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Voluntary Simplicity and the Steady-State Economy

by Mark Burch

Voluntary simplicity is most basically characterized by the practices of mindfulness and material sufficiency. Through bringing mindfulness to our daily lives, we seek the maximum of well-being achievable through the minimum of material consumption. Well-being applies to all life forms on Earth, not just people.

The practice of sufficiency implies conscious moderation of material consumption to some admittedly flexible limit discerned by weighing both physical needs and ethical principles. Voluntary simplicity is about enough, for everyone (including other species), forever. The practice of sufficiency replaces the pursuit of affluence in consumer culture.

There are a number of synergies between voluntary simplicity and the social arrangements conducive to a steady-state economy. There are also some differences and divergences.

First, voluntary simplicity traditionally takes an individual household or “microeconomic” perspective of the good life. Most of the literature about simple living is addressed to individuals and how they can exercise choice within the scope of their personal lifestyles and families to improve quality of life through reducing material consumption. Steady-state economics is a set of macroeconomic policy recommendations. There is a discontinuity of scale between these two ways of looking at life, though certainly not a discontinuity of the values that inform both perspectives.

Both steady-state economists and practitioners of voluntary simplicity care deeply about ecological limits and social justice. Both see conserving ecosystems and reducing inequity as intimately tied up with decisions about consumption. The steady-state goal of limiting the scale of the economy relative to the ecosphere would probably be endorsed by many practitioners of simple living.

Second, there is little reference in the simplicity literature to population issues. But I would suggest that among most practitioners of voluntary simplicity, limiting population as a necessary condition for a good life is a concept so taken for granted that it scarcely gets mentioned. From its earliest formulations, steady-state economics has urged limits on human population as a prerequisite for attaining a steady state within Earth’s carrying capacity (Daly 1995). Just how this might be achieved is a continuing topic of discussion with fertility licensing being only one option.

simplifyThird, mindfulness practice helps us distinguish material from nonmaterial needs. As we become more skilled at securing appropriate satisfiers for each, we discover that material needs are small and relatively stable over time, thus calling for a small, steady-state economy to provide for them. Consumer culture’s emphasis on production for affluence derives from its tendency to conflate nonmaterial needs (which are limitless) with material consumption (which is constrained by planetary limits). The insights offered by voluntary simplicity about what makes for a good life, what role material things play in it, and how to cultivate mindfulness about our consumption choices offer a powerful complement to macroeconomic policies in promoting overall sustainability.

Fourth, the history and present-day practice of voluntary simplicity illustrate that a high quality of life depends jointly on sufficient material provision and abundance of nonmaterial experiences that contribute to well-being. Fortunately, sufficient material provision is easy to achieve within ecological limits if our economy and marketing methods do not systematically and artificially inflame desire for material goods as proxies for meeting nonmaterial needs. Once material needs have been met, the extra ecological footprint incurred for meeting nonmaterial needs is remarkably small. Practitioners of voluntary simplicity, therefore, provide living examples of the good life that is possible in a steady-state economy.

Fifth, living within the means of what the planet can provide, as urged by steady-state economics, requires a move away from economic globalization and toward localization. Voluntary simplicity recognizes self-reliance as a key element of a good life. Cooperating with our neighbors to provide local goods and services achieves community economic development. Such cooperation builds economic assets with tools such as local currencies, barter systems, cooperative enterprises, and all manner of production using local labor and resources. These practices also build “social capital” — the dense network of relationships which include, but also transcend, economic exchange relationships. Psychological research has repeatedly shown that the quality of our relationships is the most important contributor to well-being, followed closely by the quality of our work experience, access to leisure, and physical health. Beyond modest sufficiency, monetary riches occupy a distant fourth or fifth place on the list of what makes for a good life. Promoting personal and community self-reliance seems highly synergistic with the requirements of a steady-state economy.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the voluntary simplicity movement and steady-state economics is the analysis of desire (or lack thereof). For simple living, this analysis is fundamental to a good life. The origins of desire seem to be mostly lacking from economic theory and analysis. Mainstream economics rests on an 18th-century theory of human psychology and motivation that finds no empirical support from modern psychological research (see the critique of the “standard economic model” offered in Schor 2009). Moreover, macroeconomic policies amount to the imposition of measures by elite economic agents upon the rank and file of humanity who are often kept in the dark about social and environmental problems and are intentionally kept out of decisions for fixing these problems. While expedient in some circumstances, such an approach squares poorly with the values of simple living. Something more is required.

