Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger

Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train

Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop Them All

Brian Czech (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 220 pages
ISBN: 9780520225145
August 2002
$26.95, £18.95
Other Formats Available:
Americans have been conditioned to appreciate, cheer, and serve economic growth. Brian Czech argues that, while economic growth was a good thing for much of American history, somewhere along the way it turned bad, depleting resources, polluting the environment, and threatening posterity. Yet growth remains a top priority of the public and polity. In this revolutionary manifesto, Czech knocks economic growth off the pedestal of American ideology. Seeking nothing less than a fundamental change in public opinion, Czech makes a bold plea for castigating society’s biggest spenders and sets the stage for the "steady state revolution."

Czech offers a sophisticated yet accessible critique of the principles of economic growth theory and the fallacious extension of these principles into the "pop economics" of Julian Simon and others. He points with hope to the new discipline of ecological economics, which prescribes the steady state economy as a sustainable alternative to economic growth.

Czech explores the psychological underpinnings of our consumer culture by synthesizing theories of Charles Darwin, Thorstein Veblen, and Abraham Maslow. Speaking to ordinary American citizens, he urges us to recognize conspicuous consumers for who they are—bad citizens who are liquidating our grandkids’ future. Combining insights from economics, psychology, and ecology with a large dose of common sense, Czech drafts a blueprint for a more satisfying and sustainable society. His ideas reach deeply into our everyday lives as he asks us to re-examine our perspectives on everything from our shopping habits to romance.

From his perspective as a wildlife ecologist, Czech draws revealing parallels between the economy of nature and the human economy. His style is lively, easy to read, humorous, and bound to be controversial. Czech will provoke all of us to ask when we will stop the runaway train of economic growth. His book answers the question, "How do we do it?"
Prologue: A Wilderness Trail to an Economic Tale
1. Economic Growth as a National Goal
2. What Did Jack Kemp Really Say?
3. What Will They Think of Next, and Why?
4. Simon Said
5. Copernicus, Are You Out There?
6. The Steady State Revolution: Precepts and Terminology
7. Relations with the Liquidating Class
8. Relations with the Steady State Class
9. Relations with the Amorphic Class
10. Exemplary Steady Statism
Brian Czech is a conservation biologist with the federal government and an adjunct professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is coauthor of The Endangered Species Act: History, Conservation Biology, and Public Policy (2001).
“[Czech] breaks down complex concepts . . . into easy-to-understand and informative terms.”—The Compendium Newsletter
"Czech has given us a fine mix of economics and ecology, tempered with a lot of common sense."—Herman E. Daly, author of Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, and Ethics

"Czech's book occupies a unique niche by combining a critique of standard economics, a plea for a less excessive lifestyle, and extremely interesting insights from a wildlife biologist. Furthermore, Czech has written a popular book, doing a good job of maintaining an accessible style while presenting detailed information and documentation. A good book for students as well as for the general public, Shoveling Fuel will be more, not less, relevant in the years to come."—John M. Gowdy, co-author of Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature

"Talk of economic sustainability is bogus if not based on ecological principles and environmental realities. Although Czech shows why in a hilarious fashion, this is a serious book about a serious topic. Czech's clarion call for a 'steady state revolution'—what it is and how to bring it about—offers the only hope for real sustainability. This is a fascinating and convincing read."—David L. Trauger, Senior Staff Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey

Chapter 6

The Steady State Revolution: Precepts and Terminology

An old adage states that democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. We live in the world's model democracy--a fact for which to be supremely grateful--and for many of us, majority rule is indeed synonymous with democracy. However, majority rule has long been recognized by philosophers and historians as a dangerous principle that threatens the bigger picture of democracy, including equality, freedom of information, and public participation. This threat is called the tyranny of the majority. When misled, ignorant, or frenzied, the masses can wreak havoc. And yet, would we rather have a king, a dictator, or an aristocracy? The authors of the Constitution did the best that could be done by institutionalizing a system of checks and balances and the principle of representation. The Senate, for example, with its six-year terms, is supposed to have a cool head partially for the purposes of resisting short-term, poorly thought-out frenzies of public opinion.

