Goodbye 'Shop Til You Drop' Mentality: Renegade Band of Economists Call for 'Degrowth' Economy
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Ecological economics got off the ground formally in the early 1980s, with an international professional society and an academic journal of the same name that Daly cofounded with Robert Costanza, director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University.
Today, U.S., European and Australian societies have also emerged as forums for a wide range of ideas about how best to strike an ecology-economy balance. There's plenty of disagreement within the field about how best to go about getting off the growth trendmill. Daly's steady state economy, which envisions practically no more growth, is perhaps the purist and most cold-turkey approach.
Some ecological economists such as William Rees and Costanza have done groundbreaking work helping to visualize the scope of the environmental-economic conundrum. Rees came up with the concept of the ecological footprint. Costanza was the lead author of a groundbreaking 1997 paper published in the journal, Nature, titled "The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital." It tallied up the value of the planet's ecosystems in dollar terms -- between $16 trillion and $54 trillion a year.
Others like the UK's Tim Jackson, Canadian Peter Victor and Australian Philip Lawn, a professor at Flinders University, Australia, focus on taking the ideas pioneered by Daly and putting them into practical use -- thinking through, for instance, how to "de-grow" the economy, essentially sending it into a planned recession, without throwing large numbers of people out of work.
Daly says he's disappointed that more of the country's leading economists have not embraced his ideas but some experiments in low-growth living are underway around the world.
In South London, the mixed-income BedZED development, and the Findhorn Ecovillage in Moray, Scotland are two developments that slash the carbon emissions of residents nearly in half compared to the U.K. average. They are part of a growing "ecovillage" movement, though critics suggest the promised emissions reductions are sometimes less dramatic than advertised. In the U.S., commercial builders are starting to construct "net zero" homes aimed at middle-class buyers, such as the new neighborhood going up in Fredrick, Md.'s historic downtown that uses a combination of insulation, geothermal heating and solar panels to generate all the energy needed to run the homes.
On the city-scale, more than 1,000 U.S. cities have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions as part of U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, and other cities around the world have taken even more aggressive measures. Malmö, Sweden, for instance, has pledged to be climate-neutral by 2020 and run the entire municipality on renewable energy by 2030.
On a national scale, Daly says only the country of Bhutan has embraced larger changes with the substitution of its Gross National Happiness index in the place of the standard Gross National Product measurement.
New ideas and shifting demographics, however, suggest the mantra of perpetual growth may not be forever after all. The International Energy Agency has released a report showing that it's possible to provide clean renewable electricity to the 1.3 billion people in the world living without it, with only "a negligible impact on energy security and climate change."
Even Lester Brown, whose thought-provoking work has earned him a reputation as a Cassandra, is upbeat about a wind-powered new economy. He's predicting a 20 percent decline in U.S. carbon emissions by 2020 from the 2007 level. In the last four years, the country's emissions have already fallen by 7 percent, a decline started by the economic recession but accelerating thanks to the phase-in of new lightbulbs and a major shift in the country away from the automobile as baby boomers retire and drive less and young people drive less.