The discipline of economics claims that people can be forced to modify the expression of their desires through their consumption behavior. The forcing device is the pricing mechanism, which is driven by those who want to exploit desire to generate profit. But in reality, changing behavior requires much more than getting the prices right. It requires both inquiry into the nature of desire itself and further insight or self-awareness on the part of consumers.

Certainly people can be coerced to behave in certain ways by creating price incentives for desired behavior. But another approach is possible that grows from enlightened self-awareness — not just “rational” self-interest. Human behavior changes when our consciousness of ourselves and our relationships change. Since consciousness is at least partly socially constructed, it is through our relationships with others that transformations of consciousness can occur. Therefore, changing the focal length of consciousness through mindfulness practice and conscientization experiences represents an alternate evolutionary pathway toward a better life. We need not be limited to just tinkering with price systems or imposing “limits” by elite fiat.

I should hasten to add that my view is not universal among voluntary simplicity practitioners. But there is noteworthy consistency over centuries and across cultures that the choice to adopt a simpler life is usually preceded by a fundamental change in outlook (Wagner 1903, 17). Sometimes this is caused by trauma or loss (Spina 1998), sometimes by deliberate spiritual practice (Kasser and Brown 2005), and sometimes it happens as a series of spontaneous insights that lead us to question our previous understanding of what constitutes the good life and seek alternatives (Elgin 2010; Pierce 2000).

I see many synergies between a steady-state economy and the sorts of policies and social structures that support simple living. Broad acceptance of a steady-state economy would almost necessarily include the practice of simple living, especially if the transition is to be democratic and involve the majority of citizens. Conversely, voluntary simplicity has much to offer in achieving a steady-state economy through its analysis of human desire and its emphasis on the power of mindfulness to transform consciousness. Voluntary simplicity can help us evolve toward wanting what we must in any case do.

References

Daly, Herman (1995). The steady-state economy: Alternative to growthmania. In: Steady State Economics, (2nd Edition). Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 180-194.

Elgin, Duane. (2010). Voluntary simplicity: Toward a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich. 2nd ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, Publishers. Elgin discusses collective action through the creative use of social media.

Kasser, Tim and Brown, Kirk Warren (2009). A scientific approach to voluntary simplicity. In: Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska (2009) Less Is More: Embracing simplicity for a healthy planet, a caring economy and lasting happiness. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, pp. 35-40.

Pierce, Linda Breen (2000). Choosing simplicity: Real people finding peace and fulfillment in a complex world. Carmel, CA: Gallagher Press.

Schor, Juliet. (2009). “The new politics of consumption.” In: Voluntary simplicity: The poetic alternative to consumer culture. Samuel Alexander. ed., 253-269. Wanganui, NZ: Stead and Daughters Ltd. Schor provides yet another take on what might motivate the formation of a politics of simple living and some key principles that might guide it.

Spina, Anthony C. (1998). “Research shows new aspects of voluntary simplicity.” The Simple Living Network On-Line Newsletter, January-March, 1999.

Wagner, Charles (1903). The simple life. New York, NY: McClure, Philips & Co.

Mark Burch is a fellow of the Simplicity Institute and also the author of Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet.

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Deceptionomics

by Brent Blackwelder

This March, at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC, I saw a documentary on the destruction of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake. Soviet planners and decision makers fifty years ago decided to divert the two main tributary rivers of the Aral to grow cotton. Starved of fresh water inflows, the Aral Sea has shrunk to half its original surface area and lost 75% of its volume.

The productive fishery was wiped out, salinity levels in the lake tripled, and the water has been poisoned with pesticides. I wondered what kind of deceptive economic calculations were used to justify destroying one of the natural wonders of the world.

I recently argued that today’s global marketplace is characterized by cheater economics — a corporate welfare system that has no part in a sustainable, steady state economy. There’s another type of economics that’s also in wide use today. It’s not quite as “in-your-face” as cheater economics, but it’s just as harmful because of the way it distorts reality. Deceptionomics uses “fool-you” accounting to omit genuine costs and misrepresent the true benefits and costs of economic transactions.

