Steady Statesmanship Goes Global

by Jon Rosales

On Earth Day this year I was honored to represent CASSE at the 67th Meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Based on my views from the meeting, we have finally reached a point where UN member states and staff, including Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, are open to consider models for economic development beyond business as usual. A real opportunity exists to put the steady state economy on the UN’s agenda, but doing so will require that we partner with other interested networks and organizations that have common perspectives.

To understand why this window of opportunity has opened, it is helpful to take a brief tour of the UN’s history of addressing environmental health and human development. Three key meetings punctuate this history — the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, and the Rio+20 conference in 2012. The meetings generated two decisive initiatives, Agenda 21 and the Millennium Development Goals, that guide the UN’s work on sustainable development.

In 1972 when environmental policy was in its infancy, or in many places did not exist, the Stockholm Conference solidified the environment as a key component of economic and social development within the UN. As the idea of sustainable development emerged in the 1980s, UN member states began to consider new ways to pursue environmental and economic interests in tandem. At the Rio Earth Summit, sustainable development took center stage, as the conference participants laid down principles for achieving both environmental and social goals in a blueprint called Agenda 21. Unsatisfied with the progress of implementing Agenda 21, member states began working on more specific development goals in the 1990s that evolved into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight overarching goals include efforts to eradicate poverty, reduce child mortality, and achieve environmental sustainability by 2015, with numerous target indicators designated for each goal.

Despite all this effort, a variety of critical environmental indicators have declined over the last forty years. The failure to make strong progress on many of the MDGs is terrible news, to be sure, but it provides an avenue for radical change. The UN is now gearing up for what comes after the MDGs in 2015, and member states are embarking on a re-visioning process that includes the Harmony with Nature (HwN) initiative of the Secretary General.

The seeds for HwN were planted, I suggest, with Bolivia’s election of an indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2006. With a 60% indigenous population, Bolivia represents the strongest voice for the recognition of Mother Nature’s rights. In 2009 Bolivia introduced a resolution to declare April 22nd as International Mother Earth Day. In 2010 the UN began the Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature with speakers on alternative economic models and comments from member states (the fact the CASSE president Brian Czech and I were invited to speak provides proof that the UN is willing to consider steady state economics). Although many member states have used the dialogues for posturing, the devoted HwN staff ensures that they are productive by writing yearly reports that are, in my experience, the most hopeful documents to emerge from the UN since the Stockholm Convention in 1972. The Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature is a chance to insert ideas into the global development agenda that actually address the profound environmental and social problems we face.

In my presentation, I suggested two ideas to pursue. First, science can help us identify specific limits to growth and establish a scarcity signal for the economy, both prerequisites for understanding the thresholds of a functioning steady state economy. Scholars in the area of sustainability science have been working on these thresholds. Johan Rockström and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center have attempted to compile “the pre-conditions for human development” using nine ecological thresholds that can serve as targets for decision makers (1). Kate Raworth has added development variables under these limits (see diagram). Such researchers are helping to define “a safe and just space for humanity” (2).

Source: Raworth 2012.

Source: Raworth 2012.

Sustainability science provides useful information for establishing a steady state economy by identifying where to remain steady (inside the green donut in Raworth’s diagram) and further quantifying biophysical limits. Scholars in this field, such as Rockström and Raworth, are obvious partners for the construction of the steady state economy.

My second point was that we need to gather wisdom from those cultures and individuals already living sustainably according to the flow rates provided by nature. Steady state economics begins with a budget — the energy input of the sun. Subsistence cultures (and increasingly the solidarity economy movement) align their production and consumption with the seasonal pulses of that solar budget. Now is the time to promote and replicate the efforts of sustainable cultures and individuals.

In Alaska I have researched indigenous cultures that have avoided exceeding limits for thousands of years. Such cultures exist all over the world, yet they often go unnoticed even though they represent powerful examples of life in a steady state economy.

