by Brian Czech
No one in the sustainability business deserves a biography more than Herman Daly. But then, as a literary Clint Eastwood might say, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” If a biography needs to be shot out of the saddle—or shot down a peg at least—so be it. Remember, it’s not the fault of the biographee.
Let me shoot straight to the bottom line, then. If you want to know about Herman Daly’s economics for a full world—and you should want to—read Daly’s books and articles. If you want to know about Daly’s childhood days, educational background, and (some of) his personal relationships with friends and colleagues, check out a copy of Peter Victor’s biography, Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas, and read the first two chapters.
By reading Daly’s books, you’ll be treated to a master of metaphor in action, and you’ll know exactly what he thinks about the ends-means spectrum, economics as a life science, and the steady state economy, among related topics. Alternatively, you can get the gist of (some of) it with Victor’s biography. If you choose the latter, though, drink some coffee and be determined, because it’s not likely to grip you. The most artful quips you’ll find are quotes of Daly’s, islands of wit in a prosaic sea.
Style issues aside, we have bigger fish to fry from said prosaic sea.
What’s in the Book
Herman Daly’s Economics includes the life-story chapters (1-2), a summary of his moral philosophy and religious beliefs (chapter 3), five chapters that essentially cover Daly’s work in steady state economics (chapters 4-8), a “defense” of the steady state economy (chapter 9), and some critiques of steady-state economics (chapter 10).
Chapters 11-13 are reserved for specific policy arenas involving: population growth, including immigration issues (11); money and banking (12); and globalization, internationalization, and trade (13).
The chapters flow in conceptual and roughly chronological order, handy for a biography and a natural outcome of Daly’s intellectual and professional development. They do comprise a fairly tidy summary of Daly’s work. This would be Victor’s finest accomplishment, yet it was a stretch to write, “Daly has written a great deal about these [steady-state] principles, but he has not assembled them in one place. In this section we [sic] do just that…” However, in the ensuing four pages, laying out 28 such principles under eight categories, Victor presents nothing that isn’t found in the outstanding textbook, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, by Daly and Josh Farley (2003).
Daly and Farley’s book, too, I reviewed with a fine-toothed comb, meeting afterward with them at Daly’s home (in Maryland at the time), where I provided copious notes, helping toward the second (2010) edition. I think this is relevant for reasons that will become apparent.
The Little Things and the Red Flags Among Them
A thorough book review entails scrutiny of everything from conceptual validity to copyediting. Starting with the little things, it strikes me that due diligence was lacking, perhaps especially toward the end of the production process. Copyediting (and/or proofreading) was mediocre, with dozens of linguistic or grammatical problems remaining, including three in the course of successive pages (36-38). The book concludes abruptly and clunkily with an untitled string of uncited “boxes” containing short testimonials. The references section is sloppy, with inconsistency and inadequacy. One outlet is cited three times in three different formats. Books and reports are sometimes cited with no information on the publisher or incomplete information on the agency.
Another indicator of diligence (or the lack thereof) is redundancy, which is admittedly a challenge to biographers, because people and concepts can bob and weave throughout the career of the biographee. Great biographers manage to avoid redundancy nonetheless, or at least finesse it with diligence and style. Victor falls short of the challenge at several junctures; for example, with the dual descriptions of Daly’s talk at Yale (1969 or 1970; unspecified), which led to a string of acquaintanceships and events including a New York Times article by Daly and an eventual collaboration with the Meadows (Dennis firstly, and wife Donella as well). It’s a nice story reminding us of the role of serendipity in success. Repeating it with nary a new twist, though, is not in good style. In general, redundancy starts creeping into the book around page 175.
Copyediting issues aren’t profoundly important, but lack of due diligence in one part of production is a red flag for substantive issues as well. The biggest one in this case is Victor’s (not Daly’s) confusion about GDP as a measure of the size of the economy. It’s an extremely important issue for ecological economists and sustainability scientists to get right, so I’ll elaborate on it below.
Rumors of GDP’s “Conflation” are Greatly Exaggerated
If there’s one thing I wish Daly had found the time to weave into his career—including his writing and speaking—it’s trophic theory from ecology. I noted that as early as my review of the Daly and Farley (2003) textbook. Victor only made matters worse with the biography. While Daly may not yet have cited the trophic theory of money, I believe he was headed in that direction, and his own writing was never far from it, at least since the 1970s. Victor, on the other hand, seems to have a muddled, messy understanding of money supplies and flows as ecological indicators. In chapters 6-7, he tends to drag Daly into the mud alongside himself.