Robert Trivers’s new book The Folly of Fools examines the role of self-deception in human life. The animal kingdom is full of examples of deception by both predator and prey. For example, over 100 varieties of insects look like innocent twigs but consume other types of insects that unsuspectingly come close. Trivers applies his analysis of self-deception to the economics profession. Economics, he contends, is not yet a science because it fails to ground itself in underlying knowledge, namely biology. He writes:

…when a science is a pretend science rather than the real thing, it falls into sloppy and biased systems for evaluating the truth… [M]odels of economic activity must inevitably be based on some notion of what an individual organism is up to. What are we trying to maximize?

Here economists play a shell game, he notes, as they tell us that people attempt to maximize “utility.” However, when asked what constitutes utility, they reply, “Anything people wish to maximize.” How’s that for circular logic? Sometimes a person will try to maximize income, sometimes food, and sometimes sex over both food and income. So now we need “preference functions” to sort out all the competing preferences in an attempt to maximize utility, but, as Trivers points out, “economics by itself can provide no theory for how the organism is expected to rank these variables.”

Another big mistake by economists is the conflation of two senses of utility — the utility of your actions to yourself, and the utility of your actions to others. Most economists view these two kinds of utility as being aligned. Trivers says that economists “often argue that individuals acting for personal utility will tend to benefit the group.” Thus, they “tend to be blind to the possibility that unrestrained pursuit of personal utility can have disastrous effects on group benefit.” Trivers observes that economists assume (contrary to direct experience and biological evidence) that “market forces will naturally constrain the cost of deception in social and economic systems.” He notes with astonishment that “such is the detachment of this ‘science’ from reality that these contradictions arouse notice only when the entire world is hurtling into an economic depression based on corporate greed wedded to false economic theory.”

In a steady state economy, we would seek to minimize deceptive practices. We would not delude ourselves with the ruse that GDP captures the essence of well-being. Nor would we have separate moralities for business and community. We teach our kids not to squander their allowance and to save some for the future. In family and community settings, people care about the long term and consider what kind of world our children and grandchildren will live in. But in business circles, all attention is riveted on quarterly returns. Economists employ a discount rate in their calculations that values the future 100 years from now as being worth almost nothing.

The truly deceptive nature of our current economic system can be seen by looking at the big debate over oil prices and the attempt to blame President Obama for the high price of gasoline. Meanwhile candidate Newt Gingrich proclaims on national TV that he has a plan for $2.50-a-gallon gasoline. But even at $4.00 per gallon, the price of gasoline is deceptively low.

Every day the U.S. is spending approximately $2 billion buying gasoline. What is remarkable and not disclosed to the public, writes Amory Lovins in his new article in Foreign Affairs, is the $4 billion in losses stemming “from the macroeconomic costs of oil dependence, the microeconomic costs of oil price volatility, and the cost of having our military forces ready for intervention in the Persian Gulf.”

The International Center for Technology Assessment reported in 2001 on the deception involved in the price of gasoline. It found that the real cost of gasoline, when the crucial indirect or hidden costs are included, was between $9 and $15 higher than the price paid at the pump.

Such estimates rarely appear in the mainstream media. As a result, many people are unaware of the high environmental and social costs of our economic transactions. Even if we remain unaware of these costs, we still have to pay for them. We’d be better off eliminating the deception embedded in our institutions and making economic decisions based on knowledge of true costs including the environmental impacts of growth. As long as deceptionomics rules, fuzzy math will be used to justify incessant GDP growth, and one by one we must say goodbye to the Aral Seas of the world.

The Role of Religious Congregations in Promoting a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Proponents of a steady state economy could get a boost from religious congregations. Very thoughtful and insightful people are now writing about the urgent need to transition to a steady state economy. However, good ideas from deep thinkers in this day and age are often insufficient to overcome the power of entrenched lobbies such as the oil, timber, and mining industries, as well as those in the financial sector who specialize in offshore tax havens and dubious finance schemes of the kind portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Inside Job.

