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.

The Next President’s Inaugural Speech (If Only…)

by Brent Blackwelder, Head Speechwriter

Once upon a time the United States was a global pioneer of democracy and justice. The founders of this great nation articulated a noble vision of inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Times have changed. We have emerged from this presidential campaign with an ignoble vision of alienating wrongs — venom, vitriol, and the pursuit of pettiness. The campaign, including my campaign, dodged the most important issue of our era: coming to grips with the ecological reality confronting life on this planet. Today I pledge to make our nation once again the leader in solving economic, environmental, and social crises.

We have built a global economy that refuses to recognize ecological limits to growth. Repeated financial collapses, mushrooming corruption, and rampant speculation have characterized the last twenty years. We will blaze a new trail over the next twenty years; we will take bold steps to confront the failed global economy. Better late than never, we will face the issues of climate change and population growth that we have been avoiding for political expedience.

Modern industrial societies, with the United States leading the way, are emitting so much pollution that we have endangered the stability of earth’s climate and jeopardized the survival of over one quarter of the planet’s species. Our global population of over seven billion needs access to goods and services, but almost a billion are already struggling to obtain the bare necessities. Our civilization is using natural resources much faster than the earth can regenerate them. Scientists explain that we would need one and a half earths to keep consuming at our current rate. We can do better.

Our goal is to create a true-cost economy, a sustainable economy that gives everyone a fair chance. No more cheater economics and no more casino economics. We will put the cheaters in jail and close down the Wall Street casinos.

We will challenge the zealous pursuit of economic growth as the solution to the all problems. Much of our so-called economic growth has cost us far more than it has been worth. We have ruthless growth that benefits a few at the top but does nothing for most Americans. We have futureless growth that destroys resources, such as water and farmland, that will be needed by our children and grandchildren. Our economy should line up with our family values. We tell our children to save for the future. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers and judge the quality of their lives based on quarterly financial reports.

We will fund family planning so that the 250 million women worldwide who want such services can get them. All U.S. foreign aid will be screened to ensure that women will be better off as a result of the assistance.

While America has been sleeping, other nations have stepped into leadership roles:

  • Iceland has become the leader in empowerment of women; women hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly half the seats in parliament.
  • Bhutan has become the leader in measuring progress; this small Himalayan nation has committed itself to maximizing gross national happiness rather than gross national product.
  • Costa Rica and Sweden are leading the way in climate stabilization by instituting carbon taxes.
  • Germany, a nation with unexceptional wind and solar potential, has became the world’s largest generator of electricity in both categories.
  • Several European nations are taking the lead on jobs, shifting to shorter work weeks to relieve unemployment and enable citizens to spend time as they choose.

It’s encouraging to see other nations stepping up, but the United States need to get in the game. We can no longer stand still and watch other nations pass by on the way to a sustainable twenty-first-century economy.

Your odds of being struck by a meteorite are better than your odds of hearing a speech like this from one of these candidates.

Instead of rehashing the vicious debate over the deficit, I will move to implement a Robin Hood tax of just half of one percent on financial transactions. This simple and fair tax would yield billions in revenue and prevent Wall Street gamblers from playing with our money. We can have prosperity without growth.

We will adopt a four-day work week. There is no winner in a rat race. We will share the work, so that everyone can have a job, and we will trade the high productivity of our workers for a time dividend — meaning more time spent with our families and less time spent at the office.

Instead of fighting wars over oil, our military will prevent wars by helping to engineer the transition to clean energy. The military is already far ahead of the public and politicians in recognizing the threat of climate disruption. For example, the U.S. Army is working to get its bases off the electric grid and onto renewable energy. We will accelerate efforts like these and apply them across the nation.

We have only to look at the history of our nation to find inspirational leadership. The United States led in stewardship of the land with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first, in 1872. Faced with mounting pollution in the 1960s, we responded to the challenge. Congress launched the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and assumed global leadership in reducing pollution by passing clean air and water laws. Other countries replicated our laws.

Now, even though most citizens are aware of profound economic and environmental problems at home and abroad, the United States has been a drag, not a leader. Instead of excuses and gridlock, we will take responsibility for our actions. My administration will put aside pessimistic notions of what we can’t do and focus on what we can do.

I am not proposing an unachievable agenda for the American people, but rather a solid plan to build on our past triumphs and cooperate with today’s leading countries, regions, cities, and towns that have begun the quest for an economy with a future. We will systematically transform the United States from the biggest consumer to the biggest conserver. We will take up the challenge of leadership so that we can once again pursue the noble vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

George Will, Doomsday, and the
  Straw-Man Sighting

by Brian Czech

A funny thing happened on the way to this column. Right when I was ready to accuse Washington Post columnist George Will of building another straw man to tear apart, one of Will’s straw men appeared! It’s as if Will himself cued it up, as I’ll describe in a bit.

Meanwhile don’t get me wrong. Will isn’t right about a lot. He has long been loose with the facts on environmental issues, denying the causes and effects of resource scarcity, pollution, and climate change. His vision of perpetual economic growth is neoclassical naiveté. He displayed it again with “Calls for doomsday remain unheeded.”

Will stubbornly remains a fawning fan of the late perpetual growther Julian Simon. No one likes to criticize the deceased, and Will counts on this and other social conventions to protect himself from critique. (Recently he hid behind society’s respect for Native American tribes to shoot at federal government clean-air efforts.) But it’s not a fair tactic, I’m not falling for it, and Simon was no saint anyway. Simon’s culminating book (The Ultimate Resource 2) was the shoddiest semblance of “scholarship” I’ve ever seen, as I described at length in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. For Will to stick with Simon after all this time is a red flag over the teeny terrain of his scientific credentials.

Will has even been sucked into the junk-science vortex of Bjorn Lomborg, Simon’s disciple and darling of pro-growth propagandists like the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Will thinks “potential U.S. gas resources have doubled in the last six years,” as if even potential (not just economic) gas resources change with technology! No stranger to bad facts, Will says, “One of [Paul] Ehrlich’s advisers, John Holdren, is President Barack Obama’s science adviser.” In reality it was the other way around: Ehrlich was Holdren’s adviser. In other words Will uses a mistaken claim to unleash a twice-removed, guilt-by-association attack, all in one sentence!

Despite the fact that Will has the combined credibility of Barry Bonds and BP Oil on environmental and sustainability affairs, there are reasons for empathizing with him at times. In fact, one reason plopped in my inbox this morning! The sender, a sustainability activist, first quoted from a website of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, “The CASSE position calls for a desirable solution — a steady state economy with stabilized population and consumption — beginning in the wealthiest nations and not with extremist tactics.” Then he went on to complain:

“Unfortunately, there is no ‘desirable solution’ — I wish there were… Industrialism is by its very nature a temporary phenomenon; in the process of perpetuating it we consume the natural resources — primarily finite, non-replenishing, and increasingly scarce NNRs — that enable it. Unfortunately the chickens are coming home to roost now — instead of 1,000 years from now — and there’s nothing that we as a species can or will do about it, except suffer the inevitable consequences.”

