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Enough childish name calling

Supporters of the steady state may have been irked, if they had not been so bemused, by the content of a recent piece from the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which took issue with steady state economics.

The opening paragraph of the article by IEA’s Kristian Niemietz is:

Imagine Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx and Saddam Hussein were meeting somewhere in the afterlife, deciding to write a joint policy paper. Difficult to imagine? Not at all. The result would probably look a lot like Enough is Enough, the report which came out of the Steady State Economy Conference.

I am sure even Saddam would have been bemused at this randomly selected “who I’d have dinner with” list.

The article continues into familiar territory encountered by steady staters: there are no limits to growth; steady staters and their ilk are doomsday environmentalists trying to spoil everybody’s consumption party; seeking to debunk Malthus and Ehrlich because their predictions have not (yet) manifested – which, based on current trends that a lot of people are very, very worried about, is arguably a bit of premature congratulation.

If Niemietz thinks that Ehrlich missed the mark about ‘prophesying decades of mass starvation in the Third World’, I suggest he familiarises himself with the Millennium Development Goals, which include a target to halve the number of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015. Just because you are not starving, Mr Niemietz, does not mean many others are not. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, one in six people in the world are suffering. That’s over a billion people.

Niemietz also creates a straw man of epic proportions when he states that “proponents of Steady State Economics think of people as a swarm of locusts: left to themselves, they will blindly devour their own livestock. But this interpretation is misleading. Locusts cannot generate scarcity signals. We can: they’re called market prices.”

Locusts do create scarcity signals – collapse of their number when the food source runs out. But that’s another story. In the meantime, will somebody contact the Mayans, the Romans and the Easter Islanders and tell them there is nothing to worry about.

A few tips for Mr Niemietz:

1. Limits to nature and to growth are a fact. There is only so much planet. Ask an astronaut.

2. Market prices signal a resource’s availability in the marketplace – not in the biosphere. This is why, where I live, a liter of petrol is cheaper than a liter of Coca Cola.

3. If perpetual consumption is the path to happiness, why do many western nations have such high levels of stress, personal debt, depression/mental illness? Is there a connection between the focus on maximizing consumption via the identity of the individual at the expense of community life and social connection? No chance we are out of balance in this one, then?

The author also cites a nonsensical metaphor courtesy of Bjørn Lomborg – the logic of resource depletion is akin to somebody who looks into a fridge and concludes there is only food for three days in it, and after that, the owner will starve.

An accurate metaphor would be that we are pulling apart our house to burn on the fire to keep warm; we are liquidating our capital, the natural systems that sustain us. Ask any conservation biologist and they will tell you that this is a dumb approach to asset management.

In an article peppered with inaccuracies and faulty logic, the author makes a claim that is way off target – an accusation that those advocating a steady state economy are misanthropists. On the contrary, we want to see good lives for all, now and into the future, secured through sound management of our ecological assets, and a quality of life that includes meeting material needs – but recognizing material needs as only one aspect of the totality of being human.

Although it’s pleasing to see that these ideas are starting to pop up as debates in this kind of forum, because it means that the growth monster is being perturbed, critics should try adding some basic physics, biology and a bit of history into their all-economics diet. Think of it as a bit of fiber!

Sharon Ede is a founding member of Post Growth and the author of the Cruxcatalyst blog.

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