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

Toward a Finite-Planet Journalism

by Eric Zencey

Eric ZenceyThe Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park in southeastern Missouri was created in 1964 as the first National Park unit to protect a wild and scenic river system. Enclosing 184 miles of river and in many places scarcely wider than the banks of the rivers it protects, the park gets more than a million visitors in the summer, many of them from St. Louis (three hours to the northeast) and Springfield (three hours to the west). The park’s once-pristine waters are being damaged by overuse. Fecal coliform counts have led to the rivers’ being listed as “impaired” — unfit for their historic uses, including swimming, tubing, kayaking, and fishing. Some of the fecal pollution comes from horses (more than 3,000 are stabled in and near the park by trail-ride concessions, and many horse trails cross the rivers) and some comes from private septic failures in cabins, boats and RV campgrounds.

These and other human environmental impacts in the park could be reduced through tighter regulation and judicious redesign of usage patterns — moving trails out of the most sensitive areas, minimizing congestion at access points by separating them farther, that sort of thing. Clearly the park needs an update of its decades-old management plan.

The National Park Service has worked on that update, producing a draft management plan that outlines four possible paths forward, from “no change” — an unsustainable option, Park Service scientists say — to establishing the park as a Wilderness Area. The Service’s preferred option lies in between. It would:

  • close some historical river access points and open an equal number in less ecologically sensitive areas;
  • close 65 miles of unauthorized horse trails and open 25 miles of designated trails elsewhere;
  • set new regulations on where and when motorboats would be allowed; and
  • close some roads, converting them to hiking trails.

The Park Service has been holding public hearings on the proposals, and some of the hearings have been the occasion of protest and controversy as some park regulars and nearby residents expressed their dismay at the proposed changes. Protest and “push back” are entirely expectable when government policy falls on the border where infinite-planet custom meets finite-planet reality. The transformation of our perpetual-growth society into a steady-state society, though inevitable, is unlikely to be quiet or automatic. It would be less painful if it were eased by environmental journalism worthy of the name, journalism that understands what’s at stake, journalism capable of stepping outside the infinite-planet premises of our social and political system.

Sadly, the new management plan for the Current and Jack Fork Rivers didn’t get that kind of coverage.

On Sunday, January 26, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story about the new management plan. The prominence was appropriate; the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park generates plenty of environmental value, as well as substantial local and regional economic impacts. (As a summertime escape from Midwestern heat, it figures prominently in the psychic health of the region too, though that’s harder to measure.) But the implications of the story reach even farther, all the way out to the widest scale possible — that of human civilization in history. That’s because the story of the Park’s need for a new management regime, and of the opposition to that regime, is not simply a story about political wrangling between a federal agency and some citizens affected by its decisions; it’s a story about the troubling collision between participatory democracy and physical reality.

This was not how the story was framed by the paper. Instead, the paper gave it a distinctly conservative spin: long-established users of the park are finding their habits and traditions threatened by unfeeling bureaucrats and flaky environmentalists. The story made a point that those who protested against new park regulations “love” the river, while no mention was made of the love of the river that leads environmentalists to want to see it protected. The only environmentalist the story quoted said the park was a “temple” that had been “desecrated” — as if John Muir’s pantheism was the animating force behind all environmental regulation, and subtly suggesting that the protestors had Constitutional freedom on their side. The story made no mention of fecal coliform counts, noting only that environmentalists “claim” the water is being polluted and quoting one Park Service official who said current uses are “unsustainable.” Absent the science that would back up either statement, a reader could dismiss both as personal opinions. (Indeed, the official was said to “feel,” not think, that the park needed a new regulatory plan.)

Ozark Riverways

Continuous growth (in visitation to the Ozark Riverways, or more generally in population and consumption) requires regulation to address the consequences. Journalists should be reporting this principle (photo by David Porter).

Infinite-planet bias was present in the story in other ways. The report began within the first-person point of view of one of the citizens opposed to the new regulatory regime, immediately placing the reader on that side of the issue. Imagine if the story had begun with the work of one of the scientists whose findings shaped the report — or a swimmer who had bumped into raw sewage. The story gave a great deal of coverage to citizens worried that they might lose their livelihoods if tourist access to the park comes under greater control, but didn’t make the point that the river-supported economy of the area will collapse completely if the rivers aren’t kept healthy.

Basically, the news story pandered to populist sentiment against regulation. Yes, people don’t like to be told what they can and can’t do, especially when the rules cover behavior in a place that seems wild, natural, and incapable of being damaged by what we do. But looks can be deceiving. As climate change amply demonstrates, we no longer live on a planet so large that it can absorb any- and everything we care to throw at it. In the world we inhabit now, if we want to maintain the benefits and delights we derive from natural ecosystems — including necessities like clean water — we need regulations to manage our increasingly problematic ecological footprint.

Communication of that truth would have served the public interest. The problem is not that some people want more government just for the sake of more government, as a Post-Dispatch reader might justifiably conclude. The problem is that the human population and its high-throughput economy have collided with ecological limit, even in the backwoods of the Ozarks. If protestors want smaller government in general and less regulation of the Ozark Waterways in particular, they need to work to bring civilization back — far back — from the brink of ecological limits. The way to do that is to stabilize and perhaps even reduce population, decrease throughput, and increase the health and security of the planet’s ecosystems through conservation, restoration and preservation.

American political thinkers from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey have emphasized the importance of newspapers to the country’s democratic project. To their appreciations we can add another of equal importance: only an ecologically knowledgeable electorate can reconcile democracy with non-negotiable ecological limits. If the majority of voters remain ecologically illiterate, they must give up either civilization or democracy; it’s impossible to retain both.

The country could get the educated polity it needs through an ambitious program of teaching ecological literacy in our schools. But for this method to produce an ecologically literate majority would take decades, and we haven’t got that much time. If the American public is to learn what it must learn in order to maintain democracy in the face of the dynamics that are pushing us, inexorably and for our own self-preservation, toward illiberal technocracy, then news outlets have to step up to the task of reporting fairly by dropping their infinite-planet bias. At a minimum they need to report what finite-planet, sustainable thinking has to offer on environmental and economic affairs. Further than that, they could begin connecting their environmental and economic reporting, framing the two as inseparable in every story. And they could emphasize that every story on this combined beat offers evidence of one outstanding practical need: the need to preserve our democracy and promote our well-being through the development of a steady-state society.

Climate Change: The Wrong Top Priority for Environmentalists and Conservation Professionals

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechYou read that headline right, so let’s start with a disclaimer: Climate change is one of the biggest threats of the 21st century. Only idiots, ignorami, and certain categories of the insane dismiss the abundant science pointing to climate change, its causes, and its ongoing and future effects.

To stave off a pack of strawman-hungry wolves, let’s double down on the disclaiming: Climate change is an issue that warrants substantial attention. The crux of the matter is how much to prioritize it. Priorities have to be balanced, and the current balance is way out of kilter.

Environmental organizations and conservation agencies took a big gamble by putting all their beans in the top-priority pot. Yes, the perils of climate change are profound. And it’s true that planning for climate change is politically feasible, finally. The level of acceptance is “good enough for gubment work,” in the case of state and federal agencies. The same can be said for coffee-table conservation outfits like the National Wildlife Federation. Public acceptance of climate change is high enough to “work it.” Budgets can be built around climate change. Funding can be found and grants can be grabbed without a lot of political savvy or guts. Everybody can get credit for trying to save the world without having to deal with the harsh realities of what that really takes.

Some legitimate credit belongs to those who thought prioritizing climate change might unify an environmental conservation community that has long divided its efforts among such issues as clean air, clean water, fish and wildlife conservation, and wilderness preservation. The “envirocons,” to loosely lump all the environmental and conservation activists and professionals, have seldom reached critical mass to make a substantial difference in domestic policy. Some think climate change will rewrite the calculus of environmental politics by providing a unified front issue.

So what exactly is wrong with making climate change the top priority? First, although the political correctness of climate change is good enough for gubment work — that is, muddling around in the bureaucracy — it’s nowhere near high enough for effective law-making, and may never be. That’s because climate change is two degrees removed from the known reality of too many Americans. It’s not like the simple problem of overhunting during the early 20th century, when the passenger pigeon went extinct. Everybody saw it, either directly or in the papers. Laws were passed and the problem was solved, at least for the remaining species.

The next major conservation problem of the 20th century was habitat loss. Again it was easy to see: the bulldozers came and the wetlands were drained, forests were cleared, prairies were plowed, etc. The ducks and geese, most noticeably, disappeared from vast areas. Hunters (a much more prominent segment of society at the time), birdwatchers, and nature lovers in general got mad and lots of others were concerned. Laws were passed to keep the bulldozers out of the wetlands. The problem was solved, at least for the remaining wetlands, and to the extent the laws were upheld.

Climate change is different, and how. You might see its effects and sense it happening, but you don’t see climate change itself. And no matter how much you think you know about climate change, it requires dealing with a lot of uncertainty. You may have seen a hurricane, but was it caused by climate change? Maybe? To what degree? Prove it.

