Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 9, No. 6, June 2013
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Supply Shock: The Journey

Brian Czech
Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy

This article was originally published in The Daly News, 6 May 2013,
under a Creative Commons License


Writing a book is like going on a journey. You explore the terrain, make discoveries, meet interesting people, and maybe learn new languages. The longer the book-writing, the longer the journey.

Supply Shock was a long journey; here is a short travelogue.

I set out in the fall of 2000 to explore the world of environmental and economic sustainability: fresh, feeling strong, and relatively young (at least for this type of journey). Not only was I out to explore the world, but change it! I’d seen enough already to know my mission: revolutionize the way the world dealt with economic growth.

Two earlier journeys — Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train and The Endangered Species Act — had taught me quite thoroughly about the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. That was plenty of learning for instilling the mission. But there was literally and figuratively a world to explore, to learn the ways of pursuing the mission.

Not that I got to see much of the world literally. As Herman Daly put it in the foreword to Supply Shock, this was a book financed by the “Czech Foundation” — my nights, weekends, and leave from the “day job” with the U.S. government. No gondolas in Venice on this journey. However, I did spend at least a little time on focused study and conferencing in places as far flung as Poland and Ukraine, India and Thailand, Brazil and Colombia, with odd stops at places like the London Zoo (to speak about biodiversity loss) and La Décroissance conferences in Paris and Barcelona.

More importantly, however, I toured the worlds of the “worldly philosophers,” as Robert Heilbroner called the classical economists. The vessel of choice was the classic text, complemented by the invaluable exegeses of the economic historians. I toured their worlds as well as those of the Marxists, Georgists, and just about every other economic scholar united with an “ist.”

But the journey was far from restricted to the hallways of economic history. In fact, I spent much more time in the raw elements of physical and biological science, collecting the theoretical rare metals needed to patch up the holes in the conventional worldview of economic growth. The rarest of all was the one required to demonstrate, once and for all, that there is no reconciling the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. (You’ll find it in Chapter 8.)

Sailing back and forth between the two continents of science and economics, I encountered diverse islands populated by anthropologists, theologians, the Council of Economic Advisers, national income accountants, World Bank demonstrators, politicians of all stripes, political appointees of all philosophies, and the UN General Assembly. They were all part of the journey; all part of Supply Shock.

For the most part it was a lonely journey, rowing upstream one day and riding into the wind the next. Hardly anyone out there in the political world wants you coming to their town on words of “limits to growth” or “steady state economics.” Virtually all politicians, most political appointees, and a lot of publishers allow only the happy horses of win-win rhetoric. There are precious few campsites for the truth about why we can’t have our cake and eat it too. For one cold and weary rider, New Society Publishers was green grass, fresh water, and dry firewood.

Now if you are an unlucky rider — I mean author — the keyboard eventually becomes an unwelcome sight. This is not a happy development. This is like the steering wheel looking bad to the race car driver, or the fly rod looking ugly to the fisherman. Ruthlessly enough, however, thumbs, wrists, and elbows tell you it’s time to hole up for the proverbial winter. It’s either that or learn voice recognition softwear – “correct that… software.”

If you’re just lucky enough, however, your book is done before then. So, directly from the intellectually herky-jerky throes of voice-recognition learning land, I offer my opinion that it is time for you to go out and grab your own copy of Supply Shock. In the reading another journey begins — your journey.

Bon voyage!

Moronic Oxymorons in the Age of Climate Change

Rob Dietz
Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy

This article was originally published in The Daly News, 13 May 2013,
under a Creative Commons License

At 400 parts per million, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a menacing milestone. We’ve failed to get a handle on our addiction to fossil fuel, and now we’re in desperate need of solutions for preventing runaway climate change. There is no magic pill for curing the climate threat — real solutions involve the difficult work of changing the way we run the economy. It’s time to make a transition to a renewable-energy economy that respects the waste-absorption capabilities of the atmosphere.

As logical and desirable as this transition sounds to some, faux solutions seem to be more popular. Many people find it easier to accept ideas in line with the our growth-obsessed, technophilic economy rather than face the fact that the conventional economic approach has become obsolete.  Two of the faux solutions would be laughable as oxymorons if they weren’t able to attract such serious support.

The phrase “clean coal” implies that miners have struck it rich — that they’ve found a seam of coal that, when burned, produces only a lemony fresh, green vapor. Wouldn’t “clean coal” make an excellent air freshener? “Clean coal” could be useful for all sorts of things in a pinch:

Mom: “Oh no! The baby just spit up on herself, and we’re all out of soap.”

Dad: “Don’t worry, honey, we’ve got some clean coal right here.”