The trophic theory of money starts with recognizing that money originates via the agricultural surplus that frees the hands for the division of labor unto the manufacturing and service sectors. So far so good, right? It’s congruent with Francois Quesnay’s Tableau Economique and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (chapter 4), as well as Daly’s “economics as a life science.” I’d call that good company.
The next step is hypothesizing that the quantity of money–and GDP as the macroeconomic flow–indicates the amount of agricultural surplus and related activity at the trophic base of the economy, and therefore the environmental impact of the economy. I say “therefore” because the trophic base means agriculture, logging, mining, domestic livestock production, commercial fishing…the activities that literally spread across the land and/or intensify in place via technological progress, converting stocks of natural capital into producer and consumer goods, and degrading funds of ecosystem services. If that’s not environmental impact, what is?
It certainly is “ecologically footprinting.” This helps explain why, at the global level (where trade is balanced out), the natural log of ecological footprint tracks so predictably (R2 = .97) and significantly (p < 10-16) with GDP:
LN(EF) = 16.24 + 0.23 × LN(GDP)
Unfortunately, Victor gets confused by the microeconomics of supply and demand, thinking that GDP somehow “conflates” quantitative growth and qualitative development. Perhaps Daly used the term “conflates” at some point, and Victor certainly emphasizes it, but from the trophic perspective there’s no conflating growth and development on the road to GDP (at least not development in the conventional “value added” sense, as used in the biography). Growth and value-added development rather constitute a conjoined continuation from the agricultural and extractive surplus (supremely quantitative) through the heavy manufacturing (quite quantitative), light manufacturing (quantitative enough), and services sectors, many of which entail plenty of quantifiable material (e.g., transportation artefacts and supplies). Some services appear largely “qualitative” (e.g., entertainment), yet their existence simply reflects the production of surplus in the underlying trophic level and ultimately at the trophic base with its supremely quantitative growth. Finally, the “information” sector(s) simply assist with the trophic development of the whole, integrated economy.
Victor’s confusion leads to contradictory statements. For example, he states, “We have seen that Daly distinguishes between growth as quantitative and development as qualitative…and that GDP is problematic as a measure of an economy’s size because it conflates the two” [italics added] (page 126). The statement is the clearest in a series of pages that purport to show how Daly does not view GDP as a sound measure of the size of the economy. Yet we’re also told, “Daly says that when economic growth, measured in the conventional way as an increase in GDP, becomes uneconomic, it has reached its optimal size” [italics added] (page 128).
On page 142 we’re told that “Daly considers the definitional difference between growth in GDP and growth in throughput to be very important for clear thinking about growth.” In the same paragraph, though, is a direct quote from Daly: “Real GDP…is the best index we have of total resource throughput.”
Best index indeed, to the tune of R2 = .97, p < 10-16, all oozing with causality.
In my opinion, the question of whether or not GDP is a reliable indicator of scale, ecological footprint, and/or environmental impact is the single most important, policy-relevant issue in ecological economics. It’s rivaled in importance only by more subjective concerns such as the model(s) of political economy most conducive to a fair distribution of wealth and an efficient allocation of resources.
Look at it this way: If you’re an ecological economist who doesn’t think we need to recognize GDP growth in the 21st century as an unsustainable, increasingly destructive threat, what distinguishes you from the neoclassical growth economist who thinks we can magically “de-link” GDP from material throughput?
At one point Victor hedges his bets by stating that “GDP is not a satisfactory measure of the size of an economy in purely physical terms.” OK, maybe it’s not, in “purely” physical terms. Nobody’s counting protons, neutrons, and electrons, and checking for neutrinos just to be safe. But how “pure” must you be, when we have the conceptual model (trophic structure), causal mechanisms (agricultural surplus and “value added”), and the empirical evidence (R2 = .97, p < 10-16) wrapped up like a Christmas present for the ecological economist?
The approach long taken by Daly, and evidently preferred by Victor and others, is to skirt the political challenge by saying to the neoclassical economist and policy maker: “OK, you think you can grow GDP without increasing throughput? Then let’s stabilize throughput, and you can grow the GDP all you want.” It’s a fun and clever rejoinder, but as a strategy it’s been an abject failure. It has only stalled the acknowledgement by economists and policy makers that GDP itself is a rock-solid measure of the size of the economy and its environmental impact.
Not to mention the fact that GDP data are prepared for us, falling into our laps “free” except for our taxes, and readily available from numerous sources. And with data sets going back to the 1930s, with estimates from even earlier, we don’t need to break our backs (and our tiny bank accounts) attempting the impossible dream of measuring the economy “in purely physical terms.”