Even for those who can drink uncertainty with a fire hose, climate change requires connecting some challenging dots. It’s at least a two-step dance with an unwelcome partner. Step one is acknowledging that the climate is changing, and changing more rapidly than it normally might, whatever “normally” should mean. Just enough folks have taken this first step to put climate change on the political map.

But then comes step two, the connection of this abnormal pace of climate change to human economic activity. Now you’re messin’ with some minds. For starters, there are those who simply have a difficult time understanding the concepts, and don’t feel like making the effort to begin with. While the greenhouse gas effect is simple enough, and greenhouse gases readily identified, the combinations and permutations of causes and effects are complicated enough to lose readers by the score. Not everyone finds this stuff interesting, either. Americans love NASCAR and the Super Bowl, and find their news-hour attention riveted to mass shootings at home, terrorist activities overseas, and the latest scandal wherever. Who’s got time to read about emissions scenarios and climate modeling?

Then you’ve got the “religious wrong” preaching from evangelical pulpits that puny little man — proverbial dust in the wind — could never have an effect on God’s own climate. (Why only those godless liberals could offend God with such hubris!) We’re not talking about a handful of kooks here; the collective anti-science, anti-sustainability, holier-than-thou congregation is big enough to keep mean-spirited know-it-alls like Rush Limbaugh in business.

Then you have the millions who’ve been brainwashed into thinking that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. They’re a slightly more “sophisticated” crowd and more left-leaning than right. They haven’t been snowed by some pass-the-plate preacher at the big-box church, but by secular Big Money itself. Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and their parades of politicians have been selling the public a bill of goods for decades. Starting no later than with Ronald Reagan, economic growth was supposed to be unlimited, and if we really wanted to protect the environment, or the climate, all we needed to do was grow the economy. That way we’d have enough money to throw at the problem.

This cultural landscape of very odd bedfellows is like a minefield separating climate change talk from action. (And then, if we make it through the minefield, what action do we take?)

And what about all the regular old environmental issues we felt were so urgent before we prioritized climate change? Like clean air and water, wildlife conservation, wilderness preservation, soil conservation, invasive species, Superfund, the ozone layer, green space, threatened and endangered species, environmental quality and ecological integrity at large? We were already scrambling for scraps of funding for these issues, and now the collective scraps have been taken away to feed all the climate change research, modeling, planning, and a heavy load of education and outreach.

So then what should we prioritize to unify the envirocons and save the world? It should be obvious. The natural progression from market hunting to habitat loss was also a progression from a microeconomic issue to a meta-economic issue. The next stage in this progression is to the macroeconomic issue of economic growth. As the bumper sticker says, “Growing the economy is shrinking the planet.”

This isn’t the article to go into detail on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Numerous authors have described that conflict in impeccable detail. Probably one paragraph is in order, though…

Economic growth means a lot more than all the good things we hear about it in the news. It’s not a gravy train or a silver bullet. To put it in dispassionate terms, economic growth means increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. Economic growth means a growing population and/or growing per capita consumption (aka “affluence”). It means growing GDP. It means environmental impact. It’s the underlying, overarching, all-encompassing cause behind virtually every environmental problem you can think of, including climate change in a fossil-fueled economy. Meanwhile society falls asleep to the tune of “green-growth” lullabies. The notion of replacing those powerful hydrocarbons with “clean” fuels to support ever-growing GDP is a dream, alright. It’s the kind of dream that turns into a nightmare as the realization hits that pulling out all the stops for economic growth is a handcart to hell.

Climate change is harder spot than the troubles of an overgrown economy.

It’s tough to spot the elevated levels of greenhouse gases on the left; it’s easier to spot the trouble with runaway growth on the right.

With one paragraph on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, the common sense should be engaged. Common sense can probably give you an inkling of the corruption of economics, too, and why economists on Wall Street and in the Fed tell you only about the benefits of economic growth without mentioning the costs, despite the fact that the costs are now exceeding the benefits for most Americans — and for virtually all their grandkids.

With the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection left to your common sense or further reading elsewhere, what’s left of this article should focus our attention on the properties of economic growth as a viable issue for government agencies as well as for NGO priorities and eventually public policy. At least five key properties separate economic growth from climate change.

First, just like market hunting and habitat loss — and unlike climate change — economic growth is readily observable. Look around you and wherever you see an environmental problem, note the cause. It’s not a mystery. It’s “human activity” as some like to say, but even that is an inadequate phrase, lacking policy implications. Humans and their activities should not be made to sound like a blight on the planet. It’s not spiritual activity, or family activity, or civic activity that threatens our water supplies, endangers other species, and changes our climate. To be precise, it’s human economic activity: the energy sector, agriculture, natural resource extraction, manufacturing, services. All the sectors — every single one of them in an integrated economy — plus all the infrastructure (roads, power lines, dams, etc.), plus the byproducts (pollutants including greenhouse gases) and incidental effects including climate change.

Second, economic growth can serve as an even better unifying front issue than climate change. Climate change doesn’t cause all other environmental problems or the vast majority of conservation challenges. Economic growth does. All those issues faced by envirocons prior to climate change were being caused by an increasing population and its economic activities. Now we can add climate change to that list of the effects of a constantly growing human economy. Fix the growth problem, and you go a long way toward fixing the climate change problem. Mountain-top removal and Keystone pipelines wouldn’t be so tempting if we weren’t hell-bent on GDP growth.

Third, economic growth is already entrenched in the American lexicon. The phrase itself elicits no immediate backlash from the pulpit, Wall Street, or conservative radio shows and politicians. Economic growth is expected to be in the news every day. It’s a welcome topic. Now when the dialog starts, with the rest of the story about the problems caused by economic growth, debate will begin of course. But that’s exactly what we need. At least economic growth is not a non-starter, as climate change is in many circles.

Fourth, when it comes to really doing something, economic growth can be dealt with immediately at a fully developed policy table. It’s not like climate change where plenty of well-intentioned effort has manufactured almost no policy machinery. No new conventions or treaties are needed for real effects on the rate of economic growth. At the economic policy table, fiscal, monetary, and trade policy is already being crafted, but always in pursuit of growth. This policy table is set and waiting for chairs to be occupied by experts better-informed than the usual lineup of Chicago School economists.

The need for well-rounded expertise at the economic policy table points to an immediate role for environmental bureaucrats and political appointees at the highest levels. For every economist from the Council of Economic Advisors, there should be an EPA administrator or conservation agency director explaining the costs of further growth. We need a long-overdue and ongoing discussion about the conflict between economic growth and: 1) environmental protection, 2) economic sustainability, 3) national security, and 4) international stability. Then lawmakers and presidents can make informed decisions about balancing economic and other goals. Hopefully in the coming decades we’ll be pursuing the establishment of a sustainable, steady state economy rather than unsustainable and increasingly destructive economic growth.

Fifth, addressing the threat of economic growth is a far more practical alternative than the wishful thinking about climate change action. This is easy to understand, but only when we remember that practicality is not a concept reserved for politics. Just because the acceptance of climate change is good enough for gubment work doesn’t make climate change a practical matter for spending taxpayer money or NGO dues on. Prioritizing climate change is like chopping at kudzu leaves instead of the roots. It’s not going to do a significant bit of good as long as the overriding policy goal is economic growth.

In short, climate change is the wrong issue for environmentalists and conservation professionals to collectively prioritize above all others. While climate change is a legitimate threat, prioritizing climate change was driven largely by (relative) political convenience and the constant jockeying for agency funding, NGO membership dues, and foundation grants. Meanwhile the failure to prioritize economic growth, the mother of 21st century threats, is driven by shallow political thinking and the personal interests of “leaders” getting paid the big bucks at the heads of conservation agencies and environmental NGOs.

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Remembering Robert Goodland

by Brent Blackwelder and Herman Daly

Robert Goodland, a true friend of CASSE and the Daly News, passed away shortly after Christmas. Brent Blackwelder and Herman Daly herein describe the exemplary life and contributions of their friend and colleague. Robert’s life story will inspire all who care about the environment and social justice.

Robert Goodland

Robert Goodland (1939 – 2013)

Robert Goodland was the first ecologist hired by the World Bank and worked hard for thirty years to improve that institution’s environmental and human rights practices. Robert also wrote more than twenty books on environmental and social issues and many more monographs. The Library of Congress lists more than forty of his titles. He was the first winner of the World Conservation Union’s Harold Jefferson Coolidge medal for lifetime achievement in the conservation of nature. In contrast to colleagues who avoided controversy, Robert pressed to work on the most challenging of environmental and social issues. He saw that his job at the World Bank necessitated his being a vigorous “sparring partner,” providing constructive criticism and sparking improvement. He was known as the “conscience” of the World Bank, a role in which he sought the views of environmental leaders around the world.

Robert earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from McGill University in 1960. For his master’s degree, he researched tropical ecology in a remote part of Guyana with no roads or electricity. The Canadian Government awarded him a scholarship for PhD research on ecosystems in Brazil.