“Clean coal” is just plain coal. It’s true that some varieties of coal produce less noxious emissions (e.g., less sulfur or mercury) than others, but none of them are clean. “Clean coal” is an abbreviation of the less poetic “clean coal technology,” a phrase that’s been around since the 1980s. A U.S. Department of Energy report from that decade explains that clean coal technologies are “systems that can offer significant benefits when used to generate power, control pollution, or to convert coal into other alternative energy products.” The report also offers this honest assessment:

There is no point in pretending that coal is what it is not, nor that it is not what it is. Coal is naturally endowed with the elements and minerals of the living organisms that define its primordial origins, and that means the carbon for which it is valued. But, to some degree, it also means sulfur, and nitrogen, and incombustible impurities. It is an incontrovertible fact that the uncontrolled burning of coal will release into the environment carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter, and ash.

It is the business of the Clean Coal Technology Program to develop the means of burning this coal with attendant minimal emissions of these undesirable pollutants; we know that there can never be none. So, if not literally “clean” coal, then certainly we mean “cleaner” coal, and it is in this sense that the Program uses the shorthand term, Clean Coal Technology.

But that honesty is lost in the advertising and lobbying that mining and power generation corporations have funded to promote “clean coal.” As the prominent linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakeoff has noted, the imagery of “clean coal” can seep into the subconscious mind and affect attitudes toward coal.

At 400 parts per million, the time for oxymorons has passed.
Even more seductive than “clean coal” is the wishful thinking of “sustainable growth.” Economic growth has become the highest priority for almost every nation on Earth. Politicians compete with one another to see who can promise the fastest growth. Newscasters report rising economic indicators with glee. Economists in both government and academia promote an agenda of endless growth. But the continuous ramping up of production and consumption comes with severe costs — 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (and the associated climate destabilization) is but one among many. Take, for instance, the spate of species extinctions. Or the billions of people living in poverty. Or any number of other global-scale environmental and social problems. Even the most dedicated worshippers at the altar of growth recognize some of these problems. That’s why adjectives seem to be sprouting like mushrooms in front of “growth.” People regularly utter the phrase “sustainable growth,” along with its slightly less oxymoronic cousins, “green growth” and “smart growth.” But just as “clean coal” is really just coal, “sustainable growth” is really just growth.

No doubt that green technologies can help. A household with compact fluorescent light bulbs, or even LED bulbs, consumes less electricity and generates a smaller footprint. But if the number of houses continuously increases, even though they have smaller footprints, they combine into a larger overall footprint. David Owen explores this “rebound effect” in his recent book, The Conundrum. Technology and greater efficiency are not enough on their own. We can’t consume our way to sustainability — we have to shift our aim from an ever bigger economy to a right-sized economy. As Albert Bartlett, the physicist and activist, has said:

Smart growth destroys the environment. Dumb growth destroys the environment. The only difference is that smart growth does it with good taste. It’s like booking passage on the Titanic. Whether you go first-class or steerage, the result is the same.

It’s tempting to accept the clever slogans and magical “solutions” that bombard us all the time. After all, it sounds like “clean coal” is just the resource to power “sustainable growth.” You can have your cake and eat it too! But at 400 parts per million, the time for self deception and denial has passed.  So has the time for buying moronic oxymorons.


Brian Czech has a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources studies from the University of Arizona with a minor in political science. The founding President of CASSE, Brian is also a Visiting Professor at Virginia Tech, where he teaches ecological economics in the National Capitol Region. A prolific author in a variety of venues, his scientific articles have appeared in dozens of peer-reviewed journals, dealing primarily with ecological and economic sustainability issues. His books include Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, which calls for an end to uneconomic growth, and The Endangered Species Act: History, Conservation Biology, and Public Policy. A third book, Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads, is scheduled for publication in 2013. Brian is a regular contributor to The Daly News, a blog devoted to advancing the steady state economy as a policy goal with widespread public support. Brian is also a Conservation Biologist in the national office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he received a 2010 Star Award for outstanding performance. He has played a leading role in engaging the environmental sciences and natural resources professions in ecological economics and macroeconomic policy dialog.  Contact Brian via email.

Rob Dietz has experience in the public and private sectors working on solutions to natural resource problems using the tools of both economics and the natural sciences. He has researched a number of sustainability issues at various scales, including local-scale housing development, state policies for clean air, regional transportation initiatives, and national environmental law and policy. Rob is the author, with Dan O’Neill, of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. He has a master’s degree from Virginia Tech in environmental science and engineering and an undergraduate degree in economics and environmental studies from the University of Pennsylvania.  Contact Rob via email.

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