“We must do what we conceive to be the right thing and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we’re going to be successful.”
– E F Schumacher
In a previous post I discussed the scale of our economy. Economists have quite a bit to say about scale in microeconomics, or economics at the level of the household and the firm. They report the existence of a “when to stop rule.” This rule states that an activity should cease just as the costs begin to outweigh the benefits. An example might be deciding when to stop drinking bottles of beer. After about the third or fourth bottle, the costs begin to outweigh the benefits.
We could say that three bottles represent the “optimal scale” of beer consumption for an individual. Even though mainstream economists (dubbed neoclassical economists) readily apply this concept to the small-scale, micro-economy, they refuse to apply it to the big-picture, macro-economy. On the large scale, according to neoclassical theory, our economy as a whole has no optimal scale – just growth. And that’s an implausible conclusion, given that the macro-economy is simply a summation of all the micro-economies.
Ecological economics argues that everything has an optimal scale including big-picture activities and systems. It is hard to conceive of a more pressing place to apply the “when to stop rule” than the whole economy, because if we overreach our limits here, the entire ship goes down. A steady state economy strives to stop growth at the optimal point, maintaining a sustainable scale for the entire human enterprise.
When social or environment costs become larger than the benefits of more production and consumption growth is no longer economic. As Daly and Farley put it in their textbook Ecological Economics uneconomic growth happens when continued growth “costs us more than it is worth. A situation in which further expansion entails lost ecosystem services that are worth more than the extra production benefits of the expanded economy.”
Sustainability is quite the buzzword nowadays. What is sustainability anyway? It would appear at face value to have a simple, easily understood meaning. On the contrary, almost everything labeled “sustainable” is not, creating ambiguity in the meaning of the concept. It has become more of a marketing tool than an actual process. Being sustainable is quite different from what is typically called sustainable in our culture currently.
Something is sustainable if it can maintain balance with the system supporting it, and can do so indefinitely. A sustainable process takes only the amount of resources that can be regenerated by its supporting system between each processing cycle. Waste generated by a sustainable process can be absorbed by the surrounding system at the same rate it is created. Sound familiar? On a large scale, that’s the steady state economy.
We all want to have long, peaceful, and prosperous lives – to do this we need fresh water, healthy cropland for food, and materials for shelter and security. However, being that we live in a finite world, there are limits on everything needed for a long, healthy human life.
There is a limit to size of the pie. If more people eat from this proverbial pie, each piece must shrink to accommodate the growing number of people at the table. Historically the Earth’s resources have provided amply for the population. We always had more then enough pie to feed new people at the table, and more people were a welcomed sign of continued prosperity (generally).
Spring is in the air! For us Seattleites, spring is not exactly like the season seen in movies or television. Spring in Seattle is like a bipolar transition between seasons: Mother Nature changes her mind frequently and without warning until May or June when the weather finally evens out to the best-kept Seattle secret: 3 to 4 months of glorious sun-filled summer days.
Spring brings with it new growth, beautiful blooms, and the chance to connect with the outdoors again. As all the hermits and season-affective-disorder sufferers creep out of their caves, from the winter rises a chance to renew the bond with community.
A great source of connection in communities is through food. It is over meals that deals are made, laughs are had, and romances flourish. So much of our lives are involved with food, yet it is something many fail to think too much about. We can create and nourish relationships with our planet and our community through food: growing it, buying it and eating it
I couldn’t be happier to write that this weekend my partner and I welcomed our son Liam Thomas into the world! We made it home yesterday from the hospital and are adjusting to our new life together. I will likely be out of the posting arena for a short bit, but fear not! I have a few in-process already on topics including community, steady-stater lifestyle, and sustainable scale.
Let’s work to make all our children’s future a sustainable, healthy one! I know Liam would appreciate it.
I can’t help but think that it is an oddly ironic slogan to appear in an economic crisis. Is the Quaker Oatmeal guy trying to give us some socioeconomic encouragement? Is he trying to tell us to “get back into the game” and buy/consume more?
We all could use a cheerleader from time to time, right? When times get tough it’s nice to have someone on our side to rally us “into the game.” As time gets tough economically, who better than the Quaker Oatmeal guy, right?
“We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …