Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Regular Contributors:  Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Brent Blackwelder, James Magnus-Johnston, and Eric Zencey. Guest authors by invitation.

Animal Welfare: Seeing the Forest for the Denizens

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechIf you’re a Huffington Post reader, your love of animals has been nurtured by “Hedgehogs Being Adorable,” “Baby Hippo Has Won Our Hearts,” and other such gems. The Post, The Animal Blog, and various animal-lover media take a heartfelt approach to the appreciation of animals–wild as well as domesticated–reminding us of the needs and vulnerabilities of our fellow creatures. It’s a refreshing approach, compared to the stodgy science and economics of conservation.

And it’s important. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated.” Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.” Animal welfare is a barometer of national “goodness” in a sense that resonates with our common sense.

Yet if we are serious about animal welfare, we have to get beyond the mere adoration of hedgehogs and hippos. We have to face up to the big-picture, systematic erosion of wild animal welfare. It’s all around us and getting worse by the day, and our public policies precipitate it.

The most prevalent source of animal suffering is habitat destruction. Habitat includes food, water, cover, and space. When any of these elements are destroyed or depleted, wild animals suffer and often die more miserable deaths than if killed by hunters or predators.

Some animals survive an initial wave of habitat destruction only to be stranded in an unfamiliar, unforgiving environment. When a food or water source is destroyed, wild animals may starve, die of thirst, or suffer from malnutrition and the associated agonies. When thermal cover is lost, animals expend valuable time and energy trying to regulate body temperature. This lowers the time and energy available for feeding, playing, and mating. When hiding cover is lost, wild animals experience fear and stress, seeking cover from predators that may or may not be present.

What kind of a life does that sound like? It would be like getting thrown out of your home, into a perilous world with no social net, no health system, no Salvation Army, and no street corner to beg from. Yet it’s the life we’ve been forcing animals into by the million. How can we stop?

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. Photo Credit: Michael Shealy

Nervous now, future worse: pronghorn antelope at the edge of a growing economy. Photo Credit: Michael Shealy

We often hear of “human activity” being the cause of habitat loss. That’s a start, recognizing our basic role in the problem, but we have to dig deeper to detect precisely what type of human activity is problematic. After all, the habitat destruction caused by humans beings isn’t spiritual activity, or neighborhood activity, or political activity (at least not directly), but almost always economic activity.

The macroeconomic nature of the problem is evident when we consider the causes of species endangerment. These causes are essentially the sectors and byproducts of the whole, interwoven economy, starting with agricultural and extractive sectors such as mining, logging, and livestock production. These activities directly remove or degrade the habitat components required by wild animals.

Another major cause of endangerment is urbanization. Urbanization reflects the growth of the labor force and consumer population as well as a variety of light industrial and service sectors. Few types of habitat destruction are as complete as urbanization. While extractive activities can be a traumatic experience for the denizens of wildlands, logging, ranching, and even mining usually leaves some habitat components. But when an urban area expands, it does so with pavement, buildings, and infrastructure. These developments are devastating to most of the animals present.

The economic system extends far into the countryside, too. Roads, reservoirs, pipelines, power lines, solar arrays, and wind farms are examples.

It would be hard to conceive of a more prevalent danger to animals than roads. Roads and the cars upon them leave countless animals mangled and left, during their final hours, to be picked apart by wild and domestic scavengers. Power lines induce electrocution, a significant source of bird death and crippling. Power line collisions cause their share as well. Wind farms and solar arrays, thought to be the keys to “green growth,” are the latest hurdles for migratory birds.

Pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. Pollution is an insidious and omnipresent threat to wild animals. Whether it’s nerve damage from pesticides, bone loss from lead poisoning, or one of the many other horrible symptoms of physiology gone wrong, pollutants ensure some of the most excruciating diseases and slowest deaths in the animal kingdom.

Climate change is another threat to species, although its mechanisms are less direct. Temperature is a key factor in the functioning of ecosystems and the welfare of the animals therein. Climate change is pushing polar bears and other polar species off the ends of the earth; at what point will this climate-controlled conveyor belt stop? Climate change, too, is a result of a growing (and fossil-fueled) economy.

We should give thanks for the Humane Society, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. These and related organizations do the good work that Gandhi and Lincoln would have endorsed. Yet when is the last time you’ve heard these organizations give a hoot about economic growth, the single biggest threat to animal welfare?

And why does no one put in a word for our furry and feathered friends when Congress, the President, and the Fed pull out all the stops for GDP growth? Where are the advocates of humane treatment of animals, when the biggest decisions are made about the rate of habitat loss and therefore animal suffering? When a hundredth percentage point less in GDP growth could save hundreds of thousands of animals a year?

Why don’t we have a mainstream media, which isn’t afraid to expose nastiness to horses and chickens, talking about the millions of animals suffering at the cumulative hand of economic growth? Has economic growth become the inconvenient truth for animal welfare?

It’s definitely inconvenient–and that’s an understatement–for millions of animals.

Use and Abuse of the “Natural Capital” Concept

by Herman Daly

Herman DalySome people object to the concept of “natural capital” because they say it reduces nature to the status of a commodity to be marketed at its exchange value. This indeed is a danger, well discussed by George Monbiot. Monbiot’s criticism rightly focuses on the monetary pricing of natural capital. But it is worth clarifying that the word “capital” in its original non-monetary sense means “a stock or fund that yields a flow of useful goods or services into the future.” The word “capital” derives from “capita” meaning “heads,” referring to heads of cattle in a herd. The herd is the capital stock; the sustainable annual increase in the herd is the flow of useful goods or “income” yielded by the capital stock–all in physical, not monetary, terms. The same physical definition of natural capital applies to a forest that gives a sustainable yield of cut timber, or a fish population that yields a sustainable catch. This use of the term “natural capital” is based on the relations of physical stocks and flows, and is independent of prices and monetary valuation. Its main use has been to call attention to and oppose the unsustainable drawdown of natural capital that is falsely counted as income.

