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Neocornucopianism and the Steady State: Part I

The cornucopia is an age-old symbol of celebrating plenty. Today, the world has plenty and a new goal is needed. (Image credit: Yzrael. Image used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

By Josh Farley

Perhaps the main reason people reject the need for a steady state economy is some form of cornucopianism, the belief that technological progress will overcome all ecological and physical limits, allowing endless economic growth into the indefinite future. Cornucopianism has several flavors, and I will describe three: mainstream economics, eco-modernism, and singularity theory.

Mainstream Economics Fuels Cornucopian Ideas

First, let’s examine how mainstream economics feeds a belief in cornucopianism. Most mainstream economists argue that as resources become scarce, their prices increase and that this incentivizes suppliers to produce more, innovators to develop substitutes, and consumers to demand less. They claim centuries of empirical support for their beliefs. Take for example the need for energy sources to fuel societies. The English economist William Stanley Jevons once said there was no conceivable substitute for increasingly scarce supplies of coal, but then we discovered oil. Oil production in the U.S. peaked in the 1970s, declining rapidly thereafter, and global production would inevitably peak sometime around 2012. Then the oil industry found deep sea deposits and refined hydraulic fracturing, while innovators developed alternative energy technologies. Oil production in the U.S. has surged back to its previous levels, global production has continued to rise, and solar energy prices are plunging.

To mainstream economists, climate change is a bit pesky, but it just requires internalizing ecological costs into market prices. They argue that technological advance, together with economic growth, will save us from any scarcity. But the folly in this idea is that demand does not stabilize or reduce just because new innovative sources (of fuel, for one example) become available. Demand continues to rise in parallel as new sources are found, new technologies are created, and economic growth is pushed to accelerate—to find more and use more. Demand becomes a runaway train, one that drives not an overflowing cornucopia of supplies (fuels, products, or anything else humans need), but rather drives a perpetual cycle of endless need that is never satisfied, an overflowing cornucopia with food going rotten.

Eco-Modernism as Cornucopianism

The second flavor of cornucopianism I want to explore is eco-modernism. Eco-modernists recognize that human impacts on our global ecosystems are currently unacceptable, but they believe that humanity can refocus technological progress to reduce these impacts. Eco-modernism believes that technology can end our reliance on nature. That we can use nuclear power to extract atmospheric gases and terrestrial minerals to build food in a laboratory, eliminating the ecological damage from agriculture. That we can extract carbon from the atmosphere and convert it directly into hydrocarbons.  That if the climate grows too hot too fast, we can geo-engineer some cooling by throwing aerosols into the atmosphere. In their own words, eco-modernists say: “we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” (see the ecomodernism manifesto). They are saying that we need to accelerate, not move toward a steady state.

Singularity as Cornucopianism

Perhaps the most extreme flavor of cornucopianism is singularity theory. Singularity theorists are not concerned by the exponentially growing impacts of human activities on global ecosystems, because they say knowledge is growing super-exponentially, which means the power of human knowledge will become infinite by 2045.  With infinite knowledge, they say, we can undo all the previous harm done to earth’s ecosystems, or simply abandon the earth and even our human bodies all together. We can download our consciousness into solar powered computers floating in space and virtually experience any reality we choose. This may sound far-fetched, but the idea has gained traction among Silicon Valley hotshots.

Truly novel technologies are inherently unpredictable: Since we can’t know what will emerge, we can’t possibly know the odds that it will emerge on time or truly address the problems we think it might. Betting the future of civilization and biodiversity on gambles with unknown odds is unwise to say the least. Rather than arguing over an unpredictable future, I propose neo-cornucopianism as a new argument for a steady state economy.

Neocornucopianism: We Already Have Plenty

I coin the term “neocornucopianism” to describe the recognition that, in wealthy nations, the horn of plenty is already overflowing, so the desire to establish an endless plenty is an empty, misplaced, and problematic desire.