So when George Will talks pejoratively about “calls for doomsday,” he’s got that one legitimate point, at least. For someone (a sustainability activist no less) to claim there is no desirable solution to the problem of uneconomic growth is defeatist at best, and patently false besides. Just because a solution — such as a steady state economy running at optimal size — is difficult to achieve does not mean it is out of the question or undesirable. What we should all agree on is that perpetual growth is out of the question, and then strive for the best alternative, handling the growing pains (or in this case, the de-growing pains) along the way.

Next, to paint “industrialism” with such a broad brush that it cannot be sustained, period, is another target on the straw man’s back. We should expect Mr. Will to hit that bulls-eye every time. First of all, de-industrializing is no panacea; it’s easy to envision an unsustainable, non-industrial economy hell-bent on growth. More to the point, who is to say we cannot sustain some industrial capital and production, especially with the use of renewable resources (picture a sawmill running on hydropower), for such a very long time that no one would consider it unsustainable. The problem is perpetual growth — always expanding the capital base and trying to produce more — regardless of the mechanical means by which that growth occurs.

And then, to top it off with, “there’s nothing that we as a species can or will do about it, except suffer the inevitable consequences,” almost makes me wonder who is farther from the truth: Will or the sustainability activist. After all, the activist is either not doing anything “about it” after all, or considers himself too exceptional to be part of the human species. But I don’t, and CASSE doesn’t. We are trying to do something about it. That is, we’re advancing the steady state economy — a desirable solution — instead of sitting on our doomed derrières while lamenting the forces of “industrialism.”

I never thought I’d agree with George Will on a matter of sustainability, but I’ll admit one thing: The caricatures he constructs are not always comprised of straw. Doomsday straw does exist but, unfortunately, some sustainability activists wear it too well.

The Resilience Imperative and Civil Disobedience

by Michael Lewis

As I was making a speech in Alberta, Canada, to a business audience, mainly from the finance and energy industries, a fully engaged participant in the front row caught my eye. He was the first to approach me after the question period and the first to get my autograph on The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, the book that I co-authored with Pat Conaty.

During my talk, I had argued that economic growth and a casino-like financial system were taking us to the edge of a deadly precipice. I made the case that societies urgently need to navigate the turn to a steady-state economy, based on local and regional trade. I also offered suggestions on how we might accomplish this. The thesis has a bit of an edge to it, especially in a business crowd accustomed to globalization and growth, so I was anxious to learn more about the front-row enthusiast.

He turned out to be a warm, charming, and open senior manager at Cenovus Energy, a large player in the Athabasca Tar Sands. The corporation seems to be respected in Alberta and Saskatchewan because of its health and safety, community, and environmental initiatives. He rapidly brought the discussion to the issue of “social license,” a condition he acknowledged was a big problem for the tar sands operators. But his view, after many years around boardroom tables, is that the industry is becoming more transparent and responsible, and its performance is improving.

I believe this to be true; certainly Cenovus has been doing a lot of things right. However, I argued that he was missing the point; social license in this industry could only be understood in a global context, and it is not going to be forthcoming for two simple reasons: (1) economic growth produces carbon and (2) carbon is going to kill a lot of us and thousands of other creatures.

If the oil and gas sector wants to explore the potential for broadening its social license, it would have to stand shoulder to shoulder with scientists, governments, businesses, and civil society and argue for a stiff tax on carbon. Only by taking such responsibility can Cenovus and its fellow corporations expand their social license. At the same time they would be helping to set the stage for the transition to a steady-state economy.

“Nothing less would do,” I proclaimed.

“Well you know, Mike,” he replied, “I have not seen much evidence of such a move afoot.”

Why am I not surprised? “I know,” I said. “Shareholder interests are framed by the ideology of growth and profit maximization, and even when these interests are complemented by an ethic of corporate social responsibility, the ideology does not exactly encourage this vital and necessary conversation.”

A few days later I attended the launch conference of the New Economics Institute at Bard College in Upstate New York. It was a remarkable convergence of practitioners, researchers, and activists engaged in debates about economics, analysis of mindboggling challenges (both local and planetary in scale), and exploration of hopeful transformational pathways.

Bill McKibben delivered a Friday evening keynote speech to a packed audience. His laser focus on greenhouse gas emissions was at once absorbing, terrifying, and hopeful, precisely the kind of dynamic that is motivating more and more people to step up to the front lines of civil disobedience, including many scientists and even a few economists. Mark Jaccard, a well-known energy economist in Vancouver, is hardly considered to be a radical, but he joined the front-line battle as part of a 350.org action. He was arrested in May of this year for blocking a coal train headed north to Vancouver’s coal port.

McKibben and Jaccard are picking up on the analysis of James Hansen et al. that oil and gas are a problem, but we do not have enough of it left to take us over 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Coal is the real threat. Unless we phase out coal completely by 2050, we will blast beyond this concentration, and that’s an event that many climate scientists believe will trigger catastrophic consequences. What are we to do?

McKibben and Jaccard are showing us part of the answer. But to make real progress, we need to pay much more attention to Herman Daly, the outstanding chronicler of our economic and ecological lunacy. He concluded one recent essay with this strident statement befitting of our circumstances:

Even though the benefits of further growth are now less than the costs, our decision-making elites have figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank — not to mention Gold Sacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in perfect unison, and bamboozle average citizens.

Dr. Daly has clarified and expanded the arguments for a steady-state economy that go back to John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Frederick Soddy, Kenneth Boulding, and Ghandi. In the same essay referenced above, Daly also noted that in spite of all the evidence of the growing crisis, “our economists, bankers, and politicians still have unrealistic expectations about growth. Like the losing gambler they try to get even by betting double or nothing on more growth.”

Well then, perhaps we need to follow the leads of McKibben, Jaccard, and Hansen, and go get arrested. Perhaps we need to breathe deeply and act courageously to make hope more concrete and despair less convincing. Perhaps those of us in the 50 to 90-year-old set need to commit to civil disobedience to honor our children, grandchildren and our hopes for their survival. The time has arrived for all of us, but especially the post-war “growth generation” to break out of our too comfortable zones. Stopping carbon emissions is a pre-condition, but nothing will change unless we are prepared to put ourselves on the line.

Of course, this is not enough. We have many questions to answer. How are we going to meet basic needs for energy, food, and shelter? How are we going to finance the economic transition? How do we restructure property rights to overcome the pervasive me-first culture? How do we achieve more local and democratic ownership of the means of production? How do we share jobs and income in a transition that will require less stuff and thus less making of stuff?

These are the questions we concentrate on in The Resilience Imperative. Pat Conaty and I put 42 months of serious forehead pressing into the book, and the early results are gratifying. People as divergent as John Fullerton, former managing director of JP Morgan whose focus is now on resilience and transition (good-bye Wall Street), and Robin Murray from the London School of Economics have endorsed it — they believe we have presented hopeful ideas for getting the transition going.

