Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources
Publication date: 12/05/2012
A person who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.
LAO TZU (SIXTH CENTURY B.C.E.)
A game of checkers offers very little insight into how to solve the world's intertwined environmental and social problems, or so I thought. In one particular game, my opponent opened with a series of reckless moves, placing checker after checker in harm's way. When I jumped the first one and swiped it off the board, I briefly wondered if I was being lured into a trap. But it was just a fleeting thought. After all, my opponent was only five years old.
I was playing against my daughter. She had just gotten home from her kindergarten class, and I was giving her a few strategy pointers from my limited bag of tricks. Her moves showed some modest improvement, but after a while, we both lost interest in the game. Besides, there are other fun things you can do with checkers, like seeing how high a tower you can build. At first, we were fast and free with our stacking—we even plopped down two or three checkers at a time. But as the tower grew, we changed our approach. With the light touch and steady hands of a surgical team, we took turns adding checkers one by one to the top of the stack. By this point, our formerly straight tower had taken on a disconcerting lean. On our final attempt to increase its height, the mighty checker tower reached the inevitable tipping point and came crashing down to earth. Like a reporter interpreting the scene, my daughter remarked, “Sometimes when things get too big, they fall.”
I sat back amid the pile of checkers scattered on the floor and smiled. With a simple observation and eight words, she had managed to sum up the root cause of humanity's most pressing environmental and social problems. Even a partial list of these problems sounds grim:
• Greenhouse gas emissions are destabilizing the global climate.
• Billions of people are living in poverty, engaged in a daily struggle to meet their basic needs.
• The health of forests, grasslands, marshes, oceans, and other wild places is declining, to the point that the planet is experiencing a species extinction crisis.
• National governments are drowning in debt, while the global financial system teeters on the verge of ruin.
People desperately want to solve these problems, but most of us are overlooking the underlying cause: our economy has grown too large. Our economic tower is threatening to collapse under its own weight, and beyond that, it's threatening the integrity of the checkerboard and the well-being of the players. The economy is simply too big for the broader social and ecological systems that contain it.
That's a strong indictment against economic growth, but (as we'll see in the next chapter) this indictment is backed up by scientific studies of environmental and social systems. The evidence shows that the pursuit of a bigger economy is undermining the life-support systems of the planet and failing to make us better off—a grave situation, to be sure. But what makes the situation even more serious is the lack of a viable response. The plan being transmitted from classrooms, boardrooms, and pressrooms is to keep adding more checkers to the stack.
The model of more is failing both environmentally and socially, and practically everyone is still cheering it on … it almost makes you want to climb to the top of the highest building and shout, “ENOUGH!”
Crying out in such a way expresses intense frustration at the seemingly intractable environmental and social problems we face, but it also carries the basic solution to these problems. By stopping at enough when it comes to production and consumption in the economy, instead of constantly chasing more, we can restore environmental health and achieve widespread well-being. That's an incredibly hopeful message, but it opens up all sorts of questions. What would this economy look like? What new institutions would we need? How would we secure jobs? This book attempts to answer these and related questions by providing a blueprint for an economy of enough, with detailed policies and strategies for making the transition away from more.
Before diving into the science (Chapter 2) that clarifies why enough is preferable to more, it's worth thinking about it from a commonsense perspective—perhaps even incorporating the wisdom of a checker-stacking kindergartner. More is certainly a good thing when you don't have enough. For instance, if you can't find enough to eat, then more food is better. If the alarm wakes you up before you've gotten enough sleep, hitting the snooze button and resting for a few more minutes feels great. If you didn't study enough to pass an exam, then spending more time hitting the books would have been useful. But what about times when you do have enough? Eating more food leads to obesity. Sleeping too much could be classified as a medical condition. Studying more could mean missing out on other things in life. More, then, may be either helpful or harmful, depending on the situation, but enough is the amount that's just right.
People often overlook this relationship between more and enough, especially in economic affairs. It took me a long time, a lot of dot-connecting, and even some soul-searching to get it. My path to understanding began years ago in an improbable place.