But even the Constitution's elaborate system of governance can't beat entropy. Nothing is free, and a democracy is ultimately dependent on an intelligent, caring, and participating majority for its success. Problems are solved only when such a majority develops a perspective conducive to the solution. Usually the perspective covers the problematic institution itself, and the primary institutional actors. For example, when the majority of Americans perceived slavery as an unjust institution, and perceived slaveowners as the unjust practitioners thereof, slavery was abolished. Some slaveowners resisted, but they eventually petered out because they were ostracized. Even prior to abolishment, as the public's opinion of slaveowning turned negative, the injustices of slavery were lessened because the behavior of slaveowners changed with the norms. The problem of child labor was solved in a similar manner. Advanced, long-enduring institutions have been uprooted in relatively short order when they and their perpetrators became reprehensible to the majority.

Since the founding of the nation, the American majority has held economic growth in high esteem, and the majority has not been failed by democracy. The economy went through a start-up stage and then took off in the rocket's red glare. It grew up to be big and strong; by 1913 it was the most productive in the world--in 1922 alone gross national product rose 18 percent--by 1989 its volume was 450 times that of the 1820 version. It grew not only in aggregate but in per capita terms; by 1900 the average income was about three times its 1800 counterpart, and by 1990 the average American's consumption expenditure was about four times the 1900 level (Madrick 1995). But somewhere along the line a threshold was crossed. Thereafter, Americans didn't become any happier with all the extra consumption. The transition appears to have taken place somewhere between 1955 and 1980 (Schor 1991, Frank 1999).

Now the economy bloats at a rate of about 2.5 percent per year-5 percent in particularly threatening years. If it is not to jeopardize the lives of the grandkids, its growth must taper off at or below carrying capacity in K-selected fashion (see chapter 5). This will require nothing less than a revolution, a social revolution to match the academic revolution of ecological economics. The total revolutionary package may be called the steady state revolution.

The steady state revolution will be nothing like, for example, a Marxist revolution. Marx was convinced on theoretical grounds that capitalism was doomed, that socialism was the next stage, and that the economic evolution of humans would culminate in communism. Personally, he was all for such a development. Politically, therefore, he called upon the working masses to revolt. The bourgeoisie would not relinquish its undeserved wealth without a fight; might as well fight it out right away and shorten the term of oppression.

The call for the steady state revolution bears no resemblance to Marx's, in the sense that its aim is not communism or any other replacement of a prudently managed capitalist democracy. And there is no call here for a forcible overthrow of anything. Americans black and white have proven a great deal about the effectiveness of nonviolent revolution. So have others all over the world. As Brown (1995:119) pointed out in Models in Political Economy, "Most revolutionary social changes have involved very little violence."

On the other hand, the call for a steady state economy is far more urgent than Marx's. Unlike his evolutionary perspective of communism, there is no reason to believe that a steady state economy is preordained. And this is worrisome, because as Brown (1995:119) also noted, "It is the social breakdown that follows a failure to change that engenders violence." Americans are exhibiting some highly r-selective traits, portending a failure to change that could culminate in violence. Cornell professor Robert Frank (1999) pointed out that luxury spending in the United States is growing more than four times as rapidly as spending overall. Luxury autos, mansions and second mansions, vast lots, huge yachts, gawdy home appliances, cosmetic procedures, ultrapremium wines-all are being consumed at unprecedented rates. The ridiculous magazine Cigar Aficionado had more than 400,000 paid subscribers in 1996, and subscriptions were increasing rapidly.

Worst of all, it is not just the super-rich accounting for such waste. For every mansion on a vast lot, there are hundreds or thousands of "McMansions" on large lots. While the super-rich buys a $30 million yacht, the plain-old rich buys the $130,000 "bionic dolphin" (a one-person watercraft). For every million-dollar "Diamond Dream Bra," thousands of hundred-dollar bras are purchased. These incredible figures have been well documented by Frank (1999:37), who sensed a "growing social tolerance of acquisitiveness and greed."