Big problems certainly arise when we consider natural capital as expressible as a sum of money (financial capital), and then take money in the bank growing at the interest rate as the standard by which to judge whether the value of natural capital is growing fast enough, and then, following the rules of present value maximization, liquidate populations growing slower than the interest rate and replace them with faster growing ones. This is not how the ecosystem works. Money is fungible, natural stocks are not; money has no physical dimension, natural populations do. Exchanges of matter and energy among parts of the ecosystem have an objective ecological basis. They are not governed by prices based on subjective human preferences in the market.

Furthermore, money in the bank is a stock that yields a flow of new money (interest) all by itself without diminishing itself, and without the aid of other flows. Can a herd of cattle yield a flow of additional cattle all by itself, and without diminishing itself? Certainly not. The existing stock of cattle transforms a resource flow of grass and water into new cattle faster than old cattle die. And the grass requires sunlight, soil, air, and more water. Like cattle, capital transforms resource flows into products and wastes, obeying the laws of thermodynamics. Capital is not a magic substance that grows by creating something out of nothing.

While the environmentalist’s objections to monetary valuation of natural capital are sound and important, it is also true that physical stock-flow (capital-income) relations are important in both ecology and economics. Parallel concepts in economics and ecology aid the understanding and proper integration of the two realities–if their similarities are not pushed too far!

The biggest mistake in integrating economics and ecology is confusion about which is the Part and which is the Whole. Consider the following official statement, also cited by Monbiot:

As the White Paper rightly emphasized, the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed.

—Dieter Helm, Chairman of the Natural Capital Committee, The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets, Second report to the Economic Affairs Committee, UK, 2014.

If the Chairman of the UK Natural Capital Committee gets it exactly backwards, then probably others do too. The environment, the finite ecosphere, is the Whole and the economic subsystem is a Part–a completely dependent part. It is the economy that needs to be properly integrated into the ecosphere so that its limits on the growth of the subsystem will not be missed. Given this fundamental misconception, it is not hard to understand how other errors follow, and how some economists, imagining that the ecosphere is part of the economy, get confused about valuation of natural capital.

Natural Capital, James Wheeler

How can we correctly price natural capital in a full world? Photo Credit: James Wheeler

In the empty world, natural capital was a free good, correctly priced at zero. In the full world, natural capital is scarce. How do we take account of that scarcity without prices? This question is what understandably leads economists to price natural capital, and then leads to the monetary valuation problems just discussed. But is there not another way to recognize scarcity, besides pricing? Yes, one could impose quotas–quantitative limits on the resource flows at ecologically sustainable levels that do not further deplete natural capital. We could recognize scarcity by living sustainably off of natural income rather than living unsustainably from the depletion of natural capital.

In economics, “income” is by definition the maximum amount that can be consumed this year without reducing the capacity to produce the same amount next year. In other words, income is by definition sustainable, and the whole reason for income accounting is to avoid impoverishment by inadvertent consumption of capital. This prudential rule, although a big improvement over present practice, is still anthropocentric in that it considers nature in terms only of its instrumental value to humans. Without denying the obvious instrumental value of nature to humans, many of us consider nature to also have intrinsic value, based partly on the enjoyment by other species of their own sentient lives. Even if the sentient experience of other species is quite reasonably considered less intrinsically valuable than that of humans, it is not zero. Therefore we have a reason to keep the scale of human takeover even below that indicated by maximization of instrumental value to humans. On the basis of intrinsic value alone, one may argue that the more humans the better–as long as we are not all alive at the same time! Maximizing cumulative lives ever to be lived with sufficient wealth for a good (not luxurious) life is very different from, and inconsistent with, maximizing simultaneous lives.

In addition, speaking for myself, and I expect many others, there is a deeper consideration. I cannot reasonably conceive (pace neo-Darwinist materialists) that our marvelous world is merely the random product of multiplying infinitesimal probabilities by infinitely many trials. That is like claiming that Hamlet was written by infinitely many monkeys, banging away at infinitely many typewriters. A world embodying mathematical order, a system of evolutionary adaptation, conscious rational thought capable of perceiving this order, and the moral ability to distinguish good from bad, would seem to be more like a creation than a happenstance. As creature-in-charge, whether by designation or default, we humans have the unfulfilled obligation to preserve and respect the capacity of Creation to support life in full. This is a value judgment, a duty based both historically and logically on a traditional theistic worldview. Although nowadays explicitly rejected by materialists, and by some theists who confuse dominion with vandalism, this worldview fortunately still survives as more than a vestigial cultural inheritance.

Whatever one thinks about these deeper issues, the point is that determination of the scale of resource throughput cannot reasonably be based on pseudo prices. But scale does have real consequences for prices. Fixing the scale of the human niche is a price-determining macro decision based on ethical and religious criteria. It is not a price-determined micro decision based on market expression of individual preferences weighted by ability to pay.

However the scale of the macro-limited resource flow is determined, we next face the question of how to ration that amount among competing micro claimants? By prices. So we are back to pricing, but in a very different sense. Prices now are tools for rationing a fixed predetermined flow of resources, and no longer determine the volume of resources taken from nature, nor the physical scale of the economic subsystem. Market prices (modified by taxes or cap-auction-trade) ration resources as an alternative to direct quantitative allocation by central planning. The physical scale of the economy has been limited, and the resulting scarcity rents are captured for the public treasury, permitting elimination of many regressive taxes. Dollars become ration tickets; no longer votes that determine how big the scale of the economy will be relative to the ecosystem. The market no longer conveys the message “we can grow as much as we want as long as we pay the price.” Rather the new message is, “there is only so much to go around, and dollars are your ration ticket for a part of the fixed quota, not a vote that can be cast for growth.” Equitable distribution of dollar incomes (ration tickets) will then be seen as the serious matter that it is, to be solved by sharing, not evaded by growth, especially not by uneconomic growth.

