Friday, April 15, 2005

Striving for the Steady State Economy

Environmentalism is becoming something of a religion. Those who subscribe to most or all of the tenants of the environmentalist doctrine are among the movement’s acolytes, composting and recycling, canvas bagging it and buying organic, living what they consider “healthier,” less “impactful” lives. A thoughtful environmentalist should recognize these actions to be sacraments grounded in a hybrid moral code. “I am doing my part to rectify the mess made by the sinners around me.” How persuasive is this feeling of self-worth and moral superiority? Like all religious conviction, it is undeniably powerful and fulfilling, but it comes at a cost. Too often this fetal “religion” ignores fact in favor of that which is deemed morally superior. For example, radical environmentalists demand a wilderness without humans, ignoring the fact that management (stewardship) is now an unfortunate necessity given our exuberant use of natural resources and our continued sprawl. Reason must enter into the equation. Thoughtful environmentalism of the secular variety is possible, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to become vain.

This brings me to the concept of the Steady State Economy.

I first heard wind of Brian Czech’s Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) project a year ago. My initial reaction was positive, though I feared support for the concept would be relegated to left-wing environmental groups of the “religious” variety. Surprisingly, I am hearing the term used with more frequency these days, sometimes by folks with little interest in preserving biodiversity or encouraging ecological sustainability.

I am a proponent of the philosophy (read this .pdf for an excellent summary). The front page of the CASSE website states:
Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population, per capita consumption, or both. Economic growth leaves a larger ecological footprint, causing civil strife and bringing nations into conflict.”
This simplifies, for the sake of dramatic impact, the arguments made by the economists behind the SSE. For me, the heart of the matter is touched on in the following selection.
“…Wildlife biologists know that a wide variety of social structures may produce stable populations. The same holds true for a steady state economy. For example, a steady state economy with long human life spans entails low birth and death rates. In our opinion this is preferable, within reason, to a steady state economy with short life spans, high birth rates, and high death rates. The same concept applies to capital and durable goods such as automobiles. We opine that a relatively slow flow of high-quality, long-lasting goods is preferable to a fast flow of low-quality, short-lived goods.”
The SSE will not take hold in the United States anytime soon, but in more socially-minded democracies, like Sweden or England, the approach is not so alien. The truth is, however, such a transition from market-driven capitalism to stability-driven capitalism is unlikely to occur unless the populous desires as much. In the United States, our stock market would require overhaul, making it “less of a casino,” by decreasing its volatility and demand for liquidity. This seems unlikely, especially in the immediate future. In fact, were the transition to begin today, the market would likely hemorrhage. Making things even more unattractive for the “powers that be,” implementation of the Steady State Economy requires, for countries like the United States, a marked decrease in Gross Domestic Product. As a result, I believe the SSE can not become a concrete reality in the foreseeable future, but that we should strive for it no less.

As the selection below suggests, there is much to be gained from the sustainable lifestyle.
“Nor would any cultural stagnation result from a steady state economy. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the greatest economists and political philosophers in history, emphasized that an economy in which physical growth was no longer the goal would be more conducive to political, ethical, and spiritual improvements.”
Ah, yes, ethical and spiritual improvement… So we’re back to individual action and lifestyle choices, rubbing shoulders with the “religious” environmentalists. Where do I sign up to feel superior to the rest of the heathens? I already recycle (excepting plastic, since the recycling process seems to do more harm than good), canvas bag it, and eat only meat that I have caught or killed myself. I’m a few sacraments shy of donning a robe and shuffling off to the commune. Why shouldn’t I begin buying everything carefully and, in my own way, push for the adoption of the SSE at a local level?

Well, the truth is I should.

I self-consciously poke fun at the problematic aspects of environmentalism only because it is so close to my heart. I am not a religious man in the popular or traditional understanding of the word. Biology, anthropology, paleontology, history: these are my holy tomes. Yet I firmly believe that through careful consideration, research, and political pressure we can arrive at a more complete conservation ethic, one which addresses not only biodiversity and “wilderness” (my principal areas of interest), but also global poverty and human rights.

Photo credit: ripped from the World Food Programme website


Mikhail Capone said...

Simple stock market idea to make things a bit better in the US:

Instead of quarterly reports, do yearly reports (like in Europe and Asia IIRC), so that stategies that are a bit more long-term and that may net result in immediate profit can at least have a change to be tried.

Devo said...

