Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 11, November 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Setting Things Straight for the Steady State

Brian Czech

Originally published in The Daly News, 8 October 2015
under a Creative Commons License

Editor’s Note: The forthcoming A Future Beyond Growth (Routledge, 2016), edited by Haydn Washington and Paul Twomey, explores the vision and process for moving toward a steady state economy. This edited volume stemmed from the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Haydn is the co-director of the New South Wales chapter of CASSE. The following is Brian Czech’s foreword to “A Future Beyond Growth.”

Extremely dangerous political rhetoric has proliferated over the past several decades, seducing the masses onto a path that leads to the destruction of nature and civilization. This rhetoric is centered on the claim that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Politicians are all about economic growth but, at the same time, none of them want to be seen as willful destroyers of the environment. Therefore they stretch, warp, and corrupt the truth with the win-win rhetoric that we can have our cake and eat it too.

Such is the world that CASSE—the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy—was born into on May 1, 2004. In fact, the win-win rhetoric about growing the economy while protecting the environment was the primary impetus for establishing CASSE. The CASSE position on economic growth sets the record straight that “there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection,” leading up to this fact with seven “whereas” clauses and following it with eight other “therefore” findings.

Those having a counter-reaction that “there doesn’t have to be a conflict; it’s not a fundamental conflict” should read the full CASSE position. The fundamentality of the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection stems from the first two laws of thermodynamics. “Laws of thermodynamics” might sound intimidating to the uninitiated, yet the first two laws can be summarized in such common-sensical terms as: Law 1) You can’t get something from nothing; Law 2) You can’t be 100% efficient in the production process. These laws set up a limit to economic growth, as well as the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, as evidenced most clearly by the erosion of biodiversity in lockstep with economic growth.

Haydn Washington, co-editor of A Future Beyond Growth and co-director of the NSW chapter of CASSE, speaking at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Photo Credit: Anna Schlunke.
So read the CASSE position, and read this book. While the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection is not an overly simple matter, the key points are readily grasped by sober readers, with the benefit of a clearly written book such as A Future Beyond Growth.

Among the 13,000 signatories of the CASSE position are some of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers, including authors of A Future Beyond Growth. Over 200 organizations have endorsed the position. Despite growing support for its central position, CASSE has been David to the Goliaths of Wall Street, neoclassical economics, and mainstream politics worldwide. Economic growth remains the top domestic policy goal among nations and lesser states as well, even as it causes more problems than it solves in the 21st century.

Of course if you’re going to be a responsible critic of economic growth, much less a long-lasting one, you better have an alternative to offer. Fortunately it is easy to identify the basic alternatives to growth. There are but two: economic degrowth and the steady state economy. The best way to summarize the alternatives is with a reminder of what, precisely, is meant by “economic growth.”

Economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails increasing population and/or per capita consumption. Economic growth is indicated by increasing gross domestic product, or GDP. It entails higher demand for materials and energy, because “you can’t get something from nothing.”

Economic growth should be distinguished from “economic development,” which refers to qualitative change regardless of quantitative growth. For example, economic development may refer to the attainment of a fairer distribution of wealth, or a different allocation of resources reflecting the evolution of consumer ethics.

Degrowth, then, is simply defined as decreasing production and consumption in the aggregate, as indicated by decreasing GDP. Decreasing population and/or per capita consumption is required. The word “degrowth” tends to have political connotations in addition to meaning a smaller economy, especially in Western Europe where the degrowth movement originated as “La Décroissance.” (Frankly, “economic growth” also has marked political connotations, but society has gotten numb to them.) As with economic growth, degrowth in the sense of a shrinking economy is ultimately unsustainable.

The sustainable alternative to unsustainable growth and degrowth is the steady state economy, which has stabilized production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. “Stabilized” in this context means mildly fluctuating. A steady state economy has stabilized population and per capita consumption. Energy and material demands are gradually stabilized—in the aggregate and per capita—as the limits to productive efficiency are reached. All else equal, a steady state economy is indicated by stabilized GDP. The “all else equal” (as I described in Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) includes level of technology, inflation, the propensity to use money relative to other means of exchange, and environmental conditions. But the bottom line, so to speak, is that GDP is a fine indicator of one thing: the pure size of the economy. Which makes it a good indicator of one other thing: environmental impact.

Obviously the pursuit of a steady state economy invokes a thousand devils in the details of political and cultural reforms. Macroeconomic goals, tax codes, budgets, interest rates, terms of trade: these are some of the aspects of statecraft to be dramatically overhauled with steady statesmanship. In the private sector, what about the sociology of consumption? Imagine the attitudes toward conspicuous consumption in a world that finally gets it about limits to growth.

A basic measure of justice, with an equally basic measure of logic, suggests that the place to start in moving toward a steady state economy on Earth is with the wealthiest nations. Impoverished nations need economic growth, almost by definition. We all know who the wealthiest nations are—look for example at nighttime lighting imagery—and concerned citizens from these countries have helped raise awareness of the perils of pursuing perpetual growth.

Which brings us back to CASSE, the uphill-fighting, philanthropically disadvantaged, non-governmental organization with the mission of advancing the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support. CASSE is almost entirely a volunteer organization. Its “business model” should be referenced in quotes, as “business” tends to connote things like money, salaries, contracts, and related financial features that are rare in the context of CASSE. But CASSE has a volunteer model that includes international chapters unified by the CASSE position on economic growth.

CASSE’s New South Wales Chapter, led by Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke, has demonstrated the potential of this volunteer model. When they invited me to give the keynote address at the Australian Academy of Science’s 2014 Fenner Conference (the AAS’s annual environmental conference), with the conference’s theme being the steady state economy, I had to check if it was April Fool’s Day. To convene a major academy on the steady state economy in the United States, where Big Money calls the shots even in “academic” affairs, would have been inconceivable. The fact that the CASSE New South Wales Chapter (and its partners) managed to deliver the goods on a national academy conference for the steady state economy says a lot about the New South Wales CASSE chapter, the Australian Academy of Science, and even Australia itself.

What exactly does it say? For starters, it says Haydn Washington and Anna Schlunke are diligent scholars, determined organizers, and capable communicators. It says that the Australian Academy of Science is a faithful champion of its scientific communities. It suggests, too, that an inquisitive, open-minded spirit prevails at least in Australia, which offers hope to the international community. Open minds in Australia have gleaned crucial insights from CASSE’s tireless Australian National Director, Geoff Mosley (Melbourne), and from one of the world’s leading steady state economists, Philip Lawn (Adelaide), and other Australians who presented at the 2014 Fenner Conference.

A Future Beyond Growth grew out of the proceedings of the 2014 Fenner Conference on the Environment. Not everything from the conference made it to print. My own talk, for example, stays mostly in the pages of Supply Shock, plus the current prefatory remarks. But much of the highly memorable Fenner Conference is presented herein, and I feel delighted to preface the chapters with one more thing:

The next time you hear the win-win spin that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment” or the equivalent in your regional culture, don’t just throw up your hands in resignation to the rhetoric. Think instead about a future beyond growth. That’s where there’s no conflict with protecting the environment, national security, and international stability.


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 Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads, released in May 2013, 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. Brian is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and The Daly News, a blog devoted to advancing the steady state economy as a policy goal with widespread public support. Brian is also an Interdisciplinary 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. 

The Decoupling Debate: Can Economic Growth Really Continue Without Emission Increases?

Mark Burton

Originally published in Degrowth, 13 October 2015

Most ecological economists argue that continued economic growth is incompatible with ecological safety. That is to say continued increases in Gross Domestic Product, (GDP and also Gross Value Added, GVA) cannot happen while reducing ecological impacts in general, and climate change-causing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in particular. It isn’t a popular message, and is one that is typically ignored, not least by our political leaders who still seem to think the economy can continue to grow while avoiding ecological catastrophe.

