Finding Real Economic Leadership in the Wake of Rio+20
Brent Blackwelder, Daly News, Brent Blackwelder
Twenty years after the seminal “Earth Summit” on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil once again has hosted a “fate-of-the-earth” meeting (Rio+20) focused on the themes of a green economy and institutional change. In the aftermath of the 1992 meeting, too many nations, including the United States in particular, failed to reverse the downward trend in planetary ecosystem health. Today, with a global population of 7 billion consuming resources beyond the ability of the earth to replenish itself, we’d better hope there’s a better attempt at the transition to a sustainable economy after this meeting.
Change must begin with the structure of the economy because a nation’s economic policy is also its social and environmental policy. National economies all over the world are failing — failing to provide economic stability, failing to secure resources for future generations, failing to protect ecosystems and non-human species, and failing to achieve social justice.
In anticipation of the Rio+20 summit, Foundation Earth published a report called “The Economic Rethink: Who Does It Well?.” It challenges leaders to adopt big changes and gives them examples to follow from a variety of nations. In preparing the report, Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network, and I reviewed over a dozen scorecards that grade nations on their performance — some focus on corruption, others on empowerment of women, still others on environmental protection.
In our 16-category analysis, Brazil, the host of the Rio+20 meeting, receives a failing grade, missing the boat in 13 categories of action toward a sustainable economy. Brazil’s political leadership is intending to make the nation a global powerhouse in agricultural exports, an intention that would mean sacrificing the world’s greatest tropical rainforest, the Amazon, to accommodate industrial plantations for food and biofuel exports.
But the report goes beyond the question of accountability for Brazil. It highlights significant positive steps that some nations are taking to shift to a new economy. In most of the 16 categories, at least a few nations are taking leadership roles. The twin goals of an environmentally restored earth and a socially just civilization are not part of a utopian fantasy: people have adopted inspiring policies and taken forward-looking actions in real places around the globe. The challenge is to make sure that the following examples become the rule rather than the exception:
- Bhutan is leading the way in development of new indicators of progress. The “gross national happiness” measures deeper values that cannot be captured by GDP.
- The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with deforested Haiti, is demonstrating leadership forest restoration. Since 2003, forest cover in the Dominican Republic has increased from 32% to almost 40%.
- In the energy sector, several leaders are stepping forward. Sweden, Costa Rica, and British Columbia (Canada) have instituted carbon taxes to include the ecological cost of energy use in its price. And Germany has blazed a clean energy trail with outstanding results in solar and wind power.
- Cuba is an innovator in organic community agriculture. Havana grows 50% of its fresh produce within the city limits.
- In a world awash with financial scandals and offshore tax havens, New Zealand has become the “least corrupt nation” because of its effective legal framework, fiscal transparency, and accountability.
- Bolivia and Ecuador have put a rights-of-nature provision in their legal codes as have several cities and towns in the United States.
- Iceland, number one on the Global Gender Gap rankings, is a nation of empowered women. Women in the Land of Fire and Ice hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly equal representation in parliament.
- In contrast to Brazil’s determination to fill the Amazon with massive dams, the United States has led the world in one category: restoration and protection of rivers. Over 1,000 dams have now been removed in the U.S. to restore fisheries and water quality. Furthermore, more than 250 rivers have been safeguarded in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
- In the Netherlands, “repair cafes” are beginning to address the problem of over-consumption. Such cafes encourage reuse of broken and weathered possessions, providing free repair services.
These examples of leadership are well worth celebrating, but many challenges remain along the path to a sustainable economy. The biggest challenge is that no nation adequately addresses carrying capacity, planetary limits to growth, or sustainable economic scale. All nations must overcome this challenge to ensure a healthy planet and flourishing civilization for future generations.
It remains to be seen what progress will flow out of the Rio+20 meeting, but examples of real leadership in “The Economic Rethink” offer hope that we can dispose of the “disposable economy.” There’s no longer room for an economy that treats the earth like it’s the site of a liquidation sale.
Real Dichotomies Are Not Made “False”
by Soft Science or Political Pandering
Brian Czech, Daly News, 28 June 2012
It’s a good thing, the proliferating discussion about economic growth and environmental protection among ecologists. Such discussion was sorely lacking just ten years ago. Without addressing the subject of economic growth, the ecological professions would be but marginally relevant to society and doomed to extinction. Money is running out for research that appears benign at best and wasteful at worst in the days of fiscal austerity, otherwise known as the 21st century.
