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Approaching a Steady State Economy, Part 2 — Clean Clothes

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoTo get a sense of how the broader economy works, it’s useful to analyze one particular sector.  In trying to answer the question of how a non-growing economy could work, Part 1 of this article considered methods (categorized as “economizing” and “innovating”) for achieving a sustainable transportation sector.  But the transportation sector is complex enough that it’s worth drilling down even further and analyzing something simpler. “Economy” derives from two Greek words that translate into “management of the household.” Thinking of the economy as a big household is a useful frame. Likewise, thinking of an actual household as a small economy can be a helpful exercise. I have made or been a party to many decisions in an attempt to run my household as a steady state. For example, my wife and I decided to have a one-child family. We also decided to live in a cohousing community founded on sustainability values. In the spirit of drilling down to the smallest scale possible, I want to describe my recent experiment with one “sector” of my household economy: the laundry.

For years I did laundry American style, fighting dirty clothes in a full-on assault with an army of water, detergent, heat, and electricity.  I would:

  • Dump my clothes in a pile after wearing them once;
  • Use a water-hogging top-loader washing machine;
  • Select the hot water setting because — well, because why not?; and
  • Apply the hottest setting in an electric tumble dryer, including a dryer sheet or two.

As I learned more about conservation over time, I began to shift my laundry habits, by both economizing and innovating. For example, my family began using a front-loading machine that conserves water and electricity. I started sorting my laundry, hanging articles of clothing that were suitable for a second wearing. We began using only cold water for washing with no adverse results. We forgot about dryer sheets (no need to smell like a chemist’s over-scented interpretation of “spring fresh”), and then we forgot about the dryer entirely.

The electric tumble dryer is one of the most energy intensive home appliances, but it’s also one of the most unnecessary. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Clothes want to get dry all by themselves. You just leave them alone, and that’s what they do naturally.” Line drying clothes, then, is a simple way to cut energy usage. The folks at Project Laundry List see line drying as something even more powerful — an entryway to the world of sustainable behavior.

In my household, making the switch to line drying turned out to be fairly easy, so I decided to try another step. I wanted to see if I could have a low-water, resource-conserving, electricity-free laundry system that would get my clothes clean. My method is another mix of economizing and innovating.

The setup consists of four pieces of equipment: a five-gallon bucket, a portable clothes agitator that looks like a plunger, a hand-cranked wringer, and a clothesline. The procedure is simple:

  • Put a little soap in the bucket and add a couple of gallons of water;
  • Throw in five or six articles of dirty clothing;
  • Plunge the agitator up and down in the bucket to force water, soap, and air through the clothes for a few minutes;
  • Dump the water on the plants in the backyard and refill the bucket with two more gallons, adding the soapy clothes to rinse;
  • Run each article of clothing through the wringer; and
  • Hang the clothes on a line.
A simple laundry setup in which the wool shirt is the most high-tech item.

A simple laundry setup in which the wool shirt is the most high-tech item.

On the economizing front, the wringer, clothesline, and bucket are old-school technologies that draw energy from only the sun and a bit of personal labor. And there’s much less embedded energy in these tools than in a washer/dryer combo. A note about the labor: I thought it would be a more of a chore, but so far it’s been fun. There’s a degree of mindfulness that comes with washing clothes this way, and it doesn’t take very long. Granted, I’ve been conducting the experiment during the summer when I’m mostly wearing shorts and t-shirts, and the strong Pacific Northwest sun is accelerating the drying sessions.

On the innovating front, the agitator could be considered a new technology, but it’s such a simple device that it’s hard to think of it as being all that innovative. Where technology does come into play is in the clothing itself. This laundry method works much better with quick-drying clothes. I have been experimenting with natural wool clothes. Designers have figured out how to make quick-drying wool garments that are comfortable against the skin and don’t get stinky (as opposed to polypropylene and other synthetic materials). Such clothing can be pricey, but if you’re doing small loads of laundry each day or every other day, you don’t need to own very many of them — another nod toward economizing.

It’s still in flux, but I’ve gotten a good start on changing my behavior in the laundry sector of my household economy, and the change represents progress toward a steady state. Such changes are inconsequential in a numerical sense. My laundry process isn’t going to stabilize the climate or solve the global overshoot problem, but it’s a small step in the right direction. In addition to lowering my ecological footprint, this laundry experiment is helping me understand how the broader economy can economize and innovate to clean up its act.

Approaching a Steady State Economy, Part 1 — Getting Around

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoSuppose you’re suspicious of the idea of pursuing continuous economic growth on our finite planet. What if you’ve even concluded that an obsession with increasing production and consumption might be a bad thing, especially in the wealthy nations (apparently you’ve been connecting some dots between economic growth and the calamitous combination of climate change, resource depletion, poverty, and inequality)? Having come to such a conclusion leads to a critical question: how would a non-growing economy function? I’ve been thinking about steady state economics most days for the last six years, and I’ve even written a book on the subject, but I still struggle with this question. When in doubt, consult Herman Daly.