The average American home has nearly doubled in size since the 1950s, and consumption has grown even faster: Americans rent an average of 21 square feet of storage space per person and generate more than 250 million tons of garbage per year, including 40% of the food we purchase. It’s to the point where we are actually paying to get rid of useful things. Additional production now makes us worse off.

A growing awareness of these trends leads to neocornucopianism: an idea, a mindset, and a lifestyle. Neocornucopians recognize that many of the new things they want will be thrown away within a week. So wanting and demanding less (instead of the endless pursuit of more) makes sense for personal choices, individual finances, local, state and national policies and for the larger global economic system.

Want to learn more? Stay tuned for future essays on this topic at the Steady State Herald, including articles in which Farley will provide examples of cornucopian wealth, with insights into the extreme inefficiency, injustice and unsustainability of our current system, as well as exploring a just and sustainable steady state alternative.


The Heroic Works of Jerry Mander

by Rob Dietz

When I was a rookie economic activist in the fall of 2008, having become the director of CASSE only a year prior, I met Jerry Mander.  At the time I had no idea how many heroic things he had done to both conserve natural areas and support the transition to a better economy.

As a card-carrying introvert, I’m not much of a networker, but I came to know Jerry through one successful episode of networking. Right around the time I began my job of promoting the steady state economy as a positive alternative to the pursuit of perpetual growth, Annie Leonard released her runaway hit film The Story of Stuff. I thought it was outstanding, and I wanted to know how she had made it. So I gave her a call, and we had a friendly and educational (for me) discussion. I was going to be in the San Francisco Bay area where she was based, and I asked her if she would meet me to continue our discussion in person. She agreed and said that I also ought to meet Jerry Mander, so we set a time to get together for Indian food.

I didn’t know much about Jerry, other than he had founded the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) and was serving as its leader (I later learned that he and IFG had played an important role in organizing the Seattle protests against the policies of the World Trade Organization). Upon meeting him, I could see that he had a style all his own. Dressed like a professor in a tweed sports jacket, it was impossible not to notice his gray curls, which could fairly be described as “Einsteinian.” His charisma drew me in right away.

He was organizing a meeting of intellectuals and activists to discuss the downsides of capitalism and to consider alternative economic models. I was honored to receive an invitation, especially when I learned what an amazing roster of people he was convening — it was a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of economic activism! The meeting was all the more interesting because of its timing in October 2008, when the financial meltdown was in full swing. Wall Street titans, Beltway power players, and a good chunk of the Western world seemed to be in complete panic mode.  It was the perfect moment to be questioning the economic status quo.

All sorts of scenes still occupy my memory from Jerry’s meeting. David Korten and Josh Farley proposed a new way to structure the banking industry, which would entirely change the way money works. John Fullerton explained the complexities of derivatives and the power of “big capital” in driving critical economic decisions. Richard Heinberg described the financial collapse as a sign of the end of economic growth, which became the core idea of his next book project. Annie Leonard provided details on the making of The Story of Stuff, and the view from the conference room, which overlooked San Francisco Bay, provided a fun bit of irony as she discussed her movie about the downsides of the cheap-goods economy. Behemoth cargo ships piled high with colorful shipping containers motored into and out of the bay to pick up and drop off their wares. The meeting was an incredible collection of sustainability superstars, and Jerry facilitated it with skill and grace, his flair for leadership apparent.

If Jerry’s accomplishments were limited to founding and directing IFG and running significant meetings in the process, that would be admirable enough. But on a subsequent trip to San Francisco, I had a great time uncovering one amazing fact after another about his career.

Jerry agreed to meet with me again to discuss how CASSE and IFG could collaborate. On the day of our get-together, I had some time to kill, so before traipsing through the tower-lined avenues of the financial district where we had arranged to rendezvous at a coffee shop, I walked to the public library to see what sort of facts I could dig up on Jerry.

