Enough Is Enough

Wow. This is a milestone book in an area new to much of even the well-educated public: the world of finite resources. But it's also a tough book to review, because there are so many different possible audiences. I'll summarize my review first, then go into the details. This is a long review for which I apologize; in due course, I will sort out my thoughts on this subject and put it on my blog or publish it somewhere. The main audience for my review is people who already get "limits to growth." T Wow. This is a milestone book in an area new to much of even the well-educated public: the world of finite resources. But it's also a tough book to review, because there are so many different possible audiences. I'll summarize my review first, then go into the details. This is a long review for which I apologize; in due course, I will sort out my thoughts on this subject and put it on my blog or publish it somewhere. The main audience for my review is people who already get "limits to growth." They've seen TheOilDrum.com, they know who James Hansen is, and they "get it." Everyone else can stop reading my review right here: "Enough is Enough" is the greatest thing since sliced bread; go out and read it, and then come back here.Common sense dictates that there are "limits to growth," and that our economy cannot grow forever, as the title of the well-known 1972 report to the Club of Rome indicated. But conventional economics and political consensus dictates the exact opposite. As a consequence, there has been a lack of discussion of this reality. This is our dilemma, and the dilemma addressed directly by "Enough is Enough."

If you are looking for an introduction to the concept of "steady-state economics" and don't have time to wade through Ecological Economics: Principles And Applications, co-authored by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, then you have come to the right place. "Enough is Enough" is accessible (Herman Daly wrote the foreword) and has three parts, subdivided into 15 chapters, which move along fairly quickly.

The first part introduces the problem of the growth economy. The second part discusses possible strategies: how to deal with limiting resource use, population growth, inequality, debt, commerce, unemployment, and measurement of economic goods. I thought the second part was the strongest part, even when I didn't agree with everything they said, because the authors clearly understand the territory. In the third part they discuss plans for action. This is the weakest part because, basically, there are key problems with the concept of a steady-state economy that neither they nor probably anyone else has resolved. Like, at precisely what level will the steady-state economy function? When you get into the details, you realize that to resolve this question is not just academic nit-picking; it is a really big deal. Even here there are some interesting ideas, but the ideas are a bit vague.

Evaluating the Book

Who is the audience for this book? And who is the audience for this review? There are obviously multiple potential audiences, so I'm going to try to imagine how they all might react to this book. Generally I thought the book was good, but it clearly has some problems, and what we do about the book depends on who your audience is. At some point, we will need to address these difficulties, or we won't be able to make any further progress on this issue. But we aren't at that point yet. So here are the issues, and they are biggies: what is a steady-state economy, and is it really necessary?

Let me preface this by saying that I've read Ecological Economics: Principles And Applications, and am a firm believer in the need for ecological economics. "Enough is Enough" is clearly written and much of what they say is true. The authors cheerfully admit that there are many problems unresolved regarding a steady-state economy (an economy which does not grow) -- like how, for example, it would work. In fact, it is unclear what a "steady-state" economy should even be called. They discuss the advice of Franny Armstrong, who when asked what advice they would have to raise the profile of steady-state economics, responded "change the name" (p. 171).

To begin with, there are a number of minor quibbles that I have with the book. To deal with unemployment, they seem to be bent on job-sharing or government make-work programs rather than on a basic guaranteed income. The chapter on population offered only conventional formulas about educating women. The chapter on debt completely ignored Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The authors don't understand food issues and the importance of veganism (my pet peeve with environmental authors generally). The concluding chapter on what we should do about the situation offered vague prescriptions such as "get people interested," "combine science and art," and "have fun."

These quibbles could probably be resolved if we could resolve the bigger questions, so let's look at what the book says about those.

What is a steady-state economy?

A steady-state economy neither grows nor shrinks. Inequality, the authors make clear, would be significantly reduced. But at what standard of living and with what population would the world's population exist? Are we talking a substantially smaller human population with a modern European standard of living? Or perhaps the technology of the early 19th century, before the modern automobile and airplane came into existence? Or is it back to the middle ages, technology-wise? Inquiring minds want to know. And, actually, the book gives several different answers. On p. 35, there is a table from the WorldWatch Institute that implies that the world could only support a population of 2.1 billion people on a high average yearly per capita income ($36,000), or a population of 6.2 billion if the per capita income were only $5,100. Looks like we'll have to take a pay cut, or undertake some serious population reduction measures. But on p. 50, the book gives a much more optimistic chart depicting one scenario for a successful steady-state economy for Canada. It shows GDP per capita actually increasing by over 50% relative to the 2005 level and then leveling off. Unemployment, greenhouse gas emissions, and poverty all fall as well. This seems to imply that while the economy won't grow, we'll still be physically better off in 2035 (and thereafter) than we were in 2005. On the other hand, the chart on p. 185 gives yet another dimension. It suggests that the world as a whole will be in a steady state, but that some countries (the more developed ones, like the U. S. and Canada, we presume) will have economies that actually shrink, while those with populations of people making $2 a day will see their economies grow. This seems to imply that the GDP per capita of Canada will decline (all other things being equal) relative to the level of 2005. And this is only the beginning of the discussion. A staple observation of many environmentalists is that we are in a state of "overshoot" -- that we are actually drawing down critical natural resources, and we need to cut back resource consumption to be sustainable. The relationship between resource consumption and the economy is complex, but if the relationship is fairly straightforward (as it likely is), then decreased resource consumption would seem to imply a declining economy, not a steady-state economy. Still others, such as Gail Tverberg, have said that no steady-state economy is possible except at a fairly low level (like, basically, the technology available in 1700 or thereabouts). I personally am quite skeptical about an all-electric economy supporting anything approaching the contemporary American standard of living for any except a small elite (much, much smaller than the current elite). I don't think we can prosaically assume that we can just draw the line at the 2005 economy and

