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NGOs Challenged to Back Up Their Rhetoric

The following letter was sent to the top ten environmental NGOs today, challenging them to a debate on the topic, “Is there a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection?” Recipients included the National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society and the Izaak Walton League.

Toward a Finite-Planet Journalism

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyThe Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park in southeastern Missouri was created in 1964 as the first National Park unit to protect a wild and scenic river system. Enclosing 184 miles of river and in many places scarcely wider than the banks of the rivers it protects, the park gets more than a million visitors in the summer, many of them from St. Louis (three hours to the northeast) and Springfield (three hours to the west). The park’s once-pristine waters are being damaged by overuse. Fecal coliform counts have led to the rivers’ being listed as “impaired” — unfit for their historic uses, including swimming, tubing, kayaking, and fishing. Some of the fecal pollution comes from horses (more than 3,000 are stabled in and near the park by trail-ride concessions, and many horse trails cross the rivers) and some comes from private septic failures in cabins, boats and RV campgrounds.

These and other human environmental impacts in the park could be reduced through tighter regulation and judicious redesign of usage patterns — moving trails out of the most sensitive areas, minimizing congestion at access points by separating them farther, that sort of thing. Clearly the park needs an update of its decades-old management plan.

The National Park Service has worked on that update, producing a draft management plan that outlines four possible paths forward, from “no change” — an unsustainable option, Park Service scientists say — to establishing the park as a Wilderness Area. The Service’s preferred option lies in between. It would:

  • close some historical river access points and open an equal number in less ecologically sensitive areas;
  • close 65 miles of unauthorized horse trails and open 25 miles of designated trails elsewhere;
  • set new regulations on where and when motorboats would be allowed; and
  • close some roads, converting them to hiking trails.

The Park Service has been holding public hearings on the proposals, and some of the hearings have been the occasion of protest and controversy as some park regulars and nearby residents expressed their dismay at the proposed changes. Protest and “push back” are entirely expectable when government policy falls on the border where infinite-planet custom meets finite-planet reality. The transformation of our perpetual-growth society into a steady-state society, though inevitable, is unlikely to be quiet or automatic. It would be less painful if it were eased by environmental journalism worthy of the name, journalism that understands what’s at stake, journalism capable of stepping outside the infinite-planet premises of our social and political system.

Sadly, the new management plan for the Current and Jack Fork Rivers didn’t get that kind of coverage.

On Sunday, January 26, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story about the new management plan. The prominence was appropriate; the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park generates plenty of environmental value, as well as substantial local and regional economic impacts. (As a summertime escape from Midwestern heat, it figures prominently in the psychic health of the region too, though that’s harder to measure.) But the implications of the story reach even farther, all the way out to the widest scale possible — that of human civilization in history. That’s because the story of the Park’s need for a new management regime, and of the opposition to that regime, is not simply a story about political wrangling between a federal agency and some citizens affected by its decisions; it’s a story about the troubling collision between participatory democracy and physical reality.

This was not how the story was framed by the paper. Instead, the paper gave it a distinctly conservative spin: long-established users of the park are finding their habits and traditions threatened by unfeeling bureaucrats and flaky environmentalists. The story made a point that those who protested against new park regulations “love” the river, while no mention was made of the love of the river that leads environmentalists to want to see it protected. The only environmentalist the story quoted said the park was a “temple” that had been “desecrated” — as if John Muir’s pantheism was the animating force behind all environmental regulation, and subtly suggesting that the protestors had Constitutional freedom on their side. The story made no mention of fecal coliform counts, noting only that environmentalists “claim” the water is being polluted and quoting one Park Service official who said current uses are “unsustainable.” Absent the science that would back up either statement, a reader could dismiss both as personal opinions. (Indeed, the official was said to “feel,” not think, that the park needed a new regulatory plan.)

Ozark Riverways

Continuous growth (in visitation to the Ozark Riverways, or more generally in population and consumption) requires regulation to address the consequences. Journalists should be reporting this principle (photo by David Porter).

