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No Mere Resolution: The Vermont Legislature and the Steady State Economy

By Brian Czech

Brian CzechHere’s a day to remember: May 6, 2016. That’s the day when, late in the afternoon, the Legislature of the State of Vermont passed H.C.R. 412, “House Concurrent Resolution Honoring the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy for Its Important Work.” In a nation where acts of steady statesmanship – political support for a steady state economy – have only just begun, the Vermont Legislature has offered a perfect and prescient precedent.

Some may scoff at the idea that any resolution could be momentous. It’s true that, typically, a resolution isn’t as distinguished as a statute, an executive order, or a Supreme Court decision. H.C.R. 412 was one of 47 resolutions passed on that adjourning day of the 2015/2016 Vermont Legislature. True, too, that the legislature didn’t resolve to reform any economic policy with H.C.R. 412.

Now that we’ve looked the donut squarely in the hole, let’s consider what the Vermont Legislature did accomplish:

1) The steady state economy – the only sustainable alternative to unsustainable growth or recession – was brought out of its academic niche into mainstream political dialog. We’re not talking about the ramblings of a quirky county commissioner or misfiring mayor. A state legislature represents the second-highest lawmaking level in the land. In Vermont, a famously beautiful and progressive land that has also offered us a viable presidential candidate, there was virtually unanimous support in the legislature for recognizing limits to economic growth, the problems caused by growth, and the solutions inherent to a steady state economy.

2) Vermonters have proven the phrase “steady state economy” is not the bogeyman it was thought to be by the architects and activists of the “new economy” movement. If a state legislature can stomach, reprint, and even honor the phrase, it’s time to stop the hand-wringing in futile attempts to come up with a warmer and fuzzier phrase that would connote an economy of stabilized size. “Steady state economy” is perfectly clear with no connotations necessary. Let’s just tell it like it is, and thank you Vermont.

3) H.C.R. 412 is loaded with implications for future adjustments to tax codes, budgets, program goals and incentives of all kinds. Meanwhile, it provides leadership that is immediately relevant to consumers. Consumers are citizens who constitute the demand side of the economy. Any citizen mulling the construction of a new home, the purchase of a new vehicle, or the development of a new wardrobe has a decision to make. To illustrate by extreme: Hummer or hybrid? Conscientious, widespread tempering of demand toward sustainable levels starts with leadership, such as provided in H.C.R. 412.

Suddenly, doesn’t the donut look bigger than the hole?

H.C.R. 412 was introduced by Representative Curt McCormack of Burlington. The Burlington connection makes a lot of sense, given the long-running leadership in steady state economics coming out of the University of Vermont and its Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. In fact, McCormack is on the UVM Board of Trustees.

It’s refreshing that, in the political days of short-term memory and “small hands” rhetoric, some politicians are doing their homework on the big picture and the long term. The perpetual push for increasing GDP is a growing threat to the environment, the economy, national security, and international stability, but the threat is clear only for those who stop to think about it. Led by McCormack, May 6 was the day a state legislature stopped to think about it. It’s a day worth remembering.

Time to Stop Worshipping Economic Growth

By Brent Blackwelder

Brent Blackwelder

There are physical limits to growth on a finite planet. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued their groundbreaking report—Limits to Growth (twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages). The authors predicted that by about 2030, our planet would feel a serious squeeze on natural resources, and they were right on target.

In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Center introduced the concept of planetary boundaries to help the public envision the nature of the challenges posed by limits to growth and physical/biological boundaries. They defined nine boundaries critical to human existence that, if crossed, could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

The global economy must be viewed from a macro-perspective to realize that infringement of the planetary boundaries puts many life support ecosystems in jeopardy. Without functional ecosystems, the very survival of life forms, as well as human institutions, is put in doubt, including any economy. There is no economy on a dead planet!

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Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity). [click image for larger view] Image Credit: F. Pharand-Deschênes /Globaïa. 

These boundaries apply to the economy because the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible. (Some understanding of ecology should be a prerequisite for an advanced degree in economics!) Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows (nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity).

Today’s global economy and the various regional and national economies regularly neglect planetary boundaries. Crossing a boundary is tantamount to crashing through a guardrail and plunging over a cliff. The blind encouragement of economic growth that does not respect these boundaries is setting up human civilizations for collapse. Two of the most harmful types of growth are ruthless and futureless.

Ruthless growth benefits a few at the top but does nothing for the middle class. One of the reasons that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has attracted larger and larger audiences is that he says the most crucial issue facing the United States is the gross discrepancy between the middle class and the billionaire class.

Futureless growth destroys resources, such as water, forests, fisheries, and farmland that will be needed by our children and grandchildren, and by wildlife. Futureless growth directly conflicts with common family values. We tell our children to save for the future rather than squander their money. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers. We don’t tell them to judge the quality of their lives based on material possessions and quarterly financial reports.

