The most recent issue of Mother Jones, a magazine that credits itself for “smart, fearless journalism,” tackles some serious issues. The cover get’s started with the question “Who’s to blame for the population crisis? (A) The Vatican, (B) Washington, or (C) You?” Inside you’ll find some even more interesting stuff, including a 6 page article about “no-growth economics” entitled “Nothing Grows Forever: Why do we keep pretending the economy will?”
The article’s author, Clive Thompson, compiles a pretty good introduction to steady state thought. He starts by discussing how Peter Victor (author of Managing Without Growth and professor at York University) came to realize that the Earth really does have limits – limits that impose themselves on our growing economy.
After a brief history of the field and the economists that founded the ideas, Thompson inevitably arrives at Herman Daly, “being the most prominent… of the key thinkers in the no-growth theory.” The first topic Thompson has Daly counter is the neoclassical economist’s idea that our economy will eventually decouple from environmental impact and resource use as it continues to grow.
In the past Daly has the idea of decoupling the economy from resource consumption a chimera. Daly’s view on this topic drives home the point that developed economies are still using more resources as they grow, they just outsource their resource use to developing countries. This, in turn, creates “blood-diamond-style conflicts” for the often exotic materials needed to supply continued economic growth. Thompson notes that “the growth of greenhouse gas emissions likewise demonstrates that the free market alone cannot deal with planet-threatening pollution.”
Uneconomic Growth & The Ultimate Debate
“The whole idea that we could have a constantly growing economy that doesn’t use natural resources is just crazy, and the last couple of decades have basically proven it”, says Daly. Thompson triumphs Daly’s work on the concept of “uneconomic growth,” where growth of the economy actually pushes down standards of living and well being – the costs outweigh the benefits.
America has reached this point already. After World War II, sometime in the late 50’s, the connection between rising GDP and well-being degraded. Whilst our incomes have nearly doubled since that time, the society’s level of happiness has remained virtually stagnant (see GPI). This is either because our GDP is growing as we produce more products and services that don’t add to our well being or, worse, our GDP is growing as we spend money solving the problems created by (or along side) growth itself: oil spills, cancer, prisons, et cetera.
As we already know, Daly is not alone in his ideas. The debate over growth has itself grown over the past decade. Peter Victor‘s Managing Without Growth, Tim Jackson‘s Prosperity Without Growth, Brian Czech‘s Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, and many more books have been published over the past decade – some of the most influential and inspiring, I think, in the last few years. Even a 30-year revised version of the landmark Limits to Growth was published recently (and this blogs’ current book of the month).
There’s Something to Think About Here
The article points out a few good examples along the way; the “Dutch Miracle,” for instance, where labor unions in the Netherlands in the 1980s agree to limit higher pay in exchange for working less. Within the decade part time work rose from 19 percent to 27 percent and the average workweek fell from 30 to 27 hours, ultimately stomping down unemployment from 10 percent to under 5 percent. (Ironically, criticism of this “miracle” includes the faltering of the Dutch economy’s growth) Thompson also mentions the Austrian and German policies that allow employers to avoid layoffs by reducing work hours, while the government foots the bill for the salary difference.
While the Mother Jones piece focuses a lot of attention on the idea of working less, which is definitely an important and attractive component of the steady state economy – spreading the work out to reduce unemployment and production/consumption cycles – overall Thompson paints a fair picture of the steady state field. While the benefits of working less, possibly having a social revitalization, and creating an economy that does not degrade our supporting biosphere are compelling, the truth of the matter is steady state thinkers don’t have much to say about life on the other side of the rainbow… yet.
Daly suggests that we need to scale back to a 1960s level of energy consumption, while Victor says 1983 was the last time our economy was at a level where the planet could support it. Neither of these times were poor living standards for the average American. In fact, in the 1950s you could support a family of three on a single income, own your house outright in 5 to 10 years, with a car and a dog and all debt free. Today’s picture is a little different: two incomes working to support a debt-fueled house, car, lifestyle.
Not a Walk in the Park
The policies and actions required for us to transition to a steady state economy will be politically difficult (okay, close to politically impossible in some cases) to enact: reducing consumption, capping wage gaps, encouraging population stability, and (in the developed nations) scaling back our incomes. However, none of these things necessarily means living in a lower standard of well being. Victor is used to point our in the article that “we’re better at making things now” so our living standards could be achieved with less.
“So, not exactly a walk in the park,” Thompson writes. “But for all the troubling questions it raises, there’s one thing you can say about steady-state thinking: It is almost cosmically ambitious… The no-growthers regard their job as not promoting specific policies, but widening the field of debate.” Thompson ends where the steady state portion of the story began, with Daly:
“Daly, who’s been arguing his case for four decades, has begun to think that only the Earth itself will compel people to act. In a few decades, if basic resources become scare, prices spike, and climate change is causing global conflict, no-growth thinking would arrive whether we like it or not. ‘It’ll be forced on us,’ he says. In the end, when it comes to determining the shape of our economy, the planet may possess the most powerful invisible hand of all.”
You can read the full magazine issue, including this article, online here.