Debates over limits is not new. From Parson Malthus to Donella and Dennis Meadows to Herman Daly and, most recently, Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor, Peter Victor and many others – economists, policy-makers, ecologists, and biologists have all debated the limits we face and where they are encroach on society (or rather, where society encroaches on them). Economists from the very creation of the social science to recent shapers of the field have recognized the limits to a growth economy.
In the 19th century John Stuart Mill, a political economist who believed in free markets and utilitarianism, expounded the idea of a ‘stationary state,’ or a steady state, economy, one which remained stable without expanding in size. In Mills stationary state vision our economy would maintain a constant population and stocks of capital. He envisioned an enlightened state where “there would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”
John Maynard Keynes, the grandfather of current economic thought, even acknowledged that growth was a means to an end. Keynes referred to the dilemma of growth as “the economic problem” that someday will “take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.”
Where does that leave us today? In a world seemingly full of ecological limits playing out in numerous arenas – peak oil, water scarcity, climate change, dwindling resources – how do we find that stationary state equitably? Do any of these limits play out in our favor?
We need a social revolution to sweep the country (and the world): changing the business-as-usual economy into a stable, sustainable, human-oriented economy. A transition to a just, dynamic steady state economy will require movement of the people. This has me thinking that one thing we need is to create a stigma around pro-growth supporters: those that support continued economic growth in the face of ecological and social degradation.
In the seventies it was “the man.” The Man was keeping us down. The Man was taking our money. The Man was pushing his agenda of consumption, 40-hour work weeks and corporate profit. Today that stigma has been replaced with acceptance and encouragement! We need to bring back the Man, but we also need to create a similar stigma on the pro-growthers, the liquidators.
I propose “growther.” It sums it up pretty well. It should be used in disgust and disapproval, like “that’s the agenda of a growther trying to destroy your work-life balance” or “those growthers are driving our planet towards collapse” or “you ignorant growther!” I’m open to other ideas, too, so please chime in!
Today is the official day of Earth Overshoot: the first day of the year our natural capital spending is in the red. This type of natural debt is far more destructive than its monetary counterpart (natural debt meaning debt owed of natural capital, not a debt that is natural – there is no such thing). Instead of being able to pay back this loan, we’re actually making it harder to pay our bills next year and the year after.
Overshoot is a term used often by biologists to describe a population that consumes more than the system can support. This could be a pack of grey wolves in the Northern Territories that is eating more deer than can possible be born and grow within the year. What does that mean? With less deer this year to breed, there will be less deer next year to eat. The deer the wolves eat next year will deplete their reserve even further. Eventually no deer will be around to eat and the wolves will starve.
“For most of human history, humanity has been able to live off of nature’s interest – consuming resources and producing carbon dioxide at a rate lower than what the planet was able to regenerate and reabsorb each year.
But approximately three decades ago, we crossed a critical threshold, and the rate of human demand for ecological services began to outpace the rate at which nature could provide them. This gap between demand and supply – known as ecological overshoot – has grown steadily each year. It now takes one year and six months to regenerate the resources that humanity requires in one year.“
The bummer here is that we can’t migrate to a new territory: there’s only one Earth. There will only ever be one Earth. One Planet. That’s how much we’ve been given, best we figure out how to use it well. We need to create a sustainable scale to our society and economy.
Overshoot is directly related to carrying capacity – and biologists know that when a populationconsumesmore than the system can renew, this overshoot often leads to a mass die-off. We’re already watching the most massive extinction since the dinosaurs, our biological diversity is dwindling at unheard-of rates. Perhaps this should be seen as a warning to our own existence? After all, we are part of nature.
As Dave mentioned in the last post, Australian Dick Smith has offered a challenge to those steady-staters under 30 years of age: get famous furthering the post-growth solution and win $1 million dollars (Australian). While there is a small amount of irony in the proposal, it is much needed money that could do a lot to increase the movement. There is already a few ideas in work amongst the eager post-growther, de-growthers and steady-staters, but more to come on that later. For now, here’s my response to Dick Smith’s post on his website..