Robert became a professor in 1974 at the University of Brasilia, where he established a program to teach tropical ecology and environmental assessment. Then he moved to the Instituto Nacional de Pesquiasas da Amazonia in Manaus, where he designed Brazil’s first graduate course in applied tropical ecology. Its key case study was the trans-Amazonian highway. That led Robert to co-author with his friend and mentor Howard Irwin the book Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert. It attracted much favorable review, and became viewed as a seminal work in the birth of the international environmental movement.

From 1975 through 1978, Robert served as a consultant for World Bank projects. He designed environmental and social programs to mitigate damages being caused by the Itaipu project, then the world’s biggest hydroelectric project. He also worked on addressing environmental issues and the welfare of Orang Asli forest dwellers for the first time in Malaysia’s national development planning. Separately, he was recruited by the New York Botanical Garden to help establish what became the Cary Center for Ecosystem Studies to complement the Cary Arboretum in Millbrook, New York.

In 1978, Robert was recruited to become the first full-time ecologist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. He was initially assigned to the task of screening every single proposed World Bank project, and selecting for scrutiny those with the largest potential impacts, for which he would draft recommendations. But project designers resisted implementing his recommendations.

As a remedy, Robert took a lead role in drafting environmental and social policies for the World Bank Group, notably covering Environmental Assessment (now Operational Policy 4.01), Indigenous Peoples (Operational Policy 4.10), Natural Habitats (Operational Policy 4.04), and Physical Cultural Resources (Operational Policy 4.11).

In 1979, Robert joined an early mission for the World Bank’s Polonoroeste project in the northwestern part of the Amazon rainforest. Vulnerable ethnic minorities were a key issue in the design of the project, and Robert protected Amerindians by incorporating elements of the then-draft policy on indigenous peoples. So Robert’s focus on policies involved not just drafting text, but also testing its implementation. Even harder work was to persuade one committee after another to approve the adoption of the policies. To foster their implementation, Robert arranged for numerous workshops, conferences, training programs, colloquia, lectures, and guidance materials. Distinguished specialists and a variety of stakeholders were involved in internal World Bank events and activities as well as external ones.

The policies and guidance materials pioneered by Robert essentially served as environmental and social standards for many countries that lacked appropriate regulatory frameworks to provide such standards. Other development banks and aid agencies became interested in adapting them for their own purposes. Robert pressed for those banks and agencies to coordinate among themselves and with the World Bank Group and others, using methods that have continued functioning to this day. Commercial banks became interested too, and Robert worked with a group of bankers called the “Gnomes of Zürich,” and with others in London and New York. He also organized workshops for major engineering and consulting firms that would have to comply with the policies.

The World Bank established a Projects Policy Department, and Robert served as Senior Environmental Affairs Officer from 1983 through mid-1987. Then the Bank created the Environment Department, and Robert became Division Chief for Latin America. He recruited specialists including George Ledec, now Lead Ecologist in the Bank’s Africa Region, and Maritta Koch-Weser, who went on to become President of IUCN. Next came a role for Robert in the Central Environment Department, where he recruited ecological economist Herman Daly.

Robert’s work on indigenous peoples led the institution to hire a cadre of anthropologists. They took up the issue of preventing forced resettlement, and mitigating its adverse impacts when it did occur. Robert also worked to complete the “Environmental Assessment Sourcebook,” which became a crucial worldwide reference on various aspects of environmental assessment. As a capstone to Robert’s work on the principles of environmental and social assessment, he served a term as president of the International Association of Impact Assessment in 1994-1995.

Robert developed ways to bolster his policy initiatives with sectoral work. This included stopping the World Bank Group from financing projects involving tobacco and asbestos. It also included avoiding the most destructive types of agricultural and forestry projects, such as those featuring transmigration, logging, and ranching in tropical forests, as well as land colonization. When internal resistance arose within the World Bank Group, Robert and his colleagues got their work published for a worldwide audience in the 1984 book Environmental Management of Tropical Agriculture. Later, after he analyzed the impacts of some of the world’s largest hydroelectricity projects, he played a key role in the establishment of the World Commission on Dams in 1997, led by Achim Steiner (who later became the head of IUCN and then of UNEP).

In the 1990s, when Robert had become Lead Environmental Advisor at the World Bank, he sought practical ways for the institution to “walk the talk” that it delivered externally, by improving its own environmental and social performance. So he volunteered to chair the Staff Association’s environmental working group. He motivated the Bank’s facilities management to commission an independent audit of their environmental and social performance. The world-renowned energy expert Amory Lovins led the audit. Based on its results, Robert successfully pressed senior management to offer staff incentives for using public transit and bicycles for commuting. He also helped implement coordinated internal sustainability programs.

Robert wanted project proponents to be held accountable to people adversely impacted by development projects. So he helped advance the work of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, and he was shortlisted to become the first Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman in the International Finance Corporation. He also tried for many years to get the International Monetary Fund to do something about the adverse social impacts of its operations, which tend to have much broader reach than do most projects financed by the World Bank Group.

Robert cooperated with Salah El Serafy , Herman Daly, and Roefie Hueting to develop a series of conferences throughout the 1980s on “Greening the UN System of National Accounts.” Robert also worked with Herman and Salah in addressing their concerns over the draft 1992 “World Development Report” on development and the environment. Because the draft was rather bland, they developed a parallel, but more forceful publication entitled “Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development: Building on Brundtland.” They managed to get this published by UNESCO even before the “World Development Report” came out.

Robert obtained major grant funding from the government of Canada to help the government of Indonesia develop its environmental ministry, under the stewardship of Emil Salim. After Robert’s official retirement from the World Bank in 2001, Emil was appointed to head the independent Extractive Industries Review at the World Bank Group. Emil recruited Robert to play a key role, and they recommended various ways to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. Also after Robert’s official retirement, he served as a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, where he co-authored a report on human rights. In retirement he worked all over the world as a consultant, often pro bono, in protection of the environment and indigenous peoples. He once remarked that in retirement he was doing much the same things as when in the World Bank, but the difference was that now the people he worked for were more appreciative.

Robert also continued to build on his previous work that had gotten the World Bank to agree in 2001 that development finance should no longer fund large-scale livestock projects. He co-authored with Jeff Anhang a 2009 article entitled “Livestock and Climate Change,” which assessed how replacing some livestock products — and reforesting land thereby freed from livestock and feed production — could be the only pragmatic way to stop climate change before it might be too late. This work became widely cited by many prominent sources, including Bill Gates and Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday campaign. Robert was invited by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to speak about this work in Rome and Berlin, and also invited to deliver a keynote speech to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. To develop further awareness, Robert worked to launch a website called “Chomping Climate Change,” and worldwide interest in this work seems likely to grow well into the future.

In the1980s Robert married Jonmin. Their son Arthur is studying for his PhD in renewable energy at Leeds, England. Robert enjoyed mountain trekking and had recently completed his favorite trek in Nepal, with Jonmin and Arthur, when he died, December 28, 2013.

 

The Negative Natural Interest Rate and Uneconomic Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn a recent speech to the International Monetary Fund economist Larry Summers argued that since near zero interest rates have not stimulated GDP growth sufficiently to reach full employment, we probably need a negative interest rate. By this he means a negative monetary rate set by the Fed to equal the “natural” rate, which he believes is now negative. The natural rate, as Summers uses the term, means the rate that would equalize planned saving with planned investment, and thereby, as Keynes taught us, result in full employment. With near zero monetary rates, current inflation already pushes us to a negative real rate of interest, but that is still insufficiently negative, in Summers’ view, to equalize planned investment with planned saving and thereby stimulate GDP growth sufficient for full employment. A negative interest rate is a stunning proposal, and it takes some effort to work out its implications.

Suppose for a moment that GDP growth, economic growth as we gratuitously call it, entails uneconomic growth by a more comprehensive measure of costs and benefits — that GDP growth has now begun to increase counted plus uncounted costs by more than counted plus uncounted benefits, making us inclusively and collectively poorer, not richer. If that is the case, and there are good reasons to believe that it is, would it not then be reasonable to expect, along with Summers, that the natural rate of interest is negative, and that maybe the monetary rate should be too? This is hard to imagine, but it means that savers would have to pay investors (and banks) to use the funds that they have saved, rather than investors and banks paying savers for the use of their money. To keep the GDP growing sufficiently to avoid unemployment we would need a growing monetary circular flow, which would require more investment, which, in turn, would only be forthcoming if the monetary interest rate were negative (i.e., if you lost less by investing your money than by holding it). A negative interest rate “makes sense” if the goal is to keep on increasing GDP even after it has begun to make us poorer at the margin — that is after growth has already pushed us beyond the optimal scale of the macro-economy relative to the containing ecosphere, and thereby become uneconomic.

A negative monetary interest rate means that citizens will spend rather than save, so savings will not be available to finance the investments that produce the GDP growth needed for full employment. The new money for investment comes from the Fed. Quantitative easing (money printing) is the source of the new money. The faith is that an ever-expanding monetary circulation will pull the real economy along behind it, providing growth in real income and jobs as previously idle resources are employed. But the resulting GDP growth is now uneconomic because in the full world the “idle” resources are not really idle — they are providing vital ecosystem services. Redeploying these resources to GDP growth has environmental and social opportunity costs that are greater than production benefits. Although hyper-Keynesian macroeconomists do not believe this, the micro actors in the real economy experience the constraints of the full world, and consequently find it difficult to follow the unlimited growth recipe.