Those interested in a sustainable economy are seeking to focus society’s attention on the limits to economic growth. This means rethinking the measures of economic growth and coming to grips with the drivers of consumer demand, such as population growth.

Religious communities are good places to look for allies because, over the past 15 years, many congregations have developed an interest in exploring human duties to creation. The concept of stewardship of creation is gaining widespread support among those who believe in God as the creator of the universe.

Surprisingly, many environmentally concerned people are not aware the Biblical teachings on stewardship of creation. Some promptly dismiss the notion by saying that the Bible is anti-environment and against sustainability. They claim that the book of Genesis urges humans to “exercise dominion over nature and subdue the earth.” This is an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew that unfortunately played a role in promoting a view of the earth and the rest of life as resources to be exploited.

Today there is much greater theological scholarship describing the full range of environmental messages in the Bible. This scholarship has caught on in many religious congregations where support for environmental sustainability is gathering strength. For example, Interfaith Power & Light, founded by Episcopal minister Sally Bingham, has coalitions in over 30 U.S. states, encouraging churches and temples to adopt environmentally enlightened policies in operating their religious buildings and grounds and to be active in promoting clean energy.

Proponents of a steady state economy need to enlist congregations to discuss the concept of a new economy and to consider alternatives to massive consumer spending. There is a natural connection because most religions emphasize living a simpler and less materialistic life, a life that considers the impacts of one’s actions on others.

It would be fitting for religious congregations to take the lead in demanding a new national index of well-being to replace gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is a good measure of the throughput of resources in an economy, or more bluntly, the rate of converting natural resources into waste. Typical economists exhort people to increase their purchases and consumption to keep GDP on the rise. Such a philosophy is incompatible with a sustainable economy on a finite planet. Religious congregations bring moral authority to a discussion of the ethics of consumerism and materialism. They can be powerful allies in challenging the basic economic dictum to go out and shop. People of faith could deliver a powerful message about the failure of GDP to serve as an accurate measure of happiness and well-being.

The Genesis story of Noah’s ark ends with a covenant that is not simply between God and Noah, but rather a three-way covenant among God, Noah, and all the animals on the ark. Humans have not lived up to this contract, as modern industrial society is devastating wildlife habitat, putting as much as one fourth of the earth’s life forms in jeopardy.

During a discussion of animal species threatened by human activity, one of the world’s foremost biologists, E. O. Wilson, was asked what animals would disappear if humans were to disappear from the earth. Wilson answered that the only ones he could think of were two species of head lice.

Religious organizations have already played a role in debates on endangered species, but people of faith could also weigh in on the topic of population growth. They could write the Pope pointing out that the Genesis blessing, “be fruitful and multiply,” is first given to all the animals. Humans, therefore, must take their blessing in this context and seek a planet characterized by a flourishing of all kinds of creatures.

In summary, the effort to attain a sustainable economy needs big allies. I have suggested that religious congregations can confront the biggest economic question of our times. What kind of stewards of creation are human beings if our global economy disrupts the earth’s climate, decimates wildlife habitat (even in remote places), expands the population of our own species beyond sustainable bounds, and gauges its success by the volume we consume?

References

1. For evangelical perspectives on environmental stewardship see Matthew Sleeth’s The Gospel According to the Earth or visit the Blessed Earth environmental ministry.

2. Visit Interfaith Power & Light for a set of activities on clean air, food, and climate that religious congregations are involved in.

National Wildlife Federation Adopts Key Element of Steady-State Thinking

by Eric Zencey

The National Wildlife Federation held its annual meeting near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Friday, April 15. The meeting took a bold, firm step toward implementing a key feature of steady-state economic thinking: it passed a resolution calling on the President, Congress, state governors and state legislators to abandon gross domestic product (GDP) as the indicator that economic policy makers seek to maximize, and to develop and adopt instead a broader measurement of economic and ecological well-being.

The resolution passed unanimously, as delegates from 47 states and two overseas territories said “aye,” no one said “nay,” and the resolution was gaveled into force. I was there representing the Vermont Natural Resources Council, which had put the resolution on the agenda. The vote was a quiet moment in a large conference hall, with delegates shuffling papers as they sat at long tables facing the dais, each of us fronted by a miniature version of our state flag. This is what revolutions in political economy sometimes look like: quiet meetings in stuffy conference halls in which concerned citizens say, in unison, “Stop doing that and do this instead.”

