Category Archives: Ecological economics

Radio interview

I’ll be appearing this Sunday (12/9) on Free Range Thought, WKNY Radio (1490 AM) out of Kingston NY, with hosts Adam Roufberg and Robert Johnstreet. The show airs at 1:30 pm Eastern time. I should be on at about 1:40. This discussion will likely cover a range of ecological topics including population growth, food production, climate change, and other sustainability related subjects. For those outside the station’s broadcast area an audio file should be posted on the show’s website subsequent to airing.


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An economic growth FAQ from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

[Update: Since this was posted, the CASSE site, including the FAQ, has been revamped. I encourage you to go there and have a look around!]

Administrator’s note: Though lots of actions play around the edges of helping address our environmental problems, very few get to the heart of the matter. One that does is the promotion of economic policy which rejects the notion of endless economic growth. In that vein, the “steady state economy” is a key alternative model, having grown out of the work of those in the field of ecological economics.

And no one works harder or more effectively to promote the steady state economy than Brian Czech, Ph.D. (and team!) and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Trained as a conservation biologist, Brian is today an important contributor to our understanding of ecological economics, which he teaches as a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train.

Here then, is the CASSE FAQ on economic growth. In few words, it says a great deal, touching on key points involved in the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. My thanks to Brian for making it available! Find previous posts on Brian and CASSE here. In a related vein is this recent piece on ecological/steady state economics at Trinifar and this one at The Natural Patriot. — JF
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By Brian Czech:

What is economic growth?

Economic growth is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population and/or per capita production and consumption. It is measured or indicated by increasing GDP, or gross domestic product.

Why is economic growth a threat to the environment?

The economy exists within the ecosystem. This fact is overlooked in business and economics textbooks, where the economy is portrayed as a circular flow of money between firms and households:

Economy

The production of goods and services entails the conversion of natural resources, or “natural capital,” into consumer goods and manufactured capital. This explains why there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation (pdf). Furthermore, pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. The degradation of the environment as a result of economic growth occurs in many ways, but in general, economic growth leaves a larger ecological footprint.

Why is economic growth a threat to economic sustainability, national security, and international stability?

To grow, an economy requires more natural capital, including soil, water, minerals, timber, other raw materials and renewable energy sources. When the economy grows too fast or gets too big, this natural capital is depleted, or “liquidated.” To function smoothly, the economy also requires an environment that can absorb and recycle pollutants. When natural capital stocks are depleted, and/or the capacity of the environment to absorb pollutants is exceeded, the economy is forced to shrink. (more…)

Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF
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The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…


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Global warming: the great equaliser

Administrator’s note: It’s increasingly obvious that despite the gravity of the global ecological crisis, few governments are undertaking anything approaching the actions that might prevent catastrophe. In this article, Adam Parsons makes clear the gap between the form and level of economic change needed to address climate change and the reality of the inaction we see today. Yet he sounds a hopeful note in observing the potential for global warming to become the issue which finally prompts a new examination and restructuring of the global, market based economic system.

Adam is the editor of London based Share the World’s Resources (STWR), an NGO campaigning for global economic and social justice based upon the principle of sharing. He can be reached at: editor [at] stwr [dot] net. — JF
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Global warming mapBy Adam W. Parsons:

As the latest summit to discuss a post-Kyoto treaty continues in New York this week, the single most revealing statement has already been spoken: “We need to climate-proof economic growth”. These few words, told to reporters by the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, during the recent Vienna round of talks, define the blinded establishment approach to tackling climate change.[1] Only if continued trade liberalisation and corporate profits are kept sacrosanct, remains the assumption, is it possible to consider even a broad agreement on future cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

With dire weather events and studies being reported on an almost daily basis, fewer sceptics are able to dismiss the reality of dangerous climate change. In the same week as around 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries attended the U.N.’s Vienna Climate Change Talks, a top security think-tank stated that climate change could have global security implications “on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken”,[2] whilst leading scientists warned of a looming “global food crisis” that will require more food to be produced over the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years combined.[3]

The rapidity of these dystopian predictions has grown to Faustian proportions; the year 2007 already has the dubious accolade of witnessing the most extreme weather events on record,[4] as characterised by the millions of Africans just hit by some of the worst floods in a generation in which villagers were “wiped off the map”.[5] This summer, the collapse of the Arctic ice cap (losing a third of its ice since measurements began 30 years ago and “stunning” experts)[6] was topped off by the latest UN study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who now believe that the tipping point for widespread catastrophe – involving a two degrees rise in global temperatures – is “very unlikely” to be avoided.[7] (more…)

Can we grow our way to an environmentally sustainable world?¹

Administrator’s note: I’m honored to feature on GIM an essay by Herman Daly. Dr. Daly teaches at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Previously, he was a Senior Economist in the Environment Department at the World Bank where he helped develop policy guidelines pertaining to sustainable development. He is a co-founder of the journal, Ecological Economics, and author of many books including Steady-State Economics, Valuing the Earth, and Beyond Growth. He’s received numerous awards including an Honorary Right Livelihood Award, commonly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.”