Summers (along with other mainstream growth economists), does not accept the concept of optimal scale of the macro-economy, nor the possibility of uneconomic growth in the sense that growth in resource throughput could reduce net wealth and wellbeing. Nevertheless, it is at least consistent with his view that the natural rate of interest is negative.

A positive interest rate restricts the total volume of investment but allocates it to the most productive projects. A negative interest rate increases volume, but allows investment in practically anything, increasing the probability that growth will be uneconomic. Shall we become hyper-Keynesians and push GDP growth to maintain full employment, even after growth has become uneconomic? Or shall we back off from growth and seek full employment by job sharing, distributive equity, and reallocation toward leisure and public goods?

Why would we allow growth to carry the macro-economy beyond the optimal scale? Because growth in GDP is considered the summum bonum, and it is heresy not to advocate increasing it. If increasing GDP makes us worse off we will not admit it, but will adapt to the experience of increased scarcity by pushing GDP growth further. Non-growth is viewed as “stagnation,” not as a sensible steady state adaptation to objective limits. Stimulating GDP growth by increasing consumption and investment, while cutting savings, is the only way that hyper-Keynesians can think of to serve the worthy goal of full employment. There really are other ways, and people really do need to save for security and old age, as well as for maintenance and replacement of the existing capital stock. Yet the Fed is being advised to penalize saving with a negative interest rate. The focus is on what the growth model requires, not on what people need.

A negative interest rate seems also to be the latest advice from Paul Krugman, who praises Summers’ insights. It is understandable from their viewpoint because in their vision the economy is not a subsystem, or if it is, it is infinitesimal relative to the total system. The economy can expand forever, either into the void or into a near infinite environment. It does not grow into a finite ecosphere, and therefore has no optimal scale relative to any constraining and sustaining environment. Its aggregate growth incurs no opportunity cost and can never be uneconomic. Unfortunately, this tacit assumption of the growth model is seriously wrong.

Larry Summers and other growth-obsessed economists are calling for negative interest rates.

Larry Summers and other growth-obsessed economists are calling for negative interest rates.

Welcome to the full-world economy. In the old empty-world economy, assumed in the macro models of Summers and Krugman, growth always remains economic, so they advocate printing more and more dollars to expand the economy to take over ever more of the “unemployed” sources and sinks of the ecosystem. If a temporary liquidity trap or zero lower bound on interest rates keeps the new money from being spent, then low or even negative monetary interest rates will open the spending spigot. The empty world assumption guarantees that the newly expanded production will always be worth more than the natural wealth it displaces. But what may well have been true in yesterday’s empty world is no longer true in today’s full world.

This is an upsetting prospect for growth economists — growth is required for full employment, but growth now makes us collectively poorer. Without growth we would have to cure poverty by redistributing wealth and stabilizing population, two political anathemas, and could only finance investment by reducing present consumption, a third anathema. There remains the microeconomic policy of reallocating the same GDP to a more efficient mix of products by internalizing external costs (getting prices right). While this certainly should be done, it is not macroeconomic growth as pursued by the Fed.

These painful choices could be avoided if only we were richer. So let’s just focus on getting richer. How? By growing the aggregate GDP, of course! What? You repeat that GDP growth is now uneconomic? That cannot possibly be right, they say. OK, that is an empirical question. Let’s separate costs from benefits in the existing GDP accounts, and develop more inclusive measures of each, and then see which grows more as GDP grows. This has been done (ISEW, GPI, Ecological Footprint), and results support the uneconomic growth view. If growth economists think these studies were done badly they should do them better rather than ignore the issue.

The leftover Keynesians are correct in pointing out that there is unemployed labor and capital. But natural resources are fully employed, indeed overexploited, and the limiting factor in the full world is natural resources, not labor or capital as used to be the case in the empty world. Some growth economists think that the world is still empty. Others think there is no limiting factor — that capital is a good substitute for natural resources. This is wrong, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen has shown long ago. Capital funds and natural resource flows are complements, not substitutes, and the one in short supply is limiting. Increasing a non-limiting factor doesn’t help. Growth economists should know this.

Although the growthists think quantitative easing will stimulate demand they are disappointed, even in terms of their own model, because the banks, who are supposed to lend the new money, encounter a “lack of bankable projects,” to use World Bank terminology. This of course should be expected in the new era of uneconomic growth. The new money, rather than calling forth new wealth by employing all these hypothetical idle resources from the empty world era, simply bids up existing asset prices in the full world. Most asset prices are not counted in the consumer price index, (not to mention exclusion of food and energy) so economists unconvincingly claim that quantitative easing has not been inflationary, and therefore they can keep doing it. And even if it causes some inflation, that would help make the interest rate negative.

Aside from needed electronic transaction balances, people would not keep money in the bank if the interest rate were negative. To make them do so, the alternative of cash would basically have to be eliminated, and all money would be electronic bank deposits. This intensifies central bank control, and the specter of “bail-ins” (confiscations of deposits) as occurred in Cyprus. Even as distrust of money increases, people will not immediately revert to barter, in spite of negative interest rates. Barter is so inconvenient that money remains more efficient even if it loses value at a rapid rate, as we have seen in several hyperinflations. But transactions balances will be minimized, and speculative and store-of value-balances will be diverted to real estate, gold, works of art, tulip bulbs, Bitcoins, and beanie babies, creating speculative bubbles. But not to worry, say Summers and Krugman, bubbles are a necessary, if regrettable, means to boost spending and growth in the era of newly recognized negative natural interest rates — and still unrecognized uneconomic growth.

A bright silver lining to this cloud of confusion is that the recognition of a negative natural interest rate may be the prelude to recognition of the underlying uneconomic growth as its cause. For sure this has not yet happened because so far the negative natural interest rate is seen as a reason to push growth with a negative monetary interest rate, rather than as a signal that growth has become a losing game. But such a realization is a reasonable hope. Perhaps a step in this direction is Summers’ suggestion that the old Alvin Hansen thesis of secular stagnation might deserve a new look.

The logic that suggests negative interest also suggests negative wages as a further means of increasing investment by lowering costs. To maintain full employment via GDP growth, not only must the interest rate now be negative, but wages should become negative as well. No one yet advocates negative wages because subsistence provides an inconvenient lower positive bound below which workers die. On this “other side of the looking glass” the logic of uneconomic growth pushes us in the direction of a negative “natural” wage, just as with a negative “natural” rate of interest. So we artificially lower the wage costs to “job creators” by subsidizing below-subsistence wages with food stamps, housing subsidies, and unpaid internships. Negative interest rates also subsidize investment in job-replacing capital equipment, further lowering wages. Negative interest rates, and below-subsistence wages, further subsidize the uneconomic growth that gave rise to them in the first place.

The leftover Keynesians tell us, reasonably enough, that paying people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up, is better than leaving them unemployed with no income. But paying people to deplete and pollute the Creation on which our lives and welfare ultimately depend, in order to expand the macro-economy beyond its optimal or even sustainable scale, is surely worse than just giving them a minimum income, and some leisure time, in exchange for doing no harm.

An artificial monetary rate of interest forced down by quantitative easing to equal a negative natural rate of interest resulting from uneconomic growth is not a solution. It is just baling wire and duct tape. But it is all that even our best and brightest economists can come up with as long as they are imprisoned in the empty world growth model. The way out of this trap is to recognize that the growth era is over, and that instead of forcing growth into uneconomic territory we must seek to maintain a steady-state economy at something approximating the optimal scale. Since we have overshot the optimal scale of the macro-economy, this will require a period of retrenchment to a reduced level, accompanied by much more equal sharing, frugality, and efficiency. Sharing means putting limits on the range of inequality that we permit; it has huge moral and social benefits, even if politically difficult. Frugality means using less resource throughput; it results in less depletion and pollution and more recycling and efficiency. Efficiency means squeezing more life-support and want-satisfaction from a given throughput by technological advance and by improvement in our ethical priorities. Economists need to replace the Keynesian-neoclassical growth synthesis with a new version of the classical stationary state.

Voluntary Simplicity and the Steady-State Economy

by Mark Burch

Voluntary simplicity is most basically characterized by the practices of mindfulness and material sufficiency. Through bringing mindfulness to our daily lives, we seek the maximum of well-being achievable through the minimum of material consumption. Well-being applies to all life forms on Earth, not just people.

The practice of sufficiency implies conscious moderation of material consumption to some admittedly flexible limit discerned by weighing both physical needs and ethical principles. Voluntary simplicity is about enough, for everyone (including other species), forever. The practice of sufficiency replaces the pursuit of affluence in consumer culture.

There are a number of synergies between voluntary simplicity and the social arrangements conducive to a steady-state economy. There are also some differences and divergences.

First, voluntary simplicity traditionally takes an individual household or “microeconomic” perspective of the good life. Most of the literature about simple living is addressed to individuals and how they can exercise choice within the scope of their personal lifestyles and families to improve quality of life through reducing material consumption. Steady-state economics is a set of macroeconomic policy recommendations. There is a discontinuity of scale between these two ways of looking at life, though certainly not a discontinuity of the values that inform both perspectives.