Interesting appraisal of America's Cult of the Environment... I absolutely agree with you that environmentalism has taken on somewhat mythic overtones, especially in groups like Greenpeace or Peta (two groups with whom I Perpetually take issue), but I think that the general populace is beginning to apprehend the environment as more of a rewsponsibility and less of an eventuality we just kinda use cuz it's there... you know? I, for example, think of recycling or composting as just something I have to do. There is no reward for it, nor is there some sort of sacramental significance to what I'm doing, it's just the way to do what I have to do. I don't judge those who choose not to understand the world in the same way as I do, or who choose different responsibilities. I do think, however, that without the avatars of Gaia guiding us normal folk in the proper direction, the type of attitude I've cultivated would be far less common. It takes a very strong example to overcome the kind of inertia we've settled into as a society, and I think the energy that the religious environmentalists put into it may just be enough to begin a push to overcome that inertia...

Anonymous said...

Devo's contribution to the SSE is a bit curious. An obviously sophisticated thinker, he nonetheless starts his contribution by throwing some pelts to the "cultists" (i.e., radical/leftwing environmentalists) to whom he ends up acknowledging a debt of gratitude for pushing society toward the right (correct) path...In my book it's fine to throw stones at idiots marching under whatever stupid ideology they choose, of which our society has no shortage, take the Landmark Forum (reincarnated est), for example, or the Scientology "church", because they represent no actual progress for humanity in any way whatsoever, just a big self-masturbatory indulgence by mostly middle-class white airheads, but to attack those that actually—as I say by his own admission—represent a positive contribution is an exercise in self-contradiction at best. What is it that Devo doesn't like about these folks, their style? The fact they admit coming from the left of teh spectrum? If so, let's rise about such nonsense and focus on the message, which is what counts. Packaging is usually deceptive, and we should know that in this utterly deceitful society where institutionalized egoism remains the core marching value.


Friendly Ghost said...

I'm a journalist in Mumbai, arguagly the most happening metropolis of India. Ours is a 'developing' economy that until the 1990s used to be ignominously called an Underdeveloped Economy a.k.a. 'Third World' country.

But since economic reforms in the mid-90s, we have been growing at close to 8% annually. Currently our GDP growth is 9.5%. Everybody thinks India is 'Shining'!

There are many projections about how the BRIC nations (Brazil Russia India and China) are all set to overtake the 'Developed' nations like USA and EU members.

But these rosy scenarios clearly don't factor in global warming. I'm going hoarse telling people at all fora that sadly of Indian people, economic growth is no longer an option.

I'm speaking at schools, colleges, corporates, chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs... any forum where I can get a decent hearing.

I'm getting hoarse and unpopular telling people that we need to GROW DOWN! That we need to actively seek NEGATIVE ECONOMIC GROWTH RATES.... all of us, individually, as states and as nations.

So kudos to Brian Czech, to you and all the others for making it a bit easier for me to continue to believe in what I am saying.

Krishnaraj Rao

Hungry Hyaena said...

Friendly Ghost:

Thank you for staying strong (and hoarse) on this count.

It is, indeed, a sad state of affairs. I'm pessimistic about improvements - i.e., a slowing of economic growth or outright halting - in this area of the "global economy," as the exploitative and mercenary natures of the monied are increasingly apparent...even celebrated by free-market profiters.

Let us hope enough reasonable voices remain that we can rebuild after collapse.

Friendly Ghost said...

Hyaena, thank you for replying to that last comment. In the light of your pessimism (which is entirely well-founded owing to the many-limbed nature and the sheer size) of the problem before us, may I suggest a new approach? A surgically precise one?

Maybe we have been going about this thing all wrong -- trying to attach the many arms of the Climate Change problem instead of going for its eye.

On the face of it, Climate Change is a problem of excess CO2 emissions. Many of us agree that it's a problem of overconsumption by all of us, individuals, corporates, government.

Analyse still deeper, and one finds that overconsumption is triggered by and funded by CREDIT. There is an overabundance of bank credit -- far out of proportion to actual earnings and savings -- that gives people the power to overspend and overconsume.

So this is where the cancerous tumour, so to speak, can be clearly isolated from human flesh. This is where we can start cutting away surgically, methodically, without hurting too many people.

CONSUMER CREDIT -- loans extended by banks for purchase of new vehicles and consumer appliances -- is a major artery feeding this tumour. Easy loans warp our purchasing decisions, making our desires seem like needs.

Two calls from an aggressive marketer of car loans is all I need to make me feel that I NEED to step up from my family car to an SUV.