Infinite-planet bias was present in the story in other ways. The report began within the first-person point of view of one of the citizens opposed to the new regulatory regime, immediately placing the reader on that side of the issue. Imagine if the story had begun with the work of one of the scientists whose findings shaped the report — or a swimmer who had bumped into raw sewage. The story gave a great deal of coverage to citizens worried that they might lose their livelihoods if tourist access to the park comes under greater control, but didn’t make the point that the river-supported economy of the area will collapse completely if the rivers aren’t kept healthy.

Basically, the news story pandered to populist sentiment against regulation. Yes, people don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do, especially when the rules cover behavior in a place that seems wild, natural, and incapable of being damaged by what we do. But looks can be deceiving. As climate change amply demonstrates, we no longer live on a planet so large that it can absorb any- and everything we care to throw at it. In the world we inhabit now, if we want to maintain the benefits and delights we derive from natural ecosystems — including necessities like clean water — we need regulations to manage our increasingly problematic ecological footprint.

Communication of that truth would have served the public interest. The problem is not that some people want more government just for the sake of more government, as a Post-Dispatch reader might justifiably conclude. The problem is that the human population and its high-throughput economy have collided with ecological limit, even in the backwoods of the Ozarks. If protestors want smaller government in general and less regulation of the Ozark Waterways in particular, they need to work to bring civilization back — far back — from the brink of ecological limits. The way to do that is to stabilize and perhaps even reduce population, decrease throughput, and increase the health and security of the planet’s ecosystems through conservation, restoration and preservation.

American political thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey have emphasized the importance of newspapers to the country’s democratic project. To their appreciations we can add another of equal importance: only an ecologically knowledgeable electorate can reconcile democracy with non-negotiable ecological limits. If the majority of voters remain ecologically illiterate, they must give up either civilization or democracy; it’s impossible to retain both.

The country could get the educated polity it needs through an ambitious program of teaching ecological literacy in our schools. But for this method to produce an ecologically literate majority would take decades, and we haven’t got that much time. If the American public is to learn what it must learn in order to maintain democracy in the face of the dynamics that are pushing us, inexorably and for our own self-preservation, toward illiberal technocracy, then news outlets have to step up to the task of reporting fairly by dropping their infinite-planet bias. At a minimum they need to report what finite-planet, sustainable thinking has to offer on environmental and economic affairs. Further than that, they could begin connecting their environmental and economic reporting, framing the two as inseparable in every story. And they could emphasize that every story on this combined beat offers evidence of one outstanding practical need: the need to preserve our democracy and promote our well-being through the development of a steady-state society.

The Titanic Code

by Dave Gardner

One hundred years ago April 15, the Titanic disappeared beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Several have marked this anniversary by noting the similarities between the Titanic and human civilization. In Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, on the National Geographic channel, James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film, Titanic, aptly turned the event into metaphor:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.  We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum.*

The metaphor is remarkably apt, as the size of the Titanic meant it was not nimble. It could not stop or turn on a dime. The captain needed to look far ahead on the horizon and plan ahead. Doesn’t that sound like the predicament in which civilization finds itself? We have built up an increasingly complex system, and it is a ginormous one (7 billion served), touching all corners of the planet. It’s impossible to change overnight. And looking ahead with only a short time-horizon serves it very poorly.

There’s something else keeping us from changing course, however. It is lack of desire. Our culture is not interested in a course correction because we’re distracted. We don’t see the iceberg ahead because we’re fixated on a cultural story that defines progress as growth, and growth as progress. This worldview has led us to develop a system that depends on everlasting growth.

Fortunately, when Mother Nature says, “enough,” key parts of the system begin to fail. I say fortunately because it’s hard to argue with success. As long as this system appears to be serving most of us well, we are not likely to throw it out. The failure of the system, which we’ve begun to experience, is our best hope for motivation to get moving toward a more enlightened arrangement.

“We’ve written a narrative that was fine in the nineteenth century.  It served us well through much of the twentieth century… but it’s outdated.  And we now need a new cultural narrative.”

— William Rees, ecological economist, in GrowthBusters

In the documentary, GrowthBusters, I refer to perpetual growth as our “operating system,” comparing it to Windows or Mac OS. The belief, the dependence on, and the pursuit of growth are what we’re all about. It’s the computer code that manages everything we do. Many call it our cultural narrative. If we were on the bridge of the Titanic, it would be in our charts, affecting our compass, on our radar. It informs (or misinforms) everything we do.

