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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.

The Top Three Actions to Fix the Economy

by Rob Dietz

Fixing the economy will require more than tax code tweaks and stock market peaks.  Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that we need big changes to the way we run things on this planet. Even a partial list of today’s social and environmental problems sounds grim:

  • An unfathomable number of people (2.7 billion) live in poverty, scraping by on less than $2 per day.
  • Our penchant for burning fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere such that scientists are throwing around phrases like “runaway climate change.”
  • National governments are drowning in debt, while the global financial system teeters on the verge of ruin.
  • The health of forests, grasslands, marshes, oceans, and other wild places is declining, to the point that the planet is experiencing a species extinction crisis.

ResultEnoughIsEnough_Final_LoRess like these arise because the global economy has grown too big for the broader systems that contain it. We have too many people consuming too much stuff. Sure, the engine of economic growth has driven technological advances and provided a dizzying array of consumable goods. But it’s hard to argue that these material benefits outweigh the costs of social breakdown and environmental upheaval.

So we need a systemic change, but what are our options? We could try to increase the size of the planet, or try to find another one that’s habitable. But maybe it would be more prudent to focus on changing the economy. That means shrinking, and then stabilizing, the economy so that it can meet humanity’s needs while conserving and protecting the ecosystems that support life on Earth. The book I wrote with Dan O’Neill, Enough Is Enough, describes policies to do that, but as Peter Victor has noted:

The dilemma for policy makers is that the scope of change required for managing without growth is so great that no democratically elected government could implement the requisite policies without the broad-based consent of the electorate. Even talking about them could make a politician unelectable.

Victor’s statement rings true. For example, in the last U.S. Presidential election, the candidates sparred with each other over who could grow the economy faster and create the most jobs. Suppose that instead of trying to “outgrow” his opponent, President Obama had run on a platform of stabilizing the economy. You can almost hear President Romney’s inaugural address about more oil pipelines, more highways, more consumption, more, more, more. But to the climatologists, conservation biologists, and ecological economists (and even the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers) who are tracking the limits to growth, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to make room for our leaders to discuss economic stabilization. It’s time for them to begin working on an economy that aims for enough instead of always chasing more.

Victor_Managing_wo_GrowthFrom Victor’s quote, we can deduce the top three things we need to do to begin the transition to such an economy.

1. Achieve widespread recognition that our planet is finite and that our economy has to fit within ecological limits. Politicians can’t talk about the limits to growth because most of the electorate remains unaware of the limits. Even with increasing attention paid to climate change and other developing crises, the conversation rarely turns to overconsumption in the economy. Schools are not teaching ecological economics, and people are too distracted by the routines of daily life to pay much attention. We need compelling stories and broad public education to get people discussing critical topics  such as the relationship between environmental and social systems, humanity’s place within nature, and the benefits of a steady-state economy.

2. Provide a set of practical policies for achieving a steady-state economy. All citizens (even the politicians) need to understand what can replace the growth-obsessed policies in use today. As soon as people begin to get a feel for how a well-conceived set of steady-state policies can outperform the obsolete policies of endless growth, politicians will gain the broad-based support they need to overhaul the system. The heart of Enough Is Enough describes this set of policies, but even a quick glance at them confirms Victor’s point: the scope of change required is indeed great. That’s why we need more than just awareness of the problem and a set of policy proposals.

3. Cultivate the will to act. Economic changes won’t materialize on their own. People have to want out of the current system, and they have to demand the transition to a new one. Without such pressure, entrenched elites (in both politics and business) have no incentive to overturn the status quo. There’s an awful lot of networking and organizing to be done.

With these three actions, we can get the economy we want and the planet needs. The unelectable politicians will be the ones who cling to the wishful thinking of perpetual growth. It’s time to take a stand, to put aside the destructive mania for more, and let our lawmakers know that enough really is enough.

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.

¡Buenas noticias! ¡La recuperación económica se frena!

Publicado por Dave Gardner, director del documental de próximo estreno GrowthBusters

Artículo original traducido del Inglés al Español por Bosco Gámiz.