While the super-rich are spending embarrassing amounts, anybody with the means seems to be following suit. In fact, all the way down the line we Americans seem to have a problem. We do it on credit, if necessary. By 1986, total spending in the United States came to 104 percent of GNP. How could that be? We borrowed $157 billion from foreign banks (Hamrin 1988). By 1988, the bunch of us spent $313 billion on leisure travel and over $200 billion on gambling (Paepke 1993). The throwaway nature of our consumerism is legendary; we drink more soda pop than water! A lot of the "consumption" is actually waste; we annually dump the equivalent of more than 21 million shopping bags full of food into landfills. Researchers from the State University of New York at Syracuse calculated that an American born in the 1990's would produce in a lifetime about one million kilograms of atmospheric wastes, ten million kilograms of liquid wastes, and one million kilograms of solid wastes. In addition, an American will consume 700 thousand kilograms of minerals, and 24 billion BTU's of energy, which is equivalent to 4 thousand barrels of oil. In a lifetime, an average American will eat 25 thousand kilograms of major plant foods and 28 thousand kilograms of animal products, provided in part by slaughtering two thousand animals (Hall et al. 1994:509-510).

These physical features are difficult to put into perspective, but there are telling psychological signs as well. For example, the fastest growing spectator sport in America is stock car racing; over 150 million Americans tuned in to watch at least one race in 1997. Some stock car races, like the Daytona 500, have attained prime-time TV coverage. What does this tell us about the American conservation ethic? How will the grandkids look back upon this folly? After all, racing amounts to intensive petrol consumption for exceedingly ephemeral gratification.

Perhaps these tendencies are related to the survey mentioned in chapter 1 that found that 63 percent of Americans agreed there were no limits to economic growth. As outlined in part 1, they have learned their neoclassical growth lessons well, either literally in the classroom or vicariously through the evening news.

It is very difficult to consider such aspects of American culture and conclude that we have a sustainable future. If Americans are indeed r-selected, the economy will stop growing all right, but not by reaching a steady plateau upon which to rest. It will stop growing in Malthusian fashion, with blight and despair in the offing as it crumbles amidst a wasted environment. While Marx' theoretical evolution was inexorably toward the good, and could be hastened via revolution, the real-world evolution is clearly toward the bad, and is hastened by the status quo!

In the world's model democracy, the steady state revolution must be a revolution in public opinion, a process by which the virtually ubiquitous cherishing of economic growth is transformed into an equally ubiquitous castigation of economic growth. This type of revolution is more social than political. It will not restructure the political system, but will replace the society of politicians with one of a different mind, with vastly different implications for the traditional beneficiaries of public policy. Majority opinion will be amenable to a steady state economy, and it will have to be sincere, explicit, and long term. Sincere means that people will act upon their convictions. Explicit means that the goal will be expressed in terms that cannot be misinterpreted by politicians who are supposed to represent the people. Long term means for the remainder of American existence, assuming that God declines to rewrite the biophysical laws.

Does the castigation of economic growth make the steady state revolution a moral affair? Only to the extent that the current cherishing of economic growth is a moral affair, and only to the extent that conserving the grandkids' inheritance is considered a moral issue. One could also classify it as an issue of economic sustainability, public health, or intergenerational justice. Each of these are put at risk by economic growth. Those with a vested interest in economic growth will probably build a strawman of the steady state revolution, portraying it as an emotionally driven attempt to enforce one set of morals on the rest of society. Such a portrayal will be a transparent attempt to buy time for economic growth and the attendant profits for some, and its transparency will increase as the economy congests and the environment degrades. In a concurrently increasing fashion, the steady state revolution will be seen by objective observers as a logical attempt to debunk a harmful myth that has been perpetuated by a cadre of professionals who serve (more or less wittingly) powerful economic interests.

Meanwhile, if the grandkids' prospects are an emotional issue for some, they surely cannot help it. Although one may claim on political grounds that such folks are driven by emotions, another may claim on scientific grounds that such emotions comprise an evolved survival instinct (Wilson 1998). The goal of the steady state revolution is to establish a steady state economy for the purpose of providing the grandkids (and their grandkids as well) a well-endowed natural environment conducive to health, happiness, and their own economic opportunities. The motives of such a goal should require little analysis. To the extent that the supporter of this goal may be portrayed as a bleeding heart, the opponent of this goal may be portrayed as a misanthropic deviant.

