INTERVIEW WITH Brian Czech
(President of CASSE – Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy)
“IT’S TIME FOR THE STEADY STATE ECONOMY"
When we watch the news on TV or read it on newspapers, we often meet headlines like the following: USA’s economy is growing at a rate of…; China’s growth for the year was….Simply we are trapped in the growth paradigm. Growth has become the top priority. But that is a serious mistake. Development is different from growth; they can support each other, at least in the first phases of development, but growth cannot last forever. Even the fathers of modern economics stated that growth should not and (finally) could not last forever and must tend towards a stationary economy: Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and even John Maynard Keynes. Conceived in the 1970s by Herman Daly, the concept of the Steady State Economy has become increasingly important with the advancement of the ecological crisis.
Why is a Steady State Economy necessary? What are today’s most important obstacles to the achievement of a Steady State Economy? Is a Steady State Economy compatible with wellness and development? Why should nations now abandon the growth paradigm? Which countries face more obstacles in this perspective? Brian Czech, President of CASSE – Center for the Advancement of Steady – has answered these and other questions.
Brian Czech: Brian Czech has a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources studies from the University of Arizona with a minor in political science. The Executive Director of CASSE, Brian also spent 22 years in the U.S. Government, primarily in the headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For 15 years he was also a visiting professor at Virginia Tech, where he taught ecological economics in Tech’s National Capitol Region. Czech’s scientific articles have appeared in dozens of peer-reviewed journals, dealing primarily with ecological and economic sustainability issues. His books include Supply Shock, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, and The Endangered Species Act. An upcoming title, Gag-Ordered No More, will describe the unscrupulous efforts of the U.S. government to hide the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Brian is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and The Daly News, a blog devoted to advancing the steady state economy as a policy goal with widespread public support.
INTERVIEW - (January 2018)
This interview was made in November 2017 and published in January 2018 on www.lteconomy.org
Subject: Steady State Economy
Thanks go to Alessandra Sias for for their help in phrasing the questions.
- Why is it so important for us to achieve a steady state economy? Because the steady state economy is the only sustainable economy. Neither perpetual growth nor perpetual degrowth are possible.
- …in the 21st century is that we need to start recognizing GDP growth as an alarming trend toward crisis, not a positive sign to cheer for.
- Every nation, every continent, and of course Earth as a whole has a capacity for human population and economic activity. Once that capacity is breached, unemployment and impoverishment spread quickly and widely. So yes, of course the steady state economy is compatible with wellness and development.
- Some countries still need economic growth, and badly. These are countries with truly widespread material poverty… This is why the transition to a steady state economy is an urgent matter for wealthier nations… As I wrote in ‘Supply Shock,’ international diplomacy must be developed to openly tackle these vast differences in wealth. We might call such diplomacy ‘steady statesmanship.’
- The public debt and unemployment are pressing issues, but the prime minister cannot allow these to dominate national dialogue at the expense of even bigger issues. The biggest issue of all, for a national politician, must be the overarching, long-term, macroeconomic goal.
- For example, Bhutan has eschewed GDP growth while pursing “Gross National Happiness.” For decades the recently deceased King of Thailand long espoused the “Sufficiency Economy.” And China lowered its 5-year GDP growth goal by one percentage point.
- We now have over 13,000 signatories including many notable scientists and renowned commentators, providing additional credibility and leverage…. Along these lines, we seek a volunteer chapter director for an Italian Chapter of CASSE! Anyone interested in this title should email me at .
- …during the 21st century, supply curves of natural resources across the board are moving rapidly inward… In my opinion this will become the mother of all material problems.
Sign the CASSE position on economic growth at http://www.steadystate.org/act/sign-the-position/read-the-position-statement/
In the 21st century is that we need to start recognizing GDP growth
as an alarming trend toward crisis, not a positive sign to cheer for.
1. Dear Brian Czech, thank you for being with us. You are the President and Executive Director of CASSE (Center for the advancement of the Steady State Economy, www.steadystate.org), the leading organization promoting the transition from unsustainable growth to a new economic paradigm called the ‘Steady State Economy.’ Why is it so important for us to achieve the ‘Steady State Economy?’