Both steady-state economists and practitioners of voluntary simplicity care deeply about ecological limits and social justice. Both see conserving ecosystems and reducing inequity as intimately tied up with decisions about consumption. The steady-state goal of limiting the scale of the economy relative to the ecosphere would probably be endorsed by many practitioners of simple living.

Second, there is little reference in the simplicity literature to population issues. But I would suggest that among most practitioners of voluntary simplicity, limiting population as a necessary condition for a good life is a concept so taken for granted that it scarcely gets mentioned. From its earliest formulations, steady-state economics has urged limits on human population as a prerequisite for attaining a steady state within Earth’s carrying capacity (Daly 1995). Just how this might be achieved is a continuing topic of discussion with fertility licensing being only one option.

simplifyThird, mindfulness practice helps us distinguish material from nonmaterial needs. As we become more skilled at securing appropriate satisfiers for each, we discover that material needs are small and relatively stable over time, thus calling for a small, steady-state economy to provide for them. Consumer culture’s emphasis on production for affluence derives from its tendency to conflate nonmaterial needs (which are limitless) with material consumption (which is constrained by planetary limits). The insights offered by voluntary simplicity about what makes for a good life, what role material things play in it, and how to cultivate mindfulness about our consumption choices offer a powerful complement to macroeconomic policies in promoting overall sustainability.

Fourth, the history and present-day practice of voluntary simplicity illustrate that a high quality of life depends jointly on sufficient material provision and abundance of nonmaterial experiences that contribute to well-being. Fortunately, sufficient material provision is easy to achieve within ecological limits if our economy and marketing methods do not systematically and artificially inflame desire for material goods as proxies for meeting nonmaterial needs. Once material needs have been met, the extra ecological footprint incurred for meeting nonmaterial needs is remarkably small. Practitioners of voluntary simplicity, therefore, provide living examples of the good life that is possible in a steady-state economy.

Fifth, living within the means of what the planet can provide, as urged by steady-state economics, requires a move away from economic globalization and toward localization. Voluntary simplicity recognizes self-reliance as a key element of a good life. Cooperating with our neighbors to provide local goods and services achieves community economic development. Such cooperation builds economic assets with tools such as local currencies, barter systems, cooperative enterprises, and all manner of production using local labor and resources. These practices also build “social capital” — the dense network of relationships which include, but also transcend, economic exchange relationships. Psychological research has repeatedly shown that the quality of our relationships is the most important contributor to well-being, followed closely by the quality of our work experience, access to leisure, and physical health. Beyond modest sufficiency, monetary riches occupy a distant fourth or fifth place on the list of what makes for a good life. Promoting personal and community self-reliance seems highly synergistic with the requirements of a steady-state economy.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the voluntary simplicity movement and steady-state economics is the analysis of desire (or lack thereof). For simple living, this analysis is fundamental to a good life. The origins of desire seem to be mostly lacking from economic theory and analysis. Mainstream economics rests on an 18th-century theory of human psychology and motivation that finds no empirical support from modern psychological research (see the critique of the “standard economic model” offered in Schor 2009). Moreover, macroeconomic policies amount to the imposition of measures by elite economic agents upon the rank and file of humanity who are often kept in the dark about social and environmental problems and are intentionally kept out of decisions for fixing these problems. While expedient in some circumstances, such an approach squares poorly with the values of simple living. Something more is required.

The discipline of economics claims that people can be forced to modify the expression of their desires through their consumption behavior. The forcing device is the pricing mechanism, which is driven by those who want to exploit desire to generate profit. But in reality, changing behavior requires much more than getting the prices right. It requires both inquiry into the nature of desire itself and further insight or self-awareness on the part of consumers.

Certainly people can be coerced to behave in certain ways by creating price incentives for desired behavior. But another approach is possible that grows from enlightened self-awareness — not just “rational” self-interest. Human behavior changes when our consciousness of ourselves and our relationships change. Since consciousness is at least partly socially constructed, it is through our relationships with others that transformations of consciousness can occur. Therefore, changing the focal length of consciousness through mindfulness practice and conscientization experiences represents an alternate evolutionary pathway toward a better life. We need not be limited to just tinkering with price systems or imposing “limits” by elite fiat.

I should hasten to add that my view is not universal among voluntary simplicity practitioners. But there is noteworthy consistency over centuries and across cultures that the choice to adopt a simpler life is usually preceded by a fundamental change in outlook (Wagner 1903, 17). Sometimes this is caused by trauma or loss (Spina 1998), sometimes by deliberate spiritual practice (Kasser and Brown 2005), and sometimes it happens as a series of spontaneous insights that lead us to question our previous understanding of what constitutes the good life and seek alternatives (Elgin 2010; Pierce 2000).

I see many synergies between a steady-state economy and the sorts of policies and social structures that support simple living. Broad acceptance of a steady-state economy would almost necessarily include the practice of simple living, especially if the transition is to be democratic and involve the majority of citizens. Conversely, voluntary simplicity has much to offer in achieving a steady-state economy through its analysis of human desire and its emphasis on the power of mindfulness to transform consciousness. Voluntary simplicity can help us evolve toward wanting what we must in any case do.

References

Daly, Herman (1995). The steady-state economy: Alternative to growthmania. In: Steady State Economics, (2nd Edition). Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 180-194.

Elgin, Duane. (2010). Voluntary simplicity: Toward a way of life that is outwardly simple, inwardly rich. 2nd ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, Publishers. Elgin discusses collective action through the creative use of social media.

Kasser, Tim and Brown, Kirk Warren (2009). A scientific approach to voluntary simplicity. In: Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska (2009) Less Is More: Embracing simplicity for a healthy planet, a caring economy and lasting happiness. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, pp. 35-40.

Pierce, Linda Breen (2000). Choosing simplicity: Real people finding peace and fulfillment in a complex world. Carmel, CA: Gallagher Press.

Schor, Juliet. (2009). “The new politics of consumption.” In: Voluntary simplicity: The poetic alternative to consumer culture. Samuel Alexander. ed., 253-269. Wanganui, NZ: Stead and Daughters Ltd. Schor provides yet another take on what might motivate the formation of a politics of simple living and some key principles that might guide it.

Spina, Anthony C. (1998). “Research shows new aspects of voluntary simplicity.” The Simple Living Network On-Line Newsletter, January-March, 1999.

Wagner, Charles (1903). The simple life. New York, NY: McClure, Philips & Co.

Mark Burch is a fellow of the Simplicity Institute and also the author of Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet.

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Surprises Lurk with Pending Obama Trade Deals

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderPresident Obama is pushing two massive new free trade agreements: the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). These far-reaching agreements, which are being negotiated in secret, constitute major threats to democracy and to the health of the planet and its people. Passage of these new trade deals would make it more difficult than ever to obtain a sustainable, true-cost economy.

Rather than raising all boats, international trade agreements over the past twenty years have encouraged a race to the bottom. If a country has a strong food safety law or a clean energy requirement, you can bet that some corporation is filing or planning to file a trade complaint in a secret tribunal established by a trade agreement.

TAFTA and TPP would give companies the right to file lawsuits against governments in opaque tribunals. The result is likely to be fewer standards against fraud, corruption, and tax dodging, as well as weakened momentum for pollution control, food safety, and clean energy.

Corporate claims of over $14 billion are already pending before three-person trade tribunals that meet in secret to pass judgment on climate and energy policies, medicine patents, and pollution cleanups. Taxpayers have already been forced to pay more than $400 million as a result of trade complaints concerning toxics bans, land-use regulations, timber policies, and other environmental issues.

Secret Tribunals at Work

Texaco’s oil drilling in Ecuador in the 1980s (which was later purchased by Chevron) severely contaminated tribal lands in the Amazon rainforest. The affected peoples filed a lawsuit in New York City, but Chevron had the case moved to Ecuador, under the assumption it would win. In a surprising decision, Chevron lost the lawsuit and even lost an appeal and was ordered to pay $18 billion in damages.

At that point Chevron chose to file a trade complaint in the secret tribunal established by the U.S.-Ecuador free trade agreement. Under this procedure a panel of three (one chosen by Chevron, one by the government of Ecuador, and a third by mutual consent) met in secret and voided the judgment against Chevron.

In 2013 under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a Canadian gold mining company filed a billion-dollar trade complaint against Costa Rica for denying it a mining permit. Costa Rica was trying to protect a rainforest, but may be forced to pay $1 billion if the secret tribunal rules in favor of the mining company. This case illustrates the way corporations are seeking to undermine the sovereignty of nations trying to protect their long-term environmental and economic interests.

The trade deals and tribunals impede efforts to build a sustainable, true-cost economy by blocking progress in three critical policy areas:

1. Tax Standards

A sustainable economy requires basic reforms designed to prevent tax dodging and reckless speculation with taxpayer dollars. Regrettably, TAFTA and TPP seek to weaken reforms that ensure corporations pay a fair share of taxes. The average U.S. corporation pays roughly 12% of profits in taxes, not the 35% that is on the books. Some companies with billions in profits such as Apple, GE, and Google hide their cash in offshore accounts and pay little or nothing in comparison to their profits.

