Is a zero-growth economy even a thing? Raise your hand if the answer is yes.
(No. 3) The Arctic solution, plus let's bump knuckles for Herman Daly, by Ty Montague and Stephen P. Williams
A nod to the ineffable complexity of our world: Buffalo, or American Bison, grazing on federal grasslands in South Dakota — their hooves and ways of eating grass help regenerate prairies. Photo by Stephen P. Williams
Rare Arctic lands vs that crazy supply chain that keeps shiny things in our hands. Which has the legitimate right to survive in the Northern Seas?
Among my dark secrets is this naive wish: at times I want our consumer society to utterly collapse. It’s a simple thought that doesn’t consider the resulting devastating disruptions to our lives (unless we prepare well for the changes). Yet, the thought appears, as it did while reading about the increased trade, contention and potential for wars that will result from climate change melting ice at the edges of the North Pole. And that was in The New York Post, a conservative newspaper not known for getting worked up about climate change.
Historically, the passage of ships through Arctic waters across the top of the world is limited to short periods each year when there is no ice, in boats that can take a beating. Yet, looking into the future, in just 20 years those passages will be ice free year-round as a result of climate change, according to the World Economic Forum. Ships heading from China or Japan will cut days off their voyage to Europe by navigating the ice-free Northern Seas. More and cheaper goods are expected to flow as a result. Along with wars, sanctions and despoiled Arctic lands.
It’s imperative that we plan for this. Yet how can we cooperate, globally, to prevent the Arctic from being a 21st century land grab. Perhaps the answer is to give the Arctic the legal right to protect itself. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. There’s a movement afoot to get courts to recognize a legal status for non-humans (corporations already have this), ranging from forests to animals.
by Stephen P. Williams
The Question We Dare Not Ask
What happens when economic growth is no longer possible?
There are lots of conflicting theories about how the economy and by extension, capitalism, should work. There’s Milton Friedman and his “The sole purpose of a corporation is to enrich shareholders.” There’s the Conscious Capitalism movement. And further to the left there’s Democratic Socialism, which is maybe both a political theory and an economic one. But one thing upon which they all agree is that the economy HAS to grow every year at about 3 percent. If that doesn’t happen, all hell breaks loose.
So first, is that true? And if so, does that have to be true?
It certainly seems like we take it for granted that the answers to those questions are yes and yes. Over the years I have noticed that this story of endless growth cannot be questioned openly in any serious business or political context. The corpus of capitalism, when it senses doubt or threat, releases defenders – antibodies in human form, all armed with the same story: “Innovation will solve that!” It doesn’t seem to matter what “that” is: Running out of a vital and finite natural resource? “We will invent a better alternative.” Mass extinction? “We’ll harvest their DNA and clone them in the future.” Climate change? “We will invent the technology to remove the carbon from the atmosphere just as we invented the technology to put it there.” If questions are raised about the fact that we clearly live in a finite system (planet earth) and so the promise of endless growth looks… implausible at best, the antibodies will scoff and say something like: “Well what’s the alternative? (+ withering pause + eye roll).”
And you’re pinned.
Because nobody knows how to answer that question. So IS there an alternative? Is there such a thing as a zero-growth economy? Can we create a “steady state” in which humans live as an intertwined part of a regenerative global eco-system? A couple of days ago I happened on this article about Herman Daly in the New York Times. It was nice to find a fellow traveler willing to ask the un-askable. Especially one with advanced degrees in economics. Basically, Daly believes that what he calls a “steady state economy” is both needed, and possible. But it will be very different from the economy we have today. This quote really landed with me (italics are mine):
“The failure of a growth economy to grow is a disaster. The success of a steady-state economy not to grow is not a disaster. It’s like the difference between an airplane and a helicopter. An airplane is designed for forward motion. If an airplane has to stand still, it’ll crash. A helicopter is designed to stand still, like a hummingbird. So it’s a comparison between two different designs, and the failure of one does not imply the failure or success of the other. But in order to move from our present growth economy to a steady-state economy, that’s going to imply some important design principles — some changes in the fundamental design.”
Some of Daly’s ideas for this re-design include replacing G.D.P. with the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (I.S.E.W.), which takes crucial negative impacts into account as well as positive ones. Establishing minimum and maximum income limits and setting caps for natural-resource use… ideas sure to be super unpopular with the aforementioned capitalist antibodies. (So… my turn… what’s the alternative??!! :P) The fact is, we live in a finite system. The end of growth will come. The only questions that remain are when? And in a planned or unplanned way?
The article also mentions a number of other people who are working on this problem – economists like Tim Jackson, Kate Raworth, Giorgios Kallis, Dietrich Vollrath and the Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I’ll be digging into those folks’ work in due course and will report back.
by Ty Montague
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