Unfortunately, the more common approach in economics has been to try somehow to calculate that price that internalizes sustainability and impose it via taxes. The right price, given the demand curve, will result in the corresponding right quantity. However, there is a two-fold problem: first, methods of calculating the “right” price are usually specious (e.g. contingent valuation); and second, we don’t really know where the shifting demand curve is, except on the blackboard. In fixing prices, errors in demand estimation result in variations in quantity. In fixing quantity, errors result in variations in price. The ecosystem is sensitive to quantity, not price. It is ecologically safer to let errors in estimation of demand result in price changes rather than quantity changes. This is one advantage of the cap-auction-trade system relative to carbon taxes. Although a great improvement over the present, carbon taxes attempt to ration carbon fuels without having really limited their supply. Nor are the “dollar ration tickets” limited, given the fractional reserve banks’ ability to create money, and the Fed’s policy of issuing more money whenever growth slows down.

A monetary reform to 100% reserve requirements on demand deposits would be a good policy for many reasons, to which we can add, as a necessary supplement to a carbon tax. It would not be necessary as a supplement to cap-auction-trade, but should be adopted for independent reasons. A good symbol should not be allowed to do things that the reality it symbolizes cannot do. One hundred percent reserves would require the symbol of money to behave more like real wealth, at least in some important ways. But this is another story.

Do U.S. Election Financing Laws Force Politicians to Ignore Limits to Growth?

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThis fall, huge election campaign spending to influence the outcome of U.S. Congressional races, gubernatorial races, and state legislative races exceeded $3 billion.

Money in politics has stopped progress toward real economic reform and slowed efforts to move to a true-cost, sustainable, steady state economy. It will continue to do so unless people seeking to end today’s cheater economics, with its global casino-style economy, join in the ongoing efforts to change the election financing laws.

Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have made a bad situation much worse. In Citizens United v. FEC, (2010) the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional (a violation of First Amendment-protected free speech) for the government to restrict political spending by corporations. While there are limits on what individuals and corporations may give directly to candidates, there is no limit on corporate contributions to independent political spending to benefit or to smear candidates. The massive floodgates of electoral spending have been opened wide for industries, and today’s electoral spending in the United States amounts to a system of legalized bribery.

Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch assembled a secretive network of wealthy political donors set to spend about $300 million in the Congressional races in 2014, which is approximately the total spent by Bush and Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. By early September, a full two months before Election Day, Koch-funded groups already had paid for about 44,000 ads in U.S. Senate battleground races. That means approximately one out of every ten TV ads aired in those states had Koch fingerprints.

But fortunately, several dozen organizations are fighting back. For example, Common Cause, United Steelworkers, Sierra Club, United Autoworkers, and other national groups have already had success with a big effort to reverse the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United v. FEC, (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014). These efforts involve supporting a constitutional amendment permitting Congress and the states to set reasonable limits on political spending. Leadership of these groups has been instrumental in the passage of ballot measures and legislative resolutions in 16 states and about 500 localities, calling on Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment and send it to the states for ratification. These jurisdictions are home to more than 120 million Americans, which is more than one-third of the U.S. population.

Why would cleaner elections matter for achieving a true-cost, steady state economy? The large volume of money that Wall Street puts into elections effectively stymies efforts to reform the U.S. Tax Code. Tax codes around the world tend to subsidize pollution, tolerate externalization of costs, and penalize recycling while rewarding extraction of natural resources and exempting poisons from sales taxes. The United States is not alone among nations providing generous subsidies to polluters: globally, $1.5 billion is provided by governments to fossil fuel industries.

There are many other ways in which corporate money in elections can subvert democracy and block paths to a true-cost economy. Having lobbied Congress for over 40 years, I have seen how the huge amounts of fossil fuel money for politicians have made a lot of Members “climate deniers.”

Chevron & Ecuador, Caroline Bennett-Rainforest Action Network

Hundreds of Chevron’s abandoned open toxic pits remain in Ecuador. Photo Credit: Caroline Bennett-Rainforest Action Network

But it happens in category after category. For instance, as early as the 1990s, I saw the huge influence of corporate money enabling the passage of so-called free trade agreements. Many trade agreements contain a dispute settlement mechanism that allows corporations to sue a government. Such a challenge is not heard in the normal court system of a nation but rather in a secret, three-person tribunal. Currently, a Canadian mining company is suing the government of Costa Rica for $1 billion for denying a permit to mine copper and gold in a tropical rainforest. Costa Rica wants to conserve its rainforests because eco-tourism is a key part of their economy. Chevron has used the secret tribunal process to avoid payment of damages for persistent, serious oil spills in Ecuador.

Another example can be seen in ballot measures such as Proposition 92 in Oregon, which would require labeling of genetically engineered foods. This measure was opposed by major transnational corporations such as DuPont, Coke, and Monsanto, and their war chest was estimated at $25 million. When people use ballot measures to deal with legislatures that refuse to act on issues of public health and environmental protection, industries pour out millions in propaganda to defeat such measures.

In poll after poll, voters say that they care about clean air, clean water, and the environment, but the reality is that it is harder today than at any time in the last 40 years to pass significant legislation to safeguard air, land, and water. The problem has grown much worse since the 1970s, when 30 major environmental laws were passed, and a big part of the problem is the cost of elections.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of about a dozen environmental leaders called to a U.S. Senator’s office to hear a sobering message about what the staggering costs of elections were doing to Members who were not independently wealthy. He said to us:

To be reelected, this means my having to raise $10,000 every day on average until election day. For you it means two things: 1) I have little time to study issues and legislation and 2) while I may vote with you from time to time, I cannot champion any legislation that would prevent me from getting campaign contributions from major industrial interests.

As recording setting amounts have just been set in the 2014 elections, the need for election financing reform is paramount if we are to prevent these major industrial interests from keeping us on the path of cheater economics.

Are We Hard-Wired to Think We Can Grow Forever?

