Message from Brian Czech on the Steady State Economy

January 1, 2009 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Brian Czech for this message. You can respond directly to Brian at


I’d like to share some valuable lessons about the politics of economic growth that I learned at the National Council for Science and the Environment conference this week in Washington, DC. First, the relationship between economic growth and biodiversity conservation (and environmental protection in general) is looking like the “next big issue,” as some folks called it. There is a good chance it will be a featured topic at the next NCSE conference, and certainly many sub-events within the conference will be conducive to addressing the topic.

A few years ago, you couldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole in such a venue, not without getting beat up, but at the NCSE conference it seemed to be everywhere this year. That includes the major political panel discussion, where each of the three congressmen (Moran, Holt, Inslee) and to a lesser extent the one senator (Whitehouse) either explicitly or clearly implicitly discussed the topic. All except one seemed to recognize the trade-off between economic growth and biodiversity conservation.

The one exception called the relationship a “symbiotic” one. I spoke with him afterward and it was clear he had conflated economic growth with economic continuance (such as a steady state economy). That was one problem with his analysis, plus he was thinking of a microeconomic sector, namely the auto industry (an odd choice, come to think of it), rather than the macro-economy. So I gave him a paper on the topic and he insisted he would read it because he wants to understand the topic more thoroughly. We’ll see if that makes a difference.

I also learned a tougher lesson. I consciously attempted to optimize my own input to the conference on the subject, neither inputting too much nor too little. I chose two primary venues: a plenary panel on the first day and Tom Friedman’s keynote lecture on the second.

After the plenary panel, I took a calculated risk by asking one of the panelists a brief question. The panelist was a social entrepreneur, in the stated business of helping clients bring about “positive social and environmental change.” I’ve learned you can get yourself into the conference doghouse by providing too much context in a Q/A session; i.e., you have to get straight to the question. So I eschewed the context in this case and simply asked, “Given the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, what advice can you give environmental scientists for educating the public and policy makers on this conflict and for moving the polity away from the unsustainable goal of growth and toward the goal of a steady state economy?”

I lost the gamble, and I won’t be eschewing the context any time soon! Her response was (and all these “quotes” are by memory), “I disagree with the assumption that there is such a conflict… etc. etc. etc.” Part of her response was that we could reinvent the phrase “economic growth” to mean something different than it does. That shows us how some folks can keep a straight face while propagating the old fallacy that “there is no conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.” They just reinvent the terms in their own minds – not much science there! Meanwhile, the public and policy makers go on recognizing economic growth for what it is: increasing production and consumption of goods and services (in the aggregate), as indicated by increasing GDP.

So after Friedman’s keynote, which he concluded by quoting a eulogy to Dana Meadows, I used some context: “Dana Meadows recognized limits to economic growth and the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. So I have a question about the ‘flow of electrons’ you mentioned as related to biodiversity conservation. [The “flow of electrons” was Friedman’s phrase for describing the cheap, clean energy he advises we seek). When we look at the causes of species endangerment in the United States, they read like a Who’s Who of the American economy, so all that additional energy in the service of economic growth would tend to eliminate more biodiversity. Yet corporations and Wall Street have been claiming for decades that ‘there is no conflict between growing the economy and conserving biodiversity.’ Now a number of professional natural resources societies have studied this issue intensively, including the ecological and economic theory, evidence, and models, and have concluded, not assumed, that there is conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation, and that this conflict is fundamental because it is based on laws of thermodynamics and principles of ecology, especially the principle of competitive exclusion. So, in addition to the market reforms you have recommended for ‘getting the prices right,’ don’t we also need to be thinking about macroeconomic policy reform, moving with fiscal, monetary, and trade policies away from the goal of growth and toward the goal of a steady state economy?”

Friedman’s answer was just what the doctor ordered. First, it was a long and thoughtful answer. He said at least three times (maybe 4-5) that this is a “very important issue” to think about and deal with, consistent with the “next big thing” theme. He noted that, when he thinks about the steady state economy, he thinks about the impoverished countries he has visited and recognizes – as do we all – that we can’t expect them to move toward a steady state any time soon. In fact, this is an underlying message of his book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded. And he does hold out some hope for increasing efficiencies, accompanied with new energy sources, to play out for some time. Yet, and this is the big one, he acknowledged that, ultimately, and perhaps very soon, we will have reached the end of that efficiency pathway (the macroeconomic manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics, as I described it in my paper on technological progress), and that we will have to think seriously about how to accomplish a steady state.

In my estimation, a few things can be learned from these exchanges. The “win-win” entrepreneurial panelist shot me right out of the political saddle. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but thinking that many in the audience must have been wondering, “What’s she talking about?” After all, already by that point in the conference, several speakers had spoken about how increasing populations and “economic activity” (a much more policy-relevant phrase than the old “human activity,” thankfully) were dooming species into the Sixth Great Extinction. So even that exchange wasn’t a total loss. But the exchange with Friedman eclipsed by an order of magnitude any political loss from the first day.

So I think the lesson is that, when we broach this topic in public forums, we have to provide just enough context to ask the question in a way that it cannot be mis-portrayed as “assuming” that there is a conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation.

Finally, Friedman’s answer was a nice validation of ecological economics, because it blended the three themes of ecological economics: scale, distribution of wealth, and allocation of resources. Friedman acknowledged that each of these are significant issues that must be handled with public policies to halt the erosion of biodiversity.

Brian Czech, Ph.D., President
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
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