Thank you as well for having me, and for the fine work you do at LTEconomy.
Why is it so important for us to achieve a steady state economy? Because the steady state economy is the only sustainable economy. Neither perpetual growth nor perpetual degrowth are possible, and attempting either path becomes perpetually more painful and dangerous.
For many readers, it will help to remind ourselves precisely what economic growth is, and what it entails. Economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It entails increasing population and/or per capita production and consumption. Economic growth is measured with GDP, or gross domestic product.
GDP is often denigrated by critics of conventional economics. At CASSE, we like to point out that GDP is actually an excellent indicator of two things: the size of the economy and the degree of environmental impact. We need to keep measuring GDP, ever more carefully in fact. The big difference in the 21st century is that we need to start recognizing GDP growth as an alarming trend toward crisis, not a positive sign to cheer for.
2. Some politicians and economists criticize the Steady State Economy. They say it brings unemployment and social impoverishment. Is the Steady State Economy compatible with wellness and development? Why should each Country now abandon the growth paradigm? What are the main obstacles?
Well, politicians aren’t exactly known for long-term thinking, are they? If they were, they would recognize that what really brings unemployment – disastrous, devastating levels of unemployment – is the perpetual pursuit of GDP growth. Every nation, every continent, and of course Earth as a whole has a capacity for human population and economic activity. Once that capacity is breached, unemployment and impoverishment spread quickly and widely. So yes, of course the steady state economy is compatible with wellness and development. We might say that the transition from a growth obsession to steady state economics will be the biggest economic development of the 21st century.
Regarding the question of “each country,” the answer here is not so simple. Some countries still need economic growth, and badly. These are countries with truly widespread material poverty. A number of African countries would fall under this category; Liberia, Malawi, and the Congo region are obvious examples. In Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are well-known examples. Nations such as India, Bangladesh, several South and Central American countries, and Haiti seem perennially close to the poverty line. All of these countries need increasing production and consumption of goods and services for some period of time yet.
It must be understood, however, that economic growth in poverty-stricken countries will be every bit as environmentally impactful as it has been in all other countries. Many of these environmental impacts accumulate and spread globally, with atmospheric pollution and climate change as classic examples. This is why the transition to a steady state economy is an urgent matter for wealthier nations. Wealthy nations can best afford, materially, to stabilize production and consumption now. They can also least afford, politically, to demonstrate widespread greed by perpetually chasing a higher GDP while poor countries wallow in poverty.
As I wrote in Supply Shock, international diplomacy must be developed to openly tackle these vast differences in wealth. We might call such diplomacy “steady statesmanship.” Ultimately the only sustainable global economy is a steady state, and to get there, a great deal of challenging diplomacy will be required to facilitate the establishment of steady state economies, one region at a time.
The public debt and unemployment are pressing issues, but the prime minister cannot allow these to dominate national dialogue at the expense of even bigger issues. The biggest issue of all, for a national politician, must be the overarching, long-term, macroeconomic goal.
3. Let’s suppose I am the Prime Minister of a country and want to abandon the growth model to pursue a development model based on the principle of the Steady State Economy. But I have two problems: high public debt (especially external debt like Italy’s) and a high level of unemployment. What do you suggest I should do? Is there any country which is successfully following a Steady-State-like model?
First let me say I wish you were Prime Minister. You are asking the right questions, and your long-term approach to the economy would be a political breath of fresh air.
Your questions on debt and unemployment are tough ones. In fact the question about unemployment, especially, is the toughest question we face at CASSE. I should reiterate that some nations still need old-fashioned economic growth; increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.
But let’s assume the context of your question is the office of prime minister in a typical European country. For dealing with a threatening public debt and high levels of unemployment, there are no truthful answers that are simultaneously fun or easy to accomplish. That said, the prime minister under such conditions has several obvious things to accomplish.
First, he or she must provide moral and psychological leadership, in particular a new focus on the dangers that await us and our children if we continue to pull out all the stops for economic growth. The public debt and unemployment are pressing issues, but the prime minister cannot allow these to dominate national dialogue at the expense of even bigger issues. The biggest issue of all, for a national politician, must be the overarching, long-term, macroeconomic goal.