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photo

Humanity is an irrational lot, prone to denial and short-termism. If rational arguments were primary catalysts for social change, perhaps a steady state economy would already be a reality. Research in behavioural economics and cognitive psychology is beginning to help us understand why human beings don’t always make decisions that are in their best interests. Can we overcome our irrational, maladapted mental hard-wiring to thrive in a post-growth future?

Trailblazing behavioural economists like Daniel Kahneman have discovered that human beings are highly irrational creatures prone to delusion, cynicism, and short-termism. In ecological economics, Bill Rees has argued that our mental genetic presets have hard-wired us for overconsumption and ecological doom. And now, according to a new theory by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower, perhaps it all stems from an overarching psychological predisposition to denial.

In ecological terms, denial might be characterized as the failure to accept the deleterious consequences of economic growth in favour of accepting comfortable fictions that reinforce the status quo. Head-scratching environmentalists often use the word “denial” to reference the irrational “climate change deniers,” who accept the science of familiar things like internal combustion engines, modern appliances, or GDP growth, yet are dismissive of climate science and planetary boundaries. Why are human beings so good at denial?

Ecological economist Bill Rees argues that our ancient “triune” brain is hard-wired for short-term rewards, and those rewards have been amplified by the abundance of our fossil fuel driven economy. Our brain, which runs on an outdated OS, has leveraged its propensity for denial to construct a myth of perpetual growth wherein we can grow the economy and achieve short-term rewards forever.

Elephants - Hadi Zaher

Is it our ability to deny reality that separates us from other highly intelligent animals? Photo Credit: Hadi Zaher

In Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, Varki and Brower take it one step further. They argue that while our intelligence and use of tools set human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, our capacity for denial may be the greatest differentiating factor. The late Danny Brower asked Varki, a biologist, why other smart, self-aware animals such as elephants, apes, dolphins, whales, or magpies, had not achieved levels of intelligence seen in human beings. Many of these animals can recognize themselves, communicate with one another, and mourn relatives or companions. They have all had more time on Earth to evolve.

The theoretical, though as yet unverifiable, answer put forward by Varki and Brower revolves around two things: (1) that human beings are aware of the thoughts of others, and (2) that they have ability to deny reality. According to them, denial is the essence of what it means to be human! They argue that as human beings became aware of their mortality, some fell into depression while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became our defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. Those who suffer from depression are often more aware of reality, they note, which in turn can cause crippling anxieties. On a society-wide basis, such anxiety can cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.

But in the Anthropocene, have the tables turned? Now, reality-accepting behaviour may be an evolutionary boon. Rather than leading to a dead-end, accepting the reality of overconsumption and overpopulation may result in actions that increase the likelihood of human survival. Could it be that those who accept reality have suddenly become cultural (r)evolutionaries better adapted for long-term human survival? Can the shift happen quickly enough to improve our survival prospects?

Perhaps the very evolutionary mechanism which led to our propensity for denial may also temper our unfortunate inclinations. At the point when human beings theoretically developed a capacity for denial, we would have changed the cultural software on our mental hardware, which demonstrates that change is possible. We are capable of changing the way we interact with reality.

Although if one does not accept the premise that we can change our cultural software quickly enough, Varki and Brower point out that reality-denial also leads to optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds–a “can do” attitude. If we can’t accept reality, maybe we can focus instead on denying the current economic “reality” of growth!

Dr. Varki calls for us to temper our denial in order to avoid climate destabilization. Most types of denial, he says–about high national debt loads, eating too much red meat, smoking cigarettes, or refusing to wear seatbelts–aren’t fatal to the entire species. Climate destabilization, like a nuclear holocaust, is a different matter. A shift towards reality-accepting behaviour would help us see the validity of policy prescriptions like reducing the debt load and living within planetary constraints.

More often than not, post-growth thinkers are using rational arguments among a very irrational lot. While rational arguments are certainly necessary, we also need to work on how to ‘nudge’ individuals and communities towards a steady state economy with a pitch that leverages or mutes our irrational operating system. In the meantime, let’s harness our optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.

Paul Krugman on Limits to Growth: Beware the Bathwater

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechCongratulations to Paul Krugman, whose New York Times opinion on “Slow Steaming and the Supposed Limits to Growth” hit the bulls-eye of at least one balloon. Landing at Washington-National the very day his opinion column appeared was like crashing back into the growth fetish of the American Fourth Estate. Out came the fresh air of an Australian balloon; back to the polluted, cynical rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Why the drama with Krugman’s column? Partly due to uncanny timing; partly due to the stark juxtaposition of opinions. Having delivered the keynote address–on limits to growth no less–at the Australian Academy of Science’s annual conference on environmental science, it struck me that decades of careful research could be undermined by the presumptuous pen of a well-placed economist. Something is wrong with that picture.

But only for so long, because those of us who recognize limits to growth have sound science, common sense, and burgeoning evidence on our side. The same cannot be said for Krugman’s opinion.

Krugman got off to a shaky start with the very title of his column. No matter what he could say about “slow steaming,” this was bound to be an article wrong-headed in using one sector (shipping) for drawing broad conclusions about a macroeconomic issue (economic growth). To extend a conclusion from the part to the whole is to commit the fallacy of composition. In this case, it’s a bit like Krugman saying, “Your fingernails keep growing; why not the rest of you too?”

The mistake is common and destructive. When this mistake is made by a highly acclaimed economist in a widely-read opinion, the potential for destruction is multiplied. Politicians hide behind such Pollyannaish opinions to pull out all the stops–fiscal and monetary–for economic growth. The casualties include not only environmental protection but the future economy and ultimately national security.

Next, in Krugman’s lead-in paragraph he laments the “unholy alliance on behalf of the proposition that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is incompatible with growing real GDP.” Already we have two more problems. First, the argument alluded to in the title–that is, refuting limits to growth–is reduced to refuting just one negative impact of growth (that is, climate change). What about all the other impacts and limitations of economic growth: liquidation of natural resources, pollution at large, habitat loss, biodiversity decline, and social side effects such as noise, congestion, and stress?