To remain within the nine planetary boundaries, nations must shed the fetish of economic growth and transition to a true-cost, steady state economy. Some of the critical transition steps include:

  1. Replacing the GDP as a measure of well-being (lots of work has been done on coming up with an index of sustainable productivity).
  2. Getting the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require corporations to disclose their pollution externalities (the SEC is not hopeless, as can be seen by its recent decision to require CEOs to publish their salaries along with those of the average workers at their companies).
  3. Going to a four-day work week to secure fuller employment (this has happened in some European countries; Canadian economist Peter Victor has papers on why this is a crucial transition step).
  4. Dematerializing the economy (i.e., so that it’s cheaper to repair an appliance than it is to buy a new one).
  5. Identifying the areas in which the economy should grow—and those where it should shrink or degrow (i.e., the usage of fossil fuels must shrink sharply, and in so doing, roof-top solar will grow to become a much larger part of the global economy).
  6. Identifying the most heinous types of economic growth (ruthless and futureless) and showing how their costs exceed their benefits.
  7. Stabilizing population to keep humanity from further transgression of the nine boundaries.

There are about seven billion people on earth today, and forecasts indicate there will be nine billion by 2050. Already, almost one billion malnourished people are feeling the squeeze, as they painfully bear testimony to the truth of what Malthus predicted two centuries ago. Key first steps to stabilizing population in a progressive way are:

  1. Empowerment of women.
  2. Requiring all foreign assistance to be designed so that women will be better off as a result.
  3. Making contraceptives widely available.

Our global economy is treating the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale. Even environmental organizations—devoted to environmental protection— have been slow to acknowledge the major causes of environmental degradation, such as perverse economic incentives encouraging raw resource extraction and non-renewable energy use. We need environmental leaders to speak out for a new, just, and true-cost economy; and to challenge the mindless embracing of economic growth—even ruthless and futureless growth. Environmental leaders should be driving the push toward refocusing economic thinking on the changes that we will have to make if we are going to move to a healthier economy that exists within the nine planetary boundaries. Only if humanity stays within these nine boundaries can it continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

 

 

Setting Things Straight for the Steady State

By Brian Czech

Editor’s Note: The forthcoming A Future Beyond Growth (Routledge, 2016), edited by Haydn Washington and Paul Twomey, explores the vision and process for moving toward a steady state economy. This edited volume stemmed from the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Haydn is the co-director of the New South Wales chapter of CASSE. The following is Brian Czech’s foreword to “A Future Beyond Growth.”

Brian CzechExtremely dangerous political rhetoric has proliferated over the past several decades, seducing the masses onto a path that leads to the destruction of nature and civilization. This rhetoric is centered on the claim that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Politicians are all about economic growth but, at the same time, none of them want to be seen as willful destroyers of the environment. Therefore they stretch, warp, and corrupt the truth with the win-win rhetoric that we can have our cake and eat it too.

Such is the world that CASSE—the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy—was born into on May 1, 2004. In fact, the win-win rhetoric about growing the economy while protecting the environment was the primary impetus for establishing CASSE. The CASSE position on economic growth sets the record straight that “there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection,” leading up to this fact with seven “whereas” clauses and following it with eight other “therefore” findings.

Those having a counter-reaction that “there doesn’t have to be a conflict; it’s not a fundamental conflict” should read the full CASSE position. The fundamentality of the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection stems from the first two laws of thermodynamics. “Laws of thermodynamics” might sound intimidating to the uninitiated, yet the first two laws can be summarized in such common-sensical terms as: Law 1) You can’t get something from nothing; Law 2) You can’t be 100% efficient in the production process. These laws set up a limit to economic growth, as well as the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, as evidenced most clearly by the erosion of biodiversity in lockstep with economic growth.

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Haydn Washington, co-editor of A Future Beyond Growth and co-director of the NSW chapter of CASSE, speaking at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Photo Credit: Anna Schlunke.

So read the CASSE position, and read this book. While the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection is not an overly simple matter, the key points are readily grasped by sober readers, with the benefit of a clearly written book such as A Future Beyond Growth.

Among the 13,000 signatories of the CASSE position are some of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers, including authors of A Future Beyond Growth. Over 200 organizations have endorsed the position. Despite growing support for its central position, CASSE has been David to the Goliaths of Wall Street, neoclassical economics, and mainstream politics worldwide. Economic growth remains the top domestic policy goal among nations and lesser states as well, even as it causes more problems than it solves in the 21st century.

Of course if you’re going to be a responsible critic of economic growth, much less a long-lasting one, you better have an alternative to offer. Fortunately it is easy to identify the basic alternatives to growth. There are but two: economic degrowth and the steady state economy. The best way to summarize the alternatives is with a reminder of what, precisely, is meant by “economic growth.”

Economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails increasing population and/or per capita consumption. Economic growth is indicated by increasing gross domestic product, or GDP. It entails higher demand for materials and energy, because “you can’t get something from nothing.”

Economic growth should be distinguished from “economic development,” which refers to qualitative change regardless of quantitative growth. For example, economic development may refer to the attainment of a fairer distribution of wealth, or a different allocation of resources reflecting the evolution of consumer ethics.

Degrowth, then, is simply defined as decreasing production and consumption in the aggregate, as indicated by decreasing GDP. Decreasing population and/or per capita consumption is required. The word “degrowth” tends to have political connotations in addition to meaning a smaller economy, especially in Western Europe where the degrowth movement originated as “La Décroissance.” (Frankly, “economic growth” also has marked political connotations, but society has gotten numb to them.) As with economic growth, degrowth in the sense of a shrinking economy is ultimately unsustainable.

The sustainable alternative to unsustainable growth and degrowth is the steady state economy, which has stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. “Stabilized” in this context means mildly fluctuating. A steady state economy has stabilized population and per capita consumption. Energy and material demands are gradually stabilized—in the aggregate and per capita—as the limits to productive efficiency are reached. All else equal, a steady state economy is indicated by stabilized GDP. The “all else equal” (as I described in Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) includes level of technology, inflation, the propensity to use money relative to other means of exchange, and environmental conditions. But the bottom line, so to speak, is that GDP is a fine indicator of one thing: the pure size of the economy. Which makes it a good indicator of one other thing: environmental impact.

Obviously the pursuit of a steady state economy invokes a thousand devils in the details of political and cultural reforms. Macroeconomic goals, tax codes, budgets, interest rates, terms of trade: these are some of the aspects of statecraft to be dramatically overhauled with steady statesmanship. In the private sector, what about the sociology of consumption? Imagine the attitudes toward conspicuous consumption in a world that finally gets it about limits to growth.

A basic measure of justice, with an equally basic measure of logic, suggests that the place to start in moving toward a steady state economy on Earth is with the wealthiest nations. Impoverished nations need economic growth, almost by definition. We all know who the wealthiest nations are—look for example at nighttime lighting imagery—and concerned citizens from these countries have helped raise awareness of the perils of pursuing perpetual growth.

Which brings us back to CASSE, the uphill-fighting, philanthropically disadvantaged, non-governmental organization with the mission of advancing the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support. CASSE is almost entirely a volunteer organization. Its “business model” should be referenced in quotes, as “business” tends to connote things like money, salaries, contracts, and related financial features that are rare in the context of CASSE. But CASSE has a volunteer model that includes international chapters unified by the CASSE position on economic growth.

CASSE’s New South Wales Chapter, led by Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke, has demonstrated the potential of this volunteer model. When they invited me to give the keynote address at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference (the AAS’s annual environmental conference), with the conference’s theme being the steady state economy, I had to check if it was April Fool’s Day. To convene a major academy on the steady state economy in the United States, where Big Money calls the shots even in “academic” affairs, would have been inconceivable. The fact that the CASSE New South Wales Chapter (and its partners) managed to deliver the goods on a national academy conference for the steady state economy says a lot about the New South Wales CASSE chapter, the Australian Academy of Science, and even Australia itself.

What exactly does it say? For starters, it says Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke are diligent scholars, determined organizers, and capable communicators. It says that the Australian Academy of Science is a faithful champion of its scientific communities. It suggests, too, that an inquisitive, open-minded spirit prevails at least in Australia, which offers hope to the international community. Open minds in Australia have gleaned crucial insights from CASSE’s tireless Australian National Director, Geoff Mosley (Melbourne), and from one of the world’s leading steady state economists, Philip Lawn (Adelaide), and other Australians who presented at the 2014 Fenner Conference.

A Future Beyond Growth grew out of the proceedings of the 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Not everything from the conference made it to print. My own talk, for example, stays mostly in the pages of Supply Shock, plus the current prefatory remarks. But much of the highly memorable Fenner Conference is presented herein, and I feel delighted to preface the chapters with one more thing:

The next time you hear the win-win spin that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment” or the equivalent in your regional culture, don’t just throw up your hands in resignation to the rhetoric. Think instead about a future beyond growth. That’s where there’s no conflict with protecting the environment, national security, and international stability.

 

What Kind of Future Does Your Degree Prepare You For?

by James Magnus-Johnston

James Magnus-JohnstonAs the fall chill sets into the air and farmers begin to harvest, universities invite another wave of impressionable young minds to think about the future—of society, and of their place in it. But preparation for the future requires us to consider exactly what kind of future we think we’re in for, and far too many schools are preparing students for a fictional business-as-usual future.