Dr. Daly has often been called the “founding father of ecological economics.” And rightly so.

The following essay is a preview from his forthcoming book, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development: Selected Essays of Herman Daly. It appears in the section of the book titled, “Issues with the World Bank.” My thanks to Dr. Daly for his permission to post it here on GIM. — JF
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Ecological Economics and Sustainable DevelopmentBy Herman Daly:

I have a short answer and a long answer.

Short answer: My short answer is “No.”

But suppose some of you think the short answer should be “Yes.” My question to you then would be—After you grow your way to an environmentally sustainable world, then what? Would you then be willing to stop growing? Or would you want to keep on growing? Is it a state of the world, or the process of economic growth, that you want to sustain? I think the World Bank wants to sustain growth—that is, a process, not a state of the world. I would like to sustain that subsystem of the world called the “economy” in a state compatible with human well-being. I contend that the attempt to sustain growth will be inimical to that end.

When the economy grows it does not grow into the void, displacing nothing and incurring no opportunity costs. Rather it grows into the finite, non-growing ecosystem and incurs the opportunity cost of displaced natural capital and ecological services. Beyond some point growth in production and population will begin to increase social and environmental costs faster than it increases production benefits, thereby ushering in an era of uneconomic growth—growth that on balance makes us poorer rather than richer, that increases “illth” faster than wealth, and that is likely to be ecologically unsustainable. There is evidence that the US has already reached such a point.

That is my short answer. But it would be more productive to debate the longer, more nuanced, answer. (more…)

Climate change is just a symptom

Administrator’s note: Time for another article from a guest contributor. Jerry West describes himself as “editor/publisher/janitor” for The Record, an independent, progressive newspaper in Gold River, British Columbia. He’s a columnist, as well, for the well known Canadian progressive news site, rabble.ca.

A number of his articles would fit well with the content on GIM. But this one stood out during a week when I’ve been preoccupied with the stubborn tendency of both policy makers and mainstream environmentalists to turn a blind eye to the fundamental drivers of our ecological crisis. It’s a constant problem in coverage of climate change. Well meaning environmental writers, their thinking apparently numbed by the peer pressure of groupthink, tell us we can solve climate change — which they see as an isolated environmental problem — with routine economic tweaks or perhaps a switch to fluorescent bulbs.

Jerry is a writer who sees past that superficiality, and this article, which originally appeared in The Record, is one result. My thanks to Jerry for his permission to post it. – JF
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Jerry WestBy Jerry West:

The BC government has committed itself to reduce BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by the year 2020. The questions remain — is it enough, and will they have the fortitude to take the actions necessary and to provide the funds to do it.

In Britain Parliament is considering reducing the UK’s emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2050 and some argue that 80 per cent is a more reasonable figure. One thing is certain, climate change has come front and centre as a political issue, and governments of all stripes are scrambling to find ways to make it look like they are dealing with it. One suspects that “make it look like” is the main purpose for them.

Climate change is an issue for us, but it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Humans are stripping the resources of the planet faster than they can be replenished; like aggressive cancer cells we are consuming our host. Since the amount of resources are limited the only cure for this is to consume less of them.

There are two ways to do this: one is individually which means quality of life for most of us in developed countries goes down considerably, and continues to go down as populations increase. Or, we can do it collectively by reducing population to a level that there is more than enough for everybody. (more…)

Brief note: behind the scenes at GIM

Behind the scenesLately, I’ve been busy behind the scenes preparing and submitting articles for publication beyond this site. My reasoning is that while GIM’s readership is growing slowly but steadily, that’s not enough. The issues we discuss here are too urgent to sit patiently, waiting for the site slowly to grow. The aim, therefore, is to reach out not only through GIM, but also other media channels to encourage awareness of the need to confront our overshoot of Earth’s limits.

I’ve had time to work on this in part because of some great guest articles helping to keep GIM rolling. My thanks to Jim Lydecker and Ken Smail for making available their thought provoking work. Another guest essay will appear soon, and I’m waiting on permission from the journal publisher to post another of Ken’s articles. (more…)

The steady state revolution

Brian Czech

A few weeks ago I reported on conservation and other groups adopting official positions on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. I mentioned that Brian Czech and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy have been instrumental in helping to bring about this awareness and activism.

As an update, on June 9th, at their annual meeting, the American Society of Mammalogists adopted a similar resolution. From the press release:

The ASM described a “fundamental conflict between economic growth and the conservation of ecosystems” based upon scientifically established principles. The ASM noted that an economy has an “optimal size” and that growth beyond the optimum reduces human welfare in addition to threatening other species…. (more…)

Conservation groups speak out on problem of economic growth, and you can too!

