War and Peace and the Steady State Economy

by Herman Daly

My parents were children during World War I, the so-called “war to end all wars.” I was a child in World War II, an adolescent in the Korean War, and except for a physical disability, would likely have been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Then came Afghanistan, Iraq, the continuous Arab-Israeli conflict, ISIS, Ukraine, Syria, etc. Now as a senior citizen, I see that war has metastasized into terrorism. It is hard to conceive of a country at war or threatened by terrorism, moving to a steady state economy.

Peace is necessary for real progress, including progress toward a steady state economy. While peace should be our priority, might it nevertheless be the case that working toward a steady state economy would further the goal of peace? Might growth be a major cause of war and the steady state a necessity for eliminating that cause? I think this is so.

More people require more space (lebensraum) and more resources. More things per person also require more space and more resources. Recently I learned that the word “rival” derives from the same root as “river.” People who get their water from the same river are rivals—at least when there are too many of them each drawing too much.

War and Peace - Jayel Aheram

Contrary to popular belief, growth in a finite and full world is not the path to peace, but to further conflict. (Image: CC BY, Credit: Jayel Aheram).

For a while, the resource demands of growth can be met from within national borders. Then there is pressure to exploit or appropriate the global commons. Then comes the peaceful penetration of other nations’ ecological space by trade. The uneven geographic distribution of resources (petroleum, fertile soil, water) causes specialization among nations and interdependence along with trade. Are interdependent nations more or less likely to go to war? That has been argued both ways, but when one growing nation has what another thinks it absolutely needs for its growth, conflict easily displaces trade. As interdependence becomes more acute, then trade becomes less voluntary—more like an offer you can’t refuse. Unless trade is voluntary, it is not likely to be mutually beneficial. Top-down global economic integration replaces trade among separate interdependent national economies. We have been told on the highest authority that because the American way of life requires foreign oil, we will have it one way or another.

International “free trade pacts” (NAFTA, TPP, TAFTA) are supposed to increase global GDP, thereby making us all richer and effectively expanding the size of the earth and easing conflict. But growth in the full world has become uneconomic—increasing costs faster than benefits. It now makes us poorer, not richer. These secretly negotiated agreements among the elites are designed to benefit private global corporations often at the expense of the public good of nations. Some think that strengthening global corporations by erasing national boundaries will reduce the likelihood of war. More likely, we will just shift to feudal corporate wars in post-national global commons, with corporate fiefdoms effectively buying national governments and their armies, supplemented by already existing private mercenaries.

It is hard to imagine a steady state economy without peace; it is hard to imagine peace in a full world without a steady state economy. Those who work for peace are promoting a steady state, and those who work for a steady state are promoting peace. This implicit alliance needs to be made explicit. Contrary to popular belief, growth in a finite and full world is not the path to peace, but to further conflict. It is an illusion to think that we can buy peace with growth. The growth economy and warfare are now natural allies. It is time for peacemakers and steady staters to recognize their natural alliance.

It would be naïve, however, to think that growth in the face of environmental limits is the only cause of war. Evil ideologies, religious conflict, and “clash of civilizations” also cause wars. National defense is necessary, but uneconomic growth does not make our country stronger. The secular west has a hard time understanding that religious convictions can motivate people to both kill and die for their beliefs. Modern devotion to the Secular God of Growth, who promises heaven on earth, has itself become a fanatical religion that inspires violence as much as any ancient Moloch. The Second Commandment, forbidding the worship of false gods (idolatry), is not outdated. Our modern idols are new versions of Mammon and Mars.

Herman DalyHerman Daly is CASSE Chief Economist, Professor Emeritus (University of Maryland), and past World Bank senior economist.


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7 replies
  1. Claudia Munera
    Claudia Munera says:

    Many thanks for this post! something more to think in the complex peace dialogues we have in Colombia, we still need to learn much to achieve a real peace process after more than 50 years of violence. However Colombian government and many colombians seems to be more interested in the peace for economic (growth) reasons.

  2. Terry Clay
    Terry Clay says:

    Sometimes the most obvious connections are overlooked so thanks to Hermann Daly for a valuable wake-up call for anyone who values the future of earth and mankind.

  3. Brian Sanderson
    Brian Sanderson says:

    This article reminded me very much of similar questions which were well addressed by Paul Colinvaux in his 1980 book “The Fates of Nations, A Biological Theory of History”.

    But the world goes along its merry way, ignoring reason. The difficulty has never been a lack of knowledge — rather it has always been the subjugation of reason in favour of entrenched dogma.

    In his final sentence, Colinvaux writes: “Because we can work out what is happening to us, we need fear neither our future nor our fate.”

    35 years on, I would say that I’m still waiting to see some evidence to support that final sentence…

  4. Bruce Ritchie
    Bruce Ritchie says:

    These ideas about armed coercion and it’s impact are NOT new. Perhaps many of us are only dimly aware that many who struggled against the Vietnam war also saw the moral and literal bankruptcy of all wars. How can we pretend to be “sustainable” and spend massive resources on killing/conflict? It is likely the LEAST sustainable thing we do regularly. It seems as though we would rather face the end of the human race than to face our unwillingness to get along with other cultures. “War is the cowardly escape from the problems of peace,” as Thomas Mann has said. The problems of peace will only get worse as our consumptions and populations increase. We must face our cowardice while we still can, and look these problems in the face.

  5. Chris Kuykendall
    Chris Kuykendall says:

    A good number of contributors to social betterment or human culture come from those who for one reason or another never fought in a war but had an uninterrupted life path that presumably assisted focus. In the U.S., one could name John Muir (went to Canada and California instead), Thomas Edison (only 18 when the Civil War ended), Aldo Leopold (between wars generation), Ansel Adams (ditto), Rosa Parks (female, and somewhat ditto, anyway), Jonas Salk (persisted with medical career and research instead), and Herman Daly (aforementioned disability). It seems to follow, at least to me, that wars in contrast have killed off talents whose contributions never were given a chance to unfold. How many, and what they might have done, is not measurable.


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