A year ago, in one of our most popular web articles, our group, Steady State Manchester took issue with claims from New Climate Economy (NCE) that there was no conflict between climate change mitigation and continued economic growth. NCE argued that by taking action on climate change economic growth could be boosted. While NCE marshalled a lot of useful information on the how of emissions reduction, emphasising the role of cities, investment in clean energy, and adopting more efficient technologies in aviation and shipping, their argument relies on the idea that economic (i.e. GDP) growth can be decoupled from the growth in GHG emissions. While the emphasis here is on the relationship between GDP and GHG emissions, similar analyses are needed for the material flows underpinning transgression of the other planetary boundaries, in addition to climate change.

There are two kinds of decoupling 1. Relative decoupling means that the rate at which emissions increase is lower than the rate at which GDP decreases. That is not a lot of help in the climate crisis, since under relative decoupling, if there is economic growth, then GHGs continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, contributing to the already high risk of runaway global warming. Absolute decoupling on the other hand would mean that as the economy grew, emissions didn’t. If it could be demonstrated, then we might want to rethink our critique of endless economic growth.

Last year, NCE made the claim that there was evidence for decoupling:

The decoupling of growth from carbon emissions in some of the best-performing economies, both in Northern Europe and in North America, demonstrates the gains that can be made in incomes, jobs, rates of innovation and profits from a low-carbon, resource-efficient model of growth.(34). (p. 18)

As we and this blog showed, there was no evidence for the vital absolute decoupling 2. The only evidence was for relative decoupling, and for decoupling within a territory, whereas for post-industrial Western economies a large proportion of emissions (45% in 2012 for the UK, Germany 35% in 2005) have been outsourced to extraction, manufacturing and distribution outside the territory.

New “evidence” on decoupling is not what it seems

In their most recent report, NCE again make the claim that,

“The reduction in the CO intensity of global GDP adds to the growing body of evidence that countries can reduce GHG emissions while sustaining economic growth.” (p.22)

Yet two pages on they state what is actually the situation:

“But the challenge is clear. Although GHG emissions are gradually being decoupled from growth rates, they are not doing so at anything like the rate required to put the world on a 2°C path.” (p.24)

In other words, they admit that absolute decoupling is not happening.

However, a report “Turning point: Decoupling Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Economic Growth” has just been published by the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s North America office. This appears to provide evidence that absolute decoupling is occurring in some economies. Let’s look at this.

The Böll report substitutes the terms “strong” and “weak” decoupling for the more usual “absolute” and “relative”. They compare four economies, Germany, USA, China and India as well as reviewing global figures. They claim that Germany alone shows strong (absolute) decoupling. The US and China demonstrate week (relative) decoupling, while India does not demonstrate any decoupling (The China and Indian finding was also that of a 2007 study in New Zealand/Aoteroa ).

Yet, having checked the primary source (BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2015) that they used for energy and emissions data, the claim for Germany’s strong decoupling is based on the net territorial emissions and territorial energy use and not on the country’s consumption emissions (and energy use), which will include, for example, consumer goods and components made in China and products such as steel from India. This is the same problem that we drew attention to last year, an unwarranted optimism based on looking at only a part of the picture. It is like trying to assess someone’s attempts at weight loss based on the food prepared at home, mostly salads, when nearly half their diet is take-away fast food and confectionery!

Not surprisingly, then, when the Böll report looks at the global situation, it concludes that

Between 2004 and 2014, global GDP has grown by 44%, while the consumption of conventional fuels has increased by 19%, resulting in a 22% increase of worldwide emissions. (p. 10) and
There is little evidence for a changing relation between fossil energy consumption and growth. (p.11)

So what do we know?

Firstly, there is undoubtedly progress on switching to renewable energy in much of the world’s economy. There are also signs of a reduction in use of the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal (although we should be cautious here since this conclusion is based on what might turn out to be a 2014 blip).

Secondly, while renewables have increased their share, and expansion of fossil fuel use has slowed, as the New Climate Economy’s 2015 report shows (pp. Se Fig. 1, p. 17), fossil fuel usage is still increasing, even if the rate of increase is slowing.

Thirdly, while it is important to focus on energy generation and use, there are other factors critical to GHG transactions. De-forestation, emissions from agriculture, release of trapped polar methane, reduction of ocean capacity to store carbon dioxide, and so on. Technological optimism about clean energy generation should not make us forget this. For a good example of how such factors can be incorporated into a (national) net zero carbon framework, see the Zero Carbon Britain work of the Centre for Alternative Technology.