The ultimate goal of subsistence is the production and regeneration of life. Subsistence cultures rely on the land, not only for gathering food, but also for establishing identity and meaning. These cultures live within the green ring in Raworth’s diagram. Their economies respond to the cycles of nature, the seasons, migrations of fish and caribou, and the blooming of tundra plants. These cycles provide a budget that indigenous people understand and incorporate into their traditions. They respect ecological thresholds, having already absorbed what sustainability science seeks to discover. Their traditional knowledge and cultures “are something for the future, not the museums”(3).

But these cultures are also under threat. For example, security networks among pastoralists in Kenya once reallocated surpluses in times of need. Now with the introduction of the cash economy, surpluses are sold. Structures such as the Suqe, or “big men,” of Vanuatu have been abandoned. The Suqe once accumulated “wealth” in the form of shell money or pigs donated to them and assumed responsibility for distributing this wealth in times of need, but the practice fell away with the introduction of the cash economy, religious conversion, and Western-style economic expansion (4).

Destruction of subsistence cultures is destruction of steady state economies, the very purpose of the dominant, neoclassical economic agenda. Not unlike its predecessor (colonialism) neoclassical economics, with its incessant pursuit of growth, works to supplant subsistence economies. This type of “development” devalues subsistence skills, tradition, wisdom, freedom, and knowledge, and even redefines those traits as indicators of something that needs to be changed. Subsistence is often seen as regressive — the ideology of Luddites or a temporary escape for hippies — but it is actually a progressive way of life.

Many people retain or have relearned elements of subsistence, and many young Americans have become interested in it. Communities are reclaiming subsistence culture with community gardens, farmer’s markets, and community power cooperatives, but they are hampered by, among other things, land-use regulations, health regulations, and restrictions to the commons. There’s a role for governments in disassembling these restrictions and supporting those communities and cultures that are interested in developing and maintaining steady state economies.

With advancements in sustainability science and the wisdom we can gain from subsistence cultures, we have an opportunity to establish steady state economies that work for both people and the planet. We also have an opportunity to gain more attention for the steady state economy among member states of the UN. The question is whether we can strengthen our partnerships and muster our best efforts to take advantage of these opportunities.

(1) Rockström, Johan, et al. 2009. A Safe Operating Space for Humanity. Nature 461: 472-5.

(2) Raworth, Kate. 2012. “A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can we live within the doughnut?” Discussion Papers, Oxfam International.

(3) Vladimir Sangi, Saami reindeer herder presenting at the 2013 Arctic Science Summit Week in Krakow, Poland on April 18, 2013.

(4) Ibid., p. 309.

Jon Rosales is CASSE’s Director of International Affairs and an associate professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

What’s “Rio+20” and Why Should We Care?

by Brian Czech

For those of us working in ecological and economic sustainability, Rio+20 is a big deal, and in our circles, just about everyone knows about it. Yet we have to wonder, what proportion of the general public has even heard of Rio+20, much less knows what it is? It’s a big question for a forum like the Daly News, where we’re all about mainstreaming sustainability. When we mention Rio+20, do we quickly lose readers who vaguely assume it’s some international, esoteric event with little relevance to mainstream society?

Rio+20 is short for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. It’s a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, which also was held in Rio de Janiero. The biggest environmental conference of all time, the Earth Summit produced the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and Agenda 21. It was a beacon of hope on a planet in peril.

On the other hand, anarchists, nationalist extremists, and paranoid conspiracy theorists (and Sarah Palin, who warrants her own category) rue the Earth Summit because it evoked a certain level of international governance. It threatened the free world with that S word: sustainability.

The Earth Summit was also memorable for President George H. W. Bush snubbing his nose at the Convention on Biological Diversity, despite its signing by 150 countries and the European Union. He did sign the Framework Convention on Climate Change, but only after it lost its teeth by calling for voluntary instead of mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In general, Bush dampened spirits and hampered diplomatic progress. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” he iconically announced, and he pitched that classic 90’s win-win rhetoric: “Economic growth provides the resources for environmental protection, and environmental protection ensures that growth is sustainable.”

