time. As awareness of the GPI and its precepts filters into state decision-making processes, Vermont will find itself increasingly led to develop in ways that are sustainable and that do not damage the delivery of ecosystem services to its citizens. That kind of development will give the state a competitive edge in the region and nation, as it lays a foundation for the sustainable, post-petroleum, post-perpetual-growth economy that must come to the entire planet, in one version or another, sooner or later. (After all, the one thing you can know about an unsustainable system is that it won’t last.) Vermont’s policy use of the GPI is transformative common sense that will make that inevitable transition smoother and less disruptive for all Vermonters.

The Hidden Costs of Cheater Economics on Human Health & the Future of Life on Earth

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIn a true cost steady state economy, the real costs of goods and services would not be disguised, hidden, or kept off the accounting ledger. The former head of Friends of the Earth England, Tony Juniper, makes a significant contribution to the discussion of a true cost economy in his new book What Has Nature Ever Done For US? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees.

Cheater economics enables polluting products to be sold cheaper than many clean products. Cheater economics includes subsidies for fossil fuels, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. Cheater economics tolerates pollution externalities, as economists have noted. For example, many damages caused by air pollution from coal-fired power plants are not incorporated into the price of coal but simply borne by the victims. The act of mountain top mining eliminates forests and streams while air pollution from burning coal results in loss of crops, damage to buildings, health problems, and mercury contamination of fisheries, etc.

Here is a sample of the astonishing set of ecological costs stemming from economic activities that damage or rearrange ecosystems that are presented in What Has Nature Ever Done For US?

Vultures in India

Photo Credit:  Nagarjun Kandukuru

Perching vulture in India. Photo Credit: Nagarjun Kandukuru

India has almost lost its total population of 40 million vultures as a result of anti-inflammatory drugs injected into cattle and water buffalo. The vultures consumed the carcasses of these and other dead creatures and accumulated a fatal dosage. Now 12 million tonnes of animal flesh that vultures consumed annually is left rotting, fed upon by growing packs of dogs that have caused a massive outbreak of rabies among the human population. The annual medical costs exceed $30 billion as a result of the demise of the vulture population, which had previously provided free of charge essential garbage/carrion collection services.

Pollinators of Human Food Crops

About two thirds of the world’s food crops require animal pollination and one trillion dollars of the $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural products are dependent on animal pollinators such as honey bees and bumblebees. Certain pesticides are killing off these crucial pollinators. In the 1980s, extensive use of pesticides in part of Sichuan, China, eliminated the bee pollinators. Today in this region, about 40,000 people now have to pollinate apple and pear trees by hand.

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that in 146 countries, 90% of the food supply is provided by 100 crops. What is significant is that 71 of these 100 crops are pollinated primarily by wild bees. These crops include squashes, cherries, plums, cucumbers, strawberries, and pears.

Destruction of Ocean Fisheries via Subsidies

Ocean fisheries contribute $274 billion for global GDP but various countries provide $16 billion in subsidizing fishery harvesting practices that are highly damaging to fish stocks: i.e., the equivalent of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Photo Credit: Jim Winstead

Mangrove in Thailand. Photo Credit: Jim Winstead

Mangrove Forest Loss & Coastal Flooding

One square kilometer of mangrove forest is worth between $200,000 and $900,000 annually. Destruction of coastal mangrove forests, as occurs with Asian shrimp farms, eliminates the storm protection barrier that is increasingly important in the face of sea level rise.

High Health Care Costs as Result of Destroying Natural Areas

To deal with the poor health of people in the polluted Gateshead area in Northeast England, a group of British public agencies in 2004 initiated a program of walks in a 360 hectare mixed forest zone. Tony Juniper reports that these walks were very effective in improving patients’ health and were far superior to the alternative of exercise in a gymnasium.

A growing body of evidence points to the health benefits from interactions with nature. Dr. William Bird, a British doctor, ran a diabetic clinic in the 1990s in Oxfordshire where he initiated a very successful program of health walks in natural areas. But the sad fact is that natural areas are declining in many urban areas. In Sheffield, England, the “roaming” range for children has declined over 5 generations from six miles when the great-grandparents were children to about 300 yards today for children. The health costs of destroying natural areas globally is simply a pollution externality for developers and extractors and is shoved off on the public.

Pharmaceuticals & the Loss of Tropical Rainforests

Experts estimate that between a quarter and a half of the $640 billion global pharmaceutical market is based on natural genetic diversity. Tropical rainforests contain a significant portion of the genetic diversity on earth, but despite the grave concerns about deforestation, an area the size of Germany or Montana was lost between 2000 and 2013.