In passing the resolution, the Federation lends its considerable support to an international movement that seeks to alter what we count as progress. That change—measuring the actual well-being delivered by the economy instead of the amount of money that changes hands each quarter—is crucial to establishing a sane, sustainable, steady state economy.

Every economics textbook warns that GDP is a poor measure of well-being, and yet by default it continues to be the indicator that economic policy seeks to maximize. GDP doesn’t measure well-being at all, but simply tries to tally the dollar value of final goods and services produced in the U.S. By design, it leaves out volunteer work and domestic production—the daycare you do at home doesn’t count, but if you commercialize the transaction by dropping your kids off at the daycare center, GDP goes up. Cooking, cleaning, maintenance, yard work, caring for aging parents—none of it counts if money doesn’t change hands. Neighborhoods, communities and households all benefit mightily from this kind of non-commercial production, and their replacement by commercial services often fails to bring the same level of satisfaction and well-being.

By design, GDP also leaves out ecosystem services; if you hang your laundry out to dry, the sun and wind do the job, but if you throw it in the dryer you use electricity, increase your carbon footprint, and give GDP a bit of a bump. Ecological economists identify a dozen categories of ecosystem services, including climate stability, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, maintenance of a library of genetic diversity, pollination, purification and transport of water by the solar-powered hydrological cycle, flood protection services of marshlands and forests, and so on. Ecosystem services count for nothing in GDP. If we don’t value them, they are easily ignored. Yet the loss of ecosystem services leads, eventually and inevitably, to the loss of civilization itself.

GDP also misreads our level of well-being by treating defensive and remedial expenditures as positive economic activity. Remedial: the $12 billion that British Petroleum alone has spent (so far) in its efforts to clean up the catastrophic oil release in the Gulf of Mexico counts as an increase in GDP, though the expenditure comes nowhere close to putting things back to their pre-Deepwater state. Defensive: if someone breaks into a neighbor’s house and you decide to buy a burglar alarm, GDP goes up—but you probably don’t feel as secure as you did before the break-in.

Economic growth brings us problems, and as we spend money to deal with those problems (e.g., trucking in water to replace the services of an aquifer contaminated by mountaintop-removal coal mining, adding treatment plants to purify drinking water fouled by chemical discharges, or turning up the air conditioning because smog and particulate matter make opening a window an undesirable option), GDP goes up. By some estimates, as much as one-quarter to one-third of our GDP consists of such expenditures.

If we’re ever to have a sustainable, steady state economy—an economy that operates on a sustainably sized flow of matter and energy, and which excretes outputs that can successfully be absorbed by the ecosystems of the planet—we need to start measuring what matters, and not mistake the commotion of money for the creation of well-being. Steady-state economics doesn’t mean that our quality of life will stagnate; we can have continual improvement in social and cultural well-being as we spend less on remediation and repair. Ecological economists call this development to distinguish it from footprint-enlarging growth. And this is the key to steady-state thinking—we have to stop growing our ecological footprint (which is already too large to be sustained) and begin budgeting our economy within the limits of what we can sustainably extract and emit. The National Wildlife Federation did not specifically sign on to the steady-state vision; but by calling for an accurate measurement of the costs of economic growth, it has officially joined us on a path that can lead nowhere else.

The resolution passed by the annual meeting reads, in part,

…be it resolved that the National Wildlife Federation urges the President, the Congress, and state Governors and legislatures to take immediate steps to redesign the use of the Gross Domestic Product as an indicator of economic well-being, and to take all necessary action to develop and implement a system of economic accounting that gives a more accurate measure of overall economic and ecological well-being; and be it further resolved that the new or modified system of national accounts should treat as cost or debit items the depletion of finite, non-renewable natural resources and the loss and degradation of ecosystem services, including the service of providing habitat for wildlife.

