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Call Me a FOCer: Big Ideas under a Big Sky

by Rob Dietz

My final week as the director of CASSE was beyond belief. It included oddities such as bear poop, a speeding ticket, a discussion of steady state economics on horseback, and the juxtaposition of ostentatious consumption (an iconic billionaire’s vacation mansion) and humble sharing (an iconic poet/philosopher’s willingness to impart his lifelong wisdom). It also offered an opportunity to pause and reflect on humanity’s predicament, a reflection that produced feelings of hope for the future. All the while, I felt like the dumbest guy in the room.

Five or six months ago, I got a call from Charlie Sing, a prominent professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan. Charlie is one of those larger-than-life people that you occasionally meet.  In his presence, you quickly come to appreciate his Midwestern roots, and, even though he’s nearing retirement, he radiates farmboy charm. At the same time, his intellect is on full display. He likes big ideas, and he likes to think about out how society can make a transition to a resilient and sustainable future. Even more, though, he likes to share good-natured stories and see what new ideas and actions can emerge from the storytelling.

When he called, he invited me to participate in a gathering that he organizes at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. He told me that he was pulling together a meeting of friends to discuss ecological economics, sustainable agriculture, and public health, while cultivating a deeper understanding of what’s necessary to achieve a livable future on our overpopulated, overburdened, and over-polluted planet. Charlie is a fan of Herman Daly, and he wanted people at this meeting who could present Herman’s economic vision (Peter Victor, Josh Farley and I were all invited because of our Dalyist point of view). I hesitated to accept the invitation, mostly because I’ve been working to reduce the amount I travel (I’ve been avoiding air travel and trying to adjust to a more local existence). But Charlie’s charms won out, and I agreed to attend, although I determined I would drive to the meeting. I know that driving 900 miles is a sorry way to save on carbon emissions, but it was the best I could do, and I’m glad I did it.

The friends of Charlie (FOCers) are a remarkable gang. On paper, their credentials and accomplishments are formidable. In real life, they’re not only the “best and brightest,” but they’re also caring, hard working, and utterly unpretentious. They chair university departments, manage public programs, conceive and conduct major research projects, run nonprofit organizations, and write influential books. It’s comforting to know that these brilliant minds are hard at work finding ways to make society sustainable.

A couple of months before the meeting, I received a thick brown envelope in the mail. It contained a packet of reading material, including some of my favorite essays by Herman Daly, a selection of insightful papers from other FOCers, and an agenda. On the agenda, I saw that my name was attached to a presentation scheduled for the first night entitled “Strategies for Conserving Ecological Integrity.” My first thought was, “If I knew the strategies for conserving ecological integrity, my services would be in much higher demand!” To put it mildly, I was anxious about the presentation. I’ve given plenty of public talks, but those talks focus on the limits to growth and steady-state economics. I knew Peter Victor would comprehensively cover these topics in the morning, and I felt I had little to add that would enhance the FOCers’ knowledge. So I asked myself a couple of questions:

  1. What can I say that will be useful?
  2. What can I tell a room full of geniuses, most of whom know more than I do about ecological integrity?

Deadlines often provide inspiration. As the meeting approached, it hit me. The only story I could tell them that they didn’t already know was my own experience in trying to conserve ecological integrity. And the most useful thing I could do is speak from the heart and bring the emotional aspects of conservation to the forefront. I had a lot of time to contemplate these thoughts on the 15-hour drive to Mountain Sky. And what a drive it was: through the Columbia River Gorge, across the Palouse Prairie, over the Continental Divide, and along the Yellowstone River and Absaroka Mountain Range to the ranch. Two contrasting thoughts, both originating from the view beyond the windshield, conspired to distract me from focusing on my presentation during the drive:

  1. I am lucky to be able to see such an expansive and inspiring landscape, even from the confines of my Hyundai rental car, and
  2. I am stunned by the way this landscape displays the signs and scars of economic growth (e.g., Bonneville Dam and other massive dams on the Columbia River; wind farms along the gorge; agricultural fields on the prairies; highways that connect sprawling cities like Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Missoula; the mega-sized abandoned copper mine in Butte; the Anaconda Smelter Stack, which could encase the Washington Monument; and the irrigated ranches along the rivers and streams that drain the mountain snowfields).

