Reflecting on a conversation with Nina Smolyar, Vermont CASSE Chapter director.

By Skyler

I just had a great chat with Nina Smolyar, CASSE’s newest Chapter Director. In the conversation we talked about her current Phd studies and the opportunity of steady state economics.

Getting straight to the point, Nina lists the following as ‘calamities of growth’:

  • Climate Chaos
  • Energy Descent
  • Environmental Pollution
  • Manufactured Poverty
  • Drastic Inequality
  • Colonialism
  • Profit-driven militarized societies
  • Social conflict, violence, war

She has some further honest words.  “[Economic growth] is no longer leading to an increase in social welfare.  In fact, it is bringing the human species towards suicide.” Now, that is some reality-speak. When we consider the political-military, social and ecological challenges in concert, the pursuit of endless growth is an existential threat to civilization and even humanity.

Atlantic forest extraction in the 1500s.

As you may have noticed, Nina emphasizes the connection between growth and social conflict. We see a trend when we look across the powers of the last 500 years: in the rapid quadrupling of economic growth of the Ottoman Empire, in the far expansion of colonial powers or in the 20th century U.S. economic hegemony.  Economic theory has always been deeply connected to state power, the generation of revenue and extraction of resources.  Nina points out that there is a tendency to justify exploitation with racism, attitudes of religious superiority, and class-based discrimination. Nina sees steady state economics as an opportunity to decolonize; to shift from this mode of political and economic domination, to one of reconciliation and peace.

This reminded me of the history behind a current project of Chapter adviser Josh Farley. The project focuses on the Atlantic Forest which has lost over 90% of its original forest cover. When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil,  500 years ago, they did not know they would be targeting “Brazilwood”. They depicted local indians as innocent and related them to Adam and Eve. Within 100 years, 50% of the Atlantic Forest was extracted for trade, most indigenous were dead or enslaved, and the image of Indians in Europe was based on cases of cannibalism. Today, while perhaps less explicit, we have many new myths and biases which justify ignoring the costs of economic growth.

Drawing on Donnella Meadows’ leverage points Nina believes that changing our goals, changing our mindsets and changing our ways of organizing will happen together.

Working from the ground up she gave some examples of local opportunities for non-growth/ steady state based solutions that may be applicable in Burlington, Vt.

We are very excited to have Nina as our Vermont CASSE Chapter Director. She comes with strong vision, capabilities as an organizer, knowledge and a strong ethical grounding.  This will serve her well in the advancement of steady state economics. We look forward to hearing more from her in the near future.


The Context for Steady State Agriculture

Perhaps the most serious challenge society currently faces is the conflict between global food security and environmental sustainability. Globally, according to the FAO about 840 million people are chronically hungry, while 2 billion suffer micronutrient deficiencies and 1.9 billion are overweight or obese (WHO). The FAO projects that failure to increase global food production by 70% by mid-century will have unacceptable humanitarian and social costs. According to UNICEF, undernutrition is a factor in nearly half of all deaths of children under five, and those who survive may be developmentally impaired.

Food shortages also contribute to political unrest. For instance, in 2008, climate change-induced droughts and rising food prices led to food riots in dozens of countries around the world. Recently, scholars have connected climate change, fresh water use and crop failure to the current Syrian civil war.

Even at current levels of production, however, food systems are among the greatest threats to global ecosystems. A research team led by Rohan Rockstrom has identified nine planetary boundaries that we cannot exceed without imposing unacceptable ecological costs. Food systems are the leading threat to four of these boundaries: biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorous emissions, land use change and freshwater use. The most abundant terrestrial vertebrate on the planet is now the chicken (FAO). The biomass of cattle alone is more than 16 times the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, and total terrestrial vertebrate biomass has fallen by half in the last 100 years. Nitrogen and phosphorous are essential to agricultural production and increasing yields, but their emissions pose major threats to marine and freshwater systems. And according to the world bank, food production now covers almost 40% of the global land surface while the marginal ecological costs of converting more land to agriculture are rising.

Agriculture is also a major threat to the remaining planetary boundaries, especially chemical pollution and climate change. The food system currently contributes 30% of global GHG emissions. Among the expected ecological costs of exceeding these boundaries are the degradation and loss of ecosystem services essential to agriculture.

During both World War I and World War II, the United States encourage its citizens to install “Victory Gardens” to grow food on private property and reduce the strain on food supplies.  Our research shows that a similar effort today, along with diet modification, can reduce GHG emissions in the food system by more than 80%, while having a great impact on other planetary boundaries as well, such as drastically reducing land use.

The question going forward is not, “How can we increase economic activity forever?” but rather ” How can we make sure that everyone has an extra five hours to spend each week in the garden?”