Although there is no reason to believe that this revolution in public opinion is preordained, there are reasons to be hopeful. Most importantly, people truly care about their grandkids, and even about their grandkids' grandkids. Couple this with our generally increasing aversion to risk, as documented by C. Owen Paepke in The Evolution of Progress, and we have to conclude that our wastefulness is less a matter of greed than ignorance. Our majority, misled by neoclassical economics and its corporate backers, is simply unaware of the magnitude of risks imposed by economic growth upon the grandkids. But the truth can be denied for only so long. The signs of economic growth gone awry are abundant: congestion, endangered species, and water shortages, for starters. All it will take is for more people to interpret such signs as the effect of economic growth, and not of other scapegoat phenomena. Ecological economics will be there to do the interpreting, and common sense will do the rest.

In thinking about a steady state revolution in public opinion, it will be useful to clarify a few terms. Words are incredibly important devices. Not words per se, but the connotations they produce, the baggage they carry, and the actions they invoke. A philosopher once remarked that there is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words. Maybe, unless it is the unambiguity of words that are used in the wrong context. Take growth, for instance. Growth is not at all ambiguous. It means to increase, get larger, expand, blossom. It's what babies, puppies, and kittens do. For many people, the fondest memories are of childhood or adolescent growth. Knowledge grows, bank accounts grow, confidence grows. Good things grow, and when they don't grow, it is bad. To not grow generally means to shrink, shrivel, dwindle, wither.

When the term "economic growth" is used, people are predisposed toward a positive reaction. Now this might be a minor point if the term was used as often as "pumpernickel" or "molecular evolution." But the term economic growth is heard virtually every day by those who watch the news or read the newspapers. If you get through a day without hearing it, don't worry, it will catch up to you. Remember the Kemp quote from the 1996 vice presidential debate? That was far from the only mention of economic growth. Twenty-two topics were debated, only three of which pertained directly to the economy. Nevertheless, Kemp interjected calls for faster economic growth in thirteen of the topical categories.

True, there are many among us who have seen the phenomenon of growth run amuck. In individuals, we've seen cancer and obesity. In societies, we've seen fads and fascism. In nature, we've seen invasions and infestations. Still, we generally don't think of such phenomena in terms of growth, even growth gone awry. We think of them as diseases, disasters, or mistakes. Cancer, for example, is not referred to as growth, but simply as cancer. When it happens, it is the withering aftermath that is despised, not the preceding growth.

Furthermore, economic growth is a particular manifestation of growth that we have been conditioned to appreciate, cheer, and serve. After all, economic growth was, during most of its history, a wonderful thing for Americans. Of course, let us not forget the Native Americans, for whom the new American economy was a cultural death knell. But for the new Americans, when carrying capacity was a far-off ceiling, economic growth did mean better food, clothing, housing, and education. Understandably, the term economic growth could for many years engender happy, encouraging thoughts. That much is beyond our control.

Perhaps, then, we should find a replacement phrase with an equally powerful, but negative, connotation. Herman Daly once referred to "economic swelling"; I suspect "bloating" is more conducive to a paradigm shift. Swelling connotes an uncomfortable condition, one that usually goes away on its own, and it creates no real sense of alarm. With bloating, if you don't do something about it, the outcome is positively repugnant. For educated Americans who have come to recognize economic growth as a major problem, step number one in the steady state revolution is simple. Let's stop calling a major problem, perhaps the ultimate problem, something that has such a proud, positive connotation. That just invites the continued pulling of wool over eyes. Let's call it economic bloating.

A bloating economy, as with any economy, consists of households and firms, each of which are comprised of individuals. So an economy consists of individuals, some of whom are more responsible than others for economic bloating. This class of individuals is characterized by excessive consumption. The consumption is usually manifest in personal belongings, like cavernous homes, gas-guzzling cars, and yachts. Family members are responsible for such consumption. The consumption can be corporate too, like palatial headquarters, executive resorts, and private jet fleets. Boards of directors and chief executives are responsible for this type of consumption. Such family and corporate individuals are termed "wealthy," but "wealth" is another word to be wary of. It is often couched in meritorious terms, as in "healthy, wealthy and wise." It is synonymous with "plenty," but while the plentiful object is usually money or valuable goods, one may also have a "wealth of knowledge" or a "wealth of friends." Because wealth, like growth, has such positive connotations, it behooves us to adopt a more representative term for those contributing disproportionately to economic bloating.