I am quick to add that, despite explicitly identifying two prominent Republicans above, the win-win rhetoric was far from a partisan project. The Clintons, for example, were fond of win-winning with, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

And the rest is history: decades lost, for the most part, in win-win one-upsmanship when we could have been preparing smartly for limits to growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. But that’s enough about history. What does Rio+20 offer in its wake? I think it offers perhaps the single biggest opportunity yet for “steady statesmanship” in international diplomacy.

Signs are abounding that the win-win rhetoric is giving way to common sense and sound science. No clearer sign exists than the CASSE position on economic growth and its growing list of signatories and commenters. One long-time conservation leader who recently signed the CASSE position noted, “I’ve been waiting for you for 40 years.” The time is ripe for steady state economics in academia, non-governmental organizations, and public policy.

But it’s not just we at CASSE and our list of signatories who signify a paradigm shift away from the obsession with economic growth. Why, just today the Huffington Post published an interview with Jeff Rubin about his new book, The End of Growth. The title is less noteworthy than the fact that Rubin was chief economist with CIBC World Markets. It seems like almost every day another well-known economist or ex-Wall Streeter is looking limits to growth square in the eye and not flinching. Rubin sees the end of growth as an opportunity for the planet to recover from the destruction inevitably wrought be growth.

These folks have a lesson for mainstream environmental and conservation organizations who can’t kick the win-win growth habit: Better get out of the way as real conservation leadership is coming from elsewhere. History will show that the big conservation NGOs have done us a major disservice by failing to raise awareness sooner — much sooner — of the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. To the degree they actively propagated the win-win rhetoric, their legacies will suffer.

I’ve digressed slightly from Rio+20, but only for some context. The proceedings of massive, bureaucratic UN conferences are not always unhitched from reality or relevance. What the various statesmen and women, ambassadors and diplomats are cogitating is the same thing we are: How can we all get along in the world when we know that many countries are consuming resources at a rate that is unsustainable and threatening to others on the planet? And yet those same countries continue calling for economic growth? There’s got to be a better way. Let’s hope the better way is achieved through diplomatic means, and not less peaceably.

Several weeks ago I moderated a session of the UN General Council in New York called “Harmony With Nature.” The session was sponsored by the Bolivian government, whose diplomats were completely understanding of limits to growth, and of the alternative policy goal of the steady state economy. My fellow panelists (including Joshua Farley, Herman Daly’s co-author of Ecological Economics) were aligned on the matter, and I daresay we literally brought “steady statesmanship” into the UN lexicon, or at least the proceedings. The tired old win-win rhetoric was debunked, and the feedback was enthusiastic.

This experience mirrored one from the Eastern Economic Association conference a few years ago, but on a much larger scale. The economists at the EEA conference were very unlike the neoclassical economists that pander to politicians with perpetual growth theories. They got it about limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy. So too with the diplomats from countries not so raveled up with Wall Street. The days of the win-win rhetoric are waning; the world at large is moving on, ready for steady statesmanship.

Are you?

Toward a New Bretton Woods and a Sustainable Civilization

by Eric Zencey

Early in April, an international community of sustainability theorists and practitioners gathered in New York City at a special High Level Meeting at the United Nations.

Titled “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm,” the High Level Meeting brought together 600 participants for the plenary session on Monday, April 2, with 200 invited experts staying an additional two days to form working groups to address key elements of the new economic paradigm. The meeting was called to begin the implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 65/309, passed last year on unanimous voice vote. That resolution, brought forward by the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan and sixty-eight co-sponsoring nations, called for implementation of a dramatically different, more “holistic” understanding of economic development. It specifically rejected the GDP-based approach taken in the past and called for the creation and use of an alternative set of indicators that would more accurately measure human wellbeing. It also authorized Bhutan to call the High Level Meeting to articulate that indicator set, and to create a path toward its adoption.

But the meeting was about more than an indicator set. To decide what you’re going to measure, you have to know what you want to measure, and discussion of that — the ultimate purpose of an economy — subverts a great deal of traditional economic thought. And so the larger purpose of the meeting was to articulate the elements of a new economic paradigm, and to issue a call to world leaders to adopt its fundamental precepts.