After presenting numerous positive examples of how people are changing the economy today, we end the book on this note:

The tasks of transition are many. The challenges are daunting. The outcomes are uncertain. Our courage remains untested. But we are a resilient species. We are not alone; there is “blessed unrest” all about. If we but open our eyes, we will SEE change is possible. If we act in ways that recognize we are interdependent, we will continue to innovate cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy.

There is one key question we need to ask ourselves. What stories will we be able to tell our loved ones about what we did to advance the Great Transition?

The Triumph of Fantasy over Science, Part 2

Restoring Science as the Basis for Economic Policy

by Rob Dietz

Right now “economics” means “neoclassical economics,” especially in the halls of government and business boardrooms.  At the same time, ecological economics remains an under-appreciated and under-utilized sub-discipline of economics. To reverse this situation, such that when people talk about economics, they’re talking about ecological economics, we need to address the three factors described in Part 1 of The Triumph of Fantasy over Science:

  1. The psychology of inclusion drives people to follow the dominant economic philosophy (neoclassical), even if it comes straight out of Fantasy Camp.
  2. Neoclassical economics has become entrenched in the culture.
  3. The fanciful stories that support neoclassical theories are more emotionally compelling than the logic (straight out of Science Camp) that underlies ecological economics.

Overcoming these three factors requires three countermeasures.

Countermeasure 1. Frame the limits to growth and ecological economics in a way that prevents people from feeling threatened.

For decades, the denizens of Science Camp have been broadcasting messages about the shortcomings of neoclassical economics and the problems posed by its obsession with growth. To a lesser degree, they have also been promoting ecological economics (and its focus on well-being) as a positive alternative. But to bypass protective cognition — the defense mechanism that allows people to accept faulty premises — Science Campers need to frame their ideas differently.

Many people, when confronted with the possibility that the economic paradigm they’ve embraced may be harming society and causing significant environmental damage, react defensively. I know that I’ve been called all sorts of names (even the “C” word — communist) for presenting an alternative economic view. The key to disarming the defensiveness that comes along with protective cognition is to focus the conversation on needs that all people share (e.g., subsistence, security, and participation) and how an ecological economy can meet these needs without growth. Such framing can dampen denial and open minds.

For example, one time I was part of an “economic vitality” team tasked with providing ideas to a city council about how to achieve a prosperous local economy. The team included a sustainability guru, a business owner, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, and a banker, among others. In one of our first meetings, I gave my standard spiel about the difference between a prosperous economy and a growing one. Since it was a small group seated around a table, I could see right away the misgivings some of my teammates had about my ideas. The banker must have set the world record for quantity of disapproving head shakes. We ended up butting heads for the next several meetings until I tried a different approach. I drafted a short document about our “areas of agreement,” which focused on the city’s needs. By steering the conversation toward things we all hoped to achieve in the city’s economy, such as available jobs, meaningful work, sufficient infrastructure, healthy ecosystems, and local production and consumption, we were able to have a constructive discussion and develop useful strategies for the city.  Once the walls of protective cognition have been toppled, people can access their considerable capacity for logic when assessing policy options.

Countermeasure 2. Use student demand to supplant neoclassical economics in universities.

Since this countermeasure focuses on university economics, let’s use a couple of standard economic graphs. First let’s consider the production possibility frontier for teaching in economics departments (see graph). An economics department can offer only a certain amount of economics courses, defined by the production possibility frontier. If it is spending that “certain amount” on neoclassical economics, then it can teach very little ecological economics. The goal is to move along the curve from point A (where we currently reside) to point B where we want to be.

Now let’s use supply and demand to see how to move from A to B. The quantity (and price) of neoclassical economics offered by universities is determined by student demand and departmental supply (see graph). To lessen the quantity of neoclassical economics supplied, students need to lower their demand for it. This is a natural place to start, since neoclassical economics offers students very little in the way of long-term prospects for healthy and happy lives. Student uproar over the downsides of neoclassical economics is already percolating, and activists have begun organizing efforts to increase demand for ecological economics.

If students decrease their demand for neoclassical economics, then the quantity supplied will decrease.

For example, Adbusters started a campaign called Kick It Over that invites students around the world to join the fight to revamp Econ 101 curricula and challenge the myopic views of neoclassical professors. Another outstanding effort is Kate Raworth’s work with Oxfam on the “doughnut economy.” Raworth is trying to unseat neoclassical orthodoxy and replace it with an economic framework based on meeting society’s needs within nature’s limits. Besides offering a sound premise for structuring the economy, she suggests that students engage in a guerilla campaign to rewrite economics textbooks.

As students decrease their demand for neoclassical economics, casting it into the dustbin of obsolescence, economics departments will move along their production possibility frontier to point B where their core will become ecological economics. At that point professors will focus their research on how to achieve sustainable and equitable well-being, and new generations of students will be grounded in the principles of Science Camp.

Countermeasure 3. Tell a better story.

Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement has poked fun at the standard Science Camp story. He says, “Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday destination — some seedy bed and breakfast… with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast — and expecting them to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and the psychology are all wrong.” We need to tell a more inspiring story about the transition to a steady-state economy.

That’s exactly what CASSE authors have been up to, and two new books will be available in early 2013.  Enough Is Enough (by Dan O’Neill and me) and Supply Shock (by Brian Czech) will serve as a one-two punch to knock out the neoclassical obsession with growth. These two books can accompany the ecological economics textbook by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley to provide options for new economics courses along the path from point A to point B on the production possibility frontier.  As more such books and resources come out of Science Camp, professors, politicians, and pundits will have fewer excuses for remaining in Fantasy Camp.

From reframing to organizing, from protesting to storytelling, there’s a lot of work to do to get past the collective mental block and start walking a sustainable economic path. For decades, we’ve shown ourselves to be incapable of accepting facts, unable to modify failing social institutions, and unwilling to adjust our lifestyles. But now is the time to overthrow the academic programs and economic institutions that got us into this mess in which we undervalue our most important assets. Now is the time to tell the story of ecological economics — the hopeful story of long-term prosperity on a healthy planet. Now is the time to demand the economy that we want and that the planet needs.

Eight Fallacies about Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyOne thing the Democrats and Republicans will agree on in the current U.S. presidential campaign is that economic growth is our number one goal and is the basic solution to all problems. The idea that growth could conceivably cost more than it is worth at the margin, and therefore become uneconomic in the literal sense, will not be considered. But, aside from political denial, why do people (frequently economists) not understand that continuous growth of the economy (measured by either real GDP or resource throughput) could in theory, and probably has in fact, become uneconomic? What is it that confuses them?

Here are eight likely reasons for confusion.

1. One can nearly always find something whose growth would be both desirable and possible. For example, we need more bicycles and can produce more bicycles. More bicycles means growth. Therefore growth is both good and possible. QED.