The term "bloated class" would be a bit unsophisticated for academics, and might therefore not be taken seriously. "Bourgeoisie" is too cliché and carries the big bag of communism. Perhaps the term "liquidating class" will do. This term has just enough sophistication to sound intellectually legitimate, but not enough to knock it out of American vernacular. Most importantly, it accurately reflects the problematic aspect of economic bloating. While the bourgeoisie was identified with the heartless oppression of the working class, the liquidating class is identified with the wanton destruction of the grandkids' natural environment. The liquidating class liquidates natural capital for the purposes of its own excess.

Of course, everyone liquidates to some extent. But just like the wealthy class was identified for having way more money than the other classes, the liquidating class liquidates way more of the environment. Some people live in mansions and own vacation homes. These folks liquidate via residence. Some drive Cadillacs on weekdays and Ferraris on weekends. These folks liquidate via transportation. Some accumulate expensive household items that sit there and do nothing (like the collector on the news this morning who spent $22,000 on some Mickey Mouse paraphernalia). These folks liquidate by collecting. Some people watch their big screen TVs from their thousand-dollar recliners; they liquidate via luxury. Some wear expensive fur coats and huge diamond rings; they liquidate by adorning themselves. Some live on porterhouse steaks and caviar; they liquidate with their stomachs. Some pay hundreds a month on massages and hairdos; they liquidate by pampering themselves.

Although one must have a large quantity of money or assets to belong to the liquidating class, moneyed folks do not necessarily belong to the liquidating class. Once in awhile someone wins a million-dollar lottery and keeps the same small house, the same small car, and the same blue collar job. The money is saved or dispersed among family members, with large quantities given to charity. Such a person is clearly not a liquidator. The liquidating class is characterized by high levels of wasteful consumption, which amounts to the frivolous liquidation of the natural environment.

As with the term "wealthy class," the relativity of the term "liquidating class" causes some problems. If you're penniless, no one would call you a "liquidator." If you're Microsoft's Bill Gates, who built a $40 million house (complete with video walls and private trout stream), you're a liquidator in everyone's book. Even if you're only like Gates's counterpart at Oracle, Lawrence Ellison (whose Japanese-style daimyo house has a carp pool and a teahouse), you're still an obvious liquidator. The closer you get to this type of consumption, the more likely you are to be classified as a liquidator.

For the purposes of the steady state revolution in public opinion, let us consider the top one percent of people, in terms of personal consumption expenditure, to comprise the liquidating class. (We understand from the start that certain folks in this category are exempt, like devoted philanthropists.) Personal consumption expenditures-not including house purchases-account for almost 70 percent of gross domestic product (Stein and Foss 1995), and the proportion has been steadily rising since 1950. Personal consumption expenditures therefore comprise the primary source of economic bloating, and a source that is clearly amenable to modification via public opinion revolution. I will explain my selection of the one percent criterion, and the ease with which it may be applied, in chapter 7.

Because we have identified a particular class based on its tendency to liquidate exorbitant amounts of natural capital, we need a term that describes the people who conserve natural capital. These are the people whose consumptive behavior is conducive to a steady state economy. Many characteristics of this behavior come to mind: responsible, sustainable, modest, charitable, prudent. Of course, we can get carried away with attribution. Just as liquidators may not be aware of the consequences of their liquidating behavior, wealthy nonliquidators might merely be misers. So it wo uld be misleading to call nonliquidators, for example, the "conscientious class." The term "sustainable class" would certainly be appropriate, because this class, conscientiously or not, offers our grandkids the hope of a sustainable future. But sustainable is a rather passive and dull term.