To establish a true cost economy, we must get the ecological price right on products and services. The examples presented in Juniper’s book illustrate the extraordinarily large benefits provided by nature but neglected in today’s economic accounting. These compelling illustrations can be of great benefit in pushing toward a paradigm shift in current mainstream economic thinking. They are straightforward matter-of-fact descriptions of externalities that are undermining the life-support ecosystems of the Earth.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should be requiring companies to disclose their pollution externalities annually so as to alert investors and the public to the true cost of their products. However, not only will a steady state economy depend on accounting for these costs and putting an end to cheater economics, but will also depend on changing our macroeconomic policy goal of continuous growth. Only then can we begin to stop the destruction of our planet and ensure our health and the environment are protected for generations to come.

An Economic Game Plan to Prevent Water Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEven though the Clean Water Act is more than 40 years old, its goals have not been met, and America is still beset with chronic water ailments and acute pollution incidents. Already this year major toxic spills from coal operations in West Virginia and North Carolina have provided grounds for demanding comprehensive changes to a broken system of pollution control.

On January 9, 2014, people in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, began vomiting while others complained of a strange pervasive licorice odor. The problem was traced to chemicals from a malfunctioning chemical/coal facility just upstream from the city’s water supply intake. A state of emergency was declared to provide after-the-fact protection to the 300,000 people who get their drinking water from this system. Both the water supply company and the chemical company allowed the emergency to unfold despite repeated warnings over the years about unsafe structures and operations.

On February 5, 2014, a spill from a coal ash impoundment unleashed 78 million pounds of arsenic-laden sludge into the Dan River, the source of drinking water for cities and towns in Virginia and North Carolina. Duke Energy, a giant utility, operates fourteen coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, and it dumps the toxic combustion byproduct, coal ash, into unlined ponds. The result: groundwater contamination and toxic spills into drinking water supplies. The Duke Energy spill comes with a sad, but familiar footnote. Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, used to work for Duke Energy and has been on a crusade to weaken pollution controls ever since he took office.

Ongoing experience with such grotesque toxic spills, and even growing awareness of global water shortages have failed to generate sufficient responses. Today’s economic framework blocks significant progress on such crucial problems because it props up extractive and highly polluting industries.

Governments are stuck in a business-as-usual, growth-at-all-costs mindset, and they face constant pressure to deregulate industries. Since industry is fixated on profits and growth, it attempts to pay as few costs as possible; cost externalization is a built-in feature of the economic system. But someone always pays — just look at the people downstream or the species and ecosystems where spills occur.

The key to preventing and cleaning up water pollution is to shift the economy from the pursuit of unending growth to the pursuit of stability. Why would water pollution decline in a steady-state economy? Here are three reasons.

Coal ash in the Dan River

Coal ash in the Dan River from the Duke Energy spill in North Carolina (photo credit: Dan River Basin Association).

(1) Changing the macroeconomic goal away from growth and toward maintenance of life-support systems would change the way businesses and other institutions behave. The goal of a true-cost economy is sustainable and equitable well-being, rather than continuous growth. Actors in such an economy would care more about the medium and long-term future than quarterly returns.  For example, in a true-cost economy, chemical companies would engage in green chemistry, and utilities would produce renewable energy. The costs of using fossil fuels and other toxic substances would simply be too high to pay. Regarding the outrageous scenario of having decaying storage tanks full of dangerous chemicals directly upstream from the water supply intake for a state capital: it would never happen in a true-cost economy.

(2) Companies would be required to have eco-auditors just as they are now required to have financial auditors. Such eco-auditors would assess whether a company was externalizing costs and whether the company’s production was harming life-support systems. Eco-auditors could also show businesses how to avoid pollution. Companies would disclose their ecological impacts in an annual report just as they do with financial audits.

(3) There would be consequences for repeat polluters. For example, in the decade prior to its gigantic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP had been responsible for a refinery fire in Texas with significant loss of life and two oil spills in the Arctic Ocean from the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Why not three strikes and you’re out? Why not deny BP the right to do business in the U.S.? Instead, the Obama administration has done the opposite by giving BP the go-ahead to drill again in the Gulf of Mexico!

Another example: given the repeated incidents of pollution oozing from Duke Energy’s numerous coal ash ponds, despite years of complaints and penalties, shouldn’t it be denied the right to do business in North Carolina? Shouldn’t its facilities be turned over to more responsible utilities? After all, the vulnerability of coal ash impoundments has been making headlines since December of 2008 when a TVA storage pond in East Tennessee burst and contaminated the Clinch River. Clean-up efforts continue to this day, and costs have exceeded $1.5 billion. TVA said it could never happen again, but in January of 2009, not even a full month later, another coal ash pond failed, this time in Alabama.