However, this confuses aggregate growth with reallocation. Aggregate growth refers to growth in everything: bicycles, cars, houses, ships, cell phones, and so on. Aggregate growth is growth in scale of the economy, the size of real GDP, which is a value-based index of aggregate production and consequently of the total resource throughput required by that production. In the simplest case of aggregate growth everything produced goes up by the same percentage. Reallocation, by contrast, means that some things go up while others go down, the freed-up resources from the latter are transferred to the former. The fact that reallocation remains possible and desirable does not mean that aggregate growth is possible and desirable. The fact that you can reallocate the weight in a boat more efficiently does not mean that there is no Plimsoll Line. Too much weight will sink a boat even if it is optimally allocated. Efficient reallocation is good; the problem is aggregate growth.

Reallocation of production away from more resource-intensive goods to less resource-intensive goods (“decoupling”) is possible to some degree and often advocated, but is limited by two basic facts. First, the economy grows as an integrated whole, not as a loose aggregate of independently changeable sectors. A glance at the input-output table of an economy makes it clear that to increase output of any sector requires an increase in all the inputs to that sector from other sectors, and then increases of the inputs to those inputs, etc. Second, in addition to the input-output or supply interdependence of sectors there are demand constraints — people are just not interested in information services unless they first have enough food and shelter. So trying to cut the resource-intensive food and shelter part of GDP to reallocate to less resource-intensive information services in the name of decoupling GDP from resources, will simply result in a shortage of food and shelter, and a glut of information services.

Aggregate growth was no problem back when the world was relatively empty. But now the world is full, and aggregate growth likely costs more than it is worth, even though more bicycles (and less of something else) might still be possible and desirable. That should not be too hard to understand.

2. Another confusion is to argue that since GDP is measured in value terms, it is therefore not subject to physical limits. This is another argument given for easy “decoupling” of GDP from resource throughput. But growth refers to real GDP, which eliminates price level changes. Real GDP is a value-based index of aggregate quantitative change in real physical production. It is the best index we have of total resource throughput. The unit of measure of real GDP is not dollars, but rather “dollar’s worth.” A dollar’s worth of gasoline is a physical quantity, currently about one-fourth of a gallon. The annual aggregate of all such dollar’s worth amounts of all final commodities is real GDP, and even though not expressible in a simple physical unit, it remains a physical aggregate and subject to physical limits. The price level and nominal GDP might grow forever (inflation), but not real GDP, and the latter is the accepted measure of aggregate growth. Most people can grasp this, and do not conceive of real GDP as trillions of dollar bills, or as ethereal, abstract, psychic, aggregated utility.

3. A more subtle confusion results from looking at past totals rather than present margins. Just look at the huge net benefits of past growth! How can anyone oppose growth when it has led to such enormous benefits? Well, there is a good reason: the net benefits of past growth reach a maximum precisely at the point where the rising marginal costs of growth equal the declining marginal benefits — that is to say, at precisely the point at which further growth ceases to be economic and becomes uneconomic! Before that point wealth grew faster than illth; beyond that point illth grows faster than wealth, making us poorer, not richer. No one is against being richer. No one denies that growth used to make us richer. The question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?

To understand the question requires that we recognize that real GDP has a cost, that illth is a negative joint product with wealth. Examples of illth are everywhere and include: nuclear wastes, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells and rivers, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, gyres of plastic trash in the oceans, the ozone hole, exhausting and dangerous labor, and the exploding un-repayable debt from trying to push growth in the symbolic financial sector beyond what is possible in the real sector. Since no one buys these annually produced bads (that accumulate into illth), they have no market prices, and since their implicit negative shadow values are hard to estimate in a way comparable to positive market prices, they are usually ignored, or mentioned and quickly forgotten.

The logic of maximization embodied in equating marginal cost with marginal benefit requires a moment’s thought for the average citizen to understand clearly, but surely it is familiar to anyone who has taken Econ 101.

4. Even if it is theoretically possible that the marginal cost of growth has become greater than the marginal benefit, there is no empirical evidence that this is so.  On the contrary, there is plenty of empirical evidence for anyone who has not been anesthetized by the official party line of Madison Avenue and Wall Street. As for empirical evidence of the statistical type, there are two independent sources that give the same basic answer. First are the objective measures that separate GDP sub-accounts into costs and benefits and then subtract the costs from GDP to approximate net benefits of growth. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and its later modifications into the General Progress Indicator (GPI) both indicate that, for the US and some other wealthy countries, GDP and GPI were positively correlated up until around 1980, after which GPI leveled off and GDP continued to rise. In other words, increasing throughput as measured by real GDP no longer increased welfare as measured by GPI. A similar disconnect is confirmed using the different measure of self-evaluated happiness. Self-reported happiness increases with per capita GDP up to a level of around $20,000 per year, and then stops rising. The interpretation given is that while absolute real income is important for happiness up to some sufficient point, beyond that point happiness is overwhelmingly a function of the quality of relationships by which our very identity is constituted. Friendships, marriage and family, social stability, trust, fairness, etc. — not per capita GDP — are the overwhelming determinants of happiness at the present margin, especially in high-income countries. If we sacrifice friendships, social stability, family time, environmental services, and trust for the sake of labor mobility, a second job, and quarterly financial returns, we often reduce happiness while increasing GDP. Relative income gains may still increase individual happiness even when increases in absolute income no longer do, but aggregate growth is powerless to increase everyone’s relative income because we cannot all be above average. Beyond some sufficiency, growth in GDP no longer increases either self-evaluated happiness or measured economic welfare, but it continues to increase costs of depletion, pollution, congestion, stress, etc. Why do most economists resist the very idea that we might have reached this point? Why do they resist measuring the costs of growth, and then claim that “there is no empirical evidence” for what is common experience? Read on.

5. Many believe that the way we measure GDP automatically makes its growth a trustworthy guide to economic policy.  To be counted in GDP, there must be a market transaction, and that implies a willing buyer and seller, neither of whom would have made the transaction if it did not make them better off in their own judgment. Ergo, growth in GDP must be good or it would not have happened. The problem here is that there are many third parties who are affected by many transactions, but did not agree to them. These external costs (or sometimes benefits) are not counted in GDP. Who are these third parties? The public in general, but more specifically the poor who lack the money to express their preferences in the market, future generations who cannot bid in present markets, and other species who have no influence on markets at all.

In addition, GDP, the largest component of which is National Income, counts consumption of natural capital as income. Counting capital consumption as income is the cardinal sin of accounting. Cut down the entire forest this year and sell it, and the entire amount is treated as this year’s income. Pump all the petroleum and sell it, and add that to this year’s income. But income in economics is by definition the maximum amount that a community can produce and consume this year, and still be able to produce and consume the same amount next year. In other words income is the maximum consumption that still leaves intact the capacity to produce the same amount next year. Only the sustainable yield of forests, fisheries, croplands, and livestock herds is this year’s income — the rest is capital needed to reproduce the same yield next year. Consuming capital means reduced production and consumption in the future. Income is by definition sustainable; capital consumption is not. The whole historical reason for income accounting is to avoid impoverishment by inadvertent consumption of capital. By contrast our national accounting tends to encourage capital consumption (at least consumption of natural capital), first by counting it in GDP, and then claiming that whatever increases GDP is good!