Las noticias económicas del pasado viernes fueron bastante positivas. El crecimiento anual del PIB de EE.UU. fue inferior al uno por ciento en el primer semestre de 2011.

Sin embargo, me atrevería a decir que …ehmm, un 99,9 por ciento de todo el mundo considera esto una mala noticia. El New York Times [1] lo calificó como “paso de tortuga”. Periodistas y comentaristas de todo el mundo con toda probabilidad están escribiendo palabras como debilidad, anemia, malestar general, sombrío, triste, abatimiento, y el estancamiento.

Entonces ¿qué tiene de bueno? ¿Acaso me produce un placer perverso y morboso ver a mis compañeros humanos desempleados, ahogados en sus hipotecas, o comiendo en comedores de beneficencia? No, no me lo produce. Las consecuencias de la recesión son reales; es doloroso, y es triste. Sin embargo, que el PIB sea constante o que baje un poco, no es una mala noticia. Tampoco es la caída en el gasto de los consumidores [2] que se dio a conocer el martes.

Aunque muchos de los impactos de la recesión son trágicos, son la cara negativa de adaptación a una nueva realidad: el fin del crecimiento. Son una parte necesaria de una fase temporal. Podríamos llamarlo la fase de crisálida, hasta que nos transformamos en algo más bello.

Considere estos titulares de los últimos dos años. ¿Son buenas o malas noticias?

  • La recesión pone a los bebés en espera
  • Movimiento por casas pequeñas prospera en medio de crisis inmobiliaria
  • Se construyen menos casas durante el frenazo de la economía
  • El uso mundial de carbón se estanca a pesar del creciente mercado chino e indio
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Caída de la generación residuos en el municipio
  • La contaminación por carbono de la UE cae
  • GM cierra la fábrica donde se producen los Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • La subida de gasolina en EE.UU. aumenta las ventas de bicicletas
  • El tamaño medio las casas en EEUU se estanca tras 30 años de continuo crecimiento
  • El gasto en publicidad disminuye
  • Las aerolíneas dejan en tierra más del 11% de sus aviones
  • Los implantes mamarios se desinflan junto con la economía
  • Más de 400 de congresos cancelados en Las Vegas
  • El mercado de segunda vivienda cae un 30%

Si leemos estos titulares a través de una lente arcaica – la visión del mundo propia del siglo pasado en el que el crecimiento es el Santo Grial – estas historias parecen malas noticias. Pero a través de una lente más moderna, del siglo 21, que valora la verdadera sostenibilidad, son el anuncio de un mundo que se ralentiza hacia un nivel responsable de actividad humana.

Piensen en ello. Casas más pequeñas significa menos deforestación, menos hábitat partido en subdivisiones, menos hormigón (cuya producción emite mucho CO2, y menos espacios vitales que calentar o enfriar (una vez más, reducción de emisiones de CO2). Un menor uso del carbón es una buena noticia en el aprtado de gases de efecto invernadero – como lo son los aviones en tierra, no más Hummers y el cambio a favor de las bicicletas. Curiosamente no vemos señales de que los políticos, los expertos y los periodistas estén pensando tan en serio acerca de los temas.

No soy el primero en reconocer la recesión como una oportunidad. Grandes mentes como Gus Speth y David Korten están haciendo todo lo posible para convertir esta recesión en una corrección del rumbo. “¿Por qué esta crisis puede ser nuestra mejor oportunidad para construir una nueva economía” de Korten [3], y “Hacia una nueva economía y una nueva política” de Speth [4] son buenos ejemplos de esto. Incluso Jay Leno se ha apuntado, felicitando al Presidente George W. Bush por frenar la economía en 2008 y por tanto hacer más a favor de la lucha contra el cambio climático que Al Gore. Por supuesto que los impactos del crecimiento económico afectan a mucho más que el clima. Nuestra actividad económica en aumento está causando la destrucción del hábitat, la extinción de especies y contaminación [5], y está liquidando recursos críticos como el suelo fértil.