We need to adopt a broader, transformative economic approach and stop thinking that pleading with companies and government agencies will suffice. We need to (1) change the goal from growth to sustainability, (2) change company reporting to include ecological audits, and (3) change incentives by denying companies the right to operate when they dodge their responsibilities. Under the current economic paradigm, pollution will persist and natural resources, including soils, waters, forests, and oceans, will continue to decline. Only a new economic game plan can protect our shared water resources and prevent pollution.

Three Glimmers of Hope for an Economic Transformation

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEcological economists, top scientists, and even a few financiers have put forth powerful arguments for moving to a steady state economy. Sometimes described as a true-cost economy, a sustainable economy, or a spaceship economy, the steady state offers a positive alternative to the delusion of endless growth.

Viewed from an environmental perspective, the need to transform the U.S. and global economic systems is becoming more urgent by the day — if you scan the headlines about global warming, biodiversity loss, and natural resource depletion, you’ll quickly get the picture. It turns out that the most important environmental policies of any nation are its economic policies. For example, there is no chance of stabilizing the ongoing climate chaos if the major economies of the world continue to reward fossil fuel usage and fail to include pollution externalities in their prices. In a true-cost economy, however, clean energy would be the cheapest, and fossil fuels would be too expensive to use.

Given the severity of the problems we face and the strong potential for steady state policies to solve them, the question is, “Why are nations failing to embrace this positive alternative?” There are many obstacles standing in the way of a sustainable economy. The skeptic would assert, “You are asking the most powerful nations in the world to change the cherished economic system they have been functioning under and embrace an economic system which no modern nation has ever used. It is a wild fantasy.”

There’s some merit to the skeptic’s argument — the suggested economic changes seem like a paradigm shift akin to those seen over the centuries in physics and astronomy. But given the unpredictability of paradigm shifts, we can encourage incremental steps toward an economic transformation.

A number of experts have laid out such steps. For instance, the economist Peter Victor has illustrated how Canada could achieve a sustainable economy. But even with a blueprint in hand, it’s questionable whether Canada or China or the U.S. or Brazil or India would ever start constructing such an economy.

Part of the problem stems from the international economic infrastructure. The continued push for economic expansion from global bodies such as the World Bank, the IMF , the G-8, the World Trade Organization, undermines intellectual support for the transformation from cowboy economies to spaceship economies.

Another obstacle comes from the extractive industries and the way they exert influence within governmental bureaucracies. These industries are propping up a business-as-usual approach to economics. If this approach continues, we can expect collapses around the world stemming from food and water riots, weather disasters, and ongoing erosion of life-support systems worldwide.

It’s tough to come up with plausible ways of overcoming these major obstacles, but three recent developments provide some much-needed hope. They may be long-shots for breaking through the resistance and spurring the transformation to a new true-cost economy, but they offer a chance.

Economic output and energy use are highly correlated. Data shown are for 175 countries in the year 2007. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration and the World Bank.

Economic output and energy use are highly correlated. Data shown are for 175 countries in the year 2007. Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration and the World Bank.

The first glimmer of hope is emerging from the energy changes happening in Germany, which has become the world’s leader in electricity produced from solar and wind sources. Germans are aiming to generate half of their electricity from renewable sources within ten years. If the most powerful economies in the world were to replicate Germany’s energy policy, it would not only be a shift in the energy sector, but also a monumental shift in economics, given the way economic growth and energy consumption are connected.

The second glimmer of hope comes from growing concern about caring for creation on the part of religious congregations from many faith traditions. More and more religious organizations, liberal and conservative, are pointing to the excessive consumption in the global economy as destroying God’s creation. What if Pope Francis surprised everyone and included population stabilization on his agenda. His text could align with Genesis by envisioning a flourishing of all life on earth. That is why the blessing “be fruitful and multiply” is first given explicitly to all the animals on the planet.

A third glimmer of hope is arising from the surge of public outrage over corporate tax dodging and subsidies. Stories of financial fraud and abuse are popping up in the news coverage. The Economist’s Special Report on Offshore Finance (February 16, 2013) highlights the trillions of dollars stashed in offshore tax havens.

It’s scandalous that some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, such as General Electric, Apple, and Google, are paying little or no income tax. It’s equally scandalous that U.S. corporations continue to receive taxpayer handouts. The anger and unrest spurred by this situation offers a good opportunity to change the way businesses operate.

The obstacles to a establishing a true-cost, steady state economy are daunting, but now’s the time to get on board with efforts to overcome them. People are responding to the challenge and taking positive actions all over the world. I’ve summarized three of my favorites here, and I’m hopeful that you know of plenty of other efforts to create an economy that will work for people and the planet.