Second, in a maxed-out, over-stimulated, 90% fossil-fueled economy, Krugman wants us to believe we can grow the economy even more while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. No need to worry about little trends such as tar-sands mining in Canada, coal mining in China, and fracking in the USA. Slower steaming will save the day on climate change, and presumably for the rest of the planetary ecosystem.

Let’s not let Krugman delude us. “Growing real GDP” isn’t about an efficiency gain here and there. It means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails a growing human population and/or per capita consumption. It means growing the whole, integrated economy: agriculture, extraction, manufacturing, services, and infrastructure. From the tailpipe of all this activity comes pollution.

Krugman seems to have fallen for the pixie dust of “dematerializing” and “green growth” in the “Information Economy.” He may want to revisit Chapter 4 of The Wealth of Nations, where Adam Smith pointed out that agricultural surplus is what frees the hands for the division of labor. In Smith’s day that included the likes of candle-making and pin manufacturing. Today it includes everything from auto-making to information processing, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. No agricultural surplus, no economic growth. And agriculture is hardly a low-energy sector.

Adam Smith was among the great, classical economists who readily recognized limits to growth, all the way until at least John Stuart Mill. After that and throughout the 20th century, things got murky for economists as they turned increasingly to microeconomics, losing the forest for the trees. Mr. Krugman appears to be yet another victim of the “neoclassical” evolution of economics. Look to him for insightful opinions on banking regulations, fiscal politics, and other such topics that fit naturally under the rubric of an economics columnist. These are his babies, but beware the bathwater. Take his opinion on limits to growth at your peril, and that of your grandkids.

The New Economy versus Today’s Flat Earthers

Editor’s Note: This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. 

by Eric Zencey

Eric Zencey

Only madmen and economists, Kenneth Boulding once said, believe exponential growth can go on forever.

Beyond all reason and evidence, standard economics remains dedicated to the idea of perpetual increase in our species’ stock of wealth, income, and material wellbeing. Their infinite planet thinking has a long pedigree: from John Locke toward the end of the 17th century to Adam Smith in in the middle of the 18th, the planet was obviously capable of supporting expansion of the human estate for untold generations to come. In their world, vast reaches of the globe had yet to be mapped by Europeans. Humans everywhere were relatively scarce, their powers not yet global in scale, not yet amplified by the extraordinary energies of coal and oil.

But the seven billion of us who are alive today live on a substantially different planet. It doesn’t have supposedly infinite tracts of untramelled, virgin land, ripe for being ravished by swaggering, overconfident exploiters. We need a new, steady state economy suited to the planet we have, not the one that economists thought we had two hundred years ago. We need a post-infinite-growth economy (and new breed of economist) respectful of the notion that there are ecological limits to economic activity. Absent that, our civilization is set to destroy its root in nature.

But the New Economy Movement is about more than ecological sanity. It seeks other practical and desirable solutions, like:

  • a living wage for workers;
  • a more equitable distribution of the fruits of production;
  • sharp limits to the political influence of corporations and the exceedingly rich; and
  • a relocalization and reduction in the scale of economic activity that will bring production into better relation with workers, customers, neighbors, and the planet.

We seek, in a word, economic justice.

That can seem a very different goal than sustainability, but it isn’t. Ironically enough, mainstream economists recognize the two goals are related. The remedy they offer for the injustice of poverty is the same remedy they offer for environmental problems: more economic growth. Only if we are wealthier, their argument goes, will we be able to afford environmental quality or solve the problem of poverty.

The New Economy Movement must show–must insist–that this is mistaken. It must show that the attempt to solve our ecological and social crises through economic growth is a fool’s task, because both crises have a common cause: an infinite-planet, perpetual-growth economy has met the limits of a finite planet.

When a financial system designed for infinite growth hits a local or planetary limit, it becomes a pump that sucks money from those who have less and gives it to those who have more. On a finite planet, a perpetual-growth economy eventually encounters the source-and-sink limits of ecosystems, either transgressing them and causing species loss, climate change, and ecosystem failure, or crashing because the limit can’t physically be broken.

As absurd as this looks, it is no less absurd than an economic system designed for an infinite planet. Photo Credit: A Siegel

As absurd as this looks, it is no less absurd than an economic system designed for an infinite planet. Photo Credit: A Siegel

In the Infinite Planet Thinking of mainstream economics, human population growth is always a good thing: humans are “The Ultimate Resource,” capable of infinite imagination, infinite invention. But in the world as it is, human invention is limited by physical law: you’ll never have a car that you can push backwards and fill the gas tank. Ultimately, on a finite planet with a human economy operating at its ecological limit, any further growth in human population or the human economy degrades our quality of life, further increases our ecological footprint, and leads to the loss of democracy as we yield to technocracy–rule by environmental experts–or ignore ecological constraints and thereby condemn our civilization to collapse. Meanwhile, population growth produces an oversupply of labor that drives down wages, diminishing the middle class and dividing us into rich and poor, captains and serfs.

Economic growth and human population growth proceed as if the planet were infinite–and those who express concern are challenged with being anti-human, pessimistic, or “neo-Malthusian.” It’s time to change the discourse. With repeated and creative messaging, the phrase “Infinite Planet Thinker” will come to sound as outmoded and ridiculous as “Flat Earth Theorist.” And when that happens, the principles and programs that CASSE and the New Economy Movement seek to advance will be on their way to general acceptance. I think that when they see it framed this way, most people will choose the new, steady state economy. Imagining the possible, and working to make it real, is more realistic than continuing to assume the planet is impossibly infinite.

The Kingdom of God: A Steady State Economy?

Editor’s Note: the below has been modified and cross-posted from Mission Catalyst, Issue 4, 2014

by Brian Czezh

BrianCzechI’ll never forget the privilege, maybe five years ago, of addressing a small, interdenominational group of faith leaders in Washington, DC. They’d asked me to talk about limits to economic growth and to give a synopsis of the steady state economy as an alternative to growth. We then went around the group, perhaps eight in all, and discussed the issues. One pastor, deep in thought, summarily theologized, “The steady state economy; now that’s the Kingdom of God.” I can hear it like it was yesterday.