By the time I arrived, distractions notwithstanding, I had a decent idea about what I wanted to say. And that was a good thing, because from the moment I set foot on the ranch until the time I left, my brain was operating at full capacity.

On the opening morning, Charlie laid out the game plan for each day. We’d have a morning session, grounded by a presentation. Preselected respondents would provide additional information, and then the whole group could ask questions and offer insights. Afternoons would be free so that participants could explore the ranch and its vertical surroundings and enter into less structured discussions. Evenings would feature another presentation with time for discussion.

That first morning, Peter Victor delivered his entertaining and information-rich synopsis of his work on Managing without Growth. During the discussion, I felt a sense of relief. It’s good to know that some of the smartest and most thoughtful people (confession: in their presence I felt downright ignorant and dim-witted) reject the notion of infinite economic growth on a finite planet. They also readily understood the need to stabilize population and consumption. And they made some astute observations about our situation. The most memorable comment originated from the wonderful mind of Wendell Berry.

He said that in our predicament, neither optimism nor pessimism is particularly useful. An optimistic outlook enables people to set aside problems, along with any sense of urgency about solving them. If you’re optimistic that ingenuity and technology can overcome the limits to growth, then why would you worry about the size of the economy? On the flipside, if you’re pessimistic about the future of humanity (i.e., you think the ship is sinking and we’re all going down with it), it’s hard to muster the energy to fight for the necessary changes. Wendell concluded this line of thinking by recognizing that hope is the key. We may feel stymied by profound problems like climate change, and we may feel saddened about the species being trampled under our collective feet, but by maintaining hope, we nurture a spark that can ignite a movement for change.

Shared meals and shared activities outside the meeting room offered more opportunities for discussion. I went for a hike on that first day with 8 or 10 other FOCers. Besides sustainable world population, we talked about bears, mountain lions, and other animals that sport big teeth and claws (we even got to hear a tale of leopard wrestling that was too bizarre to be made-up). I’m used to walking in bear country, but I always get a little nervous in places where grizzlies roam. I was the first to spot the dinner-plate-sized paw prints in the middle of the trail. A little further up, our intrepid pack came across a dried pile of bear poop. A little further up the trail, we spied a less-dry pile of bear poop. A little further, we found a wet one. By then I was expecting to see the bear around the next turn, but we never did catch up to it. Too bad — if I had gotten eaten, I could have stopped worrying about my talk.

I’ve never given a presentation quite like that. I expressed more emotion in front of a crowd than I’m comfortable with. But I think it was worth it. I used personal stories to exemplify three basic strategies for conserving ecological integrity:

  1. Conserve land and water (coincides with my experience in conservation at the Fish and Wildlife Service).
  2. Promote an economic shift (coincides with my experience at CASSE).
  3. Tell an inspiring story (coincides with revelations from my family experience).

More importantly, I think in some small way, I opened space in the gathering to explore what’s alive in each of us.

With my talk out of the way, I got to listen more intently on the second and third days of the meeting, which were all about sustainable agriculture and medicine. The listening paid off, as I had an ah-ha moment. I already knew that the root of the problem in economics is that humanity’s relationship to nature has been misconstrued. Mainstream economists view the economy as the whole and the environment as a part of the whole. This view is inside out. The industrial agriculture model exhibits the same inside-out flaw. People who run factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations tend not to notice that they are embedded in a local ecology. The same goes for healthcare. A common viewpoint is that people are at the mercy of their genetics and hordes of external germs on the attack. A more enlightened view recognizes that our genetic makeup and microbes both respond in remarkable ways to the ecological systems in which they’re enclosed. It seems, then, that the root of our problems across a wide range of human endeavor is a distorted view of our place in the natural world. Thus a prerequisite to achieving a sustainable healthcare scheme, agricultural system, or economy is a widespread philosophical change of heart. We must view ourselves and our societies as strands in nature’s web rather than dominators of that web.

