ISBN 978-0-415-82095-0. “Enough is Enough – Building a Sustainable Economy in a world of Finite Resources” by Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill was published by Earthscan in 2013. Rob & Dan are new names to us but they shouldn’t be. They are two of the leading lights behind CASSE: the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. In a nutshell this is, essentially, a much shorter version of Andrew Simms’ “Cancel the Apocalypse” and it is no coincidence; they give him a credit in the acknowledgements. Some sections of the book are word-for-word identical to the Simms work so it is a case of deja vu all over again [because the Simms book was the last one we reviewed!]
The inside covers are packed with four pages of praise for the book from the likes of James Gustav Speth, Caroline Lucas MP, Richard Heinberg, Paul Ehrlich, Molly Scott Cato and Jerry Mander. The book is a vision for a “realistic alternative to the perpetual pursuit of economic growth” – as such it is slightly more detailed than the Simms work but still deeply steeped in vision. This is not a detailed road map. However the time has come to start dealing with this reality. The authors hit the ground running with a couple of great quotes:
“Robert Solow , who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1987 for his theories on economic growth, has said, “It is possible that the United States and Europe will find that, as the decades go by, either continued growth will be too destructive to the environment and they are too dependent on scarce natural resources, or that they would rather use increasing productivity in the form of leisure.” Economic journalist Thomas Friedman questions growth further. He asks, “What if the crisis of 2008 represents something more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simple unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when mother nature and market both said: ‘No more.‘ “
“No more”? I read Friedman’s “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” many years ago. It bookends my journey to this book review today. Back in the 1990s I believed everything he wrote in ‘Lexus..’. Now I believe everything he has uttered in that last quote. What if we have hit the wall? Ten years ago Friedman and I were willing to believe in trickle-down economics – the concept of a rising tide lifting all boats. But its promise was an empty. We simply cannot grow in some vain hope that this will help the poor. The stats do not add up:
“Despite the twenty-five-fold increase in the size of the economy over the past century, more than 1 billion people still live on less than $1 per day, and a total of 3.7 billion live on less that $2 per day. Economic growth has been cited by the World Bank as the “essential ingredient for sustained poverty reduction”. But for every $100 of global economic growth that occurred between 1990 and 2001, only 60 cents went to people below the $1-per-day line. In other words, to get the poorest people of the world an extra $1 required a $166 increase in global production and consumption. Someone is profiting from economic growth, but it’s not the world’s poor.”
Even the cherry-picked facts that the World Bank chooses [to prove its case] obscure the reality of poverty reduction. The only place this has actually happened in the last thirty years is China. It distorts everything. I used to think this was the politics of envy. Now I know it is simply greed & mindless self-interest dressed up as charity. We have to return from ideology and face the empirical evidence.
But then there is population. The authors don’t fight shy of this issue regardless of how contentious it is. Of all the issues faced in this book this remains the least convincing. Thankfully the authors do not dwell long upon it – maybe sensing that they are flogging the proverbial dead horse. Population is an issue that is on target to solve itself so there is no need for alarm. The fact we cannot feed people is due to poor distribution and the waste of valuable resources.
By page 50 we are onto the meat and potatoes of the argument: what sort of economy provides enough? This section is intriguing as they publish a very scientific looking graph showing key economic indicators from a computerised economic model developed by Peter Victor. He plotted a set of policies for a theoretical transition to a steady state economy for Canada. The work suggested there was a right way and a wrong way of doing it. There is talk of the “right set of policies” but we never really learn what these are. The authors just rush headlong into the wish list from the CASSE rule book:
- New measures of progress
- Limits on consumption & waste
- Stable population
- More efficient capital stock
- Durable/repairable products
- Better pricing including carbon pricing
- Shorter working periods/more leisure
- Reduced inequality
- Few status goods
- Less advertising
- Better screening of technology (??!!)
- More local (less global) trades of goods/services
- Education for life, not just for work
Some of these goals & mechanisms are quite laudable. Others are ill-defined social objectives. It comes down to this: what are the policies? Where is the road-map? It doesn’t read like an economics text book, it looks like a wish list to Santa. It is all very nice but how on earth are you to convince the men in suits that this is in their interest so that they allow us to have all these lovely things? This is hardly an open and shut case. No where in the macho neo-liberal politics of today will you find anybody giving this the time of day. The only way to win this argument is to demonstrate that the current economics paradigm is utterly flawed and will damage the wealth of powerful people:
“Conventional economic theory paints people as “rational utility maximisers.” This theory assumes that individuals make decisions to maximise personal gains, and under this assumption, people are justified in attempting to earn as much as possible. But scholars who study behaviour are finding that people often behave with fairness in mind, and not according to purely selfish motivations.”
We then learn of actual experiments that demonstrate this. In fact it is easy to prove in the real world. But economics is not about the real world – at least not in its dominant form.
“Henry Wallich, a distinguished American economist and central banker, once said, “Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”
Certainly it would seem the reverse is true too. Greater equality could be a substitute for growth. This would seem to be intuitively true. Growth is a trap. It has lead us into austerity and one way out of austerity is the rise of fascism. Can we learn from history to defuse this fascism bomb? Not if we continue with the delusion that money motivates us:
“…research suggests that larger financial incentives lead to poorer performance on almost anything but the most rudimentary tasks.”
