Philomena Polefrone

The Importance of the Steady State

December 01, 2017 | 1 Minute Read

The history of environmentalist thought is structured, as often as not, by too much and too many: too much stuff, too many people; too much deforestation, too many poisoned aquifers. Capitalism, as its supporters and critics alike would surely agree, thrives on exactly this too-muchness. Growth is its sole commandment.

It hardly needs to be said that these truths can’t coexist, that a system that needs to keep growing to survive is ill suited to a full planet running rapidly out of resources. The doctrine of endless growth, which must ignore this fact, requires an ecological illiteracy best summed up by America’s Illiterate-in-Chief in an interview he gave to Fox News’s Chris Wallace: “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy business.”

Trump is no economist, but he articulates a perspective on the environment that pervades standard economics—that you can just “leave a little bit,” or not even bother to, and the economy will continue to grow, as though the environment were not the source and limit of all value. To conceive of a robust economy without growth, you have to break from the most fundamental premises of economic thought, to come up with a new standard for what makes an economy successful.

Herman Daly proposed just such a revolution decades ago with his concept of “steady-state economics,” which takes as its starting point the question that economists before him studiously declined to ask: “how big the economy should be relative to the ecosystem.” Now, when we may need it most, n+1 co-founder Benjamin Kunkel is attempting to reintroduce Daly’s steady-state economics back into popular circulation with a reissue of his 1987 essay, “On the Steady State.”…

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