Do your universities and instructors acknowledge that the global temperature will likely rise by at least two degrees this century? Do they invite you to reflect on the kind of droughts that some argue have hastened Syria’s civil war and caused mass migration? Are you asked to draw connections and present solutions to these challenges, or are you instead invited to rehearse standard narratives and become job-bearing cogs in the growth economy?

Steady state economics acknowledges some unsettling facts, but very few undergraduates will be exposed to anything resembling steady state economics. They’ll be lucky if the name Herman Daly graces the syllabus of their economics class. The lack of interest in post-growth thought more generally signals a curious rot in the academy away from creativity and the synthesis of new ideas, in favour of what’s couched as “critical thinking” within conventional, rigidly defined, and well-rehearsed disciplinary frameworks.

Patrick Finn, author of Critical Condition: Replacing Critical Thinking with Creativity, argues that the contemporary academy provides us with “advanced mental tactics that can be taught for a price,” when we should rather be provided with opportunities to foster creativity through a kind of “loving thinking.” By “loving thinking,” Finn means that we should connect dots from a position of hope and realism rather than merely rehearse advanced mental tactics. Karim Lakhani, a thinker with the Harvard Business School, cautions, however, that new paradigms and ideas that synthesize strands of research from different disciplines face an uphill battle.

VA Tech campus.VA Tech

Virginia Tech campus, Blacksburg, VA. Photo Credit: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Ecological economics—the branch of thinking that includes steady state economics—is one such discipline. Some have labelled it a transdisciplinary field of research (Norgaard, 1989; Costanza et al., 1997; Costanza and King, 1999), which applies a wide array of techniques to analyse relevant issues from different disciplines. While we may face an uphill battle, I believe that steady state economics invites students to start working from a position of hope precisely because it invites cross-disciplinary thinking. There may not be a perfect consensus surrounding some steady state economic concepts, but the transdisciplinary framework is sufficiently open to foster adaptive, synthetic thinking without losing sight of important questions.

The charge that creative thinking is too general or “unproven” is not historically uncommon. For instance, in a review of Kenneth Boulding’s 1950 work A Reconstruction of Economics, reviewer Ralph Turvey charges that “the problem is that Professor Boulding touches on so many matters and makes so many stimulating or provocative remarks that another book would be required for an adequate discussion” (Turvey, 1951, p. 205). The same charge might be levelled against this author, or any other theorist concerned with the application of theory across and through disciplinary lines.

It is clear that what is acceptable to one discipline (such as environmental science) may be unacceptable to another (such as economics). Yet by understanding what sort of future we’re in for, and by knowing the stakes of the present moment, we cannot claim neutrality or indifference to the consequences of our arguments. Rather, we should work harder to understand the big picture economy-environment dynamics, and overcome inherent disciplinary biases.

Given the biosphere’s depleted regenerative capacity, Daly suggests that it’s too risky to simply research and develop further warrants for steady state economic reform before encouraging a transition. He explains:

As important as empirical measurement is, it is worth remembering that when one jumps out of an airplane, a parachute is more beneficial than an altimeter. First principles make it abundantly clear that we need an economic parachute. Casual empiricism makes it clear that we need it sooner rather than later. More precise information, though not to be disdained, is not necessary, and waiting for it may prove very costly (Daly, 2007, p.22).

Every discipline, and every student, should be (re)considering what kind of future they think they’re preparing for. A creative, unconventional framework is exactly what we need.

First Cut: No Five-Kid Presidents

By Brian Czech

(With apologies to the Octomom, who didn’t ask for this kind of attention.)

Brian CzechMention the Octomom, and the first thing that comes to mind is that ridiculous fecundity. If she tried running for President, she’d never make it to the first debate, because everyone would take the 14-kid factoid (yes, she had 6 before the 8) to indicate some type of extremist propensity. More astute analysts would also point out that, as an example for the nation, the Octomom would be a demographic disaster of unparalleled proportions.

Anybody for the second coming of Easter Island?

If everyone bred like the Octomom, the population would double every 11 years!* In less than 50 years, then, the population would be 16 times the current bloated level. And you think your ride to work is congested now? The only good thing about it—regarding congestion at least—is that the vast majority of those offspring wouldn’t be driving to work in the first place. In a country unable to provide full employment now, imagine it trying to provide twice as many jobs, not to mention 4 times as many, then 8 times, etc. And with no more water, soil, and frackable Dakotas than it already has!

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Five-kid presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Image Credit: Gage Skidmore

So much for Octomom. If she ever had any presidential timber, it was clearcut with the parturition of that last round of 8. For that matter, wasn’t the original 6 (by the age of 28) already a patently poor precedent for a presidential candidate? She still would have been leading the way for a doubling time of 14 years.*

The fact is, no matter what you think about limits to growth, a population growth rate way—way—over the replacement rate is as sustainable as a shrimp at the local Red Lobster. Who wants to vote for an example setter for shrimp-like sustainability?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t vote for a candidate with any more than 3 kids, and 2 or 1 would be much better. By all accounts, the nation is not yet with me on that. But as a polity, where do we draw the line? Should we—or any country—have a president who is five-eighths of the way to Octo-fecundity?