The Federation is, as the name implies, an umbrella organization that offers central administration and the strength of shared purpose to its affiliate organizations. It’s the largest environmental advocacy group in the nation, with affiliates in 47 states, several territories, and a total membership of 1.5 million members. The organization brings together hunters, anglers and sportsmen, on the one side, with hikers, backpackers, and birders on the other, with a good strong mix of environmentally aware citizens thrown in as well. It’s a broad coalition bound together by a shared understanding of the need to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat—ecosystems and their genetic diversity.

In its seventy-five year history, the NWF has fought and won a lot of battles, from the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 (which for the first time provided Federal funding for wildlife programs), through the 1944 invention of the concept of the environmental impact statement and its eventual adoption into law, and on through a leadership role in the major environmental legislation of the 1960’s and 1970’s: the Clean Water Act of 1963, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969, the dramatically expanded Clean Water Act of 1970. The Federation is an active litigator, using these laws and others to block unwise economic activity and protect the nation’s ecosystems. It’s safe to say that without the Federation, many of the ecosystems of North America would be not just threatened but degraded to the point of collapse.

Begun by a group of outdoorsmen who saw their beloved wilderness areas, and the animals in them, being threatened by the encroachment of economic activities, the Federation has in its seventy-five year history broadened its approach. As a history of the Federation puts it, “While the NWF continues to champion threatened species, its work has evolved to embrace a multi-species, ecosystem approach.” (source: “What We Want is Action,” by Jessica Snyder Sachs in National Wildlife, February/March 2011, p. 27.) It also broadened its reach in another way: “we began seeing the patterns,” says former NWF counsel Patrick Parenteau, “and attacking the root causes of such problems.” (quoted by Sachs, p. 25.) The adoption of the economic indicators resolution is a continuation of this trend, reaching beyond symptoms to address the problem at its source.

The root cause of our environmental problems—our ecological crisis—is infinite planet economic theory, the rules and axioms of a discipline that tells us that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But neoclassical economists continue to believe this is possible because human ingenuity is a factor of production and, supposedly, it is infinitely powerful. You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Economic production is, at bottom and unalterably, a process that relies on physical inputs. No amount of human ingenuity will ever let us make something from nothing or nothing from something. No amount of ingenuity will let us create energy out of nothing or recycle it to use it again.

In the real world outside of infinite planet theory, our acts and works are constrained by physical law. Those laws tell us that increasing our matter-and-energy throughput has unavoidable consequences in the world. It damages ecosystems, leading to the loss of (sometimes irreplaceable) ecosystem services. We can’t count that loss as a cost unless we first value ecosystem services as a benefit and adopt an indicator other than GDP as the one we seek to maximize. With the passage of this resolution, the National Wildlife Federation commits to lending its considerable energies and expertise to that effort.

Growth of GDP and Discontent in Egypt and Tunisia

by Eric Zencey

The regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia have been hailed as victories for democracy, as proof of the liberalizing power of social networking media, as testimony to the power of nonviolent political action. All of that they may indeed be; but the events in Egypt and Tunisia also illustrate a major defect in our economic thinking, one from which we should draw a very different and much more cautionary conclusion.

The flaw in standard economic theory that’s behind the Middle East’s winter of discontent is the acceptance of gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of citizen well-being. A recent poll by the Gallup organization, reported in early February, found that despite significant gains in per capita GDP in both Egypt and Tunisia, the level of well-being of their citizens has been falling over the past decade. This decline in well-being certainly played a role in the unrest that put citizens in the streets, challenging their governments.

In Egypt, between 2005 and 2010 per capita GDP rose from $4,762 per year to $6,367. In Tunisia it rose from $7,182 to $9,489. But both countries saw a significant decline in the percentage of the population that is classified as thriving according to a standard, well established measure.

That measure is the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, developed by a researcher named Hadley Cantril. It’s a survey research tool, and asks respondents to answer a few simple questions:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you are standing at the present time? On which step of the ladder do you think you will stand about five years from now?

To rank as “thriving,” respondents have to have positive views of their current place on the ladder (seven or higher) and positive expectations about the future (eight or higher). Below that, respondents are ranked as “struggling”—their “ladder-future” expectation is lower than the present, or both values fall below the thriving range. Below struggling is “suffering,” people who report their place on the ladder at four or below.