I’d like to say that my ah-ha moment was the highlight of my trip, but it was really the personal discussions I got to have with the other FOCers. I discussed steady-state economics with Peter Victor while riding horses through golden mountain meadows. I told Wendell Berry how much his essay, A Good Scythe, had influenced my thinking and actions. The topics and the pace were unbelievable. From the origins of life to Tuvan throat singing. From economic policy to how to run a dairy farm. From cycling and tai chi to gut microbia and mass communication.

On the last day, just before my return trip, I took a walk with Alan and Katherine Geubert and Tracy Sides. I spent most of the time talking with Alan — he was kind enough to entertain my questions about his distinguished career as a columnist. Toward the end of our walk, we passed by the vacation home of the ranch’s owner, the billionaire businessman Arthur Blank. It’s not what I would call a cabin in the woods, although Alan and I joked that Arthur Blank probably does refer to it as a cabin or cottage. A few minutes later, we saw Wendell (with binoculars hanging from his neck) and Tanya Berry walking across a grassy field. We waved and they waved back. The mansion behind us sure seemed out of place next to the inspiring humility of this Kentucky farm couple. That scene sums up the situation in our world today — inconsistencies (e.g., 1 billion people are malnourished and 1 billion people are obese) are everywhere. I left the ranch that afternoon with a mind full of ideas. One of the best was the realization that simple sights, stories, and connections with colleagues could generate such substantial hope. I was lost in such thoughts when I saw the police motorcycle in the rearview mirror. He issued me the first speeding ticket of my driving career. I guess I was in a hurry. I really wanted to get back home and share my hope with my family.

A Liberating (but Damned Uncomfortable) Conversion

by Herman Daly

Foreword to Wendell Berry’s What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth

Herman DalyAs a poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and thinker on matters agrarian, Wendell Berry needs no introduction. But he is not a professional economist, not a guild member with a Ph.D. union card. Nor does he claim to be such. In a world where knowledge is organized by discipline and professionalized in tight circles, it is often hard to be heard outside the circumference of one’s own silo. Therefore I fear that the very people for whom reading these essays would be most beneficial, and through whom they could have the most salutary impact on our ailing world, will simply not read them. I can imagine some of my university colleagues and students in economics departments asking: Why should I read a book by a noneconomist on “economics for a renewed commonwealth”? There likely won’t be a single equation in the book, and use of the archaic word “commonwealth” betrays a probable lack of understanding of the individualistic basis of neoclassical economic theory. Economists don’t write poetry or fiction (well, maybe a bit of the latter, but not on purpose), so let not poets or agrarian-environmentalist- localists write about the sophisticated technical science of economics in a globalized industrial growth economy. Leave it to the experts to continue to grow the economy and thereby provide the only possible solution to the problems of poverty, energy, and climate change. I can hear it now, complete with aggrieved intonation.

My purpose in this foreword is therefore to preemptively reply to this imagined but not unlikely invitation for Wendell to shut up. I want to explain why it is critically important for all citizens, especially professional economists, to read and reflect deeply on the essays in this book. Yet I understand the reluctance of someone with the commitments sketched above to give these essays a fair reading. To do so is to run a serious risk of conversion away from the dominant idolatry of our culture—a liberating conversion to be sure, but damned uncomfortable.

What do we economists have to learn from Wendell Berry? Many things, but here I will mention only two. First is a definitional correction regarding the basic nature of our subject matter—exactly what reality matters most to our economic life and why? Second, what mode of thinking does this reality require of us in order to understand it as well as possible, without seducing us into spurious substitutes for honest ignorance?

The definitional correction goes back to Aristotle and, while somewhat retained by the classical economists, seems to have been dropped from the current neoclassical canon. Aristotle distinguished “oikonomia” from “chrematistics.” Oikonomia is the science or art of efficiently producing, distributing, and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run. Chrematistics is the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run. Although our word “economics” is derived from oikonomia, its present meaning is much closer to chrematistics. The word chrematistics is currently relegated to unabridged dictionaries, but the reality to which it refers is everywhere present and is frequently and incorrectly called economics. Wendell Berry is, I believe, urging us to correct our definition of economics by restoring to it the meaning of oikonomia and freeing it from confusion with, and excessive devotion to, chrematistics. In replacing chrematistics by oikonomia we not only refocus on a different reality but also embrace the purposes served within that different reality—community, frugality, efficiency, and long-term stewardship of particular places.