As already noted we fail to subtract negative by-products (external costs) from GDP on the grounds that they have no market price since obviously no one wants to buy bads. But people do buy anti-bads, and we count those expenditures. For example, the costs of pollution (a bad) are not subtracted, but the expenditures on pollution clean-up (an anti-bad) are added. This is asymmetric accounting — adding anti-bads without having subtracted the bads that made the anti-bads necessary in the first place. The more bads, the more anti-bads, and the greater is GDP — wheel spinning registered as forward motion.

There are other problems with GDP but these should be enough to refute the mistaken idea that if something is not a net benefit it would not have been counted in GDP, so therefore GDP growth must always be good. Lots of people have for a long time been making these criticisms of GDP. They have not been refuted — just ignored!

6. Knowledge is the ultimate resource and since knowledge growth is infinite it can fuel economic growth without limit.  I am eager for knowledge to substitute physical resources to the extent possible, and consequently advocate both taxes to make resources expensive and patent reform to make knowledge cheap. But if I am hungry I want real food on the plate, not the knowledge of a thousand recipes on the Internet. Furthermore, the basic renewability of ignorance makes me doubt that knowledge can save the growth economy. Ignorance is renewable mainly because ignorant babies replace learned elders every generation. In addition, vast amounts of recorded knowledge are destroyed by fires, floods, and bookworms. Modern digital storage does not seem to be immune to these teeth of time, or to that new bookworm, the computer virus. To be effective in the world, knowledge must exist in someone’s mind (not just in the library or on the Internet) — otherwise it is inert. And even when knowledge increases, it does not grow exponentially like money in the bank. Some old knowledge is disproved or cancelled out by new knowledge, and some new knowledge is discovery of new biophysical or social limits to growth.

New knowledge must always be something of a surprise — if we could predict its content then we would have to know it already, and it would not really be new. Contrary to common expectation, new knowledge is not always a pleasant surprise for the growth economy — frequently it is bad news. For example, climate change from greenhouse gases was recently new knowledge, as was discovery of the ozone hole. How can one appeal to new knowledge as the panacea when the content of new knowledge must of necessity be a surprise? Of course we may get lucky with new knowledge, but should we borrow against that uncertainty? Why not count the chickens after they hatch?

7. Without growth we are condemned to unemployment. The Full Employment Act of 1946 declared full employment to be a major goal of U.S. policy. Economic growth was then seen as the means to attain full employment. Today that relation has been inverted — economic growth has become the end.  If the means to attain that end — automation, off-shoring, excessive immigration — result in unemployment, well that is the price “we” just have to pay for the supreme goal of growth. If we really want full employment we must reverse this inversion of ends and means. We can serve the goal of full employment by restricting automation, off-shoring, and immigration work permits to periods of true domestic labor shortage as indicated by high and rising wages. Real wages have been falling for decades, yet our corporations, hungry for cheaper labor, keep bleating about a labor shortage. They mean a shortage of cheap labor in the service of growing profits. Actually a labor shortage in a capitalist economy with 80% of the population earning wages is not a bad thing. How else will wages and standard of living for that 80% ever increase unless there is a shortage of labor? What the corporations really want is a surplus of labor, and falling wages. With surplus labor wages cannot rise and therefore all the gains from productivity increases will go to profit, not wages. Hence the elitist support for uncontrolled automation, off-shoring, and immigration.

8. We live in a globalized economy and have no choice but to compete in the global growth race. Not so! Globalization was a policy choice of our elites, not an imposed necessity. Free trade agreements had to be negotiated. Who negotiated and signed the treaties? Who has pushed for free capital mobility and signed on to the World Trade Organization? Who wants to enforce trade-related intellectual property rights with trade sanctions? The Bretton Woods system was a major achievement aimed at facilitating international trade after WWII. It fostered trade for mutual advantage among separate countries. Free capital mobility and global integration were not part of the deal. That came with the WTO and the effective abandonment by the World Bank and IMF of their Bretton Woods charter. Globalization is the engineered integration of many formerly relatively independent national economies into a single tightly bound global economy organized around absolute, not comparative, advantage. Once a country has been sold on free trade and free capital mobility it has effectively been integrated into the global economy and is no longer free not to specialize and trade. Yet all of the theorems in economics about the gains from trade assume that trade is voluntary. How can trade be voluntary if you are so specialized as to be no longer free not to trade? Countries can no longer account for social and environmental costs and internalize them in their prices unless all other countries do so, and to the same degree. To integrate the global omelet you must disintegrate the national eggs. While nations have many sins to atone for, they remain the main locus of community and policy-making authority. It will not do to disintegrate them in the name of abstract “globalism,” even though we certainly require some global federation of national communities. But when nations disintegrate there will be nothing left to federate in the interest of legitimately global purposes. “Globalization” (national disintegration) was an actively pursued policy, not an inertial force of nature. It was done to increase the power and growth of transnational corporations by moving them out from under the authority of nation states and into a non-existent “global community.” It can be undone, as is currently being contemplated by some in the European Union, often heralded as the forerunner of more inclusive globalization.

If the growth boosters will make a sincere effort to overcome these eight fallacies, then maybe we can have a productive dialogue about whether or not what used to be economic growth has now become uneconomic growth, and what to do about it. Until these eight fallacies have been addressed, it is probably not worth extending the list. It is too much to hope that the issue of uneconomic growth will make it into the 2012 election, but maybe 2016, or 2020, …or sometime? One can hope. But hope must embrace not just a better understanding regarding these confusions, but also more love and care for our fellow humans, and for all of Creation. Our decision-making elites may tacitly understand that growth has become uneconomic. But they have also figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank — not to mention GoldSacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in harmony with class interest and greed. The public is bamboozled by technical obfuscation, and by the false promise that, thanks to growth, they too will one day be rich. Intellectual confusion is real, but moral corruption fogs the discussion even more.

Failure and Hope from Rio+20

By Jules Peck

Editor’s note: Jules Peck originally posted this as a two-part essay on the blog of the New Economics Foundation. Peck’s views on what happened at the Rio+20 Earth Summit and his conclusions about what needs to happen dovetail with Brian Czech’s observations from the Summit.

A failure of epic proportions?

Commentators are fairly unanimous that the Rio+20 talks have been a failure. Expectations had of course been low. And because of this most developed country leaders stayed away. In opening the summit Ban Ki-Moon admitted the draft outcome was “disappointing” due to the conflicting interests of member states. China’s Sha Zukang, the UN’s lead on the conference agreed, calling the statement “an outcome that makes nobody happy.”

NGOs were unanimous in their disgust with the conference outcome statement, The Future We Want and Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo spoke of “…the longest suicide note in history…the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model…a failure of epic proportions.”

So what was missing from the talks? What hope might there be coming from outside official negotiating rooms?