With the defunding of governments as a result of offshore tax havens, governments worldwide have insufficient funds to enforce pollution laws, protect public lands, or regulate risky hedge fund behavior.

2. Food Safety Standards

Safe and sustainable food production provides the foundation for a sustainable economy. The proposed trade agreements, however, set up conditions that allow countries to undermine one another’s efforts to operate a healthy food production system.

For example, food companies in the European Union have targeted the U.S. Food Safety and Modernization Act of 2011 as a trade barrier. This law gives the Food and Drug Administration the power to recall contaminated food. Remember the meat adulteration scandal of 2013 in which the U.K. was exporting “beef” to the U.S. that was later found to contain horse meat. This sort of scandal could become business as usual if the Act is weakened.

At the same time, the owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken wants to force the E.U. to accept chlorinated chicken. U.S. pork producers also want to eliminate the E.U. ban on ractopamine, a drug used in pork, beef, and chicken production, but this drug has been banned or limited in 160 countries due to risks to human and animal health.

Major food and agribusiness firms are seeking to bring arguments before the trade tribunals to challenge crucial food safety requirements around the globe and to force nations to import foods they have deemed to contain risks.

3. Energy and Climate Standards

Passage of TAFTA has the potential to undermine automobile fuel economy standards, energy efficiency labeling programs, and requirements for governments to buy green in procurement contracts.

Tax credits for wind and solar energy could be affected by the agreement. Under E.U. rules, the Swedish Vattenfall company has filed billion-euro trade complaints against Germany’s phase-out of nuclear power and its regulation of coal power plants.

It’s bad enough that the proposed trade agreements risk undermining these three critical policy standards, but the Obama administration is also working to bypass the U.S. Constitution to fast-track the agreements.

Stop_TPPThe Constitution provides that Congress, not the Executive Branch, must approve trade agreements. The President is given the authority to negotiate trade agreements but must submit these to the Senate for approval by a two-thirds majority. The Senate can amend proposed treaties negotiated by the President. President Nixon was able to temporarily change the approval process for trade agreements by getting Congress to pass “fast-track” authority that permitted the President to negotiate and sign a trade agreement and then send it to Congress, not as a treaty that requires a two-thirds vote, but as a piece of regular legislation. Under this approach both chambers of Congress stage an expedited debate with no amendments and have an up-or-down by vote on the agreement. Obama is seeking to employ the same Constitutional bypass that Nixon did forty years ago.

TAFTA and TPP are major threats to democracy. They undermine the authority of an open, accessible, and transparent court system. They favor corporate wishes over sound trade, consumer, and environmental policies.

You don’t have to connect very many dots to see the rationale behind the proposed trade agreements. They are meant to prop up economic growth and secure higher corporate profits. As usual, few people (including Obama and his trade advisers) are asking the right questions about the utility of further growth in production or profit.  When it comes to trade, governments ought to be asking:

  • What volume of trade is sustainable?
  • Do product prices reflect long-term social and environmental costs, or are pollution externalities being shoved off on the public, nature, and future generations?

Considering such questions opens a doorway on the topic of steady state economics and leads to the realization that the economy can get better without growing bigger. Too bad “bigger” seems to be the only option on Obama’s agenda.

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Duck Dynasty, the Green Party, and Steady Statesmanship

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechI’ve never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty, and I’m not a member of the Green Party, at least not any more. But who hasn’t seen the news, and the Duck Dynasty reminds me why I left the Green Party. I’m not sure the Green Party will give a quack, but I do think anyone concerned with political strategy should.

Back in 2000 I was actually quite involved with the Greens. The Green Party of the United States was so desperate for qualified candidates that I was approached to run for office; for President of the United States no less! At last count, I had about six votes, not including my own. (I was still undecided.) Needless to say, we failed to git ‘er done.

Yet it wasn’t a complete waste of time, as we did manage to insert a plank calling for a steady state economy — stabilized population and per capita consumption, in simplest terms — which was a first not only for the Green Party but for any political party on the national scene. In fact, it may have been the first formal act of steady statesmanship in the United States.

But my experience with this effort ultimately caused me to flee the Green Party, because it was worse than like pulling teeth. It was like pulling teeth while dodging spitballs — hastily chewed ones — spit from the left and the right.

Which leads us to the Duck Dynasty and its “patriarch” Phil Robertson. With just a few words about you-know-what, this fella opened up a spitball free-for-all. Just think, a duck caller from the Louisiana swamp opened so many cans of worms that the worm population will double before it can be stuffed back into cans. Why there’s gay rights, civil rights, and the First Amendment for starters. Sure enough, politicians from Arkansas to Alaska are jockeying for position, trying to associate themselves with the baby (Innocent Baby Phil) while bailing out the bathwater (Adult Phil and the ZZ Top Shotgunners).

I suppose it all makes for unique entertainment — God knows every other form of entertainment has been beat to death in the country of America’s Got Talent. But for those who are serious about public policy and the prerequisite politics, all the newly escaped worms and the entertainment buzz is another big distraction, sapping the focus and wasting precious time.

Which leads us back to the Green Party. Have you ever wondered how the Green Party got its name? Back in the day when I signed up, I assumed “Green” meant or at least implied that this was a political party all about environmental protection and its obvious aspects such as wildlife conservation, clean air and water, and (by now) climate stability. For me, fresh out of my Ph.D. research, protecting the environment was rapidly becoming the most important endeavor of the 21st century. This was no tree hugger’s tiddlywinks either. A long hard look will clarify for most that a healthy, stable environment is the foundation of a sustainable, prosperous economy, which in turn is the lifeblood of national security and international stability.

So when I joined the Green Party, I did so because I assumed this would be the party with an undeniable, indefatigable focus on environmental protection. Furthermore, also because of my research plus lengthy experience in environmental management and civil service, I had realized that environmental protection was all about stabilizing the human presence on the planet including the United States. I had realized that environmental protection entailed the establishment of a steady state economy.

And really that’s common sense, no?

Can you imagine my chagrin as the Green Party turned out to know quite little about environmental matters, less yet about natural resource management, and next to nothing about steady state economics? Worse, there didn’t seem to be much focus at all on the environment. The knowledge, passion, and focus was instead meted out to issues that I’m only going to describe, euphemistically, as “off center.” In other words it was a party for the disaffected of all sorts.

Most of us can empathize with the underdog. But there is a time and a place for everything, and as they say, all in moderation.

If your favorite pastime is empathizing with underdogs and you’d like to join a whole team of them, then by all means you should join the Green Party, at least if it hasn’t changed much since 2000. Just don’t expect any political success. On one issue after another, the Green Party goes way to the end of the political spectrum, usually the “left” end in American parlance. It doesn’t take a highly imaginative sense of geometry to realize that such a strategy quickly boxes you into the tiniest corner of the political world. It’s political suicide.

Now I have no interest in running for office, but if I were running with the Green Party, we’d be adopting a new slogan: “First Things First.” Everyone would know what that meant, by virtue of the Green Party’s name. The slogan would be intended to convey a new-found sense of focus on environmental protection.

Bayou

It’s about the bayou, not what’s said on the bayou (photo by Tom Haymes)

First things first — protect the environment and all the awesome potential of the United States can be achieved. Lose focus on the environment and the rug will be pulled from posterity’s future. It won’t matter if the grandkids are gay, duck hunters, or America’s Idol. They’re all gonna need clean air, clean water, a sustainable climate, healthy farms, forests and fisheries, and a bit of wild country for inspiration. They’ll all depend on what we do today for environmental protection.

First things first. Let the Huckabees and the Jindals and the Palins go picking up the worms let loose by Phil Robertson. Let the Charlie Sheens do their liberal lamenting and the A&E’s do their public relations dancing. Meanwhile, let Obamacare sap the energy of its ardent supporters and opponents alike. While you’re at it, let the NRA have at it with the police unions. None of those are dogs in your fight.

First things first. The Green Party is supposed to be about protecting the environment, and we need it. Democrats and Republicans aren’t doing it. Democrats tend to go with the “green growth” propaganda, claiming “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment,” while Republicans just say heck with the environment and “drill baby drill.” Both parties are so tight with Wall Street and pro-growth, neoclassical economics that we can never expect sustainable economic policy, and therefore environmental protection, from them.

So at this point in history, Green Party, as you contemplate the New Year, and despite all prior shortcomings, it looks like you’re still the only game in town for providing a significant alternative to politics as usual. It remains up to you to focus on environmental protection. Regarding all those cans of worms, the default response of the Green Party ought to be adopting a central position so that environmental protection can come to the forefront as a decisive issue for the voters.

First things first! Time’s a wasting as green turns to brown, shade by shade. Forget about Ol’ Phil, metaphor for political distraction. Keep your focus on protecting the environment and saving the green space, and even the duck hunters down in Louisiana might vote for you.

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The Hidden Door

by Mark Burch

Hidden_DoorThis excerpt is from Mark Burch’s new book, The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction.