In particular, the prime minister must come back to the point over and over again that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security, and international stability. Only by reiterating this key point will citizens come to understand that the problems with debt and unemployment can only get worse – far worse – with the same old policy of GDP growth.
The prime minister will then find it easy to dismiss the 20th century rhetoric that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” There’s only so much water to supply the tides, material for building the boats, and room on the water to begin with. This will resonate with the common sense of the public. Dismissing the metaphor of the rising tide provides the prime minister with the political space to address the distribution of wealth. In most countries, there is enough fat in the economy to skim from for purposes of increasing employment and for assisting the remaining unemployed.
The next key task for the prime minister is steady statesmanship in international diplomacy. A nation announcing a transition from GDP growth to a steady state economy is sacrificing a lot from the conventional perspective of pro-growth politics. Therefore this nation should rise toward the top of the list of nations warranting debt relief. The prime minister and his ambassadors must prevail with this diplomatic program, aided by like-minded leaders from other progressive nations.
Nations moving toward a steady state economy are also the only ones with a reasonably ethical defense for tightening their borders. A stable population is a prerequisite for a steady state economy, and if rapid immigration makes that impossible, then immigration reform may be required. If, on the other hand, the nation closes its borders to poverty-ravaged immigrants while concurrently pushing for ever-increasing consumption, it will be seen as exceptionally greedy, with negative effects on international relations, trade, and ultimately national security.
As for nations currently engaging in steady state economics, to the best of my knowledge there are none, at least not formally through macroeconomic policy. That will discourage some readers but will excite those who like to be on the cutting edge of major political developments and policy initiatives. And, some crucial precedents have at least been set.
For example, Bhutan has eschewed GDP growth while pursing “Gross National Happiness.” For decades the recently deceased King of Thailand long espoused the “Sufficiency Economy.” And China lowered its 5-year GDP growth goal by one percentage point, explicitly because of the negative environmental impacts of its rapid rate of growth. Of course China’s growth rate is still wildly unsustainable and environmentally disastrous, but the crucial precedent was formally acknowledging (unlike European and American nations) the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.
We might also note that some nations have experienced a relatively stable GDP in recent decades: Cuba, Japan, and Scandinavian nations are often cited. However, as Herman Daly points out, a failed growth economy is not the same as a successful steady state. The verdict is out on whether such nations will come to embrace their potential leadership in steady state economics.
4. We have talked deeply about the rationales behind the Steady State Economy. What kind of activities is your organization (CASSE) putting in place to promote such a model? In particular, are you working hand on hand with some Countries? What about your relations with Italy?
From a tactical standpoint, CASSE takes a position on economic growth that has been extremely helpful in raising awareness of the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. The CASSE position – available at http://www.steadystate.org/act/sign-the-position/read-the-position-statement/
– is a clear and concise introduction to the steady state economy as an alternative to economic growth. For many readers, the CASSE position becomes their introduction to the steady state concept. Meanwhile the length of our signatory list helps us demonstrate the increasing level of support for the steady state economy, which is crucial for political advancement. We now have over 13,000 signatories
including many notable scientists and renowned commentators, providing additional credibility and leverage.
The CASSE position on economic growth is not ephemeral like a ballot, either. Transitioning from economic growth to the steady state economy is a life-time project for CASSE and its network. Likewise, the CASSE position on economic growth is a durable instrument.
CASSE is also active in conferencing, publishing, social media,
and a wide range of speaking engagements encompassing academic, professional, political, and religious venues. In addition to our Board of Directors
and Advisory Board
, we have a Volunteer Network and Speakers Network
. And of course our website is a constant presence; those who google “steady state economy” will quickly encounter www.steadystate.org
Our collaboration with particular nations has included participation in Bolivia’s Harmony With Nature initiative at the U.N., ecological economics training of state educators in Ukraine, and discussion and education with policy makers at various levels of government in the U.S. and Canada. For example, due to our proactivity at a conference in Washington, DC, we were able to meet with one of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisors and provide a briefing that was received with great interest.
In fact, we have engaged governments around the world with our volunteer network. Such engagement has occurred on an opportunistic basis. I would not even be aware of all such engagement, as our Volunteer Network operates quite independently.