Early in his career, he was an ad-man. But somewhere along the way, he formed an alliance with Sierra Club icon, David Brower, and he put his skills to great use. As told by Marc Reisner in his book Cadillac Desert, Brower considered Jerry to be a genius — the full-page ads he designed for the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major newspapers were largely responsible for shifting public opinion about dams in the Grand Canyon and thwarting the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to flood some of the most picturesque lands on the North American continent.

Jerry’s role in protecting the Grand Canyon cemented his place in my Hall of Heroes. But I knew he had also written some books, so I looked in the library’s catalog and found some of them. The library had a copy of his most famous book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It was originally published when I was a first-grader, and I wish our society had taken his arguments to heart. I was part of the TV generation. In fact, I think I can honestly call myself a recovering TV addict. I’m sad to report that a sizable percentage of my brain capacity has been taken up by the cheesy dialogue and over-the-top action sequences of 80s movies and TV shows.

But it wasn’t Four Arguments that made me do a double take. It was actually Jerry’s first book that had me rummaging through the bookshelves: The Great International Paper Airplane Book. I used to check this book out from my elementary school library all the time — even more often than books on UFOs, ghosts, and the Loch Ness Monster! Not only had Jerry Mander played a pivotal role in saving the Grand Canyon, not only had he orchestrated an incredible career switch from advertiser to crusader for the public good, but he had also fired the imagination of at least one child.

When I met up with him for coffee, our conversation quickly turned from the state of the economy to something more poignant — the loss of connection to nature that has afflicted modern society. We discussed it as a root cause of many of the most profound problems of the day, and we shared stories about relationships we had built and good times we had had in our lives while exploring wild places. This loss of connection blinds people to the fact that continuous economic growth also means continuous transformation of natural resources into salad shooters, remote-controlled rotating tie racks, twelve-lane highway interchanges, and other manufactured capital and products. It was clear that a love of nature had colored Jerry’s worldview and driven many important choices in his life.

I’m planning to visit him this week, and I’m excited to catch up with my friend and have another chance to say thank you. The world is a better place for having had certain people in it. If you’re lucky, you might cross paths with such a person every once in a while. Luck was smiling on me when I crossed paths with Jerry Mander.

Call Me a FOCer: Big Ideas under a Big Sky

by Rob Dietz

My final week as the director of CASSE was beyond belief. It included oddities such as bear poop, a speeding ticket, a discussion of steady state economics on horseback, and the juxtaposition of ostentatious consumption (an iconic billionaire’s vacation mansion) and humble sharing (an iconic poet/philosopher’s willingness to impart his lifelong wisdom). It also offered an opportunity to pause and reflect on humanity’s predicament, a reflection that produced feelings of hope for the future. All the while, I felt like the dumbest guy in the room.

Five or six months ago, I got a call from Charlie Sing, a prominent professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan. Charlie is one of those larger-than-life people that you occasionally meet.  In his presence, you quickly come to appreciate his Midwestern roots, and, even though he’s nearing retirement, he radiates farmboy charm. At the same time, his intellect is on full display. He likes big ideas, and he likes to think about out how society can make a transition to a resilient and sustainable future. Even more, though, he likes to share good-natured stories and see what new ideas and actions can emerge from the storytelling.

When he called, he invited me to participate in a gathering that he organizes at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. He told me that he was pulling together a meeting of friends to discuss ecological economics, sustainable agriculture, and public health, while cultivating a deeper understanding of what’s necessary to achieve a livable future on our overpopulated, overburdened, and over-polluted planet. Charlie is a fan of Herman Daly, and he wanted people at this meeting who could present Herman’s economic vision (Peter Victor, Josh Farley and I were all invited because of our Dalyist point of view). I hesitated to accept the invitation, mostly because I’ve been working to reduce the amount I travel (I’ve been avoiding air travel and trying to adjust to a more local existence). But Charlie’s charms won out, and I agreed to attend, although I determined I would drive to the meeting. I know that driving 900 miles is a sorry way to save on carbon emissions, but it was the best I could do, and I’m glad I did it.

