Saving the planet, the steady state imperative.
We live in an age in which economic growth, the yearly growth of the Gross Domestic Product, seems to be the dominant value of the political elites all over the world. All policy is directed towards speeding the rate of growth. And yet the growth rate languishes and falls.
The obsession with economic growth by the wealthy and misguided, is probably one of the most damaging public policy coups ever foisted on human beings. The policies developed to “grow” the economy as defined by neoliberalism, have been responsible for tremendous damage to planetary ecosystems and our communities. The only way to get away with tearing up ecosystems for profit is to disempower the people who already live there. The only way to build a pipeline across Native lands is with water cannons. And if that does not work, live bullets.
Many years ago I started calling the work I was doing seeking “Prosperity”, contrasting it with growth. Since then the literature has exploded.
Robert Gordon is among the authors suggesting that the rate of growth has slowed because the technology that gave us the boost in growth rates revolutionized the world, and new technologies are unlikely to do the same, especially when robots take over more and more functions and more and more folks are unemployed. Emmanuel Wallerstein in his work on World Systems suggests that growth is concentrated in cities experiencing rapid immigration from the countryside, and growing cities are dependent upon rapidly consuming forests, and therefore we need to pay attention to the state of the forest when we think about growth rates. Thomas Piketty pointed out that growing inequality slows growth rates as well, and you can not get much more unequal that 8 people having as much wealth as 3.6 billion people, which was recently reported. More and more the meme is that using extreme fossil fuel energy sources means that the energy returned for energy invested is falling, and is slowly reaching the point where fossil fuel use can not support the industrial economy we have created. Take your pick, or try to integrate the entire system to understand it better, but do not count on growth to solve your problems. Just as a reference point, the global growth rate is predicted to be close to the 3.4% seen over the last few years, while the US rate, about 2.4% in recent years, is expected to drop to 1.9% over the next few years according to the Federal Reserve. The US does not meet Wallerstein’s criteria for rapid growth, rapid immigration from the countryside and exploiting previously uncut forests, and therefore has to be expected to be growing much more slowly than the global average propped up by China and India. Old industrial places like New England will be growing even more slowly. And all of the benefits are going to 5% of the population while everyone else gets poorer.
If growth is not helping, and is actually harming our communities, we have to replace it with a different overarching principle as well as specific policies.
A contrast with the growth mentality is seeking a “steady state” , though that has to be taken as short hand for a dynamic equilibrium rooted in natural systems and rhythms. On a healthy planet, you just keep doing what you are doing, but on a severely damaged planet, like the Earth, restoration is needed. In a steady state economy each year the health of the system has to improve so that people can actually get what they need.
A steady state economy is therefore one in which human consumption is less than the system has readily available so that the systems can build resilience for long term health. Agriculture must build soil, the creation of forest products is done in the context of repairing and restoring forests (over half the global forest is gone, and along with it a big buffer on the climate) . Growing inequality is not a steady state, it is a death spiral.
You may have heard of Overshoot Day. This is the day when all of the Earth’s biological productivity for the year, has been appropriated by humans for their needs. In a steady state world there would be no overshoot day. Biological resources would be undiminished from year to year. With Overshoot Day in 2016 on August 8, it means that we are using the biological resources of 1.6 Earth’s. With the obvious result of a diminishment of the biological capacity of the earth by about 1% each year. So the first thing to do to achieve a steady state is reduce human intake by about 40%. Since there are many people on the planet in absolute poverty, clearly there are many people who’s consumption of resources needs to go up. Which means that for the industrialized world consumption on average must go down quite a bit if we do not want to destroy the planet’s capacity to support humans.
We ask more of the planet each year. Less than 50% of the global forest remains, 90% of the large fish are gone from the sea, and in 50 years the number of wild animals has been reduced by at least 50%. The flip side is ever more and ever larger deadzones in the oceans often caused by runoff from inappropriate agricultural systems brought into being to feed 7 billion people. it is going to be harder and harder to feed 9 billion if the soil is in the bottom of the sea and the nutrient overloads are reducing marine life. A steady state means keeping your soils on the farm. And enlivening them.
Maybe you get the picture, but in some ways it is an alien concept in modern America. We live under the concept of grow or die. The fact that what we are doing requires us to kill millions of people and destroy huge swaths of the earth is irrelevant. We can grow forever. There is always more. The next mall, which will burn itself out even faster than the last one, is the newest, biggest, most expensive ever. We have 12 Aircraft Carriers and no one else on the planet has more than 2. I sometimes despair of being able to turn the ship and resort to black humor.
A steady state economy is one in which healing ecosystems and economic justice are defining characteristics. Damaged ecosystems impair our ability to make a livelihood and therefore any economy that is not healing the ecosystems we depend upon is not holding steady and will see increasing food insecurity. An economy in which a significant proportion of the population is getting poorer can also not be considered to be in a steady state, and is a lie to consider it a growing economy. It is simply one in which the looters tell us the numbers and facts do not matter. We can not simply slow the rate of destruction and expect it to be sustainable or able to support a steady state.