The linking of development policy, pursuit of wellbeing, and alternative indicators in a new economic paradigm is a strong step toward establishing a sane and sustainable civilization that focuses on meeting human needs with ecological efficiency. To get there, centuries of infinite-planet economic thinking have to be swept aside. Traditional development theory begins with the idea that some nations are underdeveloped — nations that don’t have a western, industrial, consumerist economy. It also supposes that all the nations of the world want that kind of economy and that they can have it. But all three presumptions are false. No nation on the planet has an ecologically sustainable economy, which means that every nation, without exception, faces a major development problem. Consistent with the principles and practice of traditional neoclassical economics, western-style consumerist development has been predicated on an enormous drawdown of the planet’s stock of stored antique sunlight — oil and coal — which is a finite resource; and it has completely ignored the fact that the planet’s “sink” services — its ability to absorb our effluents, including greenhouse gases, without ill effect — are fixed and finite.

Together these flaws in neoclassical theory mean that development on the traditional model simply isn’t sustainable. America, with just 6% of the world’s population, uses 24% of the world’s annual production of fossil fuels, and similar proportions of other resources, both renewable and non-renewable. A nodding acquaintance with arithmetic is all you need to see that the western model isn’t scalable to the entire planet.

The traditional model of economic development presumes that raising GDP (gross domestic product) is the central purpose of economic policy. Increasingly, world leaders are recognizing that GDP is a poor measure of economic wellbeing, which is itself just part of overall wellbeing. Thus, the High Level Meeting to explore, articulate, and adopt an alternative. Bhutan’s leadership of this movement traces back to its adoption of gross national happiness as a way of measuring economic and social progress. Their use of this broader, more accurate indicator set led them to reject western style development. Faced with a decision about joining the World Trade Organization, government officials did a kind of “GNH Impact Assessment” and found that joining the WTO would diminish, not increase, their country’s wellbeing. The Bhutanese propose that their indicator set could serve as a model for the development of alternative indicators in other countries.

The 600-strong turnout for the plenary session, with many attendees from the UN delegations of member nations, shows that other nations are inclined to agree. What was new and impressive about the meeting wasn’t so much the content of what was said in the plenary speeches; many of us have heard, and have been saying, these things for years. What was new and different was who was saying them. The call for an ecologically sustainable economy that meets human needs is now being issued by prime ministers and former prime ministers, by presidents and secretaries of the interior, by directors of environmental agencies, by high-ranking officials the world over. And UN member nations are listening.

I took to the meeting a white paper on a project I’m involved with in Vermont, where, as a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, I serve as coordinator of the Vermont Genuine Progress Indicator Project. The project brings together stakeholders — state and local officials, academics, leaders of non-profits, community leaders and interested citizens — to develop, articulate, and implement “GPI Plus,” a blending of the genuine progress indicator (one emergent standard among alternative indicator sets) and elements inspired by gross national happiness. The two complement each other. GPI is based on very clear, objective data, and measures physical things like net deforestation, net changes to air and water quality, net change in fertile farmland, and the costs of climate change. GNH is survey-driven and measures satisfaction with life in nine broad categories. Combining the two — using hard data about economic and ecological reality and survey research data about people’s experience — gives a fuller, more accurate picture of the economy’s sustainable, delivered wellbeing.

The Vermont project is moving forward, with a Data Inventory Meeting set for late May. (The first step in building the alternative indicator set is to convene producers and users of relevant data to see what we’ve got, what we can start with.) And a GPI Plus bill is making its way through the state legislature, having gained approval in both houses with minor differences; the Governor has indicated he’ll sign it. The bill commissions the GPI VT project as a state effort, identifies the Gund Institute as the leader, and would guarantee the participation of state agency heads and other officials in the process of development.