When I was a kid living in the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, I had a poster taped to the wall of my bedroom. In the background of the poster, a gaudy mansion sits on a seaside cliff. The light at dusk bathes the scene in a soft, orange glow. A walkway curves down from the mansion to a huge garage that takes up the whole foreground. The taillights of five luxury cars (a Porsche, a Ferrari, a Mercedes, a BMW, and some other fancy ride that I can't recall) stick out from the arched openings of the garage. Scrawled across the top of the poster is the title: “Justification for Higher Education.”
The strangest thing about this poster was that I didn't find it strange at all. The culture—my culture—is largely about owning things, and the more the better. The prospect of owning a big house and an expensive car or two seemed like a valid reason for attending college. My cluttered closet, which sat right next to the poster, provided further illustration of the culture. The entire closet floor was covered with Rubik's Cube–style puzzles, Star Wars action figures, and other plastic ghosts of Christmas past. Like a fish that pays no attention to the fact that it's swimming in water, I was swimming in a consumer culture and had no idea of its existence. This culture, which values owning and consuming over doing, being, and connecting, goes hand-in-hand with an economy that pursues more.
One day, having resolved to clean my room, I stared at the mess in my closet, and something clicked into place. I realized that I received precious little joy from all these things. Their novelty had long since worn off, and now I was just spending time shuffling them around when I could be doing something else—anything else! When I finally took the sensible step of giving the stuff away, I felt lighter and freer. I felt as though I had enough.
A few years later when I went to college, I majored in environmental studies. But, worried that I wouldn't be able to find a high-paying job to “justify my higher education,” I also majored in economics. In truth, I was hoping to combine lessons from the two fields—to use the tools of economics to fix environmental problems. And what problems they were! Climate change, degraded water and air quality, persistent toxic substances, loss of soil productivity. These are what E. F. Schumacher called “divergent problems,”1 meaning (among other things) that you couldn't solve them overnight with a couple of tweaks to the system.
In contrast, the economics program seemed to gloss over the problems. Environmental issues barely figured in the discussion, and social problems, such as poverty and inequality, received only slightly more attention. The problems that we did study, such as how to forecast future prices and smooth out business cycles, mostly came with stepwise prescriptions. You supposedly could solve these problems with a few tweaks to the system (as well as some nearly incomprehensible mathematics).
I had a tough time trying to apply economic methods to environmental problems, both inside and outside of academia. Admittedly some of the fault lay with the practitioner, but I found economics (at least the economics I was learning) to be ill-equipped to deal with the divergent problems of the day. I don't mean to be overly harsh. The discipline definitely contributes some useful tools and helpful ways to analyze worldly matters, but I mostly failed when I tried to apply its lessons.
When faced with failure, it's helpful to get a fresh perspective. Author, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry offers an outstanding piece of advice for how to do that. He maintains that you're unlikely to solve big problems by talking about them remotely. You have to see them for yourself. He says, “[I]t is in the presence of the problems that their solutions will be found.”2 Later, when I was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I got a chance to follow Berry's advice. That's when the landscape taught me something important about enough.
Bosque del Apache, a wildlife refuge in central New Mexico, is an enchanting place. On winter mornings, as the desert sun rises over the San Pascual Mountains and illuminates the marshlands along the Rio Grande River, tens of thousands of waterfowl take to the skies. The immense flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes are quite a sight, and so are the flocks of binocular-toting bird enthusiasts. These visitors are able to encounter wildlife on a scale that's become rare these days.
It can be a magical experience for visitors, but in a way they're deceived. The birds are present, so the food and other resources they need must also be present. But the refuge provides adequate resources only through careful management by a dedicated staff. The natural functioning of the Rio Grande River, which forms the backbone of the refuge, is long gone, taken by dams and diversions for irrigation. Floods, the major driver of the ecosystems that provide for the birds, no longer occur at their historical scale and frequency. Refuge managers, biologists, and other staff find ways to work the land and water to provide enough resources. In some cases, they try to mimic conditions that would have occurred naturally. For example, they use pumps and diversion channels to flood fields and create temporary wetlands. In other cases, they grow corn and other crops to supply bird food. Without these interventions, the flocks would be much smaller, and might not even spend the winter at Bosque del Apache.
