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Enough Is Enough (Excerpt)

by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, published by Berrett-Koehler in the United States and Routledge in the United Kingdom.  All rights reserved.

EnoughIsEnough_Final_LoResA game of checkers offers very little insight into how to solve the world’s intertwined environmental and social problems, or so I thought. In one particular game, my opponent opened with a series of reckless moves, placing checker after checker in harm’s way. When I jumped the first one and swiped it off the board, I briefly wondered if I was being lured into a trap. But it was just a fleeting thought. After all, my opponent was only five years old.

I was playing against my daughter. She had just gotten home from her kindergarten class, and I was giving her a few strategy pointers from my limited bag of tricks. Her moves showed some modest improvement, but after a while, we both lost interest in the game. Besides, there are other fun things you can do with checkers, like seeing how high a tower you can build.

At first, we were fast and free with our stacking — we even plopped down two or three checkers at a time. But as the tower grew, we changed our approach. With the light touch and steady hands of a surgical team, we took turns adding checkers one by one to the top of the stack. By this point, our formerly straight tower had taken on a disconcerting lean. On our final attempt to increase its height, the mighty checker tower reached the inevitable tipping point and came crashing down to earth. Like a reporter interpreting the scene, my daughter remarked, “Sometimes when things get too big, they fall.”

I sat back amid the pile of checkers scattered on the floor and smiled. With a simple observation and eight words, she had managed to sum up the root cause of humanity’s most pressing environmental and social problems. Even a partial list of these problems sounds grim:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions are destabilizing the global climate.
  • Billions of people are living in poverty, engaged in a daily struggle to meet their basic needs.
  • 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.
  • National governments are drowning in debt, while the global financial system teeters on the verge of ruin.

People desperately want to solve these problems, but most of us are overlooking the underlying cause: our economy has grown too large. Our economic tower is threatening to collapse under its own weight, and beyond that, it’s threatening the integrity of the checkerboard and the well-being of the players. The economy is simply too big for the broader social and ecological systems that contain it.

That’s a strong indictment against economic growth, but this indictment is backed up by scientific studies of environmental and social systems. The evidence shows that the pursuit of a bigger economy is undermining the life-support systems of the planet and failing to make us better off — a grave situation, to be sure. But what makes the situation even more serious is the lack of a viable response. The plan being transmitted from classrooms, boardrooms, and pressrooms is to keep adding more checkers to the stack.

The model of more is failing both environmentally and socially, and practically everyone is still cheering it on… it almost makes you want to climb to the top of the highest building and shout, “ENOUGH!”

Crying out in such a way expresses intense frustration at the seemingly intractable environmental and social problems we face, but it also carries the basic solution to these problems. By stopping at enough when it comes to production and consumption in the economy, instead of constantly chasing more, we can restore environmental health and achieve widespread well-being. That’s an incredibly hopeful message, but it opens up all sorts of questions. What would this economy look like? What new institutions would we need? How would we secure jobs? This book attempts to answer these and related questions by providing a blueprint for an economy of enough, with detailed policies and strategies for making the transition away from more.

You probably have some of the same concerns as we do about the environment and the economy. We’re not pessimists, but with all the disturbing facts that confront us, it’s hard to avoid feeling worried about the future we face. Yet there is still hope in the midst of such worries. Once we put aside our obsession with growth, we can focus on the task of building a better economy. Tim Jackson (the author of a brilliant book entitled Prosperity without Growth) has provided this much-needed rallying call:

Here is a point in time where our institutions are wrong. Our economics is not fit for purpose. The outcomes of this economic system are perverse. But this is not an anthem of despair. It’s not a place where we should give up hope. It’s not an impossibility theorem. The impossibility lives in believing we have a set of principles that works for us. Once we let go of that assumption anything is possible.

Enough Is Enough tries to provide a new set of principles that can work for us. We don’t want to mislead you into thinking we have a precise set of directions for fixing everything that’s wrong with the world — after all, the economy and the ecological systems that contain it are highly complex. We do, however, have an economic plan that can help move humanity toward a better future where sustainable and equitable human well-being is the goal, not economic growth. Successful implementation of this plan rests on three requirements:

  1. Widespread recognition that our planet is finite. Humanity (along with all the other species here) draws life and comfort from a limited pool of resources. Recognition of this fact requires us to change the way we regard our relationship with nature, especially within our economic institutions.
  2. Practical policies for achieving a steady-state economy. A set of well-conceived steady-state policies can replace and outperform the obsolete growth-oriented policies in use today. But people need a strong sense of these new policies before they’ll be willing to embrace them.
  3. The will to act. The economic changes that are required won’t materialize on their own. We must dismantle the prevailing institutions and policies that have produced a destructive and unfair economy. At the same time, we must initiate and nurture the required changes.

This book is organized around these three requirements. If you’re already on board with the first one, you may recognize some familiar ideas in the next two chapters. Even so, it’s worth spending some time considering the problem of “too much” before jumping to the solution of “enough.” But the purpose of this book (in fact, the feature that sets it apart from others) is to describe how to establish a prosperous yet nongrowing economy. This is not a book that focuses on problems while relegating solutions to the last few pages.