No conozco a ningún periodista que buscase a Speth, a Korten, a Daly, a Czech, a Victor o a Heinberg para contrastar una visión alternativa de las noticias del viernes. Una historia sobre la fusión de los hielos incluiría comentarios de parte de auténticos científicos del clima y de parte de negacionistas del cambio climático. Pero en la historia que conocemos sobre el PIB no hay discusiones en las redacciones para garantizar todos los puntos de vista – nadie que dijera lo buena noticia que es que el producto interior bruto se pueda estar acercando a un estado estacionario. Se supone que crecimiento del PIB es una buena noticia y la contracción económica es una mala noticia – para todo el mundo. Ni siquiera se les ocurre cuestionar esa suposición. La fe ciega en la antigua visión del mundo todavía tiene un férreo agarre sobre los periodistas y editores. Esto tiene que cambiar.

¡Quiero ver la mariposa!

Dave Gardner es el realizador del documental, GrowthBusters, que se estrena a finales de octubre. La campaña de esta película sin ánimo de lucro en Kickstarter [6] para recaudar fondos se encuentra en su última semana. Para más información sobre la película o para organizar una proyección, visite www.growthbusters.org [7]. David puede ser contactado en dave@growthbusters.org.

Enlaces:

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/business/economy/us-economy-worse-than-expected-in-second-quarter.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2

[2] https://steadystate.orgdrop in consumer spending

[3] http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-new-economy/why-this-crisis-may-be-our-best-chance-to-build-a-new-economy

[4] http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/619

[5] http://www.worldwildlife.org/sites/living-planet-report/

[6] http://tinyurl.com/kickstartGbusters

[7] www.growthbusters.org: http://www.growthbusters.org/

 

Might As Well Face It, We’re Addicted to Growth

by Dave Gardner

Recently I ventured to Toronto to interview Peter Victor, author of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, for my GrowthBusters documentary. Victor has done some impressive modeling to show wealthy nations can reduce their pace of economic growth toward a steady state without a lot of pain. Of course those unfamiliar with limits to growth might asky why we should do that. Victor writes (and many agree) that rich nations need to give up economic growth so poor nations have room to grow on this finite planet. I’ll be the first to say that is only fair.

But I have to wonder, do we really want to recommend economic growth as a policy goal for any nation? The success of modern nations in our quest for unending economic growth is largely responsible for the ecological crises we face. We’ve taken a detour off the path to true happiness and fulfillment; why encourage others to follow? If we work to enable populations to have “their fair share” of economic growth, aren’t we just like a drug-pusher? “Come on. Give it a try. It’ll blow your mind. Everyone’s doing it!” It seems Peter Victor (and many others) would have us use less of the drug so we can distribute it more widely and get others hooked.

Maybe “economic growth” isn’t the right goal for the nations who aren’t already addicted. Certainly their people are entitled to have a good life – to have needs met and live happy, fulfilled lives. And conventional wisdom is that economic growth lifts people out of poverty. In my view, there are just two problems with hanging your hat on that concept. First, there is a growing body of evidence that economic growth does not correlate strongly with better lives. Second, we’ve now proven economic growth is not a sound long-term strategy. We in the richer world are struggling mightily to get unhooked from our dependence on economic growth, which, as ecological economist Herman Daly likes to remind us, has become “uneconomic.” So, can we do the rest of the world a favor and not entice them to become fellow addicts, setting them up to go down a difficult and destructive path?

I’m not denying that increasing income, up to a point, does have an impact on happiness. And I’m not denying the current arrangement between haves and have-nots is inequitable. It is a sad truth that the rich world has already commandeered the lion’s share of Earth’s resources. The developing world is too late to the party and can’t join the dance. But it turns out the dance we’ve been tripping out to is not the answer. So I’m suggesting we recommend a dance that is not the dance of death, a dance that will bring real fulfillment and happiness, not the hedonic treadmill and empty illusion of prosperity from increasing material consumption.

Even if developing nations temporarily require some components of economic growth to reduce hunger, disease and poverty, let’s not brand it “economic growth.” Let’s at least change the vocabulary. Let’s more narrowly define what we recommend to them. Rather than the open-ended term, “growth,” let’s opt for “sufficiency.” Otherwise we’ll greatly increase the population of growth addicts struggling to get into a recovery program.