At the UN, the working groups that met April 3rd and 4th were tasked with laying the groundwork for a major international summit to be held in the summer of 2014. That meeting, UN officials hope, will result in a “New Bretton Woods Agreement,” a major rethinking and major reorganization of the economic and financial institutions that support the global economy. The Bretton Woods Agreement, signed in 1944, has been modified a bit — gone are the fixed exchange rates of the post-war era, just as Frederick Soddy advised — but it continues to embody an “infinite planet” model of economic development. With this High Level Meeting, the UN has acknowledged that it’s time to revamp our economic thinking and our institutional arrangements in light of the reality that the planet is, in fact, finite.

During the plenary sessions, there was little talk of steady-state economics or limits to growth from the keynote speakers, though the majority of the experts who participated in the working groups are well aware that the only sustainable foundation for the economy is a steady-state throughput that doesn’t increase (and indeed, will need to decrease) ecological footprints. I was part of a working group in which infinite-planet financing — debt-based money — was discussed. We tagged it as a driver of uneconomic, resource-destroying growth and marked it for change. Other groups entertained even more ambitious ideas: one proposal would simply do away with the $72-billion-a-year advertising industry, on the grounds that its reason for being is morally indefensible and, by the light of any appropriate indicator of well-being, economically dysfunctional: it encourages the planet’s wealthiest consumers to pursue whims and to feel idle wants as crucial needs, while the basic needs of a vast number of humans on the planet go unfulfilled.

Whether and how a New Bretton Woods Agreement will address the monetary system as a driver of uneconomic growth and environmental degradation remains to be seen. The nations of the world are on a learning curve, and how far along that curve they can be brought in two years will depend on how well the message is communicated — and on the kind of resistance that’s raised by beneficiaries of the current system, who can be expected to throw their considerable financial resources into an effort to stymie change. Ultimately our unsustainable global economy harms all humans, everywhere, now and yet to be born; but in the short term the harms do not fall equally. As I’ve argued elsewhere, on a finite planet, an infinite-planet financial system works as a pump, sucking money, wealth, and quality of life from the middle and lower classes and delivering it to the well-to-do. Kleptocracy — rule by thieves — is the technical name for it. History offers no examples of kleptocracies that withered away of their own accord.

No, success in bringing about a sustainable economic system won’t come simply as a result of the real-world lessons the planet will continue to offer us, as our infinite-planet system repeatedly crashes into non-negotiable, physical limits. It will come from a successful reframing of crisis as symptomatic of a need for dramatic and far-reaching change, and from mustering enough political power to implement that change.

Stay tuned.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, visiting faculty in architecture and urban planning at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, and Visiting Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies in the International Programs of SUNY Empire State College.

A best-selling novelist, he is also the author of Virgin Forest: Meditations on History, Ecology, and Culture and the forthcoming The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy, to be published this fall by the University Press of New England.

Rio+20 Needs to Address the Downsides of Growth

by Herman Daly

Note from the editor:  The Natural Resources Forum (vol. 35, no. 4) asked 29 experts, including Herman Daly, “What do you think should be the two or three highest priority political outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), scheduled for Rio de Janeiro in June 2012?”  His answer succinctly sums up the steady-state perspective.

Herman DalyThe conclusion of the 1972 Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome still stands 40 years later. Even though economies are still growing, and still put growth in first place, it is no longer economic growth, at least in wealthy countries, but has become uneconomic growth. In other words, the environmental and social costs of increased production are growing faster than the benefits, increasing “illth” faster than wealth, thereby making us poorer, not richer. We hide the uneconomic nature of growth from ourselves by faulty national accounting because growth is our panacea, indeed our idol, and we are very afraid of the idea of a steady-state economy. The increasing illth is evident in exploding financial debt, in biodiversity loss, and in destruction of natural services, most notably climate regulation. The major job of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is to help us overcome this denial and shift the path of progress from quantitative growth to qualitative development, from bigger to better. Specifically this will mean working toward a steady-state economy at a sustainable (smaller than present) scale relative to the containing ecosystem that is finite and already overstressed. Since growth now makes us poorer, not richer, poverty reduction will require sharing in the present, not the empty promise of growth in the future.