The Cantril Scale correlates with objective markers of well-being. Thrivers have fewer health problems and fewer sick days, while reporting less worry, stress, and anxiety and more enjoyment, happiness, and respect. Those in the struggling category report more daily stress and worry about money than the “thriving” respondents, and more than double the amount of sick days. Those in the “suffering” category are more likely to report that they lack basics like food and shelter, more likely to report physical pain, and more likely to experience higher levels of stress, worry, sadness, and anger. They have more than double the rate of diseases compared to “thriving” respondents.

In both countries, as GDP rose steadily, the number of citizens categorized as “thriving” fell. In Egypt, 29% of people reported themselves as thriving in 2005, but that number fell to just 11% in 2010. In Tunisia, Cantril Scale data are unavailable prior to 2008, when 24% of the population could be classified as thriving; that number fell to 14% in 2010, a 40% decline.

The nonviolent revolutions in both countries may have been motivated less by abstract commitment to democratic freedom than by widespread experience of a declining standard of living and increased economic insecurity, even in the face of rising GDP. Two factors contribute to this result that seems paradoxical within the standard model of economic thinking: (1) increasing inequality in income and (2) increasing food prices.

Thanks in part to the Aswan Dam, which interrupted the regular cycle by which Nile delta farmlands were re-nourished by annual flooding, Egypt has been the single largest importer of grain in the world. When Russia announced an embargo on grain exports (the result of unprecedented, climate-change-driven weather that scorched into ruin nearly half of Russia’s usual annual harvest), the price of food shot up. Before the embargo, the average Egyptian family spent 38% of its income on food (compared to 7% in the U.S.). Most simply couldn’t afford the higher prices, and hunger and food insecurity spread through the middle class. Perversely, GDP counted higher food prices as a positive contribution to well-being.

Because of that basic flaw, a rising GDP did not mean a rising standard of living. And even if GDP were a more accurate measure of material well-being, it would still be mathematically possible for a very large number of people to become worse off economically as per capita GDP rises.  This situation could occur if there is growing income inequality (i.e., the benefits of increasing GDP aren’t widely shared). In Egypt and Tunisia, that mathematical possibility became an economic fact—and a politically charged social condition.

Declining standards of well-being are politically destabilizing, and lead naturally enough to sweeping support for regime change. In Egypt and Tunisia the regimes happened to be despotic, and the call for change came as a commitment to democracy, an end to corruption, and demands for civil liberties. But within democracies, declining standards of living can have the opposite effect. Open and institutionalized systems of regime change—voting—will absorb the discontent for a time, but if the decline lasts too long, and can’t be blamed on a particular party in power, pressure grows for stepping outside established parties for new, radical, revolutionary approaches. Democratic forms are no proof against a slide into repressive forms. In Germany in the 1930’s, a declining standard of living contributed to the rise of the Nazi party; Hitler was democratically elected to the office of Chancellor (and then proceeded to establish himself as Fuehrer).

As America’s perpetual-growth economy faces the reality of ecological limits, as climate change imposes costs and decreased well-being on us, as energy and other resource prices increase, we face the prospect of a widespread decline in our standard of living. Americans coming of age today are among the first generation who can’t be confident that they will be better off than their parents; by one widely used measure of well-being (the genuine progress indicator, which deducts loss of ecosystem services and other “disamenities” from the national accounts), the American standard of living has flatlined since the 1970s, despite continued strong growth in GDP.

Thus the cautionary lessons from Egypt and Tunisia. GDP is a measure of the commotion of money in an economy, not a measure of delivered well-being. If sustained or rising well-being is what is economically and politically desirable, we should measure it directly, instead of counting on GDP to do the job. And if we accept the idea of popular sovereignty—that governments rule with “the just consent of the governed,” as Jefferson put it in our Declaration of Independence—we must recognize that as the middle class goes, so goes the legitimacy of the regime in power. No system of government—despotic or democratic—fares well when the majority of its citizens experiences a declining standard of living.

When increasing the standard of living depends on continual expansion of the economy’s ecological footprint, that increase must at some point come to an end. The examples of Egypt and Tunisia invite us to ask: what then?

Eric Zencey is a visiting associate professor of historical and political studies at Empire State College of the State University of New York, and an affiliate of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming The Other Road to Serfdom: Essays in Sustainable Democracy.