Commentary on Economics for a Full World
I enjoyed this article and agree with much of it, especially the need for the array of policies to slow societal metabolism. I also agree that wealthy societies less obsessed by growth are likely healthier and that GNP growth as a focus of economics as a discipline is excessive. I especially agree that restraining energy and material throughputs is crucial to the human and ecological future.
I am less sure, however, that reversing the rate of materials and energy extraction necessarily excludes economic growth. Most economic activity generates throughputs, but some activities are far lighter than others, more “angelic,” to use Daly’s delightful term. Some activities can result in throughput reductions. A group of friends can walk to a neighborhood restaurant and socialize dining on local organic food and beverages. Alternatively, the same amount of money might have been spent on air travel or the acquisition of heavy, not very durable goods manufactured on the other side of the planet.
While even university tuition or the production of solar panels generates environmental impacts, of course, are we certain that we cannot decouple economic growth and throughput growth? I agree that we have not succeeded in the past, but no society has ever actually tried. No one has, for example, implemented the full policy array that Daly proposes. Indeed, most do the exact opposite. They subsidize the extraction of materials and energy disproportionately. We could also go further than Daly suggests by supporting (yes, subsidizing) renewable energy, energy efficiency, and organic, local agriculture, for example.
I cannot prove that economies will continue to grow in the face of declining throughputs, but the contrary assertion is not certain either. Quickly slowing throughputs is key. It is no formula for rapid growth, but we do not know with certainty whether growth is excluded by achieving this aim.
Why is this important? This, for me, is a matter of what Thoreau, in “Walking”, called “thoroughly conscious ignorance” (the wisdom of accepting what it is we cannot be entirely sure about). Crucially, it is also politically important. Let me explain.
I do not think there is a democratic politics that could intentionally halt economic growth in poor countries. Thus a global steady state would require negative growth in wealthy nations. Many of us here, of course, could (and should) make do with less—less travel, less stuff, and less military spending in our names.
Nonetheless, I am pretty sure that politics in the face of rapid or continuous degrowth would get ugly. In the face of 1970s stagflation, under Reagan, deliberate redistribution upwards took hold politically in the United States. Aside from a very brief pause in the low unemployment 1990s, this pattern has remained entrenched almost everywhere ever since. Political life could well get uglier than that.
My hope, and it is just a hope, is that the political power to enact some approximation of Daly’s policies can be mustered. In the process it will be claimed, by those whom such a change threatens, that these policies will “collapse the economy.” I think that such assertions can be proven wrong by wise policy design and skillful entrepreneurship.
In addition to public and private innovation, we also desperately need economic redistribution. Daly knows this, of course, but my fear is that especially the latter would prove all but politically impossible without at least modest economic growth. Those with wealth and power will not accept diminished comfort quietly, and the opportunities for them to turn majorities against the protection of nature are considerably greater in times of economic contraction.
I accept that economic growth cannot continue forever, but is the forever point necessarily imminent? Politically, I am convinced, the best hope of creating a fairer world is prior to the realities of a steady state taking hold. Human well-being may well depend not just on ultimately learning to live without economic growth, but on doing so very gradually.
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