A Plea for a Steady-State Economy
Bob Hughes, AFS President
Recent news stimulated my writing of this commentary. Pope Francis and President Obama decried the growing gap in income disparity globally and in the United States. China largely abandoned its one-child policy to stimulate economic growth, despite being the top CO-emitting nation on Earth. The Warsaw Climate Change Conference produced no clear commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of threats to economic growth. Canada gutted its Fisheries Act (Post and Hutchings 2013) and the Oregon Congressional delegation introduced bills to markedly weaken aquatic resource protections in the North-west Forest Plan (Frissell 2013). Both of the latter actions are designed to stimulate economic growth at the expense of fish, fisheries, and aquatic ecosystems.
As long as resource scientists and managers fail to honestly discuss the limits to economic growth and the effects that growth has on ecosystem conditions, those ecosystems will continue to unravel. Piecemeal conservation actions can certainly delay the inevitable, but at some point we must clearly help society recognize that denial and Band-Aid approaches do not prevent degradation. As Limburg et al. (2011; Figure 1) documented, there is a very high correlation between economic growth and listings of species as threatened and endangered. These listed species, like melting glaciers and ocean acidifica- tion, are indicators of fundamental ecosystem deterioration and the potential collapse of essential ecological functions.
Species losses led to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, in which the U.S. Congress declared that “various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth” (7 U.S.C. § 136, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.). U.S. citizens understand that there are trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protections and generally tend to favor the former during a recession or periods of low economic growth. The degree to which economic growth is favored over environmental protections is highest among Republicans and those over 65 years old, whereas environmental protections are favored over economic growth among Democrats and persons under 30 years old. What seems unclear to citizens is that economic growth cannot continue in perpetuity (Daly 1997; Czech 2013). We can hope that technological progress (or manna from heaven) will keep pace with eventual resource scarcities and environmental degradation. However, that is like us embarking on a long backpacking trip through an unknown landscape without any food or water and hoping that we will find sufficient amounts on the way.
So what is the answer for avoiding a very nasty future for our descendants and the planet? A steady-state economy is needed if we seek environmental protection, sustainable economies, and reduced national and international instability (Daly 1997; Czech 2013). A steady-state economy would entail reducing and stabilizing natural resource use and waste production, reducing and stabilizing human population size, providing full employment and education, creating more equitable wealth and income distribution, and measuring progress in noneconomic growth terms (Dietz and O’Neill 2013; Costanza et al. 2014). Current economic growth rates, whether in putative communist, socialist, or capitalist economies, tend to benefit the powerful and wealthy more than others (Daly 1973; Ehrlich et al. 1977). And this is true of nations as well as citizens (Perkins 2005). The sooner that the United States serves as a model for reducing its ecological footprint (Wackernagel and Rees 1996) and moving toward a steady-state economy, the more likely the U.S. economy and the world economy will become sustainable.
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Post, J. A., and J. R. Hutchings. 2013. Gutting Canada’s Fisheries Act: no fishery, no fish habitat protection. Fisheries 38:497–501.
Wackernagel, M., and W. Rees. 1996. Our ecological footprint: reducing human impact on the Earth. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada.
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