Thank you so much for placing such an inspiring award in the public arena. The issues confronting human society are grave to say the least, yet they pale in comparison to the spirit and optimism we carry with us. Those of us in the “next generation” hold the key to shaping the future of what will surely be the most pivotal century in all of human history. Climate destabilization is already taking place and will only increase if we continue to follow the growth paradigm. Resource scarcity, pollution, community degradation, biodiversity loss and the breakdown of civilization are the only future presented by further growth of our economy.
There are many of us that recognize these challenges and are working as best as we can to solve them. For several years I have run a blog called Steady State Revolution, where I focus on the damaging behavior of conspicuous consumption and the need for a sustainable alternative. Recently I co-founded a blog called Post Growth with a few other fellow-minded bloggers, both in the United States (Scott Gast) and in Australia (Sharon Ede). Another blogger friend of mine in the UK, Jeremy Williams has been making waves with his blog Make Wealth History and a website called Beyond Growth.
I’ve recently taken a post with the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) as their Washington State Chapter Director. CASSE has been working hard to further the public conversation about these topics and I have been privileged to help them in their endeavors. Their new blog, the “Daly News,” features some of the most prominent names in ecological economics – including the blog’s namesake Herman Daly.
Every one of these people recognizes the conflict between continued economic growth and ecological sustainability. We see how the growth economy must transition to a stable, dynamic, steady state economy to insure a livable, just and flourishing human society is passed down to future generations.
Your prize may very well represent a flag under which we can all unite.
I believe the single most important thing in the success of the human experience is community. No man is an island, and this is an even more evident truth in the face of climate change and peak oil. Our way of life is dependent upon others, and the way we live impacts everyone. A sustainable economy will require strengthening our local and global communities, working together in cooperation instead of competition.
Your award represents a means to help pull more of us together, not for the money, but for the possibility of inspiring change and the ability to enhance the recognition of a sustainable way of life for all.
This post comes from Dave Gardner, a filmmaker who has been studying what he calls “our worship of growth everlasting” for several years as part of a non-profit documentary film project called Hooked on Growth. This film is part of a larger movement/public education project/documentary series called GrowthBusters. Dave promised Hooked on Growth will be released in the first half of 2011. I thought this post was exceptionally important and wanted to share the news in its entirety with you.
A few weeks ago I got a phone call from Australia. A gentleman named Dick Smith was on the line and he was very complimentary about our film project. Quickly I was brought up to speed on this man and his new, noble effort to get the world talking about limits to growth and into a recovery program for growth addiction.
$1m cash to save civilization
That was the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald last week as Mr. Smith announced his one million dollar Wilberforce Award – a grant to be awarded to someone under 30 “who can impress me by becoming famous through his or her ability to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy.”
Did you see a news story about this audacious offer? I found no news stories about this outside of Australia, other than a photo in Times of India and the UK Guardian. The rest of the world apparently doesn’t consider this million-dollar prize offered by one individual newsworthy. I find that incredibly disappointing, but I suppose that is to be expected in a world where denial of limits to growth is so widespread and growth addiction is perpetuated by the pushers (growth profiteers, who include mainstream media).
In fact, Dick Smith has taken on the mainstream media in his quest to eliminate the mega-dose of pro-growth Kool Aid served to us daily. He recently took out this ad in Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper.
Unless you live in Australia, you may not know who Dick Smith is. The subject line of his follow-up email to me read: Rapacious Capitalist Loves your Website. So, who is this “rapacious capitalist” who is not pushing growth at every turn in order to finance his next private jet or another 10,000 square-foot vacation home? You can read more about him here.
Smith is a man who concedes “I’ve benefited from a long period of constant economic and population growth – we are addicted to it.” He is indeed a wealthy businessman. But Dick Smith has seen the light. It has come to his attention (thanks to his daughter) that there are limits. He writes, “sooner or later this consumption growth will have an end. We appear to be already bumping against the limits of what our planet can sustain and the evidence is everywhere to see.”