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say that we're staying there -- or even 1980, or 1950. This whole thing needs to be thought out from the bottom up, not the top down (and thus the need to address food before addressing more weighty things like transportation and communications).These pictures of a possible future economy are dramatically different. I don't think it is realistic to write a book about a steady-state economy and not define the size at which such an economy would function. We would allow for some inequality, of course, although ideally that would be substantially reduced, as the authors advocate. So we wind up finishing the book not having the most basic understanding about what this steady-state economy is going to look like.This is what is going to happen. When the big environmental / economic crisis hits us, people will realize that we need something like a steady-state economy, but no one is going to be able to say what this steady-state economy is going to look like. As society continues to deteriorate around us, there will be endless discussions, arguing, and hand-wringing. In the end, nothing will be done. The result will fall into place. This may mean a complete collapse of modern civilization and a reversion to something like 5000 BCE, or even the disappearance of all life on earth in a climate change apocalypse such as that envisioned by James Hansen at the end of Storms of my Grandchildren. Or it will be determined by chance. Or it will be determined by a small minority which will have thought out these questions outside of the realm of politics, figured it out on their own, and simply maneuvered or forced it into place. Unfortunately, this last alternative seems to be our best chance. Anyone want to give it a shot?

Do we need a steady-state economy?

There's a second problem, a rather common-sense problem which many readers not convinced of the need for a steady-state economy are bound to ask. Do we really need a steady state economy to deal with today's environmental problems? Let's take, for example, the biggest problem of them all right now, climate change. Does climate change require a steady-state economy? Why couldn't we just have solar panels, wind turbines, dispense with fossil fuels, and continue to have a growing economy? This problem is related to the first, because if there's no sense of urgency, then we can postpone the whole discussion of what a steady-state economy would look like.Now, I know the answer to this, because I read TheOilDrum.com and OurFiniteWorld.com and other blogs that have discussed this at length. The answer is, NO, we can't have a sustainable economy built on solar and wind and the like, and STILL be growing. A renewable economy based on solar and wind might possibly grow for a small period of time, at some point -- though NOT at first. In the beginning, even in the best circumstances, such a renewable economy would likely actually shrink because the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) of solar and wind is lower than the EROEI for fossil fuels -- that's a lot of what makes fossil fuels so attractive as a fuel. Moreover, the additional money and energy required to build out the new renewables infrastructure required would make a huge (albeit temporary) dent in the economy -- sometimes referred to as the "renewables gap." Thirdly, even after making the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and even assuming an unlimited supply of whatever-it-is that we're making those solar panels and wind turbines out of (there's no unlimited supply -- but just saying), there are other materials (soil, water, forests, metals, etc.) which are in limited supply and which would limit economic growth.But, this needs to be explained. The authors don't talk about this. I know: it's a bit hard to explain. However, I would at least try. If you don't try, you've lost your audience (or the part of the audience that can think, at any rate). Why do we need a steady-state economy in the first place? Why can't we just "grow" the economy, but just using renewables? Ecological economists need to know the answers to these questions! My fear is that a key reason that the steady-state economy has not been popularized is not only because we have too few good writers able to communicate technical subjects. My fear is that even the technical people don't really understand these issues. Therefore, it is possible that the reason we can't popularize this subject is because we don't know what we're trying to popularize in the first place.

The importance of these issues

The book is also something of a milestone in the history of ecological economics. For years ecological economics has labored under a burden. There is widespread interest in the environment, witness the growing and vast unease over climate change. There is also widespread awareness that the earth's resources are finite, witness the decades-old study The Limits to Growth. There is, finally, widespread awareness of the obvious truth that the economy is clearly tied up both with climate change, resource use, and many other environmental issues. But despite this, awareness of ecological economics or the most basic issues related to ecological economics -- like what a steady-state economy is! -- is limited almost entirely to a handful of specialists. The world desperately needs to spread awareness of these principles and we have reached a crisis of the first order (threatening the existence of the human race) because of this ignorance. At last, now, we have something approximating an attempt to disseminate the principles of ecological economics to a wider audience. But does Enough is Enough succeed at this? While it is a milestone, the book is also rather problematic. I read through the entire book and had difficulty placing my finger on the reason. So, what's the take away from this book? What am I, the aspiring activist and advocate for a steady-state economy, supposed to scrawl on my placard as I march around in a demonstration, or write to my elected representatives, or present as ideas to my fellow environmental activists? There must be limits: that much is clear. But where should those limits be? The authors give us only the most vague of answers. I am imagining this scenario. I am promoting Enough is Enough and after the talk, ask for questions. A hand shoots up and the questioner asks: "In a steady-state economy, about what would the average standard of living be?" Or: "In a steady- state economy, would computers be as widespread?" "Who would have cars, and how would they be powered?" "Would people continue to eat meat or increase meat consumption?" All of these questions seem reasonable, but I wouldn't really know how to answer them. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure how I'd answer them even if I were NOT promoting this book, but were promoting my own book in which I could say whatever I wanted. They are simple, but tough questions.Some people may be tempted to offer a generalizing answer like this: "In a steady- state economy, we will have a European standard of living for the entire world, at a world population of 2 billion." This is a politically acceptable answer because it will appeal to environmentalists who are not aware of the seriousness of our resource shortage issues. The best and the brightest of those who are aware of the depth of our resource shortage issues know that this sort of thing will not work. A European standard of living for 2 billion is just not sustainable. By making this sort of answer, you will lose a lot of smart people. We need specifics, or at least parameters. In their absence, people will just shrug their shoulders and move on, and the world will move into a darker phase in which the electrons which currently record these sorts of thoughts will fall silent. ...more

Category: Review

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