When enough is enough

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Why a future of endless economic growth is not the cure for what ails the earth.

After wandering around an academic wilderness for 30 or so years, a fella might be forgiven for indulging in a little schadenfreude before the spectacle of the West’s recent mind-bending fall from grace. But University of Maryland professor Herman Daly, a veritable John the Baptist of alt-economics, has a little trouble savoring the sudden relevance of his long-neglected theories of sustainable economics.

“Everyone likes to be proven right, I guess, but there is so much suffering related to this,” he explains. “I am very worried about what’s going to happen to my children and my grandchildren, and my students are having a terrible time finding work.”

Daly is also the grandfather of a school of economic thinking that casts a definitively colder eye on traditional views of the global economic order. His steady-state economics is a subdiscipline that adds another “eco,” as in ecology, to the issues that should most concern practitioners of the dismal science. It tries to discern how economic systems can comprehensively benefit humankind without sucking the planet completely—and permanently—dry in the process.

Faced with an unprecedented meltdown of global markets and financial structures, even the once proudly unconventional Barack Obama reaches for the traditional prescription of Keynesian stimulus to move the nation out of the crisis which has engulfed it. What is the plan? One that makes Daly wince a little.

We are going to grow our way out of economic meltdown, just as in a prior generation we tried to grow our way out of a cultural malaise or grow our way out of wealth maldistribution by “rising” all boats—even ones springing great gushing leaks—on an economic tide of apparently limitless expansion. Problem is no one has taken a step back to ask if all that growth were healthy for the United States—or the earth itself—or just a kind of consumptive malignancy that would one day devour us. We may have an answer now.

The president says that the crisis, serious as it is, also offers great opportunity for reimagining our future, and no less a go-go globalist than The New York Times’ Tom Friedman now counter-cheers a reevaluation of our role as the grand consumers of the world. But are these guys asking us to examine our collective conscience just so long as it takes us to figure out how to reboot America’s newly ailing economic order?

“Everyone is just talking about how long it will take to get the economy going again,” says Daly.

He has been making the point since at least 1994, when he retired from the World Bank, that something more substantial may be required if we are to right this great spaceship we journey upon. Daly proposes a future of economic gradualism, a global order that is “slower by design, not by disaster,” a system that recognizes that the free market system does some things well and some things, well, not so much.

One thing it hasn’t managed terrifically is its “sourcing” of the biosphere, where market maximalism means even vast extractive enterprises are captured as economic goods even as they frantically deplete finite resources that ought to be conserved for the future.

Daly argues there is such a thing as “uneconomic” growth, that is, growth that may appear beneficial because it generates jobs and wealth, but that does cumulative, measurable long-term damage to biosystems. “GDP is our idol,” he wryly notes. “We basically worship it, and eventually that begins to cost more than it’s worth.”

Relentless growth has been treated as an irrefutable economic good. What Daly proposes is a planetary order based not on permanent expansion, but on rational distribution and closed economic systems such that the earth’s carrying capacity is not ultimately diminished by human economics.

Daly’s stewardship model dovetails nicely with Catholic social teaching on the proper role of the economy and the just—and rational—distribution of goods in human life.

As for Washington’s growth-addicts, Daly has simple advice for President Obama. “Don’t listen to the guys who got us into this mess,” he says.

This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 5, page 46).