Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Revisiting the Steady State Economy

On the heels of not one, not two, but three Republican blockades of financial regulatory legislation in the U.S. Senate this week, I thought it worth reposting the below essay on the concept of a Steady State Economy. The essay was originally posted on HH in April 2005; five years later, there's only that much more reason for thoughtful, comprehensive reform.


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, 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


jrup said...

Since about 500BCE all religions seem to come with the good/evil mess. More practically, I try to measure the economics ... for more than 30 years I have not paid an electric bill, choosing solar power instead. I estimate that I've saved more than $100k, even after buying batteries, coolers, a large DC refrigerator, TVs, computers, etc. ... a solar farm has finally come to our valley, but is being opposed as an eyesore because it will cover many acres of 'prime' farming land. A 150 years ago, I imagine local natives felt he same way when cattle, farming and wagons cluttered their landscape.

Hungry Hyaena said...


500 BCE? I'm curious as to why you cite that time period? I ask only because I am an enthusiastic amateur in the field of historical/anthropological religious study and a prospective convert to Judaism, and I'm always eager to learn more.

With respect to your solar power accomplishments, congratulations! The eyesore argument is a flimsy, myopic one.

Anonymous said...

I think the US population will continue distrusting its government unless a truly firm stance is taken on this matter. At minimum, such firmness might include prohibition of "casino/gambling" activities in financial markets coupled by large fines and/or taxes. The fundamental basis of capitalism is at stake if a strong position by the US government is not taken to keep the underlying economic activities proper. There are good financial reasons for certain instruments, such as futures and option. There is simply no good reason (other than avoiding a plane flight to LasVegas or Atlantic City to gamble) for this sort of activity.