Fourthly, while there is undoubted progress being made in some places, it is the global picture that is most important. China is to be commended for taking its emissions seriously, yet those emissions are still predicted to rise further, and it is the cumulative emissions that will kill us.

Fifthly, the hypothesis that economic growth is compatible with action on climate change remains unproven. Our best strategy is still managed degrowth to a steady state economy. However, degrowth alone is not likely, on its own, to deliver the 4.9 % annual emissions reduction that is needed to stabilise atmospheric CO2 at 450 ppm by 2050 (itself a frighteningly high level): economic growth makes the task harder: 7% p.a. would be needed if growth were a mere 1.4% 3.

What does this mean for us?

1) We should continue to lobby for disinvestment from fossil fuels. This disinvestment needs to be matched by a strategy of re-investment in local renewable energy production, low-carbon transport, energy conservation and stewardship of the land.

2) We should encourage our public bodies, to adopt an economic policy that rejects the endless pursuit of aggregate growth, instead focussing on real local prosperity based on conserving resources, building resilience, and investing in the replacement economy. Perhaps we should offer a (symbolic) prize to the first local or national government that actually does this.

3) Campaign against fracking and other “unconventional fossil fuels”, which will lead to an increase in GHG emissions since they will add to rather than substitute for other fossil fuels.

4) Get a grip on food and energy waste, via policy and practice changes, targeting government, commercial bodies such as supermarkets, and big institutions such as Universities and hospitals.


1  See A Discussion on Decoupling Economic Growth from the Emissions of Carbon Dioxide for a helpful discussion

2  We previously reviewed earlier literature on this question: Burton, M., & Steady State Manchester. (2012). In Place of Growth: Practical steps to a Manchester where people thrive without harming the planet. Manchester: Steady State Manchester. Retrieved from In Place pf Growth.

3  The 4.9% figure is from Jackson, T. (2009). Prosperity Without Growth: the transition to a sustainable economy. London: Sustainable Development Commission. Retrieved from Prosperity without growth? A later estimate suggests 5.6% is more accurate (and continued failure to decarbonise globally increases these requirments.


Mark H. Burton is part of the Steady State Manchester collective, which promotes the ideas of post-growth, steady state, ecological economics, applying them to the very challenging reality of the world's first industrial city, Manchester, and its region. He has a background in ecological activism and international solidarity campaigns, psychology and public service management and is also Visiting Professor at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Appropriate Scarcity

Robert Herendeen

Originally published in The Daly News, 15 October 2015
under a Creative Commons License

"… appealing to people to restrain themselves [by] self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time. By and large, we consume as much as our incomes allow…. changes… cannot take place without constraints that apply to everyone rather than everyone else. Manmade global warming cannot be restrained unless we persuade the government to force us to change the way we live."

—George Monbiot, Heat (2006/2009)

"The results indicate that the likelihood of paying a positive amount for supporting renewable energy is higher under a mandatory scheme compared to a voluntary payment option in the UK."

—Elcin Akcura, "Mandatory vs. voluntary payment for green electricity," Ecological Economics (2015)

I believe Monbiot says it true. And Akcura (who knew?) provides research-based confirmation.

I envision fulfilling, challenging, joyful lives within environmental constraints, but I can’t imagine that happening without societal signals to reinforce consistent behavior. If level of consumption is a problem, then scarcity is a necessary part of the solution. In the least disruptive and potentially fairest sense, this means using prices to determine demand. To cut to the conclusion: my favorite example is a carbon tax.

Monbiot’s statement is frightening, Draconian, and an apparent non-starter politically… almost. But the consequence of denying it leads to several futile proposals and viewpoints which permeate the literature, both scholarly and public. They are futile because they do not produce results that are big enough and fast enough to beat back anthropogenic climate change. Hearing them repeatedly frustrates me. These are:

1. We citizens are being sold the idea that economic growth (especially GDP) is good by government bureaucracies that need it to stay alive, and by corporations that want it because they are greedy (e.g., “the 1%”).