A few years ago, I participated in a practice called kirtan, a form of call and response singing conducted as a meditative practice. Its purpose is to create joy. One evening the lead singer introduced a chant in English, instead of the customary Sanskrit, with the words: “I can see a door hidden in the wall.”

The image of a door hidden in a wall is one that has stayed with me. For me, it’s a metaphor for the survival challenge humanity now faces. It expresses a sense of the forcible confinement into which consumer culture has brought us. But it also expresses the hope that an exit exists — if only we can find it.

In my imagination, the confining wall is the whole of consumer culture. It is a culture, even though individuals and institutions stand in its defense. Consumer culture is also a cell the walls of which are closing in on us, driven forward by many forces, the most important of which are psychological. Now they are crushing many beings including us.

I believe the door in the wall to be voluntary simplicity, or what I have come to think of as mindful sufficiency. I’m not the discoverer of this way of life. Neither did I author its perspective of the good life. But I’ve been its avid student for half a century, and in that time and through personal experience I have come to believe that it represents a doorway to life flourishing in a situation that otherwise promises our extinction.

The door leading from extinction to renewed life is hidden in the same sense in which some Buddhists describe their doctrines as “self-secret.” They are truths hidden in plain sight because seeing them requires a change in the seer. When we change, then the way to the exit is obvious, but until we change, it remains hidden.

A considerable literature has appeared about voluntary simplicity. A great deal of it recycles the same advice about ways individuals can simplify how they live. Far less common are treatments that penetrate the deeper structure of values and meaning that constitutes the DNA of voluntary simplicity. What sort of culture might appear if we took seriously the essential values and principles that constitute simple living and let them inform a new perspective of the good life? What might happen if we extended this outlook from individual lifestyle choice to an agenda for cultural renaissance? The Hidden Door aims to make a contribution to such a process by exploring topics not usually addressed in the existing simplicity literature.

Voluntary simplicity is a way of life. It is a philosophical outlook as well as an aesthetic and a spiritual sensibility. Some might say it’s also a direction for cultural and technical development that calls for its own politics, its own economic institutions, and its own creative process.

I’ve come to believe that both the source and the destination of simple living is the cultivation of mindfulness. I see it as the first strand in the DNA of simplicity. Others who write about simple living may have differing views on the matter or may give mindfulness a different priority in their hierarchy of values. But in my study and experience mindfulness is a perennial theme in the history of simple living, in the accounts of those who love simple living, and a mental discipline, the development of which is central to a good life.

The second strand in the DNA of simplicity is the principle of sufficiency. In simple living, the value of sufficiency replaces consumer culture’s obsession with avarice and affluence. The value of sufficiency arises from a radically different understanding of what material consumption contributes to a good life. It would be shortsighted to deny that consumer culture offers many pleasures. But what is mostly missing from its menus are the longer term costs incurred by luxury indulgences.

Mindfulness and sufficiency together form the essential braid of voluntary simplicity’s DNA. They spiral around each other, lending this way of life its dynamic, structure, and direction. With these in mind, we can then explore a number of considerations central to a culture of simple living. We might think of these other topics as base-pairs that bridge between the spiral strands of mindfulness and sufficiency, relating them to each other in specific ways, enabling their synergy, and offering at least a partial anatomy of an alternative to consumer culture.

I can imagine a great many such bridges. We should explore them all. In what follows, I make a beginning by discussing five of them:

“Communicating Simplicity” begins from the observation that once we discover the value of mindfulness and sufficiency, a natural impulse is to share this experience with others. This process is inherently relational and implies community. It also implies opting for certain ways of communicating and leaving aside others.

Discussion of communication evolves naturally toward the subject of “Educating for Simple Living.” To manifest a way of life which is materially simple but culturally and spiritually rich requires deliberate attention to learning what exactly it is that empowers people to secure an ever greater measure of well-being on an ever more modest expenditure of energy, resources, and labour.

“Simplicity and Economy” takes up the question of what an economy might look like if it was oriented around the values of mindfulness and sufficiency rather than the oppressive promotion of consumerism and economic growth.

Today, it is almost impossible to discuss economics without also considering technology. “Technology and Simplicity” explores what role technology might play in a culture of simple living. Bringing mindfulness to our use of technology leads to insights about how the social and economic roles of technology might change if technology was oriented to serve simple living rather than consumerism and private profit.

Finally, the good life aims to increase human well-being. To me the concept of well-being is inextricably linked with that of human rights. In “Simplicity, Sustainability, and Human Rights,” I argue that consumer culture — traditionally portrayed as the most successful pathway to increasing well-being and protecting human rights — is in fact the single greatest threat to them and that conserving our rights and promoting well-being is highly unlikely apart from a culture of simple living.

Voluntary simplicity is the door hidden in the impregnable wall of our cultural blindness and inertia. I believe it is our single best hope for thriving into the deep future.

Mark Burch is an author, educator, and group facilitator who has practiced simple living since the 1960s, and since 1995, offers presentations, workshops and courses on voluntary simplicity. He is a fellow of the Simplicity Institute and also the author of Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet.

Dualist Economics

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyFrederick Soddy (1877-1956) discovered the existence of isotopes and was a major contributor to atomic theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1921. He foresaw the development of an atomic bomb and was disturbed by the fact that society often used the contributions of science (for which he was partly responsible) for such destructive purposes. The reason for this was, in his view, faulty economics, so in the second half of his 80 years he set out to reform economics. He was the first person coherently to lay out the policy of 100% reserve banking, later taken up by the Chicago School economists and by Irving Fischer of Yale — and still an excellent idea. Soddy was considered an outsider and a “monetary crank” by mainstream economists. Nevertheless, his views on money are sound and highly relevant to today’s financial debacle. Another neglected but increasingly relevant contribution is his philosophical vision of the place of economics in the larger intellectual map of the world.

For Soddy economics occupies the middle ground between matter and spirit, or as he put it, “between the electron and the soul:”

In each direction possibilities of further knowledge extend ad infinitum, but in each direction diametrically away from and not towards the problems of life. It is in this middle field that economics lies, unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul, and concerned rather with the interaction, with the middle world of life of these two end worlds of physics and mind in their commonest everyday aspects, matter and energy on the one hand, obeying the laws of mathematical probability or chance as exhibited in the inanimate universe, and, on the other, with the guidance, direction and willing of these blind forces and processes to predetermined ends.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 6)

Soddy did not mean that economists should neglect the two end worlds of electron and soul — much to the contrary he insisted that wealth must reflect the independent reality of both end worlds. What must be resisted is the “obsessive monism” of either idealism or materialism. We must recognize the fundamental dualism of the material and the spiritual and resist attempts to reduce everything to one or the other.

Wealth has both a physical dimension, matter-energy subject to the laws of inanimate mechanism, especially the laws of thermodynamics, and a teleological dimension of usefulness, subject to the purposes imposed by mind and will. Soddy’s concept of wealth reflects his fundamental dualism and is why his first lectures on economics were entitled Cartesian Economics, meaning in effect, “Dualist Economics” (not, as might be imagined today, economics diagrammed in terms of Cartesian coordinates). The subtitle of Cartesian Economics, “The Bearing of Physical Science on State Stewardship,” better reflects his dualism in the contrast between “physical science” and “stewardship.”

Philosophically Rene Decartes accepted dualism as a brute fact even though the interaction of the two worlds of mind and matter, of soul and body, of res cogitans and res extensa, remained mysterious. Subsequent philosophers have in Soddy’s view succumbed to monistic reductionism, either materialism or idealism, both of which encounter philosophical problems no less grave than dualism, as well as provoke greater offenses against both common sense and direct experience. It is fashionable to reject dualism nowadays by saying that humans are a “psychosomatic unity” even while recognizing a “polarity” within that unity. Nevertheless, the two poles of electron and soul are very far apart, and the line connecting them is, as Soddy argued, twice discontinuous. While we are surely in some important sense a “unity,” it would be good to recognize the legitimate claims of dualism by writing the word “psycho–somatic” with a long double hyphen.

Soddy's Dualist Economics

Soddy’s Dualist Economics

Soddy’s view can be represented by a vertical line connecting the electron (physical world, useful matter-energy, ultimate means) at the bottom, to the soul (will, purpose, ultimate end) at the top. In the middle is economics (efforts in ordinary life to use ultimate means to serve the ultimate end). Soddy did not draw such a diagram, but it is implicit in his writing. The vertical connecting line has two mysterious discontinuities that thwart monistic attempts to derive soul from electron, or electron from soul. The first discontinuity is between inanimate mechanism and life. The second discontinuity is between life and self-conscious mind (will, soul). Monists keep trying, and failing, to leap over both chasms. Dualists accept them as irreducible brute facts about the way the world is.