Dave Gardner is currently finishing up the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and is a founding member of Growthbusters, a global network inspiring and equipping people everywhere to make the wellbeing of people and the planet our most urgent priority, without relying on growth to make it happen. For more information on the movement or the film, visit www.growthbusters.org.

In Search of Answers about Economic Growth

by Rob Dietz

The latest issue of the journal Nature contains an article by Peter Victor with this quote (see “Questioning Economic Growth,” vol. 468, pp. 370-371): “The idea that governments of developed countries should no longer pursue economic growth as a primary policy objective is widely regarded as heresy.” It’s certainly not a heresy at the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), but we’re not exactly a mainstream organization. Still, you have to wonder why the pursuit of growth goes largely unquestioned in a world facing climate destabilization, mounting environmental damages from ill-conceived business decisions (e.g., BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico), and sometimes violent competition over limited energy and material resources. Why are nations so committed to increasing production and consumption? Why are they so taken with the idea of growing bigger economies?

The answer has to do with the dilemma of economic growth, which Tim Jackson has described superbly in his book, Prosperity without Growth. On one side of the dilemma, economic growth is undermining ecological systems – the very systems that support life on the planet (and in so doing, form the foundation of the economy). On the other side, failure to grow the economy leads to job losses and causes instability in social systems.


Side A

Economic growth
is unsustainable

Side B

Failure to grow
is destabilizing.

The Dilemma of Economic Growth


By definition, there is no simple route to escape from a dilemma. The main strategy for coping with a dilemma is to accept one side of it as fixed, and then work on changing the other side. Politicians, conventional economists, journalists, and just about everyone else tend to choose Side B in the economic growth dilemma, and then they go about trying to modify Side A. That’s why seemingly oxymoronic expressions like “green growth” and “sustainable growth” are relatively commonplace. Most people have accepted the idea that failure to grow destabilizes society, so they struggle to find ways to maintain environmental health despite increasing population and consumption. But maybe we’ve chosen the wrong side in this dilemma. To find out, we have to consider two basic questions:

  1. Which side of the dilemma is more likely to hold true moving forward?
  2. Do we have better prospects for achieving sustainable growth or building a non-growing economy that is socially stable?

In assessing this first question, there is widespread agreement that when growth ceases in today’s economy, serious problems arise. The most pressing problem is evaporation of jobs – a slowdown in production typically means that we need fewer producers. When large numbers of people become unemployed, social ills are usually not far behind. Furthermore, personal income and wealth are often tied to economic growth. Investors fear a cessation of growth, as strong returns on their assets depend on faith in future growth (e.g., a company’s stock price rises when people believe the company’s revenue will grow). With the way the economy is structured, failure to grow certainly puts people on edge. But suppose the economy were structured differently. Suppose we could change certain economic institutions and relationships and build a healthy and resilient steady state economy.

That is largely the premise of CASSE’s new report, Enough is Enough. The report summarizes research on the desirability of transitioning to a steady state economy and explores a collection of policy ideas for doing so in a healthy way. This cohesive report casts doubt on the notion that a non-growing economy must be socially unstable.

Turning to the plausibility of Side A, the CASSE Position on Economic Growth succinctly describes the fundamental conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. This conflict is rooted in the laws of physics and ecology. Thermodynamic and ecological principles, such as entropy, competitive exclusion and trophic levels, confirm that the economy grows at the expense of natural ecosystems. The decision about whether to back Side A or Side B boils down to deciding which are more likely to hold: the laws of physics and ecology, or “economic laws.”

Turning to the second question, the main argument in favor of pursuing “sustainable growth” revolves around technological progress. The idea is to use technological means to decouple economic growth from the use of energy and materials – to increase production and consumption while decreasing physical inputs. Although this is an appealing idea, historical evidence is not encouraging. We have been able to increase the efficiency with which we can produce a dollar’s worth of economic output (i.e., we use less energy and material per dollar of output), but growth has swamped any savings that we might have been able to realize. Overall material and energy use have increased even as we’ve gotten more efficient (the so-called “rebound effect” or “Jevon’s paradox”).