The rest of the conversation isn’t quite so vivid. As a long-time advocate of the steady state economy, maybe I got too excited to focus, thinking of the possibilities with God on our side! Also, it’s not like the pastor (Episcopal as I recall) had a full-fledged steady-state theology developed, at least at the time. Macroeconomics is not something he or the rest of the group had thought much about, but they’d definitely taken an interest in protecting the environment, or “caring for Creation” as some like to say.

And yet, if there is a place for common sense in theology, there is plenty to suggest the pastor was right on track. Would anyone be driving a Hummer in the Kingdom of God? Or building a McMansion? Wearing a fur coat? Presumably the trappings of conspicuous consumption would seem more befitting of…you know, that other place.

The pastor knew something was awry with the quest for ever more. Striving for more and more stuff isn’t caring for Creation. Think, for example, what it means to life on earth–all of Creation–with economic growth as the primary policy goal of so many nations. If you were to list the causes of species endangerment, it would read like a Who’s Who of the economy. A proliferation of all such activities is hardly wise husbandry.

But to really assess the relationship or relevance of economic growth to the Kingdom of God, and prior to any thorough theological assessment, we must have a solid grasp of exactly what economic growth is. It’s not enough to make vague references to Hummers or ask, “What would Jesus drive?”

In textbook terms, then, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It requires increasing human population and/or per capita consumption, and almost always entails both. The metric used to measure economic growth is GDP, or gross domestic product.

The phrase “in the aggregate” is actually quite important. Sometimes we hear confusing talk about “green jobs” and even “green growth.” It may well be that replacing oil wells with vast arrays of solar panels and wind towers provides different jobs than we had in the past and doesn’t result in as many carbon emissions. But that one development–replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy–is hardly economic growth. It’s a sectoral readjustment that may or may not accompany economic growth: increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. If we do manage to generate enough power from renewable sources to have even more agriculture, mining, logging, ranching, milling, manufacturing, and service sectors all the way from transportation to entertainment, what happens to all the wildlife habitat?

The fact is, in the push for GDP growth, God’s creatures suffer. To put it in the technical terms of ecological economics, as the human economy grows, natural capital is reallocated out of the economy of nature and is converted into consumer goods and manufactured capital. How is that caring for Creation? The steady state economy–stabilized population and per capita consumption, in simplest terms–means a stable environment for all the other creatures.

A growing number of citizens and activists are taking note that pulling out all the stops for GDP growth isn’t making man any happier. It has even become popular in sustainability circles to discredit GDP, as if it’s a meaningless indicator. However, attacking GDP is like shooting the messenger, or shooting the metric to be more accurate. Yes, it is perfectly true and important to realize that GDP is not a measure of wellbeing, but GDP is a solid indicator of the size of an economy. Despite all the talk of “green growth,” real GDP (“real” meaning adjusted for inflation) cannot increase without more impact on the environment.

“All flesh is grass” in the Kingdom of God – and the human economy. Photo Credit: horizontal.integration

Here is where a bit of theology seems to dovetail nicely with biology. The Bible says, “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6). While the direct theological implication seems more about the insignificance of man on Earth, relative to God, this verse is more than mere metaphor. The fact is that the foundation of the “economy of nature,” or Creation, is indeed plants, or “grass” in the words of Isaiah. No plants, no animals: no grass, no flesh.

This truth happens to be a central pillar of ecology. Every good ecology textbook will have a thorough discussion of “trophic levels.” Living beings in nature start with the plants at the base, literally and figuratively. Plants are called “producers” because they produce their own food in the process of photosynthesis. All other beings are “consumers” of some type. Primary consumers eat plants directly; secondary consumers eat the primary consumers. Primary consumers are often called herbivores; secondary consumers are “predators.” These are the three basic trophic levels: producers, primary consumers, and secondary consumers.

Meanwhile the book of Genesis says that God created mankind in his own image. It seems fitting, then, that the economy of man is like a microcosm of Creation, or the economy of nature. Man’s economy has producers (agricultural and extractive sectors), primary consumers (manufacturing), and secondary consumers including the purchasers of consumer goods and services in the market.

In order to have increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, there must be more surplus produced at the base of the trophic structure. In other words, there must be more agricultural and extractive activity to free the hands for the division of labor into manufacturing, services, and “green” jobs. More and more money spent means more and more environmental impact; more erosion of the Creation.

Finally, no discussion of a steady state economy can be complete without the issue of population. Hopefully common sense suffices for understanding how we cannot have perpetual population growth on a finite planet. We humans aren’t like angels on the head of a pin. We have minimum material and energy requirements for survival.

My theology is amateurish at best, but isn’t the Kingdom of God supposed to lead to the final Kingdom of Heaven? It would seem that, at some stage, after life on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to its fruition of souls. So perhaps our good pastor was thinking ahead–way ahead–on the population front! Meanwhile, doing the best we can at caring for Creation entails serious efforts toward stabilizing our population as well as tempering our consumption.

It’s not easy advancing the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to economic growth. If money is the root of all evil, we have a nasty force working against us: Big Money! The corporate forces in the world don’t want us talking about limits to growth or a steady state economy. They want governments pulling out all the stops for GDP growth.

On the other hand, they don’t exactly have the ultimate Commander in Chief on their side!

An Economics Fit for Purpose in a Finite World

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyCausation is both bottom-up and top-down: material cause from the bottom, and final cause from the top, as Aristotle might say. Economics, or as I prefer, “political economy,” is in between, and serves to balance desirability (the lure of right purpose) with possibility (the constraints of finitude). We need an economics fit for purpose in a finite and entropic world.