The friends of Charlie (FOCers) are a remarkable gang. On paper, their credentials and accomplishments are formidable. In real life, they’re not only the “best and brightest,” but they’re also caring, hard working, and utterly unpretentious. They chair university departments, manage public programs, conceive and conduct major research projects, run nonprofit organizations, and write influential books. It’s comforting to know that these brilliant minds are hard at work finding ways to make society sustainable.

A couple of months before the meeting, I received a thick brown envelope in the mail. It contained a packet of reading material, including some of my favorite essays by Herman Daly, a selection of insightful papers from other FOCers, and an agenda. On the agenda, I saw that my name was attached to a presentation scheduled for the first night entitled “Strategies for Conserving Ecological Integrity.” My first thought was, “If I knew the strategies for conserving ecological integrity, my services would be in much higher demand!” To put it mildly, I was anxious about the presentation. I’ve given plenty of public talks, but those talks focus on the limits to growth and steady-state economics. I knew Peter Victor would comprehensively cover these topics in the morning, and I felt I had little to add that would enhance the FOCers’ knowledge. So I asked myself a couple of questions:

  1. What can I say that will be useful?
  2. What can I tell a room full of geniuses, most of whom know more than I do about ecological integrity?

Deadlines often provide inspiration. As the meeting approached, it hit me. The only story I could tell them that they didn’t already know was my own experience in trying to conserve ecological integrity. And the most useful thing I could do is speak from the heart and bring the emotional aspects of conservation to the forefront. I had a lot of time to contemplate these thoughts on the 15-hour drive to Mountain Sky. And what a drive it was: through the Columbia River Gorge, across the Palouse Prairie, over the Continental Divide, and along the Yellowstone River and Absaroka Mountain Range to the ranch. Two contrasting thoughts, both originating from the view beyond the windshield, conspired to distract me from focusing on my presentation during the drive:

  1. I am lucky to be able to see such an expansive and inspiring landscape, even from the confines of my Hyundai rental car, and
  2. I am stunned by the way this landscape displays the signs and scars of economic growth (e.g., Bonneville Dam and other massive dams on the Columbia River; wind farms along the gorge; agricultural fields on the prairies; highways that connect sprawling cities like Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Missoula; the mega-sized abandoned copper mine in Butte; the Anaconda Smelter Stack, which could encase the Washington Monument; and the irrigated ranches along the rivers and streams that drain the mountain snowfields).

By the time I arrived, distractions notwithstanding, I had a decent idea about what I wanted to say. And that was a good thing, because from the moment I set foot on the ranch until the time I left, my brain was operating at full capacity.

On the opening morning, Charlie laid out the game plan for each day. We’d have a morning session, grounded by a presentation. Preselected respondents would provide additional information, and then the whole group could ask questions and offer insights. Afternoons would be free so that participants could explore the ranch and its vertical surroundings and enter into less structured discussions. Evenings would feature another presentation with time for discussion.

That first morning, Peter Victor delivered his entertaining and information-rich synopsis of his work on Managing without Growth. During the discussion, I felt a sense of relief. It’s good to know that some of the smartest and most thoughtful people (confession: in their presence I felt downright ignorant and dim-witted) reject the notion of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. They also readily understood the need to stabilize population and consumption. And they made some astute observations about our situation. The most memorable comment originated from the wonderful mind of Wendell Berry.

He said that in our predicament, neither optimism nor pessimism is particularly useful. An optimistic outlook enables people to set aside problems, along with any sense of urgency about solving them. If you’re optimistic that ingenuity and technology can overcome the limits to growth, then why would you worry about the size of the economy? On the flipside, if you’re pessimistic about the future of humanity (i.e., you think the ship is sinking and we’re all going down with it), it’s hard to muster the energy to fight for the necessary changes. Wendell concluded this line of thinking by recognizing that hope is the key. We may feel stymied by profound problems like climate change, and we may feel saddened about the species being trampled under our collective feet, but by maintaining hope, we nurture a spark that can ignite a movement for change.

