By: Jonathan Holter Not many people can refute the numbers: population numbers skyrocketing exponentially over the last few decades, (carryingcapacity.org)1, crucial finite natural resources rapidly dwindling due to unprecedented rates of consumption, (Ecological Economics, 111)2, levels of greenhouse gas emissions soaring, (Id, at 119), increasing numbers of plants and animals added to the Endangered Species List, (http://sustainablerangelands), acre after acre of farmland and open space devoured by urban sprawl. Indeed, the statistics back up the dire story that steady state economists tell. The steady state “revolution” movement is not hard-pressed to demonstrate to the average American what the average American has been witnessing for years; too many people are using too many natural resources too quickly. Joe Six-Pack does not need much convincing on what he already knows and can see for himself. The basics of Daly’s “Impossibility Theorem” on sustainable growth are not impossible for Joe Six-Pack to grasp. (Valuing, 267) The challenge for the steady state movement will be to make the “revolution” more practically popular and more politically viable. Barring an unforeseen natural or economic catastrophe, most Americans will not embrace a way of looking at the economy that calls for a halt to growth, a redistribution of wealth, birth quotas, and a revamped monetary system. Steady state economists must temper their message and frame it in socially and politically realistic terms. The steady state message of sustainable development via an optimally sized economy must move from being a fringe “revolution,” and become a mainstream movement.
The reality of the United States of America today is a people in love with notions, even if misunderstood notions, of liberty, freedom, and prosperity. The three ideas have become intertwined and connected; all three are central to how, we, as a nation understand who we are. Americans, with patriotic zeal, have even claimed ownership to these universal ideals, that such ideals are uniquely American. In the U.S. today there is a mythic reverence for the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps Protestant work ethic. It is why immigration is at an all-time high. It is why we Americans claim to be from the greatest nation on Earth. We believe and we preach that anyone can make it in America, and we tell and retell the stories of the lives of those legends that were born poor and died wealthy. From an early age, we are taught to treasure liberty, freedom, and independence, as if without these ideals near and dear to our national heart, we would not be such a prosperous and blessed nation. Americans will not easily shed these deeply held beliefs and embrace such liberty cramping ideas as wealth limits and birth quotas.
The political pendulum in our nation is swinging to the right, making it less likely that a majority of Americans will embrace the steady state revolution. Conservatism, while possibly at a high-water mark, does not show any signs of receding soon. The cable news networks, the local and nationally syndicated radio talk show hosts, and the editorials in the local papers, are all espousing conservative viewpoints. The influence of the religious right in national and local politics is only growing. The F.C.C. is tightening standards of obscenity on the public airwaves. Four years ago conservative “soccer moms” were the sought after swing vote, the supposed middle ground, in presidential politics. Presently, the equally, if not more, conservative “NASCAR dad” is the coveted swing vote. The entire midsection of our nation, from the South to the mountain west and everywhere in between, is more and more politically conservative. Both house of Congress are controlled by Republicans. A Republican controls the White House, and from there he is filling vacant seats on the federal bench with conservative judges. As a nation we just mourned the death of the symbol of modern American Conservatism, Ronald Reagan. We celebrated his optimistic politics, his stare down with evil communism and its state controlled economy and lack of freedom and liberty, his tax-cuts, and his small government agenda. An America that is leaning to the right will not be able to accept the tenets of the steady state “revolution,” calling for restraint, redistribution, and scaled down consumption. Americans from across the political spectrum, but especially on the right, are leery of government and perceived government interference in believed to be God-given rights to liberty.
As a nation, we are obsessed with growth. It is a commonly held that growth is beneficial. A rising tide is believed to raise all boats. “Economic growth is a cherished American ideal. It is touted by politicians of both parties, praised in newsprint, and monitored nightly on TV. It has long been a goal of our federal government.” (Czech, 26) Americans faithfully believe growth is the key to prosperity. “It is a particularly American feature that each generation believes the following one should and will attain a higher economic standard of living.”(Id, at 21) Before Americans relinquish a way of life, and welcome the steady state economy, they will have to be convinced very simply that they will be better off. Americans will not conserve for future generations or share wealth with the present generation because of a moral obligation. Americans need to know how they will be affected and why the steady state system will benefit them. They need to know from regular people and in regular terms the nature and extent of the problems brought on by the “runaway train.”