To address this the authors suggest a citizen’s income. This sounds like a firm policy recommendation which they then back-up with the super-vague sounding “workplace democratisation” constituted by the setting of maximum pay differantials, establishing employee-owned companies and improving the gender balance. Yes, this is all very, eerrr, feminine isn’t it? The authors point out that social & cultural change is as important:
“Thanks to past efforts, racism, sexism, and homophobia have become socially unacceptable. The goal now is to make greedy behaviour just as unacceptable.”
We thought the bankers had achieved that in 2008 but the consequences of their actions lead to austerity and austerity lead to a surge of populist xenophobia typified in Britain by the rise of UKIP – the UK Independence Party. Fascism by another name. But for these authors the overcoming of our raw instinct for growth is a panacea that will cure all ills. One can’t but help think that there is nothing to overcome the nasty Hobbesian trait in all of us. Ending growth won’t make us all nice people. The world is full of arseholes.
“Banks will not concede their power easily, and they have formidable resources at their disposal to oppose change…”
…admit the authors in the section on monetary reform. And bears shit in the woods [apparently]….
“…Needed financial reforms will not originate from bank boardrooms […] and they will not originate from government either. This means the impetus to overhaul the system of finance must come from the citizen action outside the establishment.”
Now the gloves are off and we are in familiar “occupy” territory that Andrew Simms had made his own in “Cancel…”. Oh dear. Be afraid, be very afraid:
“Another crisis or series of crises may be necessary to clear the way for more fundamental changes.”
Sadly we agree, but it won’t be pain free for anybody. Gratefully the reader is ushered quickly from this nightmare onto well-being theory where we learn:
“Studies suggest that a variety of other factors, such as living with a partner, enjoying good health, holding a secure job, having trust in institutions, volunteering, and limiting the amount of time spent watching television, do improve well-being…”
Check all those boxes and you are off to a good start. Much more preferable doing that than trying to bring down the system with violent revolution we think.
“We are faced with the “inconvenient truth” that current lifestyles cannot be continued due to environmental limits, but the “convenient truth” is that working and consuming less can lead to increases in well-being.”
…and amen to that. So what about Business? We learn of the difference between a Business driven by a sense of duty to act in a socially responsible manner and those that have a sense of purpose. We need more of the latter but we doubt many Businesses will be aware of the differences quite yet. Then we move quickly onto the twin evils of consumerism and materialism.
“A materialistic lifestyle can be shallow, boring and deadening. A non-materialistic, sustainable lifestyle, on the other hand, can be dynamic and refreshing, but people must be able to visualise it. The Transition Towns movement has captured many people’s imaginations and begun the daunting process of demonstrating ways to live simpler and more purposeful lives. If politicians see Transition Towns and similar movements emerging on a sufficient scale, they will feel pressure to get on board.”
Sadly we feel that train may have left the station. The problem with “voluntary simplicity” is that it is out of step with modern lives and easy to lampoon and misunderstand (as I demonstrated in my blog “Enough?” from September 2013). So what of the developing nations?
“Developing nations need to identify alternative paths to increase the well-being of their citizens…”
…whilst high-consuming nations must go through a period of de-growth so we can all become sustainable. Again, not an easy sell! Particularly when you advocate the “democratisation” of the IMF, WTO & World Bank:
“These organisations should represent all the people on the planet, not just the interests of a few nations.”
YES! And I want a puppy for Christmas! Give me a break. It is right, but somehow so naïve. These are the most powerful and macho organisations on the planet. They will not be influenced by a desire for My Little Pony. For them Money and Power matter. You threaten that and they will bite back. They need a demonstration of their own folly. For now they are trapped inside their own version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and nobody is about to blink.
Herman Daly (who provided the foreword) is said to have joked that some people mistakenly believe that a steady-state economy would mean “freezing in the dark under communist tyranny”:
“But a steady state economy is not about deprivation, and it doesn’t require the heavy hand of a Politburo. It’s not even about a return to the ‘good old days’. It is, in fact, a progressions to the ‘good new days’.”
Now this is an important point. So what is the vision of this “good new days”?
“…some parts of the blueprint remain faint, societies should resist the temptation to wait for more details.”
Why the heck not when the alternative is the rise of fascism?
“…Adam Smith anticipated such a transition. He believed that in the long run, population growth would push wages down, natural resources would become increasingly scarce, and division of labour would approach the limit of effectiveness. He estimated that the period of growth would last for about two hundred years.”
Maybe we should pay less attention to the Transition Movement and more to the Adam Smith Institute? I jest. But it is killer examples like THIS that we need to turn the heads of the likes of ASI and their fellow right-wing ideologues. Even John Stuart Mill proposed a “stationary state” economy. These ideas are part of classical economics and must become part of neo-classical economics.
“…remember that the economy is a human construct. Economic “laws” are not like the law of gravity. They can be changed.”
That’s it. That’s the best thing these authors could have written. This is to their credit. I enjoyed this work and loved the sprinkling of Polyp cartoons through the chapters. They set the tone nicely. We don’t know what mileage this has but it is a beginning. Let’s go to work.