The PelicanWeb's Journal of Sustainable Development

Research Digest on Integral Human Development,
Education for Sustainable Development,
and Related Global Issues

Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor

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Durable Economics

Barry Brooks
Originally published in Durable Economics, November 2009


We need to find what kind of economy can provide people's needs without making too much pollution and without running out of resources rapidly. Our present consumer economy has many nice features, yet it is basically at odds with resource stewardship.

The consumer economy is popular, but many people are worried about the wisdom of consuming so much. There is a way to maintain our security and comfort without the high consumption required by our present consumer economy. Our plans already include partial answers for how to build a sustainable economy. We have come to recognize the need to use increased efficiency and recycling as parts of any sustainable economy.  But, efficiency and recycling are not enough to make the cuts in consumption we need to become sustainable. 

The more difficult and more important change we need will require us to stop running our consumer economy, because it needs waste to function. War, throw away goods, and planned obsolescence are good for the consumer economy, but they have no place in a sustainable economy.

The missing element in our plan for a sustainable society is what to do about conserving items that can be reused.  Items that are not consumed when they are used the first time are durable, and could be made to last longer.  When we increase the lifetime of durable goods we cut the cost and consumption of manufacturing them.The use of increased durability will allow us to enjoy wealth with low resource consumption. It will be easy to learn to love a sustainable economy based on durability. A sustainable economy should do the opposite of the consumer economy; it should try to make things last longer.

Products that are designed to be long-lasting will naturally accumulate. Those who have a stock of truly durable goods rarely need to replace them.  Our concept of wealth as a flow is wrong.  Wealth is a stock, including the stock of durable tools that make and recycle food items that can't be made durable and the durable homes that are energy efficient. Our use of durability to conserve will allow consumption  to drop to sustainable levels after people have acquired what they need. We don't really need a high flow of goods to have a big stock of goods. 

The multiplier effect, so important to increasing consumption in the consumer economy, also works to cut consumption more than might be expected when we conserve.  When we cut consumption of one item all the many support activities previously needed to produce that item can also be cut back and will consume less.  Production and consumption can then be reduced to the low levels needed to introduce innovations and provide infrequent replacements. But, cutting the need for consumption will also cut paid jobs. These cuts will not be such big problems as we might expect because when we used durability to conserve the resulting fall in incomes will be preceded by a fall in our needs, and there is no reason for us to be totally dependent on wages.

The main function of the consumer economy is to provide the demand stimulation needed create full employment. This growing demand has prevented machines from causing unemployment, and it has provided vast consumer wealth, but it has placed heavy demands on natural resources. Thus, we have been squandering our, really scarce, natural resources to keep all of our, assumed scarce, workers busy.

Wage labor has been surplus relative to local natural resources for a long time. In today's crowded world migration can no longer provide an escape from depleted local resources, and imported resources are no longer abundant and cheap. Even though we face a growing shortage of resources we still pretend that labor shortage is limiting production. Our fear of labor shortage is obsolete. Since the dawn of the industrial age it has been necessary to constantly find ways to increase consumption in order maintain full employment.

Most people agree that jobs are the only acceptable way to dole out money to the masses. Yet, when we create nearly full employment our powerful technology and out large supply of workers will always consume far too many resources for such hyper-activity to be sustainable. Only in our dreams is there no conflict between expanding the economy to make jobs and contracting the economy to conserve resources.

Our labor is surplus only relative to resources and the production of physical goods. Most people need a job that pays, and have little time left for the work of nurturing, caring and stewardship. There is plenty of important unpaid work to do, but we can't start doing it if we are all working full time to produce and consume as much as possible. Today we can do the work that makes a short-term dollar profit, while unpaid work is mostly neglected.

Our present views rarely include any awareness that wealth comes from nature and inheritance more than from any work we do. To make our system work under present conditions we must admit that human labor is no longer scarce because machines with computer control can already replace most paid labor, even in services. Our claim on the resources which provide the base of both durable and perishable wealth can not be based on labor when paid jobs are rare.

We should expect to shift our dependence from wages toward unearned income as automation replaces more human labor. Our system already has unearned income, but for now it is only for a few. Ending our dependence on wages is one key to the locked doors of becoming sustainable. Unearned income can end our dependence on jobs.

The resource base of our income has always been unearned, because nature can not be paid for the resources we take. Thus, prices and wages are mostly about the division of labor among humans. That's why the labor theory of value is true.

Yet, the relation between prices and labor costs would be hard to measure if machines replaced most human labor. More computer automation will make wage costs fall along with the prices of manufactured goods. If all paid human labor could be replaced, then wage income would fall to zero leaving only income from profit.

We will need to notice this old trend of the industrial age now that is has been accelerated by computers. Because the consumer economy can't continue, we must rethink our assumptions about our pretense that everyone should be busy in a paid job just to be a good person. Yet reaction is taking the opposite tack. They would deny the value of unpaid work. We hear that staying home to care for children doesn't have the dignity of a job.

High taxes on fuel aren't the best way to encourage conservation. High taxes on fuel will cause suffering and poverty, and people who can hardly afford to heat their houses can't afford to replace them with an efficient house either. Instead of taxing consumption, we need to support the low cost replacement of wasteful houses and cars with efficient models, and to make laws against the production of wasteful goods.