Without a doubt there are economists, sociologists and activists developing patches for this growth-based operating system. There are also scientists and activists developing apps that help us lighten our load on the planet. Renewable energy, water and land conservation, permaculture, and transit-oriented development are all examples of what I would call improved software applications, but they are still written to run on our old, growth-based operating system. With a system committed to everlasting growth, they will not keep our civilization from running off a cliff.

This is not to disparage them; it is to keep us from relaxing, thinking they will enable our civilization to become sustainable. They can be meaningful parts of a completely new system. But we do have to throw out the old system and start with fresh computer code. Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 2013 won’t do — Windows has to go.

“Only the prospect of worldwide mind-change gives me hope for the future.”

— Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael

Changing our cultural narrative is a tall order. In my film, Paul Ehrlich says, “We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for, either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.” I believe it’s the biggest challenge our civilization has ever faced. Who can we call? I’d love to say, just call GrowthBusters. After all, the film is my biggest contribution to the change we need to make.

But this challenge is too big. The film takes only the first step, which is to raise awareness that we have a culture that worships growth everlasting, and to help audiences realize it’s not delivering on its promise. I see the role of storytellers like Daniel Quinn, Dave Foreman, Richard Heinberg and myself as one of preparing our fellow human beings to be receptive to the completely new computer code that steady staters, transitioners, de-growthers and others are developing.

The time is now. The pieces are falling into place. The old system is crashing. We’re not able to reboot and get back to the business of robust growth. It will be key that we don’t rush in with patches or rely only on new apps. We must be relentless in our insistence on adopting a new operating system.

*Thanks to Joe Romm of ThinkProgress for alerting me to Cameron’s words.

Dave Gardner is the director of the non-profit documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, currently screening around the world. CASSE executive board members Brian Czech, Herman Daly and Peter Victor appear in the film. This commentary was published simultaneously here, as part of a series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth. Dave asks that you take his Pledge to Think Small to help speed adoption of a new operating system.

There’s Hope for a New Economy in the New Year

by Brent Blackwelder

Early in 2011 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a profound condemnation of the global economy’s ill-conceived pattern of growth: “For most of the past century, economic growth was fueled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. These days are gone… Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.” (Spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 2011).

That’s a somber statement, but there’s hope that the U.S. will break free from this “global suicide pact” and develop a fundamentally different economy.  My prediction for 2012:  decentralized forces, formed in response to the unsustainable and unfair economic situation, will begin to fundamentally change how our national economy works. People in the Occupy Wall Street movement and groups working on human rights, public health, clean energy, and social and tax justice are laying the groundwork for a shift to a steady state — a dynamic and sustainable economy that pursues prosperity and full employment without GDP growth.

The grassroots mobilization to support clean energy and a healthy environment is a sign of the shift to come. The work of diverse groups protesting the dirty tar sands pipeline from Canada to Texas motivated a huge turnout at the White House, with over 1,000 people being arrested. These protests were strong enough to get President Obama’s attention.  He delayed a decision on the pipeline and elevated the issue to center stage on the Republican agenda.

Statistics give us another hint that we’re headed in the right direction toward a steady state economy in 2012. Despite efforts by the Republican Congressional Leadership to undermine environmental protections (e.g., ongoing denial of climate change and attempts to gut EPA regulations), U.S. emissions have dropped by 7% in the last four years and are in line to drop further. Vehicle miles driven have declined, and ridership of public transportation is up 2%.

A cynic might say that the reason is simply the recession, but that’s only a small part of the story. Important actions such as renewable energy standards at the city and state levels are helping. Religious congregations participating in the Interfaith Power and Light initiative are reducing their carbon footprints. The campaign to shut down coal power plants and the substitution of natural gas for coal are also significant. Coal used to be the source of over half of U.S. electricity, but its share dropped to 43% in the first half of 2011 and is scheduled to drop even further.

As we enter 2012, we should redouble our support of those groups pushing for an economic paradigm shift based on sound governance and the principles of a just democracy. And it’s time to build a broad coalition of such groups to include those working on clean energy, public health, climate stabilization, financial reform, and other pieces of a sustainable economic system. Growing support for these groups and mutual reinforcement among them will provide the necessary spark to ignite the economic shift.