Regarding the prospects for building a socially stable steady state economy, Peter Victor’s model of the Canadian economy shows that with the right policies, we can achieve a non-growing economy that maintains full employment, virtually eliminates poverty, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and maintains fiscal balance. The feasibility, then, rests on whether societies can generate the political will to adopt such policies (e.g., reducing the working week and year, changing the business structures, and shifting taxation to limit resource use).

Returning to the article in Nature, Peter remarks on the changes that need to occur:

As long as economic growth remains so important to global policymakers, humanity is hopelessly constrained: the environmental policies we need face the unreasonable political hurdle that they must also be shown to promote economic growth. This must change. At grass-roots level, many people in the developed world are already directing their energies towards enhanced wellbeing, in part by turning to local producers for their food, clothing and other needs. Institutions of all kinds — financial, political, legal, educational, religious and social — that have evolved to thrive in a fast-growing economy will have to adapt.

The scope of change required is daunting, but the first step is to reconsider the dilemma of economic growth. In doing so, real answers about the desirability of economic growth will emerge. By refusing to consider the steady state economy as an alternative to continuously increasing production and consumption, nations of the world risk missing out on the best means of achieving sustainable and equitable well-being for all people.

The “Good New Days” in a Non-Growing Economy

by Rob Dietz

Many people, as they begin to consider the problems with pursuing perpetual growth, ask with some trepidation what a non-growing economy (i.e., a steady state economy) would look like. Having lived life embedded in a growing economy, they find themselves fearful of a transition away from growth. This fear is primarily based on experience with failed growth economies – the social unrest associated with recessions and depressions. Such fear should not be taken lightly, but a steady state economy is not the bogeyman. Economist Peter Victor has shown through his modeling efforts that we can have a non-growing economy that achieves full employment, virtually eliminates poverty, reduces carbon dioxide emissions to sustainable levels, and avoids overwhelming debt. And we have a collection of intriguing policy ideas for creating a sustainable, fair and efficient economy. Knowledge of these ideas should go a long way toward putting the fears to rest.

A secondary bogus bogeyman, however, lurks in the shadows. Herman Daly has joked that some people believe a steady state economy is synonymous with starving in the dark under a harsh communist regime. But a steady state economy is not about deprivation, and it doesn’t require the planning of a Politburo. It’s not even about a return to the Good Old Days. It is, in fact, a progression to the Good New Days. An elementary description of life in a steady state economy should also help put aside fears and illustrate the desirability of pursuing enough instead of constantly chasing after more. The transition to a prosperous yet non-growing economy may prove to be a perilous passage, but the destination will be well worth the adversity.

The Scenario of a Steady State Economy

Imagine that we are a ten years down the road. In the intervening time leading up to today, social and economic snafus (e.g., unemployment, stock market downturns, banking crises, crime, and wildly fluctuating energy prices) have shaken people up pretty badly. Environmental miseries, such as continuing climate destabilization and agricultural failures, have awoken people to the consequences of unmindful economic growth. Culture began to adjust, and citizens demanded sweeping economic reforms and changes in how we interact within both local and global communities.

Waking Up in a Steady State Economy

You wake up refreshed, the way you’re supposed to feel in the morning after a restful sleep. With plenty of time before the day’s activities unfold, you begin the morning with a light exercise routine, stretching and moving your body to get the blood flowing. After a quick shower (with water pleasantly heated by your rooftop solar water heater), you head to the kitchen. You whip up a simple breakfast using tasty and fresh ingredients from the weekly delivery of food from the local farm. You make a mental note to mention to the farmer how much you enjoy her organically grown strawberries the next time you see her.