Well, we have one candidate who has proven precisely that fecund. Shockingly enough, a couple of them are even more so.

Drumroll, please, amidst the falling presidential timber…

Name Kids Analysis
Rick Santorum 7 What the hell? “Champion Breeder for President!”
Jim Webb 6 You got your Octomoms and you got your Sextodads.
Donald Trump 5 Donald Trump, you’re… you know what!
Chris Christie 4 Too much congestion on those bridges already.
Martin O’Malley 4 One to each cardinal direction.
George Pataki 4 Does it really matter?
Marco Rubio 4 Doubling time, 22 years.
Lincoln Chafee 3 May Rhode Island not Easter Island become.
Ben Carson 3 Sing along, “And it’s once… twice… three times, irrelevant.”
Mike Huckabee 3 Presumably a relatively holy trinity.
Bobby Jindal 3 Politically correct enough, again!
Jeb Bush 3 They’re also running for president.
Rand Paul 3 Triple threat to the Federal Reserve!
Ted Cruz 2 One for machine guns and one for bacon.
Carly Fiorina 2 Executive competency.
John Kasich 2 Although one of them can’t recall who Kasich is.
Rick Perry 2 Although Perry can’t recall who one of them is.
Scott Walker 2 He lets them eat cake.
Hilary Clinton 1 Not for lack of effort on Bill’s part.
Bernie Sanders 1 Demographic socialism.
Lindsey Graham 0 Whatever.

 

So there you have it. Vote with your heart and your mind. And with demographic diligence.

 


Notes:

* The population dynamics practiced here are suitable for rough estimates. Doubling times were calculated using a Population Growth Rate Calculator with the reproductive history of the Octomom as summarized at Wikipedia. The primary variable not accounted for in these doubling time estimates is deaths. However, the USA is characterized by high survival rates and relatively long life spans (e.g., the Octomom is 40 years old and each of her children is alive).

 

Would the Steady-State Economy Be a Miracle?

By Herman Daly

Herman DalyMany people think that advocating a steady-state economy is like wishing for a miracle. I understand their reasoning and take their point—in the present era of growthism it does seem rather like advocating a miracle. But that raises the question: exactly what is a miracle? And how many other miracles are we wishing for these days? Of course science, by definition of its method, rules out the existence of miracles, if by miracle we mean either something not explainable physically in terms of efficient causation, or else overwhelmingly improbable. Consequently, if a miracle did exist science could not see it. Looking for a miracle with science is like looking for darkness in the narrow beam of a flashlight.

Consciousness, reason, and good and evil are undeniably real, yet we have no convincing explanation for them in terms of efficient causation or biophysical evolution. And the origin of first life (as opposed to its subsequent evolution into different forms) also qualifies as a miracle by the above definition. Sir Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, thinks the origin of life on earth is so physically improbable (miraculous) that it must have arrived here from space—”directed panspermia” is the elegant name for this miraculous sidereal ejaculation. Science considers the whole amazing experience of life on earth as just a cosmic accident.

Given that life on earth is, according to science, eventually going to end, why make extraordinary efforts to prolong it, especially if, as the modern intelligentsia assures us, the universe and all life are just temporary accidents? We, as non-miraculous random events, can have no objective idea of what a good life is. Therefore we cannot know how much per capita consumption is sufficient for a good life. Instead of a steady-state economy the default economic rule of scientific materialism seems to be, “more and more (especially for me) while things last.” Yes, I know that most scientific materialists are good people, but I am suggesting that their goodness must have origins other than their professed materialism.

For some of us materialism is just a methodology, not an ultimate worldview in which divine purpose might replace cosmic random. For Christians, for example, hope in the promise of New Creation (Rom. 8; 1 Cor.15) substitutes for despair over the ultimate impossibility of preserving this Creation forever, as well as over our repeated failures to protect it while it lasts. Like this Creation, New Creation would be a miracle—a generalized resurrection of this mortal Creation.It is a grace-based hope that flies in the face of the hard facts of evil, entropy, and finitude. It is a religious belief that death, decay, and oblivion are not the last words, and therefore it is classed as superstition in the modern secular academy, along with other religions.

Belief that the end of the world will occur soon, with lots of life-support capacity left unused (wasted), is a tenet both of some scientific catastrophists, as well as some religious fundamentalists, who consequently consider themselves exempt from the responsibility of Creation stewardship. Why sacrifice for a non-existent beneficiary, they logically ask? However, Pope Francis, for one, in his Laudato Si strongly affirms the value of this Creation, however transitory, and in this regard he speaks for most Christians and many other religious people, as well as for some thoughtful atheists.