Shared meals and shared activities outside the meeting room offered more opportunities for discussion. I went for a hike on that first day with 8 or 10 other FOCers. Besides sustainable world population, we talked about bears, mountain lions, and other animals that sport big teeth and claws (we even got to hear a tale of leopard wrestling that was too bizarre to be made-up). I’m used to walking in bear country, but I always get a little nervous in places where grizzlies roam. I was the first to spot the dinner-plate-sized paw prints in the middle of the trail. A little further up, our intrepid pack came across a dried pile of bear poop. A little further up the trail, we spied a less-dry pile of bear poop. A little further, we found a wet one. By then I was expecting to see the bear around the next turn, but we never did catch up to it. Too bad — if I had gotten eaten, I could have stopped worrying about my talk.

I’ve never given a presentation quite like that. I expressed more emotion in front of a crowd than I’m comfortable with. But I think it was worth it. I used personal stories to exemplify three basic strategies for conserving ecological integrity:

  1. Conserve land and water (coincides with my experience in conservation at the Fish and Wildlife Service).
  2. Promote an economic shift (coincides with my experience at CASSE).
  3. Tell an inspiring story (coincides with revelations from my family experience).

More importantly, I think in some small way, I opened space in the gathering to explore what’s alive in each of us.

With my talk out of the way, I got to listen more intently on the second and third days of the meeting, which were all about sustainable agriculture and medicine. The listening paid off, as I had an ah-ha moment. I already knew that the root of the problem in economics is that humanity’s relationship to nature has been misconstrued. Mainstream economists view the economy as the whole and the environment as a part of the whole. This view is inside out. The industrial agriculture model exhibits the same inside-out flaw. People who run factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations tend not to notice that they are embedded in a local ecology. The same goes for healthcare. A common viewpoint is that people are at the mercy of their genetics and hordes of external germs on the attack. A more enlightened view recognizes that our genetic makeup and microbes both respond in remarkable ways to the ecological systems in which they’re enclosed. It seems, then, that the root of our problems across a wide range of human endeavor is a distorted view of our place in the natural world. Thus a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable healthcare scheme, agricultural system, or economy is a widespread philosophical change of heart. We must view ourselves and our societies as strands in nature’s web rather than dominators of that web.

I’d like to say that my ah-ha moment was the highlight of my trip, but it was really the personal discussions I got to have with the other FOCers. I discussed steady-state economics with Peter Victor while riding horses through golden mountain meadows. I told Wendell Berry how much his essay, A Good Scythe, had influenced my thinking and actions. The topics and the pace were unbelievable. From the origins of life to Tuvan throat singing. From economic policy to how to run a dairy farm. From cycling and tai chi to gut microbia and mass communication.

On the last day, just before my return trip, I took a walk with Alan and Katherine Geubert and Tracy Sides. I spent most of the time talking with Alan — he was kind enough to entertain my questions about his distinguished career as a columnist. Toward the end of our walk, we passed by the vacation home of the ranch’s owner, the billionaire businessman Arthur Blank. It’s not what I would call a cabin in the woods, although Alan and I joked that Arthur Blank probably does refer to it as a cabin or cottage. A few minutes later, we saw Wendell (with binoculars hanging from his neck) and Tanya Berry walking across a grassy field. We waved and they waved back. The mansion behind us sure seemed out of place next to the inspiring humility of this Kentucky farm couple. That scene sums up the situation in our world today — inconsistencies (e.g., 1 billion people are malnourished and 1 billion people are obese) are everywhere. I left the ranch that afternoon with a mind full of ideas. One of the best was the realization that simple sights, stories, and connections with colleagues could generate such substantial hope. I was lost in such thoughts when I saw the police motorcycle in the rearview mirror. He issued me the first speeding ticket of my driving career. I guess I was in a hurry. I really wanted to get back home and share my hope with my family.