Where today do we find chrematistics masquerading as economics? Certainly in the recent Wall Street fiasco—“selling a bet on a debt [as] an asset” as Wendell succinctly put it. It is amazing that people who have recently engaged in this disastrous stupidity on such a massive scale still have any credibility at all! Yet belief in “free markets” as the philosopher’s stone that alchemically transmutes the dross of chrematistics into the gold of oikonomia remains strong.

Other examples of chrematistics at work include monopoly pricing, tax evasion, subsidies, rent seeking, forced mobility of labor, cheap labor from union busting and illegal immigration, off-shoring, mergers, hostile takeovers, usury, and bullying litigation—not to mention the airlines’ successful shifting on to their customers the labor previously done by former travel agents, check-in clerks, and baggage handlers. Externalizing environmental costs—shifting the cost of depletion and pollution from the producer to the general public, the future, and other species—is probably the most common and most disastrous chrematistic maneuver. The unaccounted costs range from irksome noise, to mountaintop removal and filling up of valleys with toxic tailings, to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to global climate change and species extinction. Confusing oikonomia and chrematistics, misdefining the proper subject matter of economics, has deadly consequences. In the face of all this it is hard to remember that there are still some people doing useful work and creating wealth to really benefit the community. Chrematistics has not entirely displaced oikonomia, but it is trying to. In Wendell’s terms the little economy is trying to impose its puny logic on the mysteries and complexities of the Great Economy.

Professional economists should thank Wendell for his sharp reminder about what matters. However, if we are too proud to accept correction from a poet and agrarian, we can claim to have rediscovered Aristotle’s forgotten definitions all by ourselves. But then we will still be obliged to apply those definitions to the modern world and be brought face to face with the collective fantasy, idiocy, and horror that Wendell has identified and discussed.

The other thing economists can learn from Wendell Berry, as much from his example as from explicit discussion, has to do with the proper matching of our mode of thinking to the particular reality we are thinking about, and inevitably shaping. Blaise Pascal spoke of two modes of thinking: the “spirit of geometry” and the “spirit of finesse.” Similarly, economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen recently distinguished thinking with precisely defined analytic concepts that do not overlap with their other, from thinking with dialectical concepts that do overlap with their other at the boundaries. The best example of an analytic concept is a number. It is only itself and does not overlap with any other number. Land and sea would be dialectical concepts because, although for the most part distinct, they must overlap in tidal marshlands, estuaries, beaches, river deltas, or even the continental shelf, if they are to reflect reality. Each of these border areas in some reasonable sense is both land and sea—a logical contradiction but true to reality. Money is a notoriously dialectical concept, overlapping with nonmonetary assets of varying degrees of liquidity. When economists try to impose an analytical definition on money they end up multiplying categories (M1, M2, M3 . . .) or failing to capture the shaded subtleties of the borderlands. Analytical concepts employ mathematics to weed out contradictions where “yes-and-no” answers are not allowed. The virtue demanded by analytic thought is rigor; its defect is its inability to deal with qualitative change and evolution. If we do not allow something to overlap with its other then how could it ever evolve into anything different from what it is? The virtue of dialectical thinking is that it can accommodate qualitative change—what used to be dry land can gradually become sea or vice versa. Its defect is that it has to tolerate at least a range of contradiction. The virtue demanded by dialectical thought is good judgment, or as Pascal preferred, “finesse”—finesse in handling contradiction.

Today analytic thought is very much in vogue, and in economics quite dominant. It has the aura of science. Analytic thinking requires a reality that is like a number, and since chrematistics is about the maximization of exchange value numerically measured by money, it tends to attract those with a strong prior commitment to analytical thinking. Dialectical thinking is required by a reality that changes qualitatively through overlapping categories. Oikonomia deals with use values that are embodied in products that evolve over the long run to serve changing wants, and with changing technical efficiency in an evolving community that coheres around values that also change. A preference for dialectical thinking leads to a focus on oikonomia, and vice versa.