Besides enjoying your meal, you use your leisurely breakfast time to scroll through the day’s headlines:

  • Prison begins makeover into community college as former guards tackle the task of redevelopment
  • Fans anticipate tonight’s season opener of the Cross-town Football League
  • Work time reduction paying dividends: unemployment falls for 3rd straight quarter
  • WTO’s 6 remaining members won’t disclose secret meeting location
  • Land of a thousand currencies: museum exhibit puts the artistry of local currencies on full display

Going to Work

Stepping outside, the sky looks cloudy, but it’s not raining, it doesn’t look threatening, and the temperature is pleasantly cool. You decide to ride your bike to the office, pedaling four miles along the designated cycling corridor. It certainly has become agreeable cycling to work since the community re-designated some of the old auto routes into a network for people-powered transportation. And you’ve noticed how much better you’re feeling at the end of the day with the exercise and fresh air (and it’s been noticeably fresher since the conversion away from internal combustion engines).

You arrive at work with a clear mind, ready to tackle some tough tasks over the next four hours. After making solid progress for a couple of hours on your project for the day, you break for the big co-op meeting. You and your fellow employee-owners of the co-op have scheduled an environmental audit and remuneration review for today. The meeting is not without contentious points (after all, democratic governance and consensus seeking are messy processes), but it turns out to be highly productive. The nonprofit organization you hired to perform the environmental audit has found some dramatic ways for the co-op to reduce its material and energy throughput to levels below the goals set at the end of last year – a prospect that’s good for the environment and good for business. The remuneration committee reports on the salary structure of the co-op, assessing the fairness of pay for all employee-owners. Over a series of meetings, the co-op has settled on a ratio of no more than 3 to 1 when it comes to the pay differential between the highest and lowest paid employee-owner. Based on surveys, short interviews, and co-op performance, the 3 to 1 ratio is working out, and the employee-owners are happy with the way things are going.

Getting Lunch

You roll out in the early afternoon to get together with your band mates. Since cutting back your working hours, you’ve really been improving on the guitar, and the whole band has been practicing more often. You can’t wait to discuss the set for your first public gig (a casual appearance at the Saturday farmer’s market) at lunch. Feeling slightly drained from the work meeting, you rack your bike on the electric bus and cruise across town to your favorite restaurant. Your three friends are already sitting on the patio along the bustling sidewalk, sipping some outstanding local brews, and there’s an extra one sitting there waiting for you. You share a delicious meal, feeling fortunate to have such tasty foods fresh from the nearby countryside. In such a pleasant atmosphere, it’s a simple matter to agree which songs to play and in what order. It’s your turn to pick up the tab, so you hand your local-currency debit card to the server. After saying goodbye to your friends until Saturday, you roll out onto the bike path and pedal back home.

Getting Home

Every time you arrive at your supremely sufficient home, you smile to yourself. You recognize how you and so many of your friends had become swept up in the “consumption as a substitute for happiness” culture back in the day. Now your home and modest possessions seem to fit like a glove. You have what you need and enough time to enjoy what you have – you’re not buried under a bunch of stuff, the place is tidy, and it’s downright affordable.

After stowing your bike, you decide to amble over to the community garden before dinner. This season’s tomato experiment seems to be going better than it did last year. Jane’s advice about compost and nutrient recycling was incredibly helpful. As you’re adjusting the water drip system, you hear Jane’s voice behind you, “Nice tomatoes – should I claim my share now or just harvest them when you’re not around?” You turn around with a smile and get to talking. After harvesting a few choice veggies from your plot and hers, you invite her to help you cook and share the meal back at your place.

Going to Sleep

At the end of the day, you’re thoroughly sleepy – a lot happened! It was a happy and productive day. You tumble into bed in anticipation of another night of sound sleep and more fulfilling days yet to come.

This scenario may sound improbable, but it is not unobtainable. People are overburdened by the litany of social and environmental problems around the world. They want to figure out a way to improve society, so that it can be sustainable and fair. They want to blaze a path forward that will lead to a better place for their children and grandchildren. The steady state economy represents just such a path.

Motivated people can overcome high hurdles and achieve tremendous results. We have enough knowledge, we have enough ideas to get started, we have enough motivation, and we’ve certainly had enough of the consequences that stem from mindless pursuit of economic growth. Let’s recognize where we stand and start walking in a new direction. Enough is enough!