The problem is that the modern landscape lacks a set of interconnected, highly functional conservation areas, mostly because society has appropriated so much land and wildlife habitat for economic purposes. Intensive refuge management may be the best option for conserving wildlife under such circumstances, but this approach amounts to triage. We have chosen to apply bandages (i.e., intensively managed refuges) on the landscape to stop the bleeding (i.e., habitat conversion, species extinctions, and declining ecosystem function). However, as any good doctor knows, preventing disease or trauma is much more effective than treating symptoms after the damage has been done. Preventive medicine in this case calls for balancing the amount of economic activity with the amount of wilderness preservation—a clear example of the principle of enough.
I've learned a lot by roaming places like Bosque del Apache, and I wish I had the powers of observation to unlock more of their wisdom. But most of my progress toward the destination of enough has come from people as opposed to places. I met one such person, Brian Czech, while I was still working at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Brian is an avid “wildlifer” and an even more avid “enougher.” He takes issue with economic growth—well, at least the continuous pursuit of economic growth. When you first meet him, he's quick to ask what you think about “the economic growth issue.”
In the work leading to his doctorate, he analyzed the causes of species endangerment. It turned out that the causes were, as he puts it, a Who's Who of the American economy. Agriculture, mining, urbanization, logging, tourism, and other sectors of the economy were the culprits behind habitat loss and exotic species invasions that were wiping out native species. Once Brian understood this, he began researching the conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment. This research led him to another teacher.
Herman Daly is an economist who is known around the world for his analyses and writings on economic growth and human development. His intellectual curiosity and tenacity have turned him into something of a salmon, swimming against the mainstream economic current. Despite many years fighting the misguided pursuit of economic growth, he's managed to avoid cynicism. In person and in prose, he conveys a heartfelt desire to create an economy that cares for both people and the planet.
I first met Herman at an academic conference where I acquired his book (new at the time), Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications,3 which he co-wrote with Joshua Farley. I proceeded to read it from cover to cover. I'm well aware that reading an economics textbook for enjoyment constitutes bizarre behavior. But it was a revelation. I kept asking myself, “Where was this information when I was in college?” Brian opened the door to a new world where I questioned my economic assumptions, and Herman filled that new world with a vision of a sustainable and fair economy—what he called a “steady-state economy.” I wanted to be a part of developing and promoting that vision.
Soon after, I agreed to help Brian run an organization he had established, and I became the director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Thankfully, its name is usually abbreviated to CASSE (rhymes with classy). CASSE's purpose is to help people understand why continuous economic growth is impossible and undesirable, and to promote the steady-state economy as a positive alternative.
Since you can already read Herman's books or visit CASSE's website to find out more about the concept of a steady-state economy, what's the purpose of this book? To answer that question, I need to introduce one more character. Dan O'Neill, my coauthor and good friend, is an ecological economist working at the University of Leeds in England. Early in my tenure with CASSE, he became the director of our European operations.
In June 2010, Dan and I found ourselves sitting side-by-side in his office at the university. Tired and grouchy from being trapped under the fluorescent lights on a delightful day, we were trying to sketch an outline for a report to transmit the wealth of information in front of us. The day before, we had achieved a great success. In partnership with Economic Justice for All, a discussion forum of scholars and activists based in Leeds, we had organized and run the first-ever Steady State Economy Conference. The conference brought together academics, business leaders, politicians, activists, the media, and the general public to explore the steady-state economy as an ecologically and socially responsible alternative to economic growth.
Both Dan and I were already admirers of Herman Daly's work, but we had been asking ourselves for some time how a steady-state economy would work in practice. Herman had previously identified the main problems with pursuing continuous economic growth, and he had described a broad vision of an alternative economic system. But we were hungry for more details—specifically, the policies and transition strategies that would turn his vision into a reality. That's why we had decided to work together on the conference and report. We hoped to understand for ourselves, and help others understand, what a steady-state economy would mean in practice.