Perhaps the term "steady state class" will do. It would be identified readily with the class of people whose behavior is conducive to a steady state economy. Members of the steady state class, or "steady staters," would be known for their conservation, thrift, and (at least in conscientious cases) ethics. For the purposes of the steady state revolution in public opinion, let us consider the bottom 80 percent of people, in terms of personal consumption expenditure, to comprise the steady state class. I will explain the selection and application of the 80 percent criterion in chapter 8.

Finally, we need a term for those residing in the intermediate 19 percent of personal consumption expenditures. These folks vary tremendously in their liquidating habits, with a dubious effect on economic bloating. The term "amorphic class," encompassing as it were the "amorphs," will serve to capture the many and malleable consumption patterns displayed therein. Such patterns will be explored in chapter 9.

Chapter 1: Economic Growth as a National Goal

"We should double the rate of growth, and we should double the size of the American economy!" hailed candidate Jack Kemp during the vice presidential debate of October 9, 1996. Kemp was firing away from the bandwagon, and there's never been a redder face under whiter hair. He knew Americans have long been instilled with the ideal that economic growth is good, that economic growth solves societal problems. He figured they would vote for the candidate who could pull off the most growth. Less emphatic, Kemp's opponent Al Gore nevertheless sanctioned the growth race with the impeccably wry retort, "Well, the economy is growing very strongly right now.... The average growth rate is also coming up. It is higher than in either of the last two Republican administrations."

At face value, the argument that economic growth is good is hard to deny. After all, the economic growth of a nation is taken to mean that its citizens will be better fed, dressed, housed, educated, transported, and entertained. More MacDonald's and Antoine's, more Fords and Fiats, more jeep trails and ship sails. For rich and for poor, more quantity of more things. Twice as much, if we elect Jack Kemp. So economic growth leads to a better life, at least a better material life. This argument will be left intact for the time being. I mention it here only to explain the esteemed status of economic growth in the American psyche.

How esteemed is the status? At the University of Arizona, I conducted a nationwide survey and simply asked people. I presented them with a series of concepts, and found that economic growth is valued at a level of 75.4 on an importance scale of zero to 100, putting it in the same category as property rights and species conservation (Czech and Krausman 1999). Democracy and ecosystem health were valued at an even higher level, but none of these were valued as highly as the availability of resources for posterity (at 85.8). So Americans value economic growth quite highly, but perhaps not insanely so.

Another method with which to estimate esteem is to look at the news surrounding economic growth. Surely the newspapers wield a great influence on, and are affected by, the American attitude toward economic growth. I tapped into the National Newspaper Index, which catalogs articles from such bellwether papers as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times. From them are spawned many of the syndicated, copied, or emulated columns that grace the smaller rags throughout the nation. I searched for the phrase "economic growth" and found reference to 1,930 articles. In the uniform sample of every twentieth article I examined, economic growth was always treated as a desirable phenomenon. In nearly 15 percent of the articles, though the rate of growth for this or that region was considered too high, the propriety of growth itself was never questioned. No wonder Americans have such a positive view of economic growth!

One especially attention-grabbing article was "Stupid students, smart economy?" in which Robert J. Samuelson (1998) entertained an argument that despite the education crisis perceived by many Americans, we shouldn't worry. In this view, the fact that economic growth continues is a sure sign of an intelligent, well-educated society. Imagine the sighs of relief such a proposal must have produced amidst the angst over American schools. But does a perpetual increase in American consumption of goods and services really mean that its citizens are smarter? Has there ever been a bigger dog wagged by a smaller tail?

Then there is the evening news. Trends on Wall Street reflect the growth of the economy, and on each of the major broadcasting networks a stock market report is provided day in and day out. Gains on Wall Street are invariably presented as good news, while losses are decried, although perspective is sometimes evident to the extent that losses are termed "corrections." "Leading economic indicators" are also closely monitored. Housing starts, net corporate profits, and disposable income motivate Wall Street reaction. Again, upward trends are invariably portrayed as good. No other TV news topic receives daily monitoring at the national scale, suggesting that American society has no greater obsession than with economic growth—aforementioned survey results notwithstanding.

In addition to our political leaders and news media, our bureaucracy upholds economic growth