Daly has articulated three logical rules that a steady state economy would live by:

  1. Exploit renewable resources no faster than they can be regenerated.
  2. Deplete non-renewable resources no faster than the rate at which renewable substitutes can be developed.
  3. Emit wastes no faster than they can be safely assimilated by ecosystems.

Presuming we can accurately determine depletion and regeneration rates, as well as the resilience of ecosystems, we can use two basic strategies to follow the steady state rules: (1) economizing and (2) innovating. Economizing boils down to reducing the inputs used in economic activities and minimizing the waste outputs. It entails conserving, re-using, maintaining, and generally embracing the wisdom of enough rather than succumbing to the madness of more. Innovating entails doing things more efficiently. It means learning, inventing, adapting, and using appropriate technologies to achieve desired ends. Note that innovation (and the increased efficiency it engenders) is a double-edged sword. In a non-growing economy, increased efficiency can reduce environmental impacts, but in a growing economy, increasing efficiency tends to cause a rebound effect that actually increases environmental impacts. A steady state economy, therefore, will adopt some combination of economizing and innovating to achieve sustainability.

This is all well and good, but terms like “economizing” and “innovating” fall short of painting a detailed picture of day-to-day life in a steady state economy. To paint such a picture, it’s helpful to start with a smaller canvas — that is, focus on a specific sector rather than the entire economy.

The transportation sector of the U.S. economy accounts for about 3% of gross domestic product. The purpose of this sector is to move people and goods to desired destinations. To accomplish this purpose while abiding by the steady state rules requires:

  • Reducing inputs (e.g., using less steel and oil);
  • Developing renewable infrastructure (e.g., using renewable energy sources to power vehicles and renewable resources to construct transportation corridors); and
  • Reducing waste emissions (e.g., decreasing the quantity of carbon dioxide and other pollutants emitted by transport activities).
Wouldn't it be easier (and more practical) to construct some decent bike lanes?

Wouldn’t it be easier (and more practical) to construct some decent bike lanes?

Think tanks like the Post Carbon Institute and the Transition Towns Network provide “economizing” strategies for doing these sorts of things. One of the big ideas is economic localization, which diminishes the need for long-distance transportation by eliminating unnecessary trade. As Daly has pointed out, “Americans import Danish sugar cookies, and Danes import American sugar cookies. Exchanging recipes would surely be more efficient.” The more a community can produce goods and services locally, the less it has to rely on long supply chains and importation of goods from afar. As a bonus, localization curtails the need for workers to undertake long-distance commutes, since the local economy would provide more employment opportunities. Other ideas for economizing in the transportation network include deemphasizing the automobile (World Carfree Day is coming up soon) while promoting walking, bicycling, and transit; paying more attention to neighborhood design; implementing car share programs; and even making more use of sailboats. High parking fees and gasoline taxes are also tools that can curtail the quantity of resources consumed for getting around.

Think tanks also promote plenty of ideas that take the “innovating” approach. The Rocky Mountain Institute suggests constructing ultra-light, low-drag autos and superefficient trucks and planes. The Sustainable Transportation Center at the University of California, Davis conducts research on hydrogen, biofuels, and other energy pathways toward a sustainable transportation infrastructure. And for science fiction fans, ideas about conveyor belt systems first put to paper by writers like H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov can now be perused in patent descriptions. Even vacuum tubes are entering the discussion… transporter beams can’t be far behind!

It seems, then, that a transportation network in a steady state economy would involve a mix of infrastructure changes, technology changes, and behavioral changes that, in turn, would stem from a selection of policy changes. Given the scope of changes required, it’s still hard to get a handle on how things would turn out (and this is only one sector that represents 3% of the broader economy). Perhaps drilling down further would help.  Part 2 will give it a try.

Breathing Room Economics

When I graduated from college, I was trapped underneath a mountain of debt. I had no money in the bank, $25,000 worth of student loans, and an interesting, but low-paying job doing research on economic and environmental policy. I’m sure many students today look at that $25,000 figure longingly, as they struggle with debts upwards of $100,000. But for me, the $25,000 was huge. After adding up rent, food, loan repayment, and other basic expenses, I didn’t have any money left at the end of each month. It became obvious very quickly that I was stuck – I didn’t have something that I truly desired: breathing room.

In order to reclaim some breathing room, I decided to make paying off my student loans a top priority. I worked hard, cut expenses to the bone, and put as much extra money as possible toward those loans. I paid them off in 3 years and found myself with that much-desired and often elusive breathing room. How did I use it? I took an entire summer off from work and rode a tandem bicycle with my girlfriend (now wife) across the country – a trip that changed my life for the better, but that’s a story for another day.

The search for breathing room drives much of what we do in the economy as households, businesses and governmental organizations. We have pursued economic growth (increasing production and consumption of goods and services) as a policy to gain breathing room. But, paradoxically, economic growth is now using up the very breathing room that we’ve been chasing and hoping to save for the future.

