Thursday, January 31, 2008


In this lecture Josh Farley tells us that we can’t sell the Steady State economic model if we preach gloom and sacrifice. “Martin Luther King would have gotten no where if he had given a “I have a Nightmare” speech. Farley demonstrates that it is we who have the positive message and that it will be the ideologues of classical economics who will have to purvey gloom and doom once it is apparent to all that there are no more cookies in the cookie jar.

Even with their greedy target of 3-4% annual growth, which results in a frightening doubling time of 28 years, the growthists haven’t eliminated poverty, globally or nationally. They’ve tripled the economy since 1969 in the United States, but poverty levels are even higher. The world economy would have to grow twenty times its present size to achieve this goal, but as we know, there aren’t even resources to feed an economy of that magnitude or one a fraction of that size. And if there were, ecological damage would shut off the engine before the runaway train left the station, as it is in the process of doing. Sadly, it appeared to be the consensus at the Bali Conference that economic growth was the pre-condition for solving third world environmental problems, an attitude pervasive in the parliaments of Europe and North America.

But as Brishen Hoff put it, “every economic boom leaves an environmental bust”. Farley mentions that 70% of oceanic fish have been harvested beyond sustainability. But here is how classical economic theory breaks down. As certain fish become scarce, they become more expensive, and hence more attractive to harvest. The feedback mechanism works in the wrong direction. So much for the magic of the price system. And on the subject of sustainability, he made this remark about fossil fuel agriculture: “It takes 10 calories of hydrocarbons to produce one calorie of food.”

Farley said that the new sustainable economy would detach property rights from property ownership, and he cited the example of the “Commons Trust” in his home state of Vermont. Since 80% of Vermont consists of forest, the state government thought it prudent to purchase eco-system services from owners as has happened in Costa Rica. Vermont assigns property rights to society as a whole—there is no “right” to pollute or to damage the commons. After all, hunter-gatherers had no property rights, and we spent more time in that role than in our present role as “future-eaters”.

To the economics of the dismal science Farley counterpoises “The Economics of Happiness” and discusses the relationship between GNP and well-being. The United States consumes 30% of the planet’s resources but are Americans substantially happier than others? Are there buckets of smiles on the faces of Americans walking the streets of New York or Sacramento, California? Research shows that relative wealth is more meaningful to people than absolute wealth---as long as they stand materially close to their neighbours they are reasonably content. An egalitarian society of lower material standing is happier than a wealthier one with great disparities. Farley says that Colombians making $5,000 a year are as content as most Americans.

In 1969, he points out that the United States consumed one-third of what it does today, but consumed just 17% of the energy in doing so. I haven’t equivalent Canadian statistics, but I can tell you this about 1969. We produce more than 155% more goods and services today than we did then, but we have not increased our production of fertile soil, clean water, clean air, spacious parks or wildlife by 155%. And like the United States, there are one-third more of us competing for these finite resources than there were then. In 1969 a musical instrument was just as pleasant to hear then as now, a novel was just as enjoyable to read then as now, a dog was just as companionable then as now, a sunset was just as beautiful then as now and my family gave me even more sustenance then as now because folks had more time to give each other then. In 1969 we had fewer toys and fewer choices but also had less crime, less traffic, less pollution and less stress. And its all down to growth.

To paraphrase Albert Bartlett, it is difficult to identify a single part of one’s life that growth has improved. It shouldn’t be a tough sell: Let’s slow down, lower our standard of living, but raise our quality of life.

Josh Farley’s lecture is a little over 56 minutes long. Stay with it.

Tim Murray

January 27/08

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