CASSE has also had a presence in multi-national efforts such as Rio+20. In Europe we have participated regularly with the Degrowth movement, which of course we find much common ground with. Several European Green Parties have endorsed the CASSE position on economic growth. In Italy, we have a collaboration developing with the Greenaccord Network after conferencing with them earlier this month.
Along these lines, we seek a volunteer chapter director for an Italian Chapter of CASSE
! Anyone interested in this title should email me at . Some of our current chapter directors are identified at http://steadystate.org/meet/local-chapters/
5. We have noticed that Climate Change is like the ‘Prisoner's Dilemma:’ cooperation is the best, but in the end every country pursues its own interests (taking into account the high cost of a structural change in the Energy model) and the ‘game’ is a failure. What kind of strategies could NGOs put in place at an international level to help advance the fight against Climate Change? Do you think the Paris Agreement is enough? How do you judge its state of advancement?
Taking your last question first, I am not a student of the Paris agreement, so I will have little to say about that for the time being. I was kept out of the open Paris conferences by my previous employer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because they knew I would draw the connection between economic growth and climate change. That’s a story I’ll be telling more of in my next book.
Meanwhile, I’d like to take this set of questions about climate change in a slightly different direction. Climate change was a major topic at the Greenaccord conference in Florence earlier this month (November 2017). I was on the last panel and in my presentation I gave the opinion that we might be putting too many beans in one pot.
Unquestionably, from a scientific perspective, climate change is one of the greatest threats to humanity in the 21st century. In fact, it is rapidly becoming an existential threat. Yet there was no shortage of environmental and economic threats prior to climate change becoming recognized by the scientific community. The environmental community, especially, has perhaps gone a bit too far in emphasizing climate change over other crises such as biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and pollution in general.
The problem with such an emphasis on climate change is the extreme difficulty in bringing the lay community on board. The average citizen – “Joe the Plumber” in American lingo – is not a scientist, and Big Money has prevailed in casting doubt upon the scientific consensus on climate change. Therefore, for Joe the Plumber, climate change is more of a belief that requires three leaps of faith:
1) The greenhouse effect.
2) The predominance of anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases (not to mention the extremely complicated greenhouse gas budgets combining natural and anthropogenic sources and sinks).
3) The ecological and economic impacts of anthropogenically derived climate change.
Each one of these steps are a significant challenge for typical citizens to wrap up their minds around. They tend to be busy already with trying to find a job, performing a job, and/or taking care of a family, plus seeking a little relaxation and pleasure on the side.
In contrast, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and all sorts of pollution are readily observable to the common man. Furthermore, it’s a matter of common sense to connect these serious problems with the process of economic growth. The “prisoner’s dilemma” isn’t so pronounced with these problems, either. Therefore, I suggest that we return to some of our earlier emphasis on these problems, without entirely abandoning our educational efforts with regard to climate change. It’s a matter of emphasis and proportion, in other words.
When we do talk about climate change, we should consistently point out the inevitability of increasing greenhouse gas emissions when economic growth is the top priority in a fossil-fueled economy. We also have to avoid giving the naïve impression that we can transition quickly or entirely away from a fossil-fueled economy. When our politicians and governments are pulling out all the stops for economic growth, fossil fuels aren’t going away just because other energy sources come online. Rather, all profitable energy sources will be applied toward the goal of GDP growth!
…during the 21st century, supply curves of natural resources across the board are moving rapidly inward… In my opinion this will become the mother of all material problems.
6. You published a book in 2013, ‘Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution.’ What do you mean with the words ‘Supply Shock?’ What are the main peculiarities of this book?
The phrase “supply shock” is economic rhetoric, referring simply to a rapid (i.e., “shocking”) reduction in supply. Usually the phrase is used in a microeconomic context. For example, an early freeze may cause a supply shock in citrus fruit.
In Supply Shock, I upped the ante to a macroeconomic context whereby, during the 21st century, supply curves of natural resources across the board are moving rapidly inward. This is inevitable when nearly all nations have aggressive growth policies. In my opinion this will become the mother of all material problems – environmental and economic problems – although it may not be viewed that way by everyone. Resource scarcity will cause wars, as it always has, and unless citizens and nations have come to recognize economic growth as the problem, they’ll think simplistically, for example, that war is “the” problem. It’s like seeing the branches while ignoring the roots.