Whether our goal is to preserve the present pecking order or to help improve the lives of the poor, we must have a sustainable system to have hope for our families. The need to make jobs and the resulting excess growth are the causes of our high consumption, and high consumption is the reason our economic system is not sustainable. Growth is the common problem of all classes! True conservation cuts consumption and that cuts production and that cuts real paying jobs and profits. It's not surprising that almost no one supports a sustainable economy. Without true conservation we can continue to squander scarce resources to exercise all our surplus labor. Without conservation we can have our giant SUVs. It is our plan to avoid change. But, more growth is really no plan at all in the face of looming changes.

Four basic ways to conserve resources are: increased efficiency, increased durability, recycling and by doing less. Conservation of perishables using recycling and efficiency are already our goals, but the use of durability to conserve has had little notice. Durability allows doing less without having less. Because durability has been neglected we have a lot to gain when we starting using durability to conserve. We can make deep cuts in consumption without sacrifice by designing new products to maximize their lifetime, efficiency and reparability.

We wouldn't need to encourage growth to make jobs if everyone got some small share of unearned income. If we don't shrink real earned income, we aren't really conserving resources. A small income could provide a life of luxury in a system that doesn't need to be wasteful.

A stable population using durability to conserve will have most wealth coming from inheritance, but a growing population can't be supported for long before it overruns the gains of any kind of conservation.  If we are to become sustainable population must be controlled, and we need to act now because once resources are depleted and population is higher we won't have the capacity to build an economy based on durability and efficiency.

Who really believes that our wasteful consumer economy will get us very far? Although we know it will lead to trouble we don't even talk about hyper-consumption. On top of too much consumption and vast waste we plan to consume at even higher rates. But, so long as people are dependent on paid jobs it seems impossible to stop wasting our wealth and spoiling natural systems.

Without a need for hyper-activity and waste just to make paid jobs, real conservation could be allowed to shrink the economy and real incomes without any loss of living standards. One form of conservation is doing less, not working, or not consuming. Staying home will cut energy consumption more than any kind of improved transportation ever could.

When we begin to supply unearned income as an suppliment to wages we will suddenly be able to cut consumption. Unpaid work, which has been neglected while we pursue only paid jobs, will get done. Downsizing and the elimination of as many paid jobs as possible will be seen as a contribution to conservation. Of course the drive to cut labor costs is a long established trend, but no alternate income or provision for low consumption living has been discussed for the displaced workers.

If everyone received unearned income we could adjust the amount of unearned income to stabilize wages. Wages would remain as a motivation and reward for those who choose to work. Our acceptance of unearned income could provide a mechanism allowing us to match the labor force to the real need for labor, instead of making jobs to match the labor force.

It's too common to hear the weird claim that our economy needs growth. It's like saying we need cancer. We don't need growth; we need sustainability, and growth is the reason why we aren't sustainable. Since we haven't learned to control our economy, our population, or our waste, each of these failures has been accepted as a fact of life and each provides another "need" for growth. A sustainable economy needs limited greed, limited population, minimum waste. If we had democratic unearned income we would no longer need growth to make jobs. If we had a stable population we would no longer need growth to provide for more people. If we used durability to conserve we would no longer need growth to raise our living standards. If earnings could regain the role lost to speculation we would no longer need growth to please the investor.

Barry Brooks


Sustainable Economics, Barry Brooks, 2008.

The National Debt Equals the Taxes Ducked by the Rich, Barry Brooks, 2008.

We Have What We Don't Throw Away, Barry Brooks, 2008.

Works of Andre Gorz, Barry Brooks, 2008.

Money-ism and Physical Economics, Barry Brooks, 2008.

The Inheritance Economy, Barry Brooks, 2002.

Wise Old Men, The World Owes You a Living Web Site.

Population denial, T. Michael Maher, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1977.

The truth about earning a living, Brian Dean's Anxiety Culture Web Site.

Wealth or Consumption?, Barry Brooks, Synthesis/Regeneration, 2007.

The house passed an income plan in 1970 by a two-to-one margin, but the Senate blocked it, Steven Shafarman, December 2009.

The Coming of Deindustrial Society: A Practical Response, John Michael Greer, October 2004.

The Gospel of Consumption, Jeffrey Kaplan, Orion Magazine, May/June 2008.

Consumerism: an Historical Perspective, Sharon Beder, Pacific Ecologist, Spring 2004.

Keynes, Capitalism, and the Crisis, John Bellamy Foster, MR ZINE, March 2009.

Huey Long senate speeches, The Congressional Record, 1934.

Defining Moment for Climate, Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, May 2008

What is Basic Income Guarantee?, US Basic Income Guarantee Network,

For the Common Good, Herman Daly, UTNEReader, January/February 1995

This is What Denial Does, George Monbiot, Monbiot, October 2008

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Barry Brooks is a retired electronic engineer who has had a lifetime interest in understanding economics. He was a physics major at the University of Texas in Austin before taking a high paying job as chief engineer at a Los Angeles TV station. He also worked at Hewlett Packard and Collins Radio. This journal is delighted to reprint this contribution by a concerned engineer with real world experience in business and industry.


Durable Economics

See the web sites listed by Mr. Brooks at the end of his article.

"When you lock the world out,
you lock yourself in."

Lerner & Loewe's Camelot (Musical, 1960)


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