Months later, with too many late nights to recount, with plenty of arguments over content, and with outstanding contributions from numerous scholars, we released our report.4 The information collected at the conference and compiled in the report provides the backbone of this book.
You probably have some of the same concerns as we do about the environment and the economy. We're not pessimists, but with all the disturbing facts that confront us, it's hard to avoid feeling worried about the future we face. Yet there is still hope in the midst of such worries. Once we put aside our obsession with growth, we can focus on the task of building a better economy. At the Steady State Economy Conference, Tim Jackson (the author of a brilliant book entitled Prosperity without Growth5) provided a much-needed rallying call. He said:
Here is a point in time where our institutions are wrong. Our economics is not fit for purpose. The outcomes of this economic system are perverse. But this is not an anthem of despair. It's not a place where we should give up hope. It's not an impossibility theorem. The impossibility lives in believing we have a set of principles that works for us. Once we let go of that assumption anything is possible.6
This book tries to provide a new set of principles that can work for us. We don't want to mislead you into thinking we have a precise set of directions for fixing everything that's wrong with the world—after all, the economy and the ecological systems that contain it are highly complex. We do, however, have an economic plan that can help move humanity toward a better future where sustainable and equitable human well-being is the goal, not economic growth. Successful implementation of this plan rests on three requirements:
1. Widespread recognition that our planet is finite. Humanity (along with all the other species here) draws life and comfort from a limited pool of resources. Recognition of this fact requires us to change the way we regard our relationship with nature, especially within our economic institutions.
2. Practical policies for achieving a steady-state economy. A set of well-conceived steady-state policies can replace and outperform the obsolete growth-oriented policies in use today. But people need a strong sense of these new policies before they'll be willing to embrace them.
3. The will to act. The economic changes that are required won't materialize on their own. We must dismantle the prevailing institutions and policies that have produced a destructive and unfair economy. At the same time, we must initiate and nurture the required changes.
This book is organized around these three requirements. If you're already on board with the first one, you may recognize some familiar ideas in the next two chapters. Even so, it's worth spending some time considering the problem of “too much” before jumping to the solution of “enough.” But the purpose of this book (in fact, the feature that sets it apart from others) is to describe how to establish a prosperous yet nongrowing economy. This is not a book that focuses on problems while relegating solutions to the last few pages.
That said, Part I, Questions of Enough, is more about why than how. It's where we summarize some of the scientific evidence that condemns the pursuit of continuous economic growth. Part I also considers what constitutes desirable levels of population and consumption, and then makes the turn toward how by describing the defining features of a steady-state economy.
Part II, Strategies of Enough, provides solutions—an escape route from the perpetual growth trap described in Part I. It's the part of the book that explains how, in a steady-state economy, we can:
• Limit the use of materials and energy to sustainable levels.
• Stabilize population through compassionate and noncoercive means.
• Achieve a fair distribution of income and wealth.
• Reform monetary and financial systems for stability.
• Change the way we measure progress.
• Secure meaningful jobs and full employment.
• Reconfigure the way businesses create value.
Taken together, the policies described in Part II form an agenda for transforming the economic goal from more to enough. But these policies will sit on the shelf unless we can gain extensive support for, and concerted action toward, achieving an economy of enough.
Part III, Advancing the Economy of Enough, provides the call for action. This part of the book contains ideas for moving past the culture of consumerism, starting a public dialogue about the downsides of growth and the upsides of a steady-state economy, and expanding cooperation among nations. All this discussion leads up to the presentation of an economic blueprint that summarizes the components and steps needed to build a steady-state economy.
This blueprint offers hope at a time when we need it most. It provides a viable way of responding to the profound environmental and social problems of our era. The ever-present drone of what we can't do has become both tiresome and unproductive. The time has come to figure out what we can do. We can build a better economy. We can meet our needs and care for the planet at the same time. We can live balanced lives, including time for the occasional game of checkers. This is our checkerboard, after all, and we don't have to play by the old rules anymore. Let's get to it. Enough is enough.
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