Every person, perhaps even every living organism, is interested in a little bit of breathing room – a chance to live life away from the edge of the cliff. In his book, The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner has written:

The lucky individual that finds a different seed, or nook, or niche, will fly up and out from beneath the Sisyphean rock of competition. It will tend to flourish and so will its descendants – that is, those that inherit the lucky character that had set it a little apart.

Weiner’s quote provides an eloquent evolutionary perspective on the benefit of establishing some breathing room. Nature imposes a lattice of limits upon life; there is only so much energy available, so many non-renewable resources, and a fixed speed at which renewable resources can be regenerated. Figuring out how to secure leeway within this lattice is a grand goal of all creatures, be they sunflower sprouts, chickadees, or human beings.

The story of human striving, whether considered in the context of an individual or an entire economy, features the quest for breathing room as a central theme. Attainment of breathing room bestows a greater level of security, a wider array of choices for how to spend time and allocate resources, and greater possibilities for meeting needs. Early economists such as Adam Smith and Francois Quesnay recognized the importance of breathing room in the form of agricultural surplus. It is precisely this agricultural surplus that allows for the division of labor. Without being occupied by hunting, gathering, growing, or otherwise obtaining sustenance, people can spend their time and energy on other productive activities. Division of labor, in turn, has generated efficiencies and economic growth that have, in the past, provided even greater quantities of breathing room.

The emergence of breathing room in the economy has given rise to a choice, not unlike the financial situation I created when I paid off my student loans: what do we do with it? In the economy of a single household, this choice might take the form of purchasing more goods and services. It might also take the form of working fewer hours, spending more time on leisure activities, and sharing extra resources with family, friends or community members.

What about the whole economy, then? An economy is essentially a very large household (the word economy actually derives from the Greek for household). A household contains a small number of people interacting with one another and consuming a quantity of goods and services. An economy is simply a larger number of people (the entire population of the economy) consuming a larger quantity of goods and services (the measure of the size of an economy, GDP, can be calculated by multiplying population by per capita consumption). The same choices that exist for a household also exist for the economy as a whole when deciding what to do with breathing room.

The economy of the United States and many other nations around the globe, however, don’t recognize the range of choices. We tend to spend our breathing room the same way in an unending and unsound cycle of economic growth. When we have breathing room, we use it to expand the scale of the economic enterprise; we plow it right back into economic growth, and we have to stare down the possibility of running out of air.

The cycle is composed of these steps:

1. We grow the economy by increasing the production and consumption of goods and services (generally indicated by increasing real GDP).

2. As the economy grows, it begins to bump up against ecological limits, and we experience the negative effects of that growth. Examples include excessive and unhealthy pollution, loss of natural resources, degradation of ecosystems, poverty and famine.

3. We use technological innovation, which is intimately connected to economic growth, to push back the limits to growth. The most stunning example of this step in the cycle is the green revolution, in which Norman Borlaug and colleagues developed a variety of farming techniques to increase agricultural output and world food supplies.

4. We establish breathing room. In the case of Borlaug’s innovations, malnutrition, famines and starvation were avoided.

5. We use our breathing room to go on growing the economy and the cycle repeats itself. After the green revolution, human population, production and consumption continued their exponential upward march.

A critical change, however, occurs each time through the cycle. Ecological limits become more imposing, as the consequences of growth shift from the local to the global scale – instead of worrying about a local river catching fire, we are now worried about destabilizing the climate of the entire planet. In turn, the technological innovation needed to deal with these consequences becomes more complex. As population continues to increase, stocks of natural capital continue to decline, and technological solutions require increasing complexity, the prospects of achieving lasting breathing room become more and more precarious.

Why, then, must we spend our breathing room on growth? What about short-circuiting this cycle of growth? The economy is a human construct, and growth of the economy is not an ironclad natural law – it is a human choice to grow the economy. Granted our institutions and culture are geared for growth. Cessation of growth is avoided at all costs for fear of unemployment and social instability, but with growth working like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking up all our breathing room, perhaps it is time to get to work on changing our institutions and culture. With the right economic framework in place, we can take our breathing room and cut out steps one and two of the cycle. In a steady state economy, we can use our breathing room for innovation and development, rather than for growth.

Breathe easy and move beyond growth. Credit: Saguaro Pictures

Progress and prosperity are not about ever-increasing consumption of goods and services. True progress and real prosperity are about meeting needs, achieving a high quality of life for all people, and sustaining natural resources and useful infrastructure to provide opportunities for future generations. Breathing room is the main ingredient in the recipe for progress and prosperity. Unmindful pursuit of economic growth is eating up this main ingredient before we can even finish preheating the oven. Establishing a steady state economy, with stable population and stable throughput of energy and materials, is the way to protect our breathing room. The sooner we get started on the transition, the sooner we can all breathe a little easier.