As we push for a just, environmentally sustainable world, we must continue to highlight the unabashed attempts by the richest one percent to continue fleecing the rest of us. December has featured a full array of proposed new financial gimmicks and tax breaks to benefit the very rich. For example, corporations with billions stashed in offshore tax havens are now seeking to bring these funds back to the U.S. with minimal tax under a so-called “Repatriation Act.”  They’re angling for a repeat of their lucrative repatriation flim-flam in 2004, a plan that saw 15 corporations bring back $150 billion at a 5 and ¼% tax rate instead of 35%. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that these 15 companies did not add jobs or increase research expenditures, but rather increased spending on executive pay and stock buybacks. Now more companies are petitioning Congress to allow them once again to bring the loot back home with the same tax break.

Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly supports such repatriation, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, with 500,000 dues-paying members, opposes it. The members of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce aren’t benefiting from the offshore tax havens or the repatriation scams.

As 2011 gives way to 2012, outrage is in the air.  But that can be useful for uniting and motivating people of conscience across the political spectrum to work for change — to break free of the suicide pact described by Ban Ki-Moon. Mr. Ban has called on governments to supply “visionary recommendations” for the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June of 2012. Here are two recommendations that, at this point in history, seem obvious, but would certainly be radical in the business-as-usual economy:

  1. Stop pursuing the ruinous pipe dream of continuous economic growth and work toward a steady state economy.
  2. Take power back from the oligarchy of the 1% to reclaim our democracy.

Best wishes for the new year.

Hooray for the Underdog

by Rob Dietz

What’s more compelling than an astonishing upset?  We seem instinctively drawn to the underdog; we routinely root for the resilient scrapper who refuses to back down.  It’s why Team USA over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics has been memorialized as the Miracle on Ice.  It’s why we cheered when Rocky Balboa went toe to toe with Apollo Creed (and subsequently KO’d All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver at the Oscars).  It’s why Harry Truman’s defeat of Thomas Dewey in 1948 is one of the most famous U.S. Presidential elections.  And it’s why David and Goliath is one of the most beloved biblical stories.

There are some powerful think tanks promoting “green” ideas around the world, especially when it comes to green growth, green technology, and green jobs.  In a stunner, CASSE prevailed over them all as it was named the Best Green Think Tank of 2011 by the sustainability gurus at TreeHugger.  Despite a miniscule budget and a skeletal staff that consists almost entirely of dedicated volunteers, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy overcame odds almost as long as its name.

Perhaps it’s not all that shocking of an upset after all.  With each passing day, the public is becoming more skeptical of the status quo and more receptive to CASSE’s message.  Infinite economic growth on a finite planet makes no sense.  It’s a difficult message to hear and internalize, especially amidst the constant clamor for evermore growth.  But acceptance of this message is a prerequisite to making the transition to a steady state economy, and CASSE is the leading organization calling for this transition.

As TreeHugger notes, “When it comes down to advocating for what we humbly submit to readers as the single most important economic concept of the 21st century, CASSE comes out on top.”  And CASSE is in good company – awards are piling up for people and organizations daring to challenge the orthodoxy of perpetual economic growth:

These awards help validate the messages being delivered by CASSE, nef, Post Carbon, GFN, and dozens of other organizations.  And they increase public awareness of noteworthy efforts.  But more importantly, they provide inspiration for us to follow the lead of these organizations.  Underdog victories prove that the little guy can win the game.  Their stories help us realize that we have the power to accomplish big things.

Underdogs of the world unite!

In this case, the underdogs are all the people who are distressed about the direction humanity is headed.  We are the people craving a sane solution to climate chaos, mourning the culture of materialism, searching for solutions to the ongoing assault on nature, and hoping for an end to poverty.  It will take unprecedented commitment, hard work and perseverance for us to overcome greed-based corporate agendas, outdated economic institutions, and our own reservations about saying and doing what is necessary.

Now, however, is the time for underdogs of the world to unite in action.  As TreeHugger astutely observed, “In all honesty awarding the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy a Best of Green Award this year is as much about promise as past action.”  We need to fulfill the promise and find a way to run the economy on something other than endlessly expanding consumption.  If you want to join the underdog movement for a sustainable economy, please consider taking some simple actions to raise awareness about the perils of perpetual growth and the positive possibilities of a steady state.