The end of an era of global diplomacy?

There seemed to be some consensus that the era of global treaties might be over, at least for the time being. George Monbiot concluded his roll call of Rio failures by calling for us to give up on global agreements. Barbara Stocking, head of Oxfam, urged civil society to “pick up and move on… take action.” Lasse Gustavasson, the World Wildlife Fund’s Executive Director of Conservation agreed that there had been a fundamental failure of “sophisticated UN diplomacy.”

UN Environment Programme Director Achim Steiner said the conference was evidence of “a world at a loss what to do” and that “we can’t legislate sustainable development in the current state of international relations.” Of course it is not just on sustainable development that global agreement is failing — the same is true of solutions to the financial system and issues such as Syria.

US Delegation Lead Todd Stern seemed to agree that global multi-state solutions no longer hold out much hope. Todd joined others in suggesting that the failures of Copenhagen and now Rio+20 signal the end of the post-Cold War global treaty era.

Both Stern and WWF’s Gustavasson noted that far more commitment and leadership had been shown at Rio+20 by civil society, city mayors, and the private sector. Indeed, Stern spoke of the early stages of a new era of new forms of global cooperation linking nations with business and civil society that is now flourishing in the shadow of the hollowing-out of formal processes. Some commentated that there was far more of a meeting of minds between some business and civil society folk in the 3,000 fringe events at Rio+20 than in the negotiating rooms.

It is perhaps hard to see how such one-off, informal cooperation between the private sector and civil society will replace binding global treaties, but perhaps there is some small reason to be hopeful still? For the time being, we may have to give up hope for action from governments. After all, the best our political “leaders” were able to come up with at Rio+20 was “green growth” and its love-child “sustained growth.” How many more moronic oxymorons can they think up?

Thankfully, there are signs that civil society and the private sector might take up some of the slack.

To read more, please see Jules Peck’s original Part 1 and his follow-up in Part 2, which call for sustainable development rather than sustained growth. Also see Brian Czech’s previous Daly News article about the role of CASSE and steady state economics.

The Triumph of Fantasy over Science, Part 1

The Rise of Fantasy as the Basis for Economic Policy

by Rob Dietz

Two competing camps attract people from all over the world. One is Science Camp, and the other is Fantasy Camp.

At Science Camp, the counselors teach campers that we live on a single blue-green planet with finite resources. The curriculum at Science Camp focuses on figuring out how to conserve and share those resources. There’s a strong undercurrent of appreciation (maybe even reverence) for nature and humanity’s place in it — a desire to learn about and safeguard life on this planet.

At Fantasy Camp, the counselors educate campers to believe that humanity can circumvent natural limits. Campers are taught that our unstoppable ingenuity can overcome any resource shortages or manage any amount of waste generation. There’s a strong undercurrent of consumption — a desire to accumulate ever more power and stuff in an attempt to gain complete control over life (and even death).

This division of the world’s people into two camps is a bit crude. After all, some people can’t attend either camp, since they’re engaged in a struggle to get by on the meager resources available to them. Other people are so taken up by their jobs, ideology, or religion that they don’t pay attention to either camp. Still others may be in transit from one camp to another. For example, people learning the ins and outs of climate change, planetary overshoot, biodiversity loss, etc., might begin to disentangle themselves from Fantasy Camp and start leaning toward Science Camp.

Counselors and campers at Science Camp put a lot of stock in observations and facts. Facts like these:

  • When we extract and burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. A higher concentration of carbon dioxide produces side effects (e.g., increasing temperatures and acidifying oceans) that threaten global climate stability.
  • When we convert forests, grasslands, and wetlands to farms, cities, and suburban sprawl, we decrease the amount of habitat available to non-human species, and we reduce the ecological richness of the landscape.
  • When we extract fish, trees, or other natural resources faster than Mother Nature can replace them, we collapse populations and sometimes cause long-term ecological damage.

Grappling with such facts can lead to clear-headed thinking about limits — recognition that we need to limit the burning of fossil fuels, limit the conversion of natural habitat, and limit the rate of resource extraction. Ecological economists are some of the most clear-thinking enrollees at Science Camp. They approach economic growth and ecological limits with practicality, seeking policies and institutions that enhance human well-being without overwhelming the capacity of planetary life-support systems.

In contrast, the people registered at Fantasy Camp, especially the neoclassical economists, tend to ignore, deny, or dispute facts that conflict with their pre-existing ideas about infinite economic growth. At the same time, they cling to tidbits of conventional wisdom that support their current worldview. Their refusal to incorporate facts into their thinking about how to operate the economy is especially dangerous because it feeds the consumptive frenzy that pushes ecosystems and societies to the brink.

When you compare the foundational principles of ecological economics to those of mainstream/neoclassical economics (see table), it becomes ever clearer that one has a strong basis in reality. The principles of ecological economics stem from the laws of physics and ecology instead of “truthy” assumptions about human behavior and markets. The logic behind ecological economics suggests a different policy path than the theories behind neoclassical economics.

Foundational Principles of Fantasy Camp and Science Camp

Neoclassical Economics (Fantasy Camp) Ecological Economics (Science Camp)
People are rational utility maximizers. They make decisions rationally (at the margin) with the explicit goal of improving their own lives and maximizing their well-being. Sometimes people behave rationally, and other times irrationally. Behavior is influenced by emotion, culture, circumstance, and many factors beyond rational self interest.
People consume goods and services to meet needs. Since meeting needs increases people’s utility (satisfaction with life), more consumption is better. Consuming enough is preferable to continuous pursuit of more, given the diminishing returns of additional consumption and the social and environmental consequences of overconsumption.
The goal for an economy is growth — continuously increasing production and consumption. Growth means more jobs, more consumer utility, more purchasing power. The goal for an economy is optimal scale — the size at which the rising marginal costs of growth equal the diminishing marginal benefits. Growing the economy past this point is counterproductive.
Value is determined by prices in the market. If something of value does not have a price, we should find a way to bring it into the market. Some things that have value are not priced in markets. We need to establish mechanisms beyond the market to recognize this value.

There’s one other big difference between Science Camp and Fantasy Camp. Science Camp draws many fewer supporters than Fantasy Camp. To make a positive economic transition, we need to orchestrate a reversal of this situation, and to do so requires us to address two questions:

  1. Why do so many people pitch their tents in Fantasy Camp?
  2. After decades of failing to attract people to Science Camp, what should we do?

Why People Favor Fantasy

As Bill Rees has noted, “If intelligence and logic were the principal determinants of economic policy, the primary goal would be to ensure that growth slows as we reach the optimal scale and that the economy not exceed this optimal size.” But given the struggle of ecological economics to gain ground on neoclassical economics, we can mostly eliminate “intelligence and logic” as driving forces that motivate people to decide which camp to enter. Indeed, three factors that have little to do with intelligence and logic are behind this.