I’m encouraged that a number of wealthy capitalists are speaking out today about the fallacy of our quest for and belief in unending growth. Media mogul Ted Turner frequently raises the issue of overpopulation and sustainability. “Too many people are using too much stuff,” he told Charlie Rose two years ago. Zhang Yue, Chairman and Chief executive of BROAD Air Conditioning spoke eloquently about limits to growth in a speech last year to the Business for Social Responsibility Conference: “Today, that mission to grow more, to get more, to make more, isn’t suitable for society.”
Fact is we’ve all benefited from the era of growth. But just as it’s not too late for those who’ve built empires and made fortunes to learn from our mistakes and promote a more sustainable model, it’s not too late for society at large. It is time for us to get over our growth addiction and move quickly to a model that celebrates “enough.”
I applaud Australian Dick Smith for having the vision to see where our worship of growth everlasting will take us, the courage to confess his sins, and enough concern about future generations to put his money where his mouth is. According to Smith, “I will be looking for candidates whose actions over the next year show that they have what it takes to be among the next generation of leaders our incredible planet so badly needs.”
I’ve been busy drafting a guest post for another blog, as well as enjoying this greatweather (seldom comes to Seattle), so it will be a few more days before another good post materializes. I do have some cool news, though, something I wanted to share earlier:
This is an exciting step into the mainstream media for CASSE and the steady state economy. Face time on any major news network is good, especially when Brian raises such good points. It also helps that the Barclays’ representative (who is treated like an authority on economics, even though he looks a little green to me) stumbles a bit and uses “modest” more than a modest amount.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an embed-able video of it, but you can watch the debate here.
Wednesday night I attended a nice little event for Yes! Magazine supporters and enjoyed many great conversations. One conversation in particular, with Jule Meyer Principal of Parkman Foundation Services, revolved around philanthropy and the great Giving Pledge campaign started by Bill and Melinda Gates. Now, I should preface what I’m going to talk about with this statement: I think the world’s wealthiest donating most of their wealth to noble causes is a wonderful idea. I just have a few misgivings around the intention and the implicit idea that the giving is a sacrifice for others.
The Gates’ number one ally in getting the campaign rolling, Warren Buffett attempted to start the giving by pledging that “more than 99% of [his] wealth will go to philanthropy during [his] lifetime or at death.” At face value this appears to be quite the statement: more than 99% of his wealth given away! However, it seems to me that Buffett’s pledge might be more for show and is slightly disingenuously when labeled as philanthropy. Here’s why…
The Richest of the Rich
Perhaps it is difficult for the majority of us to actually realize how much money the top 1% of the world have in their bank accounts. A simply way to think of it: the richest 1% of Americans possess more than all the combined wealth of the bottom 90%. In Warren Buffett’s case, he’s currently valued at around $47 Billion – with a B. That’s more zeros than can fit in most calculators – $47,000,000,000. He recently fell from the #1 richest person in the world to the #3 spot, poor guy.
I wonder if there is even a concept of “enough” with this class of richest of the rich. These top 1% wield an amazing amount of influence and power with their vast sums of monetary wealth. Do they really deserve this power? Is it right for them to have so much while most of the world has hardly enough?
The one article available online from New Internationalist is titled, “Nature’s Bottom Line,” and outlines the conflict between continued economic growth on a finite planet. Here’s a bit:
“Free market cheerleaders believe that technology and human ingenuity will solve the problem. The economy can be ‘de-coupled’ from material inputs. Improved technology will allow us to produce more wealth with less energy, materials and waste. This is whistling in the dark. Between 1970 and 2000, rich countries saw impressive gains in energy efficiency of up to 40 per cent. But average improvements of two per cent a year were eclipsed by growth rates of three per cent or more.
Increased technical efficiency is swamped by increased consumption. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation found that to stabilize carbon emissions at 350 ppm by 2050 the carbon intensity (CO2 per unit of production) of the global economy would need to fall by 95 per cent. Ramping up GDP without improving technological efficiency leads to more environmental damage. Yet improving efficiency triggers more growth, which leads to the same result.”
And this is my favorite part at the end:
“The economy is a human construct. It’s not an act of god. We made it, we can change it. The rest of this issue examines the growth dilemma and highlights the alternatives.”