Most scientists (and some theologians) will not be happy with talk about miracles, or with hope in New Creation. They fear that such hope will undercut efforts to prolong the present Creation, which they believe is all there is or ever will be. Yet when faced with the ultimate heat death of the universe, plus the increasing likelihood of self-destruction well before then, and with the meaninglessness implicit (and increasingly explicit) in their materialist cosmology, they sometimes flinch. They look for optimism (if not hope) somewhere within their materialism. They invent the hypothesis of infinitely many (unobservable) universes in which life may outlive our universe.

Monkey-typingThey were led to this extraordinary idea in order to escape the implications of the anthropic principle—which argues that for life to have come about by chance in our single universe would require far too many just-so coincidences among the magnitudes of basic physical constants. To preserve the idea of chance as reasonable cause, and thereby escape any notion of Creator or Telos, they argue that although these coincidences are indeed miraculously improbable in a single universe, they would surely happen if there were infinitely many universes. And of course our universe is obviously the one in which the improbable events all happened. If you don’t believe that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, you can claim that infinitely many monkeys pecking away at infinitely many typewriters had to hit upon it someday. That such a deification of random would take the meaning and pleasure out of reading Hamlet—or studying anything in “creation” at all—is a carefully repressed thought.

The idea of infinitely many universes, or monkeys for that matter, is speculative—at least as speculative as the idea of New Creation. The only evidence that could be offered to support hope for the future miracle of New Creation would be the occurrence of a similar miracle in the past, namely the present Creation. Science understandably tries to account for this Creation, as far as reasonable, in its own materialistic terms, and of course from the beginning rejects “miracle” or God as an explanatory category. I am not objecting to that self-imposed, defining limitation of science. I am just saying that New Creation is not a scientific concept rooted in efficient and material causation. It is a religious hope rooted in the idea of final causation and ultimate purpose. As such it is neither contradictory to nor dependent upon science.

Whether ad hoc postulation of infinitely many unobservable universes violates the self-imposed limitation of science, and belongs more to the category of miracle, I will leave to the reader’s judgment. But the working hypothesis of scientific materialism, however fruitful it has been, should not be sanctified as the Ultimate Metaphysics of Chance. Nor does adding Darwinian natural selection to Mendelian random mutation alter the picture, since the selecting criteria of environmental conditions (other organisms and geophysical surroundings) are also considered to be a product of chance. Mutations provide random change in the genetic menu from which natural selection picks according to the survival value determined by a randomly changing environment.

Such a Metaphysics of Chance precludes explanation of some basic facts, pushing them into the category of miracle: first, that there is something rather than nothing; second, the just-right physical “coincidences” recognized in the anthropic principle; third, the “spontaneous generation” of first life from inanimate matter (which has apparently never happened again); fourth, the creation of an incredible amount of specified information in the genome of all the irreducibly complex living creatures that evolved from the relatively simple information in the first living thing (in spite of the fact that random change destroys rather than creates information); fifth, the emergence of self-consciousness and rational thought itself (if my thoughts are ultimately the product of random, why believe any of them, including this one?); sixth, the amazing correspondence between abstract mathematical thought and empirical natural order; and sixth, the innate human perception of right and wrong, of good and bad, which would be meaningless in a purely material world. Explaining these facts “by chance” strains credulity at least as much as “by miracle.”

Metaphysical humility remains a virtue for both science and religion. The longevity of a steady-state economy is a metaphysically humble goal appropriate for limited creatures in the face of ignorance and mystery. Christianity and science both recognize the fundamental finitude and frailties of this Creation. Christianity offers ultimate hope in New Creation; science necessarily remains mute about that. Scientism, however, seeing no limits to this Creation, offers, instead of hope, the campaigning optimism of, for example, the Coming Singularity of the digital “new creation” with immortal silicon-based consciousness, or IBM’s new creation of “building a smarter planet,” or NASA’s new creation of colonizing Mars.

A moment’s reflection, however, shows that a spaceship, and a space colony, as well as a population of infinitely long-lived silicon “people,” must all operate as the strictest of steady-state economies. If we cannot manage a steady-state economy on the large and forgiving earth out of which we evolved and to which we are evolutionarily well adapted, then how likely are we to manage it on a barren rock under alien conditions, including extreme cold and intense radiation? Yet large amounts of taxpayer’s money is wasted in pursuit of the unnecessary miracle of colonizing Mars, while nothing is invested in the necessary and smaller miracle of attaining a steady-state economy on our finite earth. The pseudo-religion of scientism leads those who reject a steady-state economy on earth as a “miracle” to imagine even bigger miracles to escape it.

 


Notes:

1. For more on the theology of New Creation, see, Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2012; John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 2003; and N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope. New York: Harper Collins. 2008.