Wind power and solar power are catching up to and replacing fossil fuels, though only a few are willing to acknowledge that in the long run we have to use a lot less energy and stuff to avoid paving the whole planet. Organic agriculture is growing much faster than conventional agriculture all over the world. I remember when it was hard to find a farmers market, now every town and city in Rhode island has at least one per week in the warmer seasons and food incubators are sprouting up, though in a steady state economy how many gourmet doggie treat stores can we support?
Can the health care industrial complex survive in a steady state economy? Can we have healthier people while spending less, and spending what the society can actually afford while still advancing knowledge? I think the answer is that we can sustainably have healthy communities. But as long as the political class tries to use health care as a growth industry, as a part of the efforts to grow the economy and attract millennials to their communities, we shall never have affordable healthcare for all nor an economy that works for the 99%.
An important consideration in a steady state economy is the difference between biologically renewable resources and non renewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels. You can roughly determine how much of the biological productivity of the planet humans can consume each year while simultaneously healing the biological systems upon which we depend. In other words we can measure that there are more hectares of real forest, the soil is healthier and full of life, and there are more fish in the ocean each year. That kind of stuff, maybe matched with reduced flooding, increased resilience in agriculture, less CO2 in the atmosphere and the like. For mineral resources there is no amount of consumption that is sustainable. No matter how little humans use, there will be less each year. But what we can do is reduce the throughput to the point where the deposits available will last a really long time, recycle ferociously, spread the economic benefits of usage widely amongst the people, and be sure the planetary sinks can easily absorb the pollution without overloading. In regards to a steady state economy and mineral resources, we might have to look at shrinking consumption gently each year while seeking a mining/extraction industry that has no fossil fuel emissions, does not disturb communities, never harms waterbodies, and cleans up all of its pollution.
Why we should embrace a Steady State Economy may be the hardest question. Anything less than a total devotion to economic growth is unAmerican. Even if it no longer works for most of our communities the dream dies hard especially among the ruling class. No one ever got elected saying they would shrink the economy. But the world has changed, and what we need to do to survive has changed. The squandering, the excessiveness, the inequality, and the violence are leading us off the cliff, but those who benefit from those conditions still have power. But striving for a steady state is a very powerful tool if we want to restore democracy and heal the climate and ecosystems we need to survive and thrive.
Most of the people in the US already live in a no growth environment, the average worker is making less than they did 20 years ago even as fortunes of the 1% have soared. Moving to a steady state economy is going to be easier than imagined. If over 90% of the growth in income is going to 1% of the population, and a bit going to the next 9% in the income scale, clearly most of the 90% has to be getting poorer for it to all add up, and therefore it ought to be very little hardship for most people when we shift to a steady state economy.
So lets go back to forests
No one, no community, has ever given away their forest. Until the empires of the ancient world,10,000 years in a homo sapiens history of 200,000, the most valuable things on earth were forests, and even now forests have incredible value for the people who live in them, it is just that those running empires did not realize how valuable they were since they could simply steal them, and they did. Until there were empires in each and every neighborhood on planet Earth, people who lived in forests got everything they needed from the forest. Food, shelter, fuel, clothing, culture, religion, things to trade, a place to hide. Empires, and the cities they rule from, are also totally dependent upon forests, but in a different way. You can not build a city with out stealing a forest. The people who lived in the forest have to be displaced in order for the empire to build its cities and grow more grain. It was true 10,000 years ago, it is still true today. China could not have transformed itself over the last 40 years without the wholesale destruction of the forests of southern and southeastern Asia. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia and others sacrificed their forests and forest people to provide raw materials for Chinese factories and the wood to build China’s cities
Most people do not connect the slowing of the economic growth rate to ecological overshoot. They do not connect it to the health of the soil, the health of the forest, whether there are more fish to catch in the sea. They insist that no matter what the state of the forest, getting the tax rates right, and eliminating pesky environmental regulations will let the good times roll.
How did we get to this place? A world in which economic growth is the thing the elites want most, and the very thing that is growing more and more elusive, ever harder to achieve, and more damaging when it arrives for a spell? How did we get to a world in which the trend in the growth rate is down and the elites scream about more growth ever louder instead of acknowledging their destructive tendencies? . China no longer grows at 10% a year. The US has seen 2.2 to 2.4% growth for years. Western Europe has seen little growth. The growth tends to be concentrated in a few developing countries, a few mineral boom neighborhoods, and rapidly growing cities. But despite the obvious trend, politics still calls for ever faster growth, resulting in policies that enrich the wealthiest and shrink the economy for everyone else.
I can not tell you what a steady state will look like, but you will know it when you see it. Childhood poverty will be eliminated, infant mortality will not depend upon your zip code, your food supply will be more local, more secure, and less chemical. Everyone will have things to do that bring them a sense of satisfaction as well as provide a living. The forests will be regrowing and there will be more fish in the sea. And government will actually be of, by and for the people.