My point is not to say that one mode of thought is good and the other bad. Both are clearly necessary. There is a limit to what we can do with numbers, just as there is a limit to what we can do without them. But I do suggest that there is currently a bias toward the analytical and a corresponding prejudice against the dialectical. This quantitative bias is certainly not the only reason for the excessive importance given to chrematistics over oikonomia—greed, avarice, and intellectual sloth play a bigger role—but I think it is a contributing factor. In sum, the second thing that economists can learn from Wendell Berry’s essays is that clear-headed reasoning with dialectical concepts about what matters is possible, necessary, and enlightening. Here Wendell persuades by example.

When a problem yields neither to the spirit of geometry nor to the spirit of finesse, Wendell advises us to be more at home with ignorance and mystery. They are much better companions than either phony equations or empty verbiage, and more congenial to a creature trying to understand the overall workings of Creation and intuit the will of the Creator whose broken image he still bears.

In my eagerness to convince my fellow economists to read this book, I am afraid that I have failed to specifically address the general reader. So, dear general reader, for whom Wendell Berry wrote these essays, let me assure you that if you have read this far, you have gotten through the most obscure and convoluted part of the book. The rest is smooth sailing with a clear-headed and trustworthy navigator, albeit through deep waters. The essays require wakeful attention and focused thought, but priestly intermediation by professional experts is surely not needed.

What Is a “Green Economy?”

Herman DalyA green economy is an economy that imitates green plants as far as possible. Plants use scarce terrestrial materials to capture abundant solar energy, and are careful to recycle the materials for reuse. Although humans are not able to photosynthesize, we can imitate the strategy of maximizing use of the sun while economizing on terrestrial minerals, fossil fuels, and ecological services. Ever since the industrial revolution our strategy has been the opposite. Fortunately, as economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen noted, we have not yet learned how to mine the sun and use up tomorrow’s solar energy for today’s growth. But we can mine the earth and use up tomorrow’s fossil fuels, minerals, and waste absorption capacities today. We have eagerly done this to grow the economy, but have neglected the fact that the costs of doing so have surpassed the benefits – that is to say, growth has actually become uneconomic.

In spite of the fact that green plants have no brains, they have managed to avoid the error of becoming dependent on the less abundant source of available energy. A green economy must do likewise – seek to maximize use of the abundant flow of solar low entropy and economize on the scarce stock of terrestrial low entropy. Specifically, a green economy would invest scarce terrestrial minerals in things like windmills, photovoltaic cells, and plows (or seed drills) – not squander them on armaments, Cadillacs, and manned space stunts. A green economy can be sufficient, sustainable, and even wealthy, but it cannot be a growth-based economy. A green economy must seek to develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively – to get better without getting bigger.

There is another kind of green economy that seeks to be green after the manner of greenback dollars, rather than green plants. Green dollars, unlike green plants, cannot photosynthesize. But dollars can miraculously be created out of nothing and grow exponentially at compound interest in banks. However, Aristotle noted that this kind of growth is very suspect, because money has no reproductive organs. Unlike green plants, green money seeks to grow forever in the realm of abstract exchange value, even as we encounter limits to growth in the realm of the concrete use values for which money is supposed to be an honest token and symbol.

Recently we have grown, or rather “swollen”, by expanding the symbolic realm of finance. Debt is a mere number (like negative pigs) and can easily grow faster than the real wealth (positive pigs), by which it is expected to be redeemed. Wall Street has bought and sold an astronomical number of negative pigs-in-a-poke – they have “sold bets on debts and called them assets”, as Wendell Berry succinctly put it. We have recently experienced the failure of this fraudulent attempt to force expansion. Yet we have so far been unable to imagine any policy other than restarting the old growth economy for another round. After the next crisis we should try to avoid the Ponzi scheme of growth and build a steady state economy – a green economy that is sustainable, just, and sufficient for a good life.