1. The psychology of inclusion drives people to follow the in-vogue philosophy. Dan Kahan, a legal scholar at Yale University, defines the term “protective cognition” as a sort of automatic defense mechanism that people employ to dismiss scientifically sound evidence that poses a threat to their worldview. Like an immune system fighting off invading viruses, protective cognition works in people’s minds to repel invading facts that would require them to rethink their dearest beliefs. Kahan writes, “Because accepting such [facts] could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.” With so many people having internalized the concepts of unlimited economic growth and the triumph of technology over nature, protective cognition puts up a formidable obstacle to widespread adoption of ecological economics. It can take years of fact bombardment to begin chipping away at this obstacle.

Fantasy Camp counselors shouldn’t be setting economic policy.

2. Neoclassical economics has become entrenched in the culture. The way people approach daily living and interactions within the economy has become aligned with the neoclassical tenet of self interest (mostly by seeking high-paying jobs and adopting lifestyles of materialism). Neoclassical ideology permeates universities. With so many business and economics students, universities are churning out graduates who buy into the neoclassical approach. The degree of entrenchment came about because neoclassical prescriptions worked at a time when increasing material goods meant increasing well-being. As Herman Daly has pointed out, this was the case when the Earth was relatively empty of people and our stuff. We could extract resources and dump wastes without worrying about running out of supplies (of either inputs or waste absorption capacity). But that logic has become faulty, and even dangerous, as we have filled the planet with ourselves and our things.

3. They spin a real good story over at Fantasy Camp. The message of unending growth is enticing, as long as we disregard the Icarus-like consequences of being seduced by it. This message makes regular appearances in fantasy movies. For example, in The Matrix, Neo (the hero) says, “I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them… a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible.” Although this sort of message belongs in a movie theater, it seems to pop up even more often in the political theater. After Ronald Reagan cruised to Presidential victory over Jimmy Carter (whose message of conservation failed to resonate), he said, “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” This quote, which makes it seem like Reagan employed Disney’s top talent to write his speeches, is literally set in stone in a Washington, DC monument. Reagan’s message is far more compelling than something like, “Individual freedom is a cornerstone of society, but freedom of choice may be constrained by social and environmental limits to growth. Men and women need to take such constraints into account when deciding which dreams to follow.”

These three factors won’t go away on their own. To increase the prominence of Science Camp, we have to take concerted action. Part 2 will explore how to enroll more people in Science Camp and supplant fantasy as the basis for economic policy.

The Higgs Boson and the Steady State Economy

By Brent Blackwelder

What does the Higgs boson have to do with the establishment of a sustainable economy? The discovery of this subatomic particle required a Herculean effort, involving billions of dollars, over 1,000 physicists, and thousands of craftsmen to construct and operate an almost incomprehensibly complex machine — the Large Hadron Collider. The same kind of diligent, prodigious effort is needed to construct and operate a new economic system for all nations of the world.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing, described the effort on the Higgs boson in ebullient terms:

…a triumph of technical and computational wizardry of unprecedented magnitude…

…cathedrals and colliders are both works of incomparable grandeur that celebrate the beauty of being alive…

…the discovery will change our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. Surely that is the hallmark of great music, great literature, great art… and great science.

Amid such extraordinary hype, it’s worth asking what we have to show for finding the so-called God particle? Will this momentous discovery help solve any crucial economic, social, environmental, or political problems besetting societies today and even threatening the livability of the planet? Will we possess the “key to the universe” and still wreck the planet we depend on?

If we can build the LHC, there’s hope for the SSE.

The most urgent task for humanity is the focus of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy: a transformation of the existing world economy. Today’s global economy rewards the depletion of natural resources, promotes overuse of fossil fuels, drives huge numbers of species to extinction, and turns a blind eye on the destruction of the very ecosystems that make life possible.

The transformation required in this emergency situation was described by economist Kenneth Boulding roughly half a century ago — the same period when physicists were formulating hypotheses about mystery particles. The essential change, Boulding said, was a move from “cowboy economics” (the unsustainable economics of continuous growth and resource overexploitation) to “spaceship economics” (the sustainable economics of the steady state).

Scientists specializing in ecosystem health warn that Earth is like a patient in the emergency room needing CPR — conservation, preservation, and restoration. The latest climate science reveals alarming physical changes to the planet — changes that are even more disturbing than the warnings issued in the big 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Here are a few such changes:

  • The oceans are warming 50% faster than predicted;
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are tracking the worst-case scenario;
  • Oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years;
  • Sea levels are projected to be over 3 times as high, and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise ocean levels 20 feet;
  • The earth is on track for an average warming of 7 degrees centigrade by 2100 — enough to produce massive agricultural failures.

We need a Herculean effort on both economic and ecological fronts to deal with climate destabilization. How many ecological economists are at work on a redesign of the global economy? What about the paucity of scientists who study the variety of life and the functioning of ecosystems? We do not know if there are 10 million species on Earth or 50 million.

In contrast, consider the stupendous volume of data being gathered by the supercollider. Dr. Krauss reports that this collider generates more data every second than the information in all the world’s libraries. The physicists got the billions they needed, but only a little progress has been made in developing spaceship economics. In fact, mainstream economics is reinforcing both the cowboy and casino thinking that is gripping most economies on Earth.

Physicists did not face a slick disinformation campaign funded by oil companies. Surely the job of rescuing our planet from an untimely demise should rank high in the funding priorities. Lester Brown estimates that $200 billion a year — less than a fifth of the world’s defense department budgets — is needed to shift to a clean-energy economy and do the CPR that planet Earth desperately needs.

“Steady State Economy” — a Positive Vision in International Affairs

by Brian Czech

Before we think about the steady state economy, let’s think for a moment about economic growth. Economic growth still has such positive connotations in domestic politics, especially American politics, that the vast majority of citizens simply assume that whoever can do more for economic growth is the better statesman (man or woman), better Federal Reserve chair, better economic advisor, etc. That’s why the definition of economic growth bears repeating over and over again, to pull the magic cloak from a purely material process. Economic growth simply means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.

In other words, economic growth means increasing population, increasing per capita consumption, or both. There’s nothing magical about it. Economic growth means more and more “stuff” – green stuff, brown stuff, pink stuff — and it takes more “stuff” to make it happen. That’s pretty obvious for the agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing sectors. But service sectors, even the information sector, take more stuff to grow, too.

And stuff tends to run out. Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Everything as Richard Heinberg called it; Earth has only so much to go around. Earth is big, but so is 7 billion — the number of people in the global economy. More importantly, guess which one is still growing.

Economic growth is indicated by increasing GDP. In nations with big ecological footprints — the United States, Japan, Germany, China, Brazil — economic growth has long been maxed out within the borders. Huge economies have to reach across their borders for natural resources, and their pollutants go international too. Economic growth is increasingly questioned as a positive vision in international affairs.

Many if not most nations recognize that economic growth has become more of a problem than a solution from a global perspective. That’s why Herman Daly calls it “uneconomic growth.” Resource shortages, pollution, climate change, congestion, and biodiversity loss are all results and indicators of economic (or uneconomic) growth.