One of my greatest hopes for ecological economics is to overcome this weak approach to GDP (another form of “weak sustainability”), start recognizing GDP for what it is, and help the rest of the world to recognize it likewise. In the 21st century, we need to view GDP like an obese patient might view an ever-increasing number on the bathroom scale. Far and wide from the farm to the Fed, especially at the Fed where monetary policy is made, we need to view that bloating GDP like we view the burgeoning atmospheric CO2 level—with alarm. That’s why we attempt to build an element of alarm with the relentless rolling of the GDP meter at the CASSE home page. (Be sure to watch the alarm sequence by clicking on the GDP figure.)
Speaking of CASSE (Or Not, in Victor’s Case)
If I’d found a biography of Daly back in the late 1990’s, near the end of my Ph.D. research, I’d have gobbled it up in one sitting. I’d looked high and low for any literature describing in systemic terms the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Only Daly’s steady-state economics would have—and did—quench my thirst for an explanation that dovetailed with my ecological training and two decades of seeing the impacts of economic growth in the field. Daly’s intellectual heroism was nearly instantaneous to me.
At the same time, I was puzzled that I’d never heard of steady-state economics during my 82 credits worth of Ph.D. curriculum. There was no trace of it in the natural resources journals I was publishing in either. When I stumbled upon it in the card catalog system at the University of Arizona, it was like striking gold from a long-concealed vein. Had the vein also included a biography, I might have yelled, “Eureka!” and gotten a stern look from the librarians.
Of course, Peter Victor’s biography of 2021 vintage wouldn’t have been possible in the ’90s, because all the years hence were yet to come. In fact, it’s perfectly conceivable a biography of any type mayn’t have appeared, at any time, without the systematic spreading of Daly’s ideas.
Since 2003, such systematic spreading has been conducted by the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. I established CASSE largely because of the absence of steady-state economics from any of the radar screens I’d observed. Eventually I saw blips here and there from others familiar with Daly, yet none of them were actively advocating a steady state economy. (I also established CASSE because of the gag orders I was receiving from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prohibiting me from speaking about the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. I also thought I had something to add to the steady-state discussion, including the relevance of trophic theory.)
Since 2003, and most likely ever, CASSE has been the lone organization in the world dedicated explicitly to advancing the steady state economy through public education, social media, conferencing, publication, policy development, and tireless networking. The CASSE position on economic growth has been signed by over 15,000 individuals, very many of whom encountered the steady-state concept via the position statement, and some of whom went on to craft careers around the principles therein. It’s been used, with the active involvement of CASSE principals, by professional, scientific societies in adopting their own positions on economic growth, including the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, The Wildlife Society, the American Society of Mammalogists, and the Society for Conservation Biology (North America Section). It’s been signed by leading ecologists, economists, and sustainability icons.
But, back to the biography. To his credit, Victor left no stone unturned, at least during the research phase. In the book itself we find everything from soup to nuts—everything but the kitchen sink and CASSE.
How does that happen? In a book about Daly’s life, sweeping the details from “free spirited urchin” (page 14 photo caption) to “Herman and Peter, two ecological economists and friends” (page 23, final photo caption), a book including just about every significant colleague and connection, every trial and tribulation, every friend and foe, CASSE doesn’t warrant as much as a footnote?
There’s a fishy smell emanating from this biographic smorgasbord. It’s hard to trace it exactly. It might emanate from a funding source, a competitive urge, a legacy-building strategy, or just a mere personal problem. I don’t believe it’s from a lack of familiarity with CASSE; Victor served on the CASSE board for over five years! Furthermore, he expressed in a recent email his “recognition and appreciation of the excellent work CASEE has done over many years.”
So, to wrap this up, I think a “thank you” is in order: Thank you to the passionate CASSE friends and colleagues, staff and volunteers, chapter directors and advisors, members and donors, allies and aficionados, who have helped to ensure an audience for any biography of Herman Edward Daly.
I guess “deserve’s got somethin’ to do with it” after all.
 Daly, H.E., and J. Farley. 2010. Ecological economics: principles and applications. Second edition. Island Press, Washington, DC. 544pp.
Daly, H.E. 1997. Beyond growth: the economics of sustainable development. Beacon Press, Boston, MA. 264pp.
Daly, H.E., and J.B. Cobb, Jr. 1994. For the common good: redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. 534pp.
 Ecological footprint data from Global Footprint Network’s 2019 National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts. GDP data from World Bank’s 2021 World Development Indicators Databank. Time series: 1960-2016. Analyses conducted with ordinary least squares regression in the R statistical software.
Brian Czech is the executive director at CASSE.