How to Fix a Household Crisis

by Rob Dietz

Economics is a field in crisis.  The failure to prevent or even predict the global financial meltdown is a sure sign of this fact.  Over the last few decades, a number of body blows have dented the credibility of mainstream economists.  But the utter failure to foresee the financial fiasco was like a Muhammad Ali knockout punch to the jaw.  The crisis of credibility is due to the disconnect between what’s happening in the real world and what’s offered in the classroom and economics journals.  For confirmation of the disconnect, witness the Dynamite Prize dished out by the Real-World Economics Review to “honor” those economists most responsible for blowing up the global economy.

Not to be outdone, ecology is also a field in crisis.  This crisis, however, is not about credibility.  Instead, ecology’s crisis stems from the seemingly insurmountable nature of the problems faced by its practitioners.  Imagine going to work each day and having to confront mounds of malaise-inducing evidence of ecological decline, from species extinctions to habitat loss to climate destabilization (just to name a few).  It’s a testament to their dedication that they even show up for work.  Many who do show up tend to focus on localized problems or minor information gaps as entire ecological systems crumble around them.  Who can blame them?  It’s daunting and maybe even depressing to walk out on the tracks and try to stop a train that’s bearing down at full speed.  So instead, they work on a small section of track, hoping to keep the train from derailing for a bit longer.

Wordsmiths will recognize that the names of these two crisis-riddled fields share a common root – oikos, the Greek word for household.  So basically, our entire household is in a state of crisis, and it’s threatening the health of the family, the cat, the dog, the yard, and the whole neighborhood.  When there’s a serious problem in your household, the best course of action is to figure out the cause of the problem, make a plan to address that cause, and take concrete steps to implement your plan.

Step 1 – Figure out the cause.

The cause of the crisis in our two “households” is the pursuit of perpetual economic growth.  From the ecological perspective, the household cannot thrive if its support structure is always under pressure to provide increasing resources for a growing economy.  Unsustainable liquidation of natural resources to produce ever more stuff is no way to run a household.  From the economic perspective, the household will fall if it is built on a faulty financial foundation.  In a financial system that requires exponential growth, claims on wealth (money) will inevitably surpass the availability of real wealth (actual goods and services), and a collapse is bound to follow.  Societal commitment to growing a bigger economy, including the commitment to a financial system geared for such growth, is the root cause of the ecological and economic crisis.

Step 2 – Make a plan.

For their part, economists will have to recognize and accept the inevitable limits to growth, and get to work on the institutions and policies needed for a prosperous steady state.  Ecologists will have to get more involved in economic affairs and be prepared to inform policy makers about the best scientific information on resource resilience.  Such shifts within the disciplines of economics and ecology will require professors to teach different material, students to get a broader education, and practitioners to collaborate with one another.  These are huge shifts that call for the two households to break down some walls and unite under one roof.  Fortunately, Herman Daly, Robert Costanza, and plenty of other inspiring thinkers have given us a substantial start on building the combined household of ecological economics. There has been a tendency to think of ecological economics as a sub-discipline or specialty of economics, but that is entirely inadequate for addressing the root cause of the crises.  We need to think of ecological economics as an evolution of the two disciplines – an integrative game-changer.

Step 3 – Take concrete steps.

Organizations that support ecological economics and the steady state are on the rise, but make no mistake – such groups can hardly be considered mainstream.  CASSE is a tiny organization compared to the anachronistic Club for Growth.  The U.S. Society for Ecological Economics doesn’t have the clout of the American Economic Association.  Let’s make CASSE more influential than the Club for Growth.  Let’s make the USSEE more influential that the AEA.

When we increase our members and solidify our base of support, we’ll have the political power to begin turning concepts from ecological economics into policies.  Then we can commence the tough job of repairing our household.  We’ll get the family into counseling.  We’ll take the cat and dog to see the vet.  We’ll tear up the ornamental grass in the yard, restore some habitat and plant a garden.  Pretty soon the neighborhood will feel like a community shared by all who live there.