“All we have to do is completely overhaul our culture and find an alternative to money.” (www.hubbertpeak.com) The steady state economists face a tough sell as is, drastic language is not helping. Americans do not like to hear about revolutions, unless it is in History class. Czech clarifies his idea of revolution, “there is no call here for forcible overthrow of anything.” (Czech, 111) Nevertheless, such talk of a revolution, even if it only denotes a revolution of economic comprehension, is scary to Americans. Americans like the status quo. Perception is reality, and presently, Americans see themselves as the world’s sole superpower, enjoying a lifestyle most of the world dreams about, complete with cars, cell phones, dishwashers, and big houses in the suburbs. Anything threatening this lifestyle will not be accepted.
Czech further goes on in his book to take note of and to criticize American consumption habits. Unfortunately, he does so condescendingly. He points out that stock-car racing is one of the fastest growing and most popular sports in the nation. Referring to the sport as a “folly”, he remarks, “After all, racing amounts to intensive petrol consumption for exceedingly ephemeral gratification.” (Id, at 113) Czech needs to understand why Americans watch and love stock-car racing. Czech’s observation makes him look like an out of touch professor belittling the commoners from high above in the ivory tower. He needs to comprehend the infatuation, instead of criticizing it. Czech calls for “a revolution in public opinion.” (Id, at 114) He is not furthering this revolution along at all with high-minded barbs directed at the middle class.
Americans need to be convinced that unfettered growth is bad. To do so they must be convinced that it is bad for them; Americans will act out of self-interest. Though Americans live comfortable lives, a little introspection might reveal declining life satisfaction. Americans must collectively and consciously realize what they have been telling pollsters and statisticians, that despite an ever skyrocketing GNP, overall welfare has leveled off and even declined. (Ecological Economics, 234) The challenge for the steady state movement will be to get the public to realize that they are not better off as a result of constant growth and a culture of consumerism, without sounding like naysayers or pessimists.
This can be done by stealing a page from the above mentioned Ronald Reagan, by asking Americans if they are better off under our growth economy, and offering the alternative of quality not quantity. The movement should appeal to people’s conservative yearning for a simpler time, a time when community and family were at the core of America’s values. As Richard Douthwaite explains in The Growth Illusion, it is these two areas of daily life that have been hit especially hard by our growth economy. Our basic values have shifted: “Paid work became much more important than anything done in the home, even something as literally vital as raising the next generation.” (Douthwaite, 124) Divorce, crime, and loss of civil liberties are a direct result of this breakdown in the family and in the community. In addition, the steady state movement could appeal to people’s pocketbooks. The movement must get Americans to recognize that they have become worse off financially as a result of our growth economy. Real wages have dropped, people are buying less with more. (www.uvm.edu) And what Americans have bought, they are not happy with. In asking Americans the same question Ronald Reagan asked twenty-four years ago, the movement appeals to a nostalgic romanticism and a fiscal realism. Both are necessary for general popularity and eventual political viability.
For the steady state revolution to make any progress, it must tone down the radical rhetoric and become a realistic movement, focusing on the people most affected by our runaway train of a growth economy, everyday Americans. When the message is brought to them, in terms they can comprehend, the movement will approach political viability.
Brian Czech, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, University of California Press, 2000.
Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics; Principles and Applications, Island Press, 2003.
Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend eds., Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics, The MIT Press, 1996.
Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion, New Society Publishers, 1992.
1“ Because of our high rate of growth, the U.S. is one of the fastest growing countries in the industrialized word - we have grown from 150 million in 1950 to 275 million in 2000. It took all of human history for world population to reach 2.5 billion in 1950. Then, doubling just once during the next forty years, world population increased by 2.5 billion (a number equivalent to all preceding growth).” www.carryingcapacity.org/doubling.html
2 “Since the development of market economies and neoclassical explanations thereof, both human populations and per capita levels of resource use have been increasing exponentially.”