 

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 2

Thermodynamics in Economics: Revolutionary portent, future history

by Eric Zencey

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

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

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

Oil Well 3.Texas State Archives

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

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

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

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

The Future History of Political Economy – Part 1

Economics Ignores Thermodynamics

by Eric Zencey

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

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

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

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

Bad timing

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

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

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

Willful ignorance

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

Midas.Giovanni Caselli from the Age of Fable

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

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

Oil

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

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

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

 

Seismic Political Shifts Reveal Desire for Serious Change

by James Magnus-Johnston

If you demonstrate to people that the NDP [New Democratic Party] can win in Alberta, suddenly anything seems possible. —Paul Fairie, University of Calgary political scientist

 

James Magnus-JohnstonOn the problematic political spectrum, neither the right nor the left have become wholesale champions of the steady state economy. Then again, embracing something perceived as ‘new’ has never been the strong suit of the politician. It takes years of ideological evolution among the grassroots before seemingly new and different ideas become politically palatable. Seismic political shifts like the one in Alberta suggest that big ideological evolutions are underway in the unlikeliest of places, and that steady state solutions may not be far behind.

The Canadian province of Alberta—which includes Canada’s oil patch—revealed its desire for serious change in its election of an NDP government last week. While the social democratic NDP doesn’t have an explicitly ‘green’ agenda, some policy shifts acknowledge the limits to growth—growth in the oil patch, growth in debt, growth in inequality, growth in carbon emissions, and growth in overall environmental costs. Growing the oil patch at all costs has left the province vulnerable to swings in the petroleum economy, and it isn’t building a stable economy for generations to come.

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

Alberta’s newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley. Photo Credit: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr, Creative Commons

The political shift represents a strong movement away from a half-century of Alberta’s Conservative ‘conventional thinking,’ including relaxed regulations for the oil and gas industry as well as an export-first policy designed for economic growth as if there were truly no tomorrow. Time will tell whether or not Premier Notley will introduce measures to supplant carbon-intensive growth with a renewable steady state, but there are signs of movement in this direction.

In March, as opposition leader, Notley introduced a motion calling on the government of Alberta to phase out the use of coal for electric power generation in Alberta. Alberta’s oil sector produces almost as many GHG emissions as do the mining and extraction of oil from the oilsands.

This week, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Canada called upon Premier Notley to introduce a carbon tax, a measure which sits at number two on Herman Daly’s top ten list of steady state policies. The call counts as either a brilliant coordinated manoeuvre on the part of the NDP and the oil patch, or the beginning of a serious change in the way Canada’s oil and gas industry perceives its responsibilities in the face of climate change.

The NDP victory also signals a willingness to tackle point three on Mr. Daly’s top ten list—limiting the range of inequality in income distribution. While Premier Notley has not signalled a willingness to institute a ‘maximum income’ level, she has designs on raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour from the country’s second lowest minimum wage of $10.20. The NDP have also vowed to reintroduce progressive income taxes, and raise corporate taxes.

This is not a promotion for social democracy per se. Social democratic governments in different jurisdictions, like my home province of Manitoba, can sometimes reflect neoliberal economic thinking rather than focus on designing an economy for fairness. But in Alberta’s example, folks have acknowledged the problems associated with half a century of growth in the extractive industry, environmental degradation, and inequality. As the political pendulum shifts in other jurisdictions, there is an opportunity for political parties of various stripes to reconsider how they can respond to growing grassroots frustration with a debt-ridden, environmentally destructive, inequitable economy.

As the costs of uneconomic growth continue to escalate, and as a new generation prepares to bear those costs, we can be sure that further movement in the direction of a steady state economy will not only become more palatable, but absolutely essential.

 

Preempting a Misleading Argument: Why Environmental Problems Will Stop Tracking with GDP

by Brian Czech

Brian CzechI hate to say I told you so, and could be too dead to do so, so I’ll tell you in advance: One decade soon, environmental problems will stop tracking with GDP.

But the reasons? Well, they probably aren’t what you think, especially if you’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.

For decades, big-picture ecologists and eventually the “ecological economists” pointed out the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Every tick of GDP came with the tock of habitat loss, pollution, and, as we gradually realized, climate change. A growing GDP requires a growing human population or a growing amount of goods and services per person. In the American experience of the 20th century, it was easy to see both – population and per capita consumption – spiraling upward, and just as easy to see the environmental impacts reverberating outward. Much of the world saw the same, although in some countries GDP growth was driven almost entirely by population growth.

Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines, and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

Unfortunately, a lot of time was spent overcoming fallacious but slick-sounding shibboleths like “green growth,” “dematerializing” the economy, and the “environmental Kuznets curve.” It seemed these were – or easily could have been –designed by advertisers on Madison Avenue, Big Money in general, or economists in their service, to prevent consumers and policy makers from responding rationally to environmental deterioration. Suggestive phrases such as “consumer confidence” spurred the consumer along, buying more stuff to increase the profits of corporations and, in turn, the campaign purses of politicians.