CREDIT CARDS make one feel really wealthy, by enabling your to securely carry large amounts equivalent to many months' earnings in your wallet.

And when you do that, you are potentially able to do all those wonderful, beautiful, generous things that you see in TV commercials like buying your wife a diamond solitaire, booking the Presidential suite for your wedding anniversary or surprising her with a couple of air-tickets to Paris.

Consumer credit and credit-cards are the hot air causing the great big Economic Growth balloon to go up... and up... and up.

Driven by this excessive consumer demand, a number of industries flourish, new corporates are created, and new factories get built, diversified, expanded, acquired... We aren't only borrowing economically, we are borrowing ecologically.

Conclusion: At an individual level, we should stop buying things with credit, and stop using our credit cards. It is worth cutting up our credit cards. Let us stop borrowing from the future.

And as a community of concerned citizens, let us lobby for a clampdown on consumer credit. Let us write to the government, to our Central Banks and to individual banks and bankers.

Let each person in the banking industry be targetted with this message: Cap and roll back. Let us ask for a freeze of consumer credit at current levels this year, and a 50% reduction in the amounts of credit given each year.

This would give the economy about three years to adjust to the changing scenario.

Three years is 36 months -- far more time than the economy and its stakeholders get for adjustment when the stock-markets crash. So why delay, postpone and vacillate?

Krishnaraj Rao

Friendly Ghost said...

Some ideas on how to seek Economic Sustainability:

1) Individual consumers need to consciously consume less of whatever it is that they consume. The government or NGOs should incentivate families to benchmark their current levels of consumption on various fronts, then reduce them. Consuming fewer air-miles each successive year should be high on our list of priorities, considering their huge addition to our individual carbon footprint. (As a cheap and effective alternative to flying, we may consider video-conferencing.)

2) Advertising aimed at making people buy more should be tapered off. Only adverts giving information should be allowed.

3) Roadside advertising hoardings should be reduced by 50%, and they should not be illuminated, as they use up precious energy for a relatively non-productive purpose.

4) Stop adding power generation capacities, whether thermal or otherwise. Freeze them at existing capacities and merely replace thermal capacities with wind-energy and solar generation capacities.

5) Stop registering new private vehicles. NGOs or government should incentivate people to give up private transport (for instance by giving them free passes on public transport with 10-year validity.)

6) Each year, taper off the numbers of private transport wheels by 10% or more, and enhance the capacity of public transport by 20%. This will result in a net improvement in the quality of transportation and reduced congestion each year. Also encourage biking and hiking by improving the quality of roadsides, and including rest facilities (lounges) every kilometre or two.

7) Enforce a one-child policy with both carrot and stick. This means that within the span of 60-70 years, population would go down by about 50%.

8) Build infrastructure for localised means of recreation such as playgrounds and stadiums, both indoor and outdoor. Encourage greater participation in physical and mental sporting activities by organizing competitions etc.

9) Civic and governmental efforts to improve quality of life are crucial to wean off people from the rat-race.

This is not saying that we shall have no more problems, and shall live happily ever after. Every situation and every lifestyle inevitably has its own set of problems... and we shall have to be alert and aware to deal with them as they arise.


Hungry Hyaena said...

Krish (Hungry Ghost):

Wow. Thank you for this list of concise, worthy suggestions. If any first-world governments made good on just a few of these, we'd be in much better shape for it.

You and I think similarly, but I fear most of your suggestions require the hand of government, and motivating that hand will be difficult (that's an understatement) so long as big business ("economic strength," as it is most commonly called) remains a policy-making priority.

Friendly Ghost said...


You're right, all these recommendations are indeed in the domain of the government to implement.

And you're also quite right in saying that a bias towards Big Business keeps the government from moving in to implement any of these.

Still, if enough of us constantly think and talk about such things, and actively ask for such measures, I sincerely believe that the ponderous wheels of government and big business will slowly, very slowly, stop moving in the wrong direction.

I have faith that if enough of us BELIEVE in ourselves, and keep saying the right thing again and again at different fora, our ideas will gradually take root in some minds, and grow and grow.

After all, government and Big Business is run by people like you and I. We need to doggedly persist, that's all.

I'm not saying we can halt Global Warming or Economic Growthism. But what I'm saying is, let us persist in saying what we do, and eventually, we can make a dent in the problem.

Thanks for your response, HH.


Hungry Hyaena said...


True enough. Good us all.

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