In other words economic growth, indicated by increasing GDP, has become a bad deal, at least at the global level. It was a good deal some decades ago when it cost us little in clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife, and peace and quiet. But now it’s a bad deal and we need to recognize it as bad.

Calling economic growth a bad thing doesn’t make the steady state economy a negative vision. Far from it. In fact, when economic growth is a bad thing, only an alternative to growth can be a good thing, right?

So what are the alternatives to economic growth? This is where sticking to the standard, textbook, policy-relevant definition of economic growth comes in handy. Again, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, indicated by growing GDP. So we have only two basic alternatives: decreasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, or stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. The former results in declining GDP and the latter in stabilized GDP. The former is called “recession.” The latter is called a “steady state economy.”

Of these, which one sounds like the better deal? Which one evokes the more positive image? Which one should be advocated as the solution to the problem of economic growth?

I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s the steady state economy.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to test this hypothesis at the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, otherwise known as “Rio+20,” from June 20-22. There in Rio de Janeiro I talked with dozens of delegates from countries ranging in GDP from the gargantuan United States to the diminutive Comoros. Here’s what I found: nearly all favored the steady state economy as the positive solution to the problem of economic growth. Nearly all saw continuous economic growth as bad and the steady state economy as good.

That’s right, nearly all!

Doubt it? Think again. These diplomats ain’t no dummies. They know full well the planet is filling up with people and stuff, and that many national economies are beyond their sustainable levels.

Of course, there are exceptions. Some diplomats have the intellectual disadvantage of a background in neoclassical economics, leading them to believe there is no limit to economic growth. They can’t defend such a fallacious hypothesis, but they still believe it.

Then again, not all diplomats who agree about limits to economic growth will formally acknowledge such agreement. A distinct tendency was clear in Rio: wealthy-nation delegates were afraid to buck the party line of economic growth except in private conversation. The reasons should be obvious. In the United States, for example, we have Wall Street, the Federal Reserve System, and the Department of Commerce pushing hard for economic growth. No one should underestimate the power of these players to influence the language of statesmen, political appointees, and bureaucrats.

In small nations with widespread poverty, on the other hand, the general public, professional diplomats, and elected politicians have one thing in common: they’ve all experienced the unfairness of global economic growth and pro-growth policies. When it comes to natural resources, smaller countries tend to be deal takers, not deal makers, and the terms of trade are harsh.

That’s why the CASSE position on economic growth has garnered signatures from numerous small-country diplomats, ministers, and other delegates in international affairs. In Rio, I found delegate after delegate supportive of steady state economics for international diplomacy. Many were from African, South American, and Asian countries far removed from Wall Street and wary of international pro-growth institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization. I got the succinct impression that, if only we had the time and access to all diplomats of the world, and even to heads of state, we would find the vast majority of them calling for steady state economics just as the CASSE position describes. That means starting in large, wealthy countries and gradually expanding to other nations after an opportunity to catch up in per capita consumption, at least to a reasonable degree.

Yet many activists, scholars, and ‘think-tankers’ are afraid to talk openly in public about the steady state economy, much less to go on record as supporting it. They think the phrase “steady state economy” has negative connotations. They think this makes the steady state economy too difficult to promote.

The fact is that any macroeconomic goal (growth, steady state, recession) has negative connotations. It’s time to pick your negative connotations!

Some may think that negative connotations can be avoided by the use of feel-good rhetoric such as “green,” “blue,” or “new” economics. I hate to burst the bluegreen bubblegum, but these too have plenty of negative connotations. This was evident in Rio. “Green,” “blue,” and “new” are seen by diplomats for what they are: rhetorical ploys to skirt the tough issues we face in the real world.

Long-time explicit advocates of the steady state economy could, I suppose, be accused of a biased opinion. But I know what I saw in Rio: delegates almost invariably connected quickly with the phrase “steady state economy.” Although it’s a phrase that requires some thought for translation to other languages, it makes so much common sense that the translation occurs alright. For example, the CASSE position on economic growth is already posted in 19 languages. After all the followups from Rio+20, it will also be posted in Chinese, Turkish, Hindi, Bangladeshi, Japanese, and Hungarian.

In political science, a central principle is name recognition. All else equal, the name recognized is the name favored. This applies to politicians, policies, and platforms. That’s why it matters when a professor, activist, diplomat, minister, or head of state chooses a label for a particular economic goal. “Green” has name recognition, but its meaning is fuzzy. “New” has little recognition or meaning, at least as applied to economics. “Steady state economy” has modest recognition, so far, but it clearly expresses the primary principle; a stabilized economy that is neither growing nor shrinking, but fluctuating around a sustainable level.

“Steady state economy” is a positive, proactive phrase that’s productive in international affairs. It has decades of academic reputation from the work of Herman Daly and others. It speaks clearly of the need to stabilize the size of the human economy. It has plenty of backing by dignitaries in sustainability science, policy, and diplomacy, and the list of dignitaries (not yet updated from Rio) is growing fast. We should encourage the purveyors of “green,” “blue”, and “new” economics to adopt it.

Aren’t there reasons enough?

The Canutist State

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn one version of the legend of King Canute’s failed attempt to stem the rising tide by lashing the sea, he told the assembled crowd of flatterers: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.”

In this version, Canute staged the attempt to control the tide in order to discredit the lying sycophants who kept telling him that he was all-powerful and therefore could do anything that they wanted him to do. But popular history, immune to subtlety, has portrayed Canute as really believing that the sea would obey him. Hence the term “Canutist State” has been used to refer to governments that try to mandate climate stability without burning less carbon, to grow forever in a finite and entropic world, and to abolish poverty without sharing. It would be more just to Canute if the term “Canutist State” referred to a wise government that constrained the ignorant attempts of its businessmen and economists to grow forever. With apologies to the wise King, I will perpetuate this injustice because the image of a stupid government serving business interests by trying to countermand nature’s laws is such an apt description of what is happening today that we need a name for it.

The Canutist State wants, in the words of one of its big boosters, IBM, to “build a smarter planet” — one that is “smart” enough to obey our mindless command to keep growing. The real Canute would not try to build a smarter planet (by geo-engineering, genetic engineering, globalization, quantitative easing, etc.), any more than he really tried to command the tide. He would have tried to build a smarter kingdom populated by wiser subjects, and thrown his growth-manic economic advisors into the dungeon. He would have said, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to the wonderful gift of the Earth, out of which we were created and with which we have evolved.”

It would be tempting to emulate Canute’s strategy by putting the growth-manic advice to the test and watching it publicly fail. That would be very costly, but in a way it is exactly what is happening, although not by design. Unfortunately, the failures are attributed to insufficient growth rather than to the stupidity of the priestly economic advisors who inhabit palaces rather than dungeons. Their policy is to lash nature even harder with the whip of mega-technology until it gives us what we want — usually accompanied by a lot of “unforeseen consequences” that we certainly do not want.