Much of the discussion about economic growth may be attributed to scientific, professional societies that got the ball rolling by developing technical reviews and position statements over the past decade. Some of these positions are scientifically sound, while others stop short. None are perfect, of course, yet some of the professional societies have described in rigorous detail the “fundamental conflict” between economic growth and environmental protection with the fortitude of their scientific convictions. A short list would include The Wildlife Society, U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, and American Society of Mammalogists. The leadership provided by these societies has been invaluable and is finally reaping rewards for students, faculty, programs and universities.
A few other professional societies haven’t yet run out of green Koolaid. The Ecological Society of America, for example, still calls for the supremely oxymoronic “sustainable growth.” Many ESA members who get it about limits to growth have been, to put it perhaps too frankly, victimized and embarrassed by a vocal and influential minority that refuses to shed their political training wheels on the racetrack of economic policy matters.
How about an ice-cold glass of "sustainable growth?"
And so it came as no surprise to see the recent exchange (February and March, 2012) on the “Value of Nature” between Bernd Blossey and Michelle Marvier in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The fact that they carried out this discourse in Frontiers suggests exposure to ESA deliberations, publications, and politics. An ESA background can make an author susceptible to muddling the message on the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection. Consider Marvier’s second-from-last paragraph:
“I have found that many conservationists view striving for material gains and the prioritization of people above non-human nature as societal pathologies that need to be cured. This is an unproductive and misanthropic attitude…”
So far so good, for the most part. Her first sentence would be hard to argue with. Her second one has a large dose of truth as well. On the other hand, “liquidator syndrome” is every bit as misanthropic, as I described in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. Liquidator syndrome occurs when a conspicuous consumer gets psychologically mired down in Maslow’s fourth level (the pursuit of self-esteem) rather than progressing to the fifth (self-actualization). Liquidator syndrome manifests in such behaviors as Hummer driving, McMansion building, fur-coat wearing, etc. Let’s face it: it’s bad for the environment, biodiversity, and the grandkids.
But neither Marvier nor I are psychologists. We shouldn’t quibble about which end of the spectrum – extreme conservation or extreme consumption – is more misanthropic. We’re ecologists and, therefore, economists of nature. Therefore the bigger bone to pick starts with the next sentence:
“… Setting up dichotomies between economic growth versus protection of nature is a dead-end for conservation. In a separate survey of 800 American voters… 76% felt that ‘we can protect land and water and have a strong economy with good jobs for Americans at the same time, without having to choose one over the other.’ Only 19% felt that ‘sometimes protections for land and water and a strong economy are in conflict and we must choose one over the other.’ However, when the question is framed such that people are forced to choose, the economy wins handily.”
There is enough wrong in these sentences to fill a small textbook, but let’s start with the most obvious. “Setting up dichotomies” sounds too close to “making up dichotomies” or “inventing dichotomies” for comfort. It reminds me of the time some colleagues and I were attacked for supposedly “assuming” there was a conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, when in fact our group had concluded, after many years of study, that indeed there was such a conflict. Meanwhile the accusers had virtually no background in the subject of economic growth.
In ecological terms, due to the tremendous breadth of the human niche, the human economy grows at the competitive exclusion of nonhuman species in the aggregate. That’s sound, peer-reviewed science. Those individuals and organizations that have conducted due diligence on the topic have invariably concluded as much.
We can’t make a dichotomy a false one by wishing it away and ignoring the ecological and physical sciences. But we can sure confuse readers by conflating economic growth with a “strong economy.” Unfortunately, that is exactly what Marvier does.
An economy can be strong, with low unemployment, fiscal soundness, and a stable currency, regardless of whether it is growing or non-growing. Ultimately, in fact, the only sustainable alternative is a steady state economy; neither growth nor recession may continue perpetually. More importantly, long before a growing economy breaches its long-run carrying capacity, economic growth starts causing more problems than it solves. In that sense it is “uneconomic growth” and not worthy of the label “strong.”
It behooves ecologists who want to weigh in on economic growth to stop and think about precisely what it is. Of course you can always try to reinvent the phrase when your argument is failing. But that’s unproductive because economic growth is what it is, and the policy maker knows what it is. Economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. (It’s not the growth of the bicycle sector while the SUV sector crashes.) Economic growth absolutely entails a growing human population and/or per capita production and consumption. It is indicated by increasing GDP, or gross domestic product. It’s a policy goal with clear-cut fiscal, monetary, and trade policy levers and buttons. It’s also a policy goal with widespread public support.
Which brings us to the final flaw (for our brief purposes) of Marvier’s editorial. Her argument seems to be: “The public is enamored with economic growth. Therefore, we should not talk about the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.” But that slope is so slippery that we should expect someone further down to chime in, “Yup, in fact we should say that there is no conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.”