Meanwhile, those who studied, wrote, or simply worried about the effects of economic growth on the environment (and therefore the future economy) were portrayed and marginalized as tree huggers, earth firsters, or, as I once heard them called by a Scotland Yard detective at an intelligence conference, “the great unwashed.”

Some of us had to go so far as debating economists and, shockingly, ecologists who parroted the 1990’s political rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” I even debated a future president of The Wildlife Society (TWS), who at the time was a biologist employed by the timber industry and a gadfly in TWS attempts to formulate a TWS position on economic growth. After our debate, I was told he was roundly defeated, and in subsequent years he refrained from the win-win rhetoric. (Hopefully it was that ability to reconnoiter with the truth that explains his electoral victory.)

Those of us who recognized the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection won the debates because we were right and we demonstrated it, ad nauseum, theoretically and empirically. We had to study the issue up and down, inside and out, because Big Money had far more resources to try defeating us at every turn. Eventually we published enough articles, organized enough conferences, and won enough debates that today, at least in professional natural resources circles, you’d seem, well… no smarter than a hedgehog if you tried to claim we can have our cake and eat it too.

So it is with ample irony that soon enough, we’ll enter an age where GDP won’t track with biodiversity loss, pollution, climate change, and other indicators of environmental deterioration. Why? Because, at some point during the 21st century and perhaps very soon, there won’t be enough resources left for GDP growth. Just as surely as the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, there is a limit to growth, and it’s not as far off as the growth polyannas would have you think.

Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining.  Photo Credit: Smudge 9000

Let’s consider what happens to biodiversity – nonhuman species in particular – in the days beyond growth. Long after GDP growth grinds to a halt, biodiversity will continue declining for two reasons. The first is that many of the environmental effects of earlier GDP growth will be delayed. For example, when a species’ habitat is degraded by a pipeline here and a timber sale there, the species doesn’t instantly disappear. Yet a marginal drop in the rate of reproduction and a marginal increase in the rate of mortality can put the species on a path to extinction just as surely as you pay taxes.

Furthermore, habitat degradation can itself be a drawn-out process. The polar ice caps are on their way out, and polar bears along with them. Yet the ice won’t be gone and the polar bear won’t be extinct for some decades, probably well after GDP has stopped growing. And the polar bear is on the tip of the iceberg, as species en masse may be ushered off the poles as if on some geological conveyor belt running at the speed of climate change.

The second reason biodiversity will continue to decline long after GDP stops growing is because the cessation of GDP growth doesn’t mean corporations and countries will stop trying to grow the GDP. Far from it. As long as economic growth remains the primary policy goal of nations, the environmental impact of pursuing such growth will worsen, because nations will be pulling out all the stops to achieve it. This too is a process already underway; witness the mining of tar sands for exceedingly crude oil.

Yet tough times for the truth await because the next wave of polyannas will be busy perverting the truth from a different angle. Instead of arguing that GDP growth was a benefit to biodiversity  – with the shallow argument that it put more money into conservation programs – they’ll be pointing to the fact that species are declining despite no growth in GDP. “Where’s the correlation,” they’ll ask, “between GDP and biodiversity loss?”

Alas, we’ve been careful all along, as good scientists are, to note that correlation doesn’t prove causality. Likewise, a lack of correlation doesn’t disprove causality. Economic growth – increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, entailing a growing population and per capita consumption – has been the limiting factor for wildlife in the aggregate for the broad sweep of Homo sapiens’ reign on Earth. Beginning in the 1930s such growth was measured with GDP, and beginning in the 1970s species endangerment in the U.S. was measured by the length of the list of federally listed threatened and endangered species.

For decades the correlation between GDP and species endangerment was like the correlation between chickens and eggs. A statistic called the R-squared value was even used to measure just how tight. As such, the correlation was simply additional, circumstantial evidence for the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. It was never essential, though, for it was bloodily evident that the causes of species endangerment were a list of economic sectors, infrastructure, and byproducts. To think it wasn’t the economy causing all that species endangerment was like thinking all that lung cancer in the 70’s had nothing to do with cigarettes.

Now when the Marlboro man stopped smoking, he didn’t stop choking. No, he continued choking, all the way to death, from lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But hey, in those final non-smoking years, the correlation between cigarettes and cancer cells was non-existent. Would anyone put it past Big Tobacco (the Seven Dwarves come to mind) to use this lack of correlation as evidence that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer?

Didn’t think so.

Well, Big Money – Wall Street, Madison Avenue, K Street too – we’re on to you. We know you’ll claim in decades to come that economic growth is not the cause of environmental deterioration. You’ll use the lack of correlation between GDP and species listings as one of your unscrupulous arguments. And you’ll be as wrong then as you have been heretofore.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it preemptively.