As a way to envision such an inclusive economics, consider the “ends-means pyramid” shown below. At the base of the pyramid are our ultimate means, low entropy matter-energy–that which we require to satisfy our purposes–which we cannot make, but only use up. We use these ultimate means, guided by technology, to produce intermediate means (artifacts, commodities, services, etc.) that directly satisfy our needs. These intermediate means are allocated by political economy to serve our intermediate ends (health, comfort, education, etc.), which are ranked ethically in a hierarchy by how strongly they contribute to our best perception of the Ultimate End. We can see the Ultimate End only dimly and vaguely, but in order to ethically rank our intermediate ends we must compare them to some ultimate criterion. We cannot avoid philosophical and theological inquiry into the Ultimate End just because it is difficult. To prioritize logically requires that something must go in first place.

Ultimate Political Economy

The ends-means pyramid or spectrum relates the basic physical precondition for usefulness (low entropy matter-energy) through technology, political economy, and ethics, to the service of the Ultimate End, dimly perceived but logically necessary. The goal is to unite the material of this world with our best vision of the good. Neoclassical economics, in neglecting the Ultimate End and ethics, has been too materialistic; in also neglecting ultimate means and technology, it has not been materialistic enough.

The middle position of economics is significant. Economics in its modern form deals with the allocation of given means to satisfy given ends. It takes the technological problem of converting ultimate means into intermediate means as solved. Likewise it takes the ethical problem of ranking intermediate ends with reference to a vision of the Ultimate End as also solved. So all economics has to do is efficiently allocate given means among a given hierarchy of ends. That is important, but not the whole problem. Scarcity dictates that not all intermediate ends can be attained, so a ranking is necessary for efficiency–to avoid wasting resources by satisfying lower ranked ends while leaving the higher ranked unsatisfied.

Ultimate political economy (stewardship) is the total problem of using ultimate means to best serve the Ultimate End, no longer taking technology and ethics as given, but as steps in the total problem to be solved. The total problem is too big to be tackled without breaking it down into its pieces. But without a vision of the total problem, the pieces do not add up or fit together.

The dark base of the pyramid is meant to represent the fact that we have relatively solid knowledge of our ultimate means, various sources of low entropy matter-energy. The light apex of the pyramid represents the fact that our knowledge of the Ultimate End is much less clear. The single apex will annoy pluralists who think that there are many “ultimate ends.” Grammatically and logically, however, “ultimate” requires the singular. Yet there is certainly room for plural perceptions of the nature of the singular Ultimate End, and much need for tolerance and patience in reasoning together about it. However, such reasoning together is short-circuited by a facile pluralism that avoids ethical ranking of ends by declaring them to be “equally ultimate.”

It is often the concrete bottom-up struggle to rank particular ends that gives us a clue or insight into what the Ultimate End must be to justify our proposed ranking.

As a starting point in that reasoning together, I suggest the proposition that the Ultimate End, whatever else it may be, cannot be growth in GDP! A better starting point for reasoning together is John Ruskin’s aphorism that “there is no wealth but life.” How might that insight be restated as an economic policy goal? For initiating discussion, I suggest: “maximizing the cumulative number of lives ever to be lived over time at a level of per capita wealth sufficient for a good life.” This leaves open the traditional ethical question of what is a good life, while conditioning its answer to the realities of economics and ecology. At a minimum, it seems a more convincing approximation to the Ultimate End than today’s impossible goal of “ever more things for ever more people forever.”

Spending on Preventing Climate Wars versus Spending to Secure Sources of Oil

by Dr. Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThis summer, my CASSE blog featured the pending Iraq War III and argued that a steady state, true-cost, sustainable economy cannot be achieved if the US in going to engage in perpetual warfare over Middle East oil. The wars in Iraq have cost trillions in the name of national security—trillions that could have been spent on putting the US on a clean energy basis, including electric cars charged by solar and other renewable sources.

I want to raise some questions about Obama’s new war to deal with the Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL, depending on the news outlet). Question 1: Does ISIS pose a low, medium, or high security risk? If the answer is low, then it is difficult to see the basis for launching a new war. Suppose that the risk is medium or high; then a person might wonder how we as a nation just spent trillions on a decade-long Iraq war at the end of which we have a medium to high security problem. Question 2: Who would want to put money into another such inept endeavor whose result achieves the very opposite of what the public was told was the purpose? In reality, the prime objective of the Iraq wars centers on oil.

In terms of war and national security, a much more serious long-term threat is that of climate wars. Money being spent on oil wars ought to be shifted to strategies to prevent climate wars by getting at the root causes of climate disruption.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond examines the environmental factors contributing to the collapse of advanced societies around the world, such as the Mayans in Central America and the Polynesians on Easter Island. The Mayans had a calendar dating back to 3114 B.C., built magnificent temples, and did sophisticated astronomy. But their population grew to an estimated 5 million, well beyond what the land could sustain, while huge amounts of resources were spent by chiefs trying to surpass other chiefs in building even bigger monuments. The leadership continued to misjudge the land stewardship and the food resource needs, and as a result several smaller collapses occurred before a large collapse around 900 AD, due in part to a severe drought. When Spaniards reached Mayan territory after 1500 AD, the temples had been abandoned and the Mayans scattered.

Easter Island - Christian Bobadilla

As we fail to adequately address climate change and its root cause, will our society face a similar collapse? Photo Credit: Christian Bobadilla

The peoples settling the isolated Easter Island around 900 AD met a similar fate after several hundred years of expanding their population and quarrying gigantic stone statues (weighing up to 270 tonnes) which they then moved to the perimeter of the island. They deforested the island and the surrounding waters filled with silt, while at the same time vast energies were occupied on rivalries over which clan could build the biggest stone head. When Captain Cook arrived at the island in 1774, he found a tiny population (down perhaps from a peak of 20,000) that he described as “small, lean, timid, and miserable.” The civilization had collapsed in a cannibalistic endgame.

Common causal factors include population growth beyond the capacity of the land to support it, destruction of good farmland, and the use of resources in tribal conflict and monument building. Leadership in both societies failed to respond to the handwriting on the wall.