2. We are personally acquisitive because of intensive advertising. Otherwise, we would readily embrace “enough is plenty.”

3. A steady state economy will only be achieved when a new human consciousness emerges. That is not exactly imminent, but it’s in sight.

4. Peer pressure will solve the classic (game theoretic?) problems of free riders, defection, and over-riding competitive ambition in general.

The Temple to Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, Egypt
Source: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World
The human beings that I observe, work and live with, and love, largely don’t fit these principles. This includes me. We need help. So, about these points:

1. Most of us don’t know or care what GDP is. However, we do have explicit or implicit desires for material/experiential growth at the personal or familial level. Such as: a larger house, a vacation cottage, a new car, a foreign eco-tour, increased travel to visit the grandkids, a secure college fund or retirement package, some new clothes—probably before the old ones wear out. Sum these aspirations over the population and you have pressure for overall growth.

Recently I asked who in my circle at the edge of academia in a progressive college town wants zero personal or professional economic growth. Not soon-to-graduate students looking for the first job. Not immigrants who arrive with almost nothing. Not newlyweds considering starting a family. Not academics building research programs or pursuing tenure. Not college presidents. Not development officers of green non-profit organizations. Not the mayor or city council. And of course not the usual suspects in the business community. I finally concluded that some well-off retirees seem to want zero growth….that’s about it.

2. Watch a TV auto ad and it’s difficult not to suspect—and resent—advertising’s role in fanning the flames of demand. (Mmmmm, a lone car on an otherwise unoccupied road accelerating against the shriek of the engine and the announcer’s deep n’ throaty voice…). But what advertising seduced Pharaoh Ramesses II into carving four 65-foot-tall likenesses of himself from native rock at Abu Simbel ca. 1250 BC? Or the government of Dubai into erecting the 2,722 foot (i.e, 0.52 mile) Burj Khalifa Tower in 2009 AD? I believe essentially all of us are hard-wired to want more of something for some reason. If there is good evidence that advertising is the culprit in overall consumption growth and not just in choosing between spending options, let’s see it.

3. Given the three-millennia separation of the two above construction projects, I think it is wishful thinking to expect Homo sapiens to spontaneously embrace zero growth collectively any time soon.

4. But even if 99+% of us do that, what about the non-cooperators? To the extent that the world is zero-sum (a politically incorrect but applicable description if there really are limits), it takes only a few competitively acquisitive individuals to produce a mess. If the few want more, sooner or later they will destabilize a group of otherwise modest, cooperative individuals. Envy kicks in, or defensive measures to avoid losing. An example of the latter: What to do when the tax bill on your modest abode skyrockets when Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger move in next door (aka the “Aspen effect”)? Try to maintain your modest lifestyle and move 40 miles downriver, or do what it takes to get into the high production/consumption game yourself?

All this brings me back to Monbiot’s bald and bold statement: there is negligible action without effective, broadly felt, implementable…scarcity. In other words, “appropriate scarcity” is not optional; it is necessary. Yes, increasing the price of “bads” is a frequent theme on these pages, but often only as one item in a longish list of principles based on Herman Daly’s powerful writings. Rather, it should be at the top of the list.

There is no question that accomplishing scarcity (for fossil energy, say) by caps and/or taxes is politically, socially, economically, and humanly difficult—a global top-ten red flag. I believe that at the U. S. national level at least, it is feasible. Equity impacts can be minimized by income tax rebates to lower-income households. Other impacts, especially regional, are tougher. In general, moving slowly reduces disruption, but we have scant time. What I hope for is national-level appropriate scarcity of fossil fuels. Done right (a daunting task, to be sure), we can reinforce our own behavior in doing what we (say we) must do to restrain global warming, and have good lives doing it.


Robert Herendeen is a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. His research interests include energy consumption, quantitative analysis of environmental issues, and environmental bookkeeping. He is a physicist who conducts economic input-output analyses to determine resource requirements and other impacts of consumption, following the parallels between economic and ecological systems and analysis of perturbed ecosystems. His most recent work covers the connection between net energy and the price of all consumer products.

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