Carried away with economic growth
This press release came to me via email:

British Columbia Field Ornithologists take a position on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation

At their Annual General Meeting in Lillooet on 26 May 2007, the BC Field Ornithologists (BCFO) adopted a position on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation. The BCFO addresses the study and enjoyment of wild birds in British Columbia through research and conservation efforts to preserve birds and their habitats.

The timing of the vote was opportune as Birdlife International announced the previous week that 22% of the planet’s birds are now at increased risk of extinction. A total of 1,221 bird species are presently considered threatened with extinction and an additional 812 species are considered Near Threatened, an increase of 28 species from last year….

The British Columbia Field Ornithologists group is one of a growing number of conservation groups, ecological economics groups, and others which have adopted official positions stating that economic growth is fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection. They include the United States Society for Ecological Economics and the Society for Conservation Biology, North America Section. (more…)

Brian Czech and the logic of the steady state economy

Steady state Our physical growth will have to stop. It’s unsustainable. The earth is finite after all. That’s indisputable, isn’t it? Listen to Brian Czech talk about it in this radio interview. (You’ll need either to download it as an mp3, or to listen to it as a RealAudio file. For the latter, if you don’t have the RealOne player, just download Media Player Classic which is less problematic anyway and plays the same files.) Czech is the president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. He has established himself as an important figure in ecological economics, taking on the neoclassical economic model and macroeconomic theorists and their propaganda advocating limitless economic growth. (more…)

Now that growth is killing us…

It really doesn't buy happiness. The article I discussed last time, by New Zealander Allen Cookson, was a brief gem with an emphasis on population growth and some mention of the flaws, as well, in our economic model of continual growth. The same day I came across it, occasional GIM commenter, Tim Delaney, sent me a link to an article in Mother Jones by Bill McKibben. Reversal of Fortune, drawn from McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy gives us a more thorough look at the problems with our growth-based economy. McKibben suggests that while a focus on growth did serve us well for some time, now “growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous.” It’s an important article. Here are the Cliff’s Notes plus a little commentary:

It wasn’t always this way

The growth which most of us have come to assume to be necessary and good has its earliest roots in the industrial revolution, but really got cranking in the middle of the 20th century, in the post war boom. Prior to that, Mckibben tells us, “even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated.” (more…)

Learning from Lester Brown

Lester Brown We can learn a lot from Lester Brown. By way of introduction, he is an environmentalist with some 50 books to his credit, including Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. He founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1989 United Nations Environment Prize.

In the video linked to below, he touches briefly on the relationship between the economy and the environment at its broadest level, an issue we’ve examined here before. (more…)

Can ecological economists save us from the mainstreamers?

Killing the earthMainstream economists are trying to kill us. They don’t think of it that way, but they should. The standard policies promoting endless economic growth of the conventional sort are destroying the ecosystem. And ecocide, should we follow through with it sufficiently, could easily mean the loss of many millions of human lives. When those economists promoting and shaping policy continue to push ecocidal policies when they could instead play a central role in protecting the ecosystem, how is that not homicide? [1] (more…)

Did someone say, “steady state economy”?

EcoEconTo some extent, I’d like the early posts here to be sequential in laying out a case for the site’s basic arguments. But timely items from around the Web and elsewhere are part of the plan as well. With that in mind, I bumped into a piece on Alternet by Stephan Harding. It’s about the idea of implementing “Tradable Energy Quotas” (TEQs) as a way of promoting a “steady state economy.”

Previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of the idea of the steady state economy. Any thoughtful examination of the current pervasive growth imperative, leads to the conclusion that endless economic growth — with its growth in physical throughput — is unsustainable. Our ecosytem has limits. And such growth is leading quickly to its collapse. A move to a steady state economy would be a key step toward putting on the brakes and taking the ecosystem fully into account in our economic policies. (more…)

How do they face their children?

Corporate profits versus the earthHaving touched on population growth in the last entry, it’s time for a quick look at how economic growth has become a serious threat to the global ecosystem. This is a large topic which has filled a good number of books. But on its most basic level its logic is simple. The key point is that neoclassical economics, the dominant economic model for much of recent history, is based in large part on an assumption that the economy, as a whole, can and should continue growing forever. A major part of such growth is its physical dimension, which is well reflected in increasing “throughput,” defined by Herman Daly as “the flow beginning with raw material inputs, followed by their conversion into commodities, and finally into waste products.” (p. 28 ) The neoclassical view promotes unending physical growth and throughput

The problem with forever

When confronted with the prospect of depleted natural resources as a result of ongoing growth, the neoclassical economist’s answer is that human capital in the form of technical innovation will always make up for lost natural capital (natural resources), or even that we will always find new ways to extract ever more resources. (An article by the late economist, Julian Simon, provides a particularly striking example of this thinking.) The flaw in this model is self evident. It fails to acknowledge that the earth and its resources, as well as its absorptive and regenerative capacities, are finite. Indeed, it contrasts sharply with the newer “ecological economics” model which starts from the assumption that the economy is a part of the finite ecosystem and so should strive to respect its limits, lest it damage it. (more…)