Goodbye 'Shop Til You Drop' Mentality: Renegade Band of Economists Call for 'Degrowth' Economy
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One of Daly's more prominent disciples, U.K. economist Tim Jackson, tends to agree in his report to the British government, later published in book form, titled: Prosperity Without Growth. Even the 2008 world financial meltdown can't be blamed simply on "isolated malpractice or simple failures of vigilance," Jackson writes, but that the market "was undone by growth itself." He goes on to suggest, "There is something odd about the modern refusal to countenance anything but growth at all costs."
And world economic growth has been nothing short of astonishing in recent decades. Jackson notes that the global economy has doubled in size in the last quarter century, at the same time "an estimated 60 percent of the world's ecosystems have been degraded."
Signs of Crisis
Daly's steady state economy, which he first wrote about in the 1970s, isn't alone in calling attention to problems created by unchecked economic growth. Other works that waved red flags include Rachel Carson's 1962 classic, Silent Spring, widely credited with launching the U.S. environmental movement; and Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome-commissioned study by a group of MIT economists, which caused public consternation when it first appeared four decades ago.
Since then, evidence has continued to mount that humanity may be reaching the end of the road built by our Western industrial model with its assumptions that natural resources, and nature itself, are super-abundant. A few of the problems that have garnered headlines include the following:
- Critical minerals are on the decline.
- Experts worry that declining " energy quality" threatens growth, as the world's dwindling fossil fuel stores require more effort to extract.
- Many countries including the world's biggest grain producers -- the U.S., India and China -- are depleting their aquifers to keep bringing in the harvests.
- Carbon emissions are reaching a dangerous level.
- 2011 broke the record for extreme weather with 12 events costing $1 billion or more to clean up.
- Plant and animal species are going extinct at unprecedented rates.
- World population is growing and so is hunger.
- We have already exceeded some important planetary boundaries.
"One reason growth doesn't work is we've underestimated the ecological cost of growth, and overestimated the benefits of growth," Daly says.
Most people probably conjure up Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke or pundits like Mark Zandi, when thinking "economist." Daly started out similarly. He earned a PhD in economics at Vanderbilt University in the late 1960s, before setting off for Brazil, where he had landed a job in the northeast of the country preparing graduate students to follow his footsteps at U.S. universities. He says it was there that the environmental degradation he observed first made him challenge assumptions about resource abundance and capital scarcity that underpin classical economics.
In the 1970s, Daly published books on the steady state economy, which laid out an alternative path for humanity that would substitute year-on-year growth with a system geared toward keeping the economy within the ecological boundaries of the planet.
The books were received "violently," Daly, 73, quips today. But he thrived professionally, rising to the post of senior environmental economist at the World Bank until 1994, when he decamped for a teaching post at the University of Maryland and taught for several years before retiring. At the Bank, he was "a lonely voice of dissent in an organization that frowns on unbelievers," according to a 2003 profile in Grist that compared economics to a religion and Daly to an "arch-heretic, a member of the high priesthood turned renegade."