As for the “main peculiarities” of Supply Shock, I assume you mean unique contributions or new propositions. I think the list is too long for this venue, but I will mention the trophic theory of money I described in Chapter 7. The basic thesis is that the supply and flow of money – with GDP as the best example – is an accurate indicator of environmental impact. (GDP can be measured by income or expenditure, reflecting the circular flow of money in economic textbooks.)
I developed the trophic theory of money using my training in ecology, specifically pertaining to trophic levels in the economy of nature. You must have producers (plants in the economy of nature) for primary and secondary levels of consumers (herbivores and predators, respectively). In the human economy you must have agricultural and extractive sectors for manufacturing and service sectors. (It’s not quite that simple; in Supply Shock I deal with the trophic nuances of the service sectors.)
In my opinion the trophic theory of money is what separates strong ecological economics from weak. Many ecological economists argue weakly that money is not necessarily linked with physical throughput (and therefore ecological impact). By tendering such a claim, so to speak, they scarcely differentiate themselves from neoclassical economists who claim there is no limit to economic growth.
Obviously inflation distorts the linkage between the circular flow of money and environmental impact. So does technological progress (which also is limited pursuant to the laws of thermodynamics) and the propensity to use money as a means of exchange (as opposed for example to bartering). I describe these distortions in Supply Shock.
I also recommend a number of policy reforms in Supply Shock that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
7. Agriculture, Energy, Building, Manufacturing. Which of these sectors is the most impactful? In which of these should the change begin?
I am not sure about the premises of this question. Drawing again upon lessons from the economy of nature, I see the human economy as an integrated whole comprising agricultural and extractive, manufacturing, and service sectors. These sectors grow and shrink as part of the integrated whole.
Our focus at CASSE is the impact of economic growth: that is, increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. We tend to leave the recommendations pertaining to particular sectors to others. (That said, I see a particularly dangerous tendency toward genetic modification, ecosystem simplification, and in general an erosion of ecological integrity in the agricultural sector.)
8. Finally, we have talked about international and national policies. What can citizens do to promote the Steady State Economy?
Next, citizens should learn as much as they reasonably can about steady state economics. Use Supply Shock or Introduction to Ecological Economics, the textbook by Herman Daly and Joshua Farley. My first book – Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train – is a primer better suited to those looking for a quicker read. Each of these books also address the basics about economic growth, limits to growth, and growth politics and policies. Citizens need this knowledge to communicate effectively for a steady state economy and to interpret the proposals of others.
Some citizens aren’t yet alarmed about limits to growth and the need for steady state economics. For them I’d recommend There is Still Time by Peter Seidel, The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg, or the 30-year update of Limits to Growth. If you are a concerned citizen, you may have to gift these books to those who aren’t. (They won’t be going out of their own way to read such material.)
Citizens have a tremendous amount of control over economic growth with their childbearing and consumption habitats, too. The trophic theory of money tells us that, all else equal, less expenditure is better for purposes of environmental and economic sustainability. Of course not all expenditures are equal, and common sense is usually a fair guide for choosing products that are “greener” (or more accurately less brown) than others.
In my opinion it will help, socially and politically, to develop a certain attitude – perhaps a mild castigation – toward conspicuous consumption. Actually this wouldn’t be just my opinion. A little background in the theory of the leisure class (Thorstein Veblen) and the hierarchy of needs (Abraham Maslow) is sufficient for recognizing how the attitudes of citizens affect the consumption behaviors of others. I elaborated on this in Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. But we must be careful not to be misinterpreted by potential followers, because violence comes too easily to humans.
Ultimately, political leadership will be needed, nationally for steady-state economic policies, and internationally for steady statesmanship. I sincerely hope some of your steady-statish readers will venture into politics in some capacity, and that some may even become the prime ministers and presidents alluded to earlier. Meanwhile, there is plenty to be done at local and provincial levels, in office or even if only on the campaign trail.
Good luck and Godspeed!
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