Thursday, December 26, 2013

Seriously, I Want You to Read This Book. Yeah, All of You.

I'd like to recommend a book that I think we should all read in the coming year, "Beyond Growth" by former World Bank chief economist, Herman E. Daly.

Beyond Growth is not a fun book to read.  It's not an adventure or a mystery or even a tragedy.  It's a primer on a new form of economics that must, and eventually will, supplant the growth-based, GDP economics that has prevailed all our lives and in previous generations since the industrial revolution.

This new economic model is based on bringing humankind into harmony with the place we live, our planet, our one and only biosphere.   Since we're already consuming resources at half-again nature's rate of replenishment, that means we're going to have to ramp down our consumption and production of resource-dependent goods and services.

That sounds pretty dismal, doesn't it?  Less stuff, fewer things.  Well, when you've been brought up in a society in which things and stuff have been embraced as an ersatz measure of success and happiness, a future of fewer things and less stuff can seem tinged with dreariness.  It can seem that way until you really start to think what that might mean and then it can suddenly seem like a really great idea.  You see, steady state economics introduces limits on quantity of production and consumption but not quality of the goods and services marketed.   Growth in quality, durability, upgradeability and enjoyment is more than a substitute for limits on quantity.

The current economic model, the one within which we all work and live, is essentially a mental illness in that, at its core, it is based on assumptions and exceptions that either ignore or flout reality.  When it does run headlong into reality it looks for quick fixes, parlour tricks, sleight of hand to continue the illusion of defying gravity.

So the current struggle pits realists who believe in a finite planet against mainstream economists for whom, as Cook noted, "the concept of limits to growth threatens vested interests and power structures; even worse, it threatens value structures in which lives have been invested.... Abandonment of belief in perpetual motion was a major step toward recognition of the true human condition.  It is significant that 'mainstream' economists never abandoned that belief and do not accept the relevance to the economic process of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; their position as high priests of the market economy would become untenable did they do so."

Steady state economists like Daly have a keen sense of the need for posterity.  Daly summarizes how that should be implemented.

"...the basic needs of the present should always take precedence over the basic needs of the future but ..the basic needs of the future should take precedence over the extravagant luxury of the present."

It's not just resources, production and consumption that occupy the minds of steady-state economists.  Population issues are also front and centre - the yin to the yang.

As Daly notes, when it comes to the working classes, more is rarely better.

"...what most attracted my attention while living in Northeast Brazil in the late 1960s was the effect of class differentials in fertility upon the distribution of income.  Fertility in the lower class was over twice that of the upper class - a condition that still obtains in many parts of the world today.  The possibility of wages ever rising in the face of a virtually unlimited and rapidly growing supply of labor was nil.  The rich got richer while the poor got children. 

"An effective upper-class monopoly on ownership of the means of limiting reproduction was added to the traditional monopoly on ownership of the means of production to give an additional dimension of class dominance.  It seemed to me that the social factors generating poverty were two:  non-ownership of the means of production (Marx); and non-ownership of the means of limiting reproduction (Malthus).  Although Marxists and Malthusians are traditional enemies, it seems to me that their respective understandings of the causes of poverty are logically consistent, however psychologically and ideologically at odds they may be."

What comes through from reading Beyond Growth is that the abandonment of neo-classical economics and transition to steady-state or full-Earth economics isn't something we should do but something we have to do, in time, if we are to survive as a global civilization.   What was just dandy only three or four decades ago is lethally toxic today.   The world of 2.5-billion people that existed when I was born bears no resemblance to the world of three times that number that we inhabit today.  The rules and theories and assumptions that worked when I was born don't work today and yet we still cling to them even as we methodically poison, ravage and destroy our biosphere.

There are several books on this new/old economic theory but pretty much everything is summed up in Beyond Growth.  It's only 224-pages and, while some of the reading can be a grind, you can get through it.  It's vital that enough of us read and embrace this new economics for a living world that we can build the critical mass so necessary for change.


Richard said...

Don't read my comment, reader, read the book. Go! Now! Do it! Share it! What are you waiting for? GOOOO!!!

Lorne said...

It is a book I will definitely pursue in the new year, Mound; I received Susan Delacourt's book, Shopping For Votes, for Christmas, so Daly's book will have to be the second political piece I read in 2014.

Marie Snyder said...

Another good one on the same topic is Chris Turner's The Leap, and Turner is always very positive in his approach to all the doom and gloom. I'll get on this one too, though!