Dualists use the axiom of duality to interpret other phenomena instead of vainly pursuing the illusion of reductive monism. Nowadays the dominant monistic obsession is materialism, supported by the impressive successes of the physical sciences, and the lesser but still impressive extrapolations of Darwinist biologism. Idealism does not have so much support at present, although modern theoretical physics and cosmology seem to be converting electrons and elementary matter into mathematical equations and strange Platonic ideas that reside more in the minds of theoretical physicists than in the external world, thus perhaps bending the vertical line connecting mind and matter into something more like a circle. Also, a Whiteheadean interpretation of the world as consisting most fundamentally of “occasions of experience” rather than substances, is a way to bridge dualism, but only with the help of widely separated and mysteriously combined “polarities” of mentality and physicality posited or anticipated in each occasion of experience. While these are challenging and important philosophical developments, it remains true that materialism currently retains the upper hand and is claiming an ever-expanding monistic empire, including the middle ground of economics. In addition, physics’ modern revival of idealism so far seems morally vacuous — among the equations and Platonic ideas of modern physics one does not find ideas of justice or goodness, or even purpose, so the fact-value dimension of dualism remains.

As Soddy insisted, economics occupies the middle ground between these dualistic extremes. Economics in its everyday aspects remains largely “unaffected whether by the ultimate philosophy of the electron or the soul,” but this may be the big weakness of economics, the myopia that leads to its growth-forever vision. Each end world reflects unrecognized limits back toward the middle world –limits of possibility from below, and limits of desirability from above. Economics seems to assume that if it is possible it must be desirable, indeed practically mandatory. Similarly, if it is desirable it must be possible. So everything possible is considered desirable, and everything desirable is considered possible. Ignoring the mutually limiting interaction of the two end worlds of possibility and desirability has led economists to assume a permissiveness to growth of the middle world of the economy that is proving to be false. For Soddy this is reflected concretely in the economy by our monetary conventions — fractional reserve banking, which allows alchemical creation of money as interest-bearing private debt:

You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest], against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy].
(Cartesian Economics, p. 30)

Debt is confused with wealth. But unlike debt, wealth has a physical dimension that limits its growth. This reflects mainly a misunderstanding of the physical world and its limits on wealth. But Soddy also saw limits coming from the end world of the soul.

Just as I am constrained to put a barrier between life and mechanism in the sense that there is no continuous chain of evolution from the atom to life, so I put a barrier between the assimilation and creation of knowledge.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 28)

For Soddy the assimilation of knowledge was mere mimicry, and was discontinuous with the creation or discovery of new knowledge, which he saw as also involving a spiritual top down influence from the soul, from the mysteriously self-conscious mind that could not be derived from mere animate life by a continuous chain of evolution. Soddy said little about the life-mind discontinuity relative to the matter-life discontinuity, but it was clearly part of his philosophy, and has come to the fore in modern philosophical debates about the “hard problem of consciousness.”

To the mechanistic biologists, who were already around in his day, Soddy had the following barbed comment:

I cannot conceive of inanimate mechanism, obeying the laws of probability, by any continued series of successive steps developing the powers of choice and reproduction any more than I can envisage any increase in the complexity of an engine resulting in the production of the “engine-driver” and the power of its reproducing itself. I shall be told that this is a pontifical expression of personal opinion. Unfortunately, however, for this argument, inanimate mechanism happens to be my special study rather than that of the biologist. It is the invariable characteristic of all shallow and pretentious philosophy to seek the explanation of insoluble problems in some other field than that of which the philosopher has first hand acquaintance.
(Cartesian Economics, p. 6)

To generalize a bit, monists, who deny the two discontinuities, seek to solve the insoluble problems that they thereby embrace, by shallowly and pretentiously appealing to some other field than that of which they have first hand experience. This is a serious indictment — is it true? I will leave that question open, but will note on Soddy’s behalf that regarding the matter-life discontinuity, Francis Crick evidently thought it more likely that first life arrived from outer space (directed panspermia) than that it formed spontaneously from inanimate matter on earth, given the demonstration by Pasteur and Tyndall that “spontaneous generation is not occurring on the earth nowadays.” And, as already mentioned, a number of philosophers and neuroscientists (including John Eccles and Karl Popper) have declared that the life-mind discontinuity presents “the hard problem of consciousness,” judged by many to be unbridgeable.

The relevance of Soddy’s dualistic economics to steady-state economics is that there are two independent sets of limits to growth: the bottom-up bio-physical and the top-down ethical-economic. The biophysical limit says real GDP cannot grow indefinitely; the ethical-economic limit says that beyond some point GDP growth ceases to be worth what it displaces, although it may still be bio-physically possible. Certainly Soddy did not speak the last word on dualism versus monism. Nevertheless, he was truly a pioneer in ecological economics, seen as the middle ground between the electron and the soul. Although no ecological economist has won the ersatz “Swedish National Bank’s Memorial Prize in Economics in Honor of Alfred Nobel,” pioneer ecological economist, Frederick Soddy, has the distinction of having won a real Nobel Prize in chemistry. That doesn’t mean that he is right about dualist economics, but I think it earns him a serious hearing.

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Five Christmas Gifts that Keep on Giving

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_Photo‘Tis the season for gift giving, and if mainstream economists are right, then the best possible gifts are the ones that contribute the most to economic growth. In recent years, despite financial shenanigans and outsized stimulus spending, GDP growth has remained below 3% per year in the U.S. As the environmental and social limits to growth have asserted themselves, consumption of exponentially more stuff has become exponentially more difficult. That’s why you might hear an economist or a politician say, “Ask not what economic growth can do for you, but what you can do for economic growth.” Fortunately there are plenty of presents you can buy right now in the 21st century that honor such 20th-century thinking. Here’s a list of five gifts that not only increase GDP directly, but also help indoctrinate the lucky recipients into the fossil-fueled, high-financed consumerist culture. Get yours while you can!

1. The holy trinity of lawn care. Why use a rake when you can crank up the decibels and the emissions? Why use a scythe when you can possess extreme RPMs of plant-shredding power? Why use a hoe when you can crush weeds into oblivion with a toxic cocktail? Any gardener will appreciate the power of this three-tool multi-pack: a gas-powered leaf blower, string trimmer weedwacker, and backpack pesticide sprayer. Imagine the gardener’s delight as he or she wages chemical and mechanical warfare on the landscape. Nature never looks better than when perfectly trimmed, blown, and sprayed. But wait, there’s more! These tools are sure to eliminate diversity from the yard and prevent it from functioning like an unwanted, unruly ecosystem. Oh what a feeling to control nature!

blower weedwacker backpack_sprayer

 

2. The dynamic duo of board games. Children of all ages can learn how the world works by using any means necessary to trounce the competition. No games teach more valuable lessons than the all-time classics Monopoly and Risk. The goal of each is straightforward, just like an uber-capitalist, imperialistic economy — amass all the spoils by vanquishing your opponents. These games have remained popular for decades because exploitation never goes out of style. For an exciting twist on standard Monopoly, try the National Parks Edition. You could end up owning Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, and eventually all the National Parks (privatizing the Parks would surely add to GDP). Then you can charge such high entry fees that you end up owning the other players too! What could be more fun than owning everything and wiping out your friends and family? And if these two classics don’t satisfy your hunger, try to secure a copy of this rare board game.

Monopoly_National_Parks_Edition_box RiskBox

 

3. Magazines that spread affluenza. Not everyone can live life as a super-rich conspicuous consumer, sipping Cristal on the deck of a gold-plated yacht on the way to a private island in the South Pacific. But everyone can read and dream about it! Fill your loved-ones’ magazine racks with the likes of Scene, Hamptons, and Bloomberg Pursuits. They can spend hour after hour learning the right clothes to wear, the right cars to drive, and the right handbags to carry. If you really want to do your part for GDP, you might consider delivering the first few issues of these subscriptions in a diamond-encrusted magazine rack.

SceneMagazine HamptonsMagazine Bloomburg Pursuits Magazine

 

4. Plastic toys that promote proper values. A stunning variety of plastic playthings populate toy store shelves these days. These two toys sport not only a hefty price tag, but also an agenda for joining the fossil fuel frenzy. With a Playmobil Cargo Ship, kids can pretend to burn obscene quantities of fuel while importing cheap goods from China and exporting recyclables and garbage from the U.S. And speaking of burning obscene quantities of fuel, children will love emulating that behavior by rolling around in a motorized toy Hummer. As a bonus, driving the Hummer will help kids avoid burning their own calories — a good start on a lifetime of health problems and medical expenses that will further add to GDP!

CargoShip ToyHummer

 

5. Junior bank account. Open a starter account for that special niece or nephew at the Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, or any other too-big-to-fail (aka unsustainably large) corporate bank that was bailed out in the financial meltdown. Children are sure to take delight in having their savings invested in junk mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps. It’s never too early to learn the lesson that you can “earn” money by doing nothing.

Photo by Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Alex Proimos, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Sara Goth, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Sara Goth,Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Lite, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Lite, Wikimedia Commons

 

During this holiday season, the neoclassical economists want you to get out there and grow the GDP. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my skewed gov gave to me EXPANDING GDP!

If, for some reason, you don’t feel like following the advice of neoclassical economists, then try giving the gift of time — make time for genuine experiences with your friends and family. Or make a donation to a favorite nonprofit in someone’s name. If you feel the need to buy a product, how about a book that describes the needed economic changes?

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