Now that’s a dead-end for conservation. Yet that is exactly what many ecologists — not to mention economists and politicians — have said for decades. It is a fallacy of epic proportions and, in my opinion, the single biggest failure of the ecological professions and the environmental community thus far.
It’s also a failure that is being rectified as one professional organization after another puts its scientific integrity where its mouth is, clarifying the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.
Let’s not underestimate the public’s ability to deal with a conflict, once it’s been clarified. The American public eventually dealt strongly with the use of organochlorines, the deterioration of the ozone layer, and even with smoking. In each case, step 1 was coming clean on the science and refuting such revolting rhetoric as “I believe that nicotine is not addictive.”
In this case, step 1 is coming clean on economic growth, refuting the revolting rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Let’s tell it like it is, plainly but also with the nuance earned by studying the matter. By telling it like it is, we’ll have a message that resonates with the public’s common sense. That’s what produces respect, relevance, and ultimately effectiveness in the policy arena.
The Canutist State
Herman Daly, Daly News, 7 July 2012
In one version of the legend of King Canute’s failed attempt to stem the rising tide by lashing the sea, he told the assembled crowd of flatterers: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws.”
In this version, Canute staged the attempt to control the tide in order to discredit the lying sycophants who kept telling him that he was all-powerful and therefore could do anything that they wanted him to do. But popular history, immune to subtlety, has portrayed Canute as really believing that the sea would obey him. Hence the term “Canutist State” has been used to refer to governments that try to mandate climate stability without burning less carbon, to grow forever in a finite and entropic world, and to abolish poverty without sharing. It would be more just to Canute if the term “Canutist State” referred to a wise government that constrained the ignorant attempts of its businessmen and economists to grow forever. With apologies to the wise King, I will perpetuate this injustice because the image of a stupid government serving business interests by trying to countermand nature’s laws is such an apt description of what is happening today that we need a name for it.
The Canutist State wants, in the words of one of its big boosters, IBM, to “build a smarter planet” — one that is “smart” enough to obey our mindless command to keep growing. The real Canute would not try to build a smarter planet (by geo-engineering, genetic engineering, globalization, quantitative easing, etc.), any more than he really tried to command the tide. He would have tried to build a smarter kingdom populated by wiser subjects, and thrown his growth-manic economic advisors into the dungeon. He would have said, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to the wonderful gift of the Earth, out of which we were created and with which we have evolved.”
It would be tempting to emulate Canute’s strategy by putting the growth-manic advice to the test and watching it publicly fail. That would be very costly, but in a way it is exactly what is happening, although not by design. Unfortunately, the failures are attributed to insufficient growth rather than to the stupidity of the priestly economic advisors who inhabit palaces rather than dungeons. Their policy is to lash nature even harder with the whip of mega-technology until it gives us what we want — usually accompanied by a lot of “unforeseen consequences” that we certainly do not want.
The Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy (CASSE) proposes that economic growth, with all of its downsides, is clearly unsustainable in the 21st century. Long-term recession is no panacea either. A steady state economy is the sustainable alternative to perpetual economic growth. Economic growth was never a magic bullet; it is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services — it can’t possibly lead to a sustainable outcome. In contrast the steady state economy provides the means for present and future generations to achieve a high quality of life. For more detailed information, read Enough is Enough.
Brent Blackwelder recently retired as the president of Friends of the Earth where he was renowned for speaking truth to power. He testified in front of the U.S. Congress on pressing environmental issues more than 100 times. He also was a founder of American Rivers, a top river-saving organization. As a leader in the effort to safeguard rivers, Brent helped expand the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System from eight rivers in 1973 to over 250 today. On the economics front, he initiated campaigns to reform the World Bank and succeeded in getting Congress to enact a series of significant reforms directing the Bank to pay more attention to the environment.
Brian Czech is has a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources studies from the University of Arizona with a minor in political science. After years of determined study of ecology, conservation biology, and economics, he came to recognize a fatal flaw in our economic framework. The flaw seems obvious, but it is antithetical to economic orthodoxy: there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection (not to mention several other critical societal goals). Working with colleagues in several professional scientific societies, he crafted a scientifically sound position on economic growth that can be signed by individuals and endorsed by organizations. Out of that effort, he established CASSE, which has become the leading organization promoting the transition from unsustainable growth to a steady state economy.
Herman Daly has received numerous significant awards (e.g., the Right Livelihood Award and the NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award) that recognize the value of his ideas for making this world a better place. For decades, he has been an inspiration to students of economics and public policy — how often do you see students lining up at the end of the semester to have their professor sign their textbooks? Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Not content to bequeath his ideas on economic development solely to the academic realm, he did time at the World Bank to change policies in the real world. He also has written books that are popular with citizens around the world.