That said, Part I, Questions of Enough, is more about why than how. It’s where we summarize some of the scientific evidence that condemns the pursuit of continuous economic growth. Part I also considers what constitutes desirable levels of population and consumption, and then makes the turn toward how by describing the defining features of a steady-state economy.

Part II, Strategies of Enough, provides solutions — an escape route from the perpetual growth trap described in Part I. It’s the part of the book that explains how, in a steady-state economy, we can:

  • Limit the use of materials and energy to sustainable levels.
  • Stabilize population through compassionate and noncoercive means.
  • Achieve a fair distribution of income and wealth.
  • Reform monetary and financial systems for stability.
  • Change the way we measure progress.
  • Secure meaningful jobs and full employment.
  • Reconfigure the way businesses create value.

Taken together, the policies described in Part II form an agenda for transforming the economic goal from more to enough. But these policies will sit on the shelf unless we can gain extensive support for, and concerted action toward, achieving an economy of enough.

Part III, Advancing the Economy of Enough, provides the call for action. This part of the book contains ideas for moving past the culture of consumerism, starting a public dialogue about the downsides of growth and the upsides of a steady-state economy, and expanding cooperation among nations. All this discussion leads up to the presentation of an economic blueprint that summarizes the components and steps needed to build a steady-state economy.

This blueprint offers hope at a time when we need it most. It provides a viable way of responding to the profound environmental and social problems of our era. The ever-present drone of what we can’t do has become both tiresome and unproductive. The time has come to figure out what we can do. We can build a better economy. We can meet our needs and care for the planet at the same time. We can live balanced lives, including time for the occasional game of checkers. This is our checkerboard, after all, and we don’t have to play by the old rules anymore. Let’s get to it. Enough is enough.

The first $5,000 in royalties from sales of the book go directly to CASSE.  Please click here to order a copy.

Enough: the Central Concept in Economics

by Herman Daly

Foreword to Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, a book by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (published by Berrett-Koehler in the U.S. and Earthscan in the U.K.)

Herman DalyI have long wanted to write a book on the subject of “enough” but never did. Now I don’t have to because Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill have done it in a clearer and more accessible way than I could have. Therefore it is a special pleasure for me to write a foreword calling attention to their important contribution.

Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means “sufficient for a good life.” This raises the perennial philosophical question, “What is a good life?” That is not easy to answer, but at a minimum we can say that the current answer of “having ever more” is wrong. It is worth working hard and sacrificing some things to have enough; but it is stupid to work even harder to have more than enough. And to get more than enough not by hard work, but by exploitation of others, is immoral.

Living on enough is closely related to sharing, a virtue which today is often referred to as “class warfare.” Real class warfare, however, will not result from sharing, but from the greed of elites who promote growth because they capture nearly all of the benefits from it, while “sharing” only the costs.

Enough is the theme of the story of God’s gift of manna to the ancient Hebrews in the wilderness. Food in the form of manna arrived like dew on the grass every morning and was enough for the day. If people tried to gather more than enough and accumulate it, it would spoil and go to waste. So God’s gift was wrapped up in the condition of enough — sufficiency and sharing — an idea later amplified in the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread.” Not bread for the rest of our lives or excess bread with which to buy whatever luxuries we may covet, but enough bread to sustain and enjoy fully the gift of life itself.

EnoughIsEnough_Final_LoResThis story from Exodus has parallels in the thoughts of pioneer ecological economist and Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Frederick Soddy. Soddy observed that humanity lives off the revenue of current sunshine that is gathered each day by plants with the aid of soil and water. Unlike manna some of the sunshine was accumulated and stored by geologic processes, and we have consumed it lavishly with mixed results. Today we also try to accumulate surplus solar income and exchange it for a permanent lien on future solar income. We then expect this surplus, converted into debt in the bank, to grow at compound interest. But the future solar-based revenue, against which the debt is a lien, cannot keep up with the mathematics of exponential growth, giving rise to debt repudiation and depression.

For the Hebrews in the wilderness the manna economy was designed with “enough” as a built-in feature. Our economy does not have that automatic regulation. We have to recognize the value of enough and build it into our economic institutions and culture. Thanks to Dietz and O’Neill for helping us do that.

For more information about the book, including ordering information, please click here.

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.

Read All About It

The Daly News, your source of information for innovative ideas about building a better economy, is set to launch. Each week, The Daly News will provide a thought-provoking feature essay that challenges the predominant economic paradigm and explores creative solutions to our profound economic and environmental problems. The first essay by Herman Daly will appear March 1. In addition to Professor Daly, the core rotation of authors at The Daly News includes Brian Czech (wildlife biologist, ecological economist, and author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train), Brent Blackwelder (former president of Friends of the Earth and founder of American Rivers), and Rob Dietz (environmental scientist and executive director of CASSE).

The Daly News also will present guest posts and news briefs about economic growth and sustainability. Readers are invited to subscribe to the RSS feed.