There is an eerie resemblance to the actions of the United States in spending trillions on wars to secure oil supplies instead of investing in a clean energy economy. Germany, in contrast, put over $100 billion into solar and wind energy installations and became for a while the number one country in both solar and wind. Today, Germany (about the size of Montana) has triple the roof-top solar (36,000 MW) of the U.S., even though its physical area is small by comparison with the lower 48 states.

We are looking at a “perfect storm” of conditions around the world that will lead to major conflicts and wars: growing populations, reduced food resource base, destruction of fisheries with dead zones and acidification, enormous deforestation, and the like.

Already we see serious problems with ecological refugees trying to escape unlivable conditions in their homelands and get to Europe or North America. In Asia, India is building a huge fence along its border with Bangladesh, fearing massive fluxes of refugees as Bangladesh gets swamped by sea level rise and major storms.

In Climate Wars, Harald Welzer writes “nearly all academic studies, models and prognoses regarding the phenomena and consequences of climate change have been in the natural sciences” whereas “such things as social breakdown, resource conflict, mass migration, safety threats, widespread fears, radicalization and militarized or violence-governed economies” fall directly in the purview of the social sciences. Those in the natural sciences generally do not have knowledge or capability of fashioning solutions that involve key aspects of human behavior and motivation.

The same concerns arise as we try to move toward a steady state, true-cost economy: we need expertise from the social sciences.

Three Limits to Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyAs production (real GDP) grows, its marginal utility declines, because we satisfy our most important needs first. Likewise, the marginal disutilitiy inflicted by growth increases, because as the economy expands into the ecosphere we sacrifice our least important ecological services first (to the extent we know them). These rising costs and declining benefits of growth at the margin are depicted in the diagram below.

3 Limits Graph

From the diagram we can distinguish three concepts of limits to growth.

1. The “futility limit” occurs when marginal utility of production falls to zero. Even with no cost of production, there is a limit to how much we can consume and still enjoy it. There is a limit to how many goods we can enjoy in a given time period, as well as a limit to our stomachs and to the sensory capacity of our nervous systems. In a world with considerable poverty, and in which the poor observe the rich apparently still enjoying their extra wealth, this futility limit is thought to be far away, not only for the poor, but for everyone. By its “non satiety” postulate, neoclassical economics formally denies the concept of the futility limit. However, studies showing that beyond a threshold self-evaluated happiness (total utility) ceases to increase with GDP, strengthen the relevance of the futility limit.

2. The “ecological catastrophe limit” is represented by a sharp increase to the vertical of the marginal cost curve. Some human activity, or novel combination of activities, may induce a chain reaction, or tipping point, and collapse our ecological niche. The leading candidate for the catastrophe limit at present is runaway climate change induced by greenhouse gasses emitted in pursuit of economic growth. Where along the horizontal axis it might occur is uncertain. I should note that the assumption of a continuously and smoothly increasing marginal cost (disutility) curve is quite optimistic. Given our limited understanding of how the ecosystem functions, we cannot be sure that we have correctly sequenced our growth-imposed sacrifices of ecological services from least to most important. In making way for growth, we may ignorantly sacrifice a vital ecosystem service ahead of a trivial one. Thus the marginal cost curve might in reality zig-zag up and down discontinuously, making it difficult to separate the catastrophe limit from the third and most important limit, namely the economic limit.

3. The “economic limit” is defined by marginal cost equal to marginal benefit and the consequent maximization of net benefit. The good thing about the economic limit is that it would appear to be the first limit encountered. It certainly occurs before the futility limit, and likely before the catastrophe limit, although as just noted that is uncertain. At worst the catastrophe limit might coincide with and discontinuously determine the economic limit. Therefore it is very important to estimate the risks of catastrophe and include them as costs counted in the disutility curve, as far as possible.

From the graph it is evident that increasing production and consumption is rightly called economic growth only up to the economic limit. Beyond that point it becomes uneconomic growth because it increases costs by more than benefits, making us poorer, not richer. Unfortunately it seems that we perversely continue to call it economic growth! Indeed, you will not find the term “uneconomic growth” in any textbook in macroeconomics. Any increase in real GDP is called “economic growth” even if it increases costs faster than benefits.

Earth -

The macro-economy is not the Whole, but rather Part of the finite Whole. Photo Credit: Beth Scupham

Economists will note that the logic just employed is familiar in microeconomics—marginal cost equal to marginal benefit defines the optimal size of a microeconomic unit, be it a firm or household. That logic is not usually applied to the macro-economy, however, because the latter is thought to be the Whole rather than a Part. When a Part expands into the finite Whole, it imposes an opportunity cost on other Parts that must shrink to make room for it. When the Whole itself expands, it is thought to impose no opportunity cost because it displaces nothing, presumably expanding into the void. But the macro-economy is not the Whole. It too is a Part, a part of the larger natural economy, the ecosphere, and its growth does inflict opportunity costs on the finite Whole that must be counted. Ignoring this fact leads many economists to believe that growth in GDP could never be uneconomic.

Standard economists might accept this diagram as a static picture, but argue that in a dynamic world technology will shift the marginal benefit curve upward and the marginal cost curve downward, moving their intersection (economic limit) ever to the right, so that continual growth remains both desirable and possible. However, the macroeconomic curve-shifters need to remember three things. First, the physically growing macro-economy is still limited by its displacement of the finite ecosphere, and by the entropic nature of its maintenance throughput. Second, the timing of new technology is uncertain. The expected technology may not be invented or come on line until after we have passed the economic limit. Do we then endure uneconomic growth while waiting and hoping for the curves to shift? Third, let us remember that the curves can also shift in the wrong directions, moving the economic limit back to the left. Did the technological advances of tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons shift the cost curve down or up? How about nuclear power? Adopting a steady state economy allows us to avoid being shoved past the economic limit. We could take our time to evaluate new technology rather than letting it blindly push growth that may well be uneconomic. And the steady state gives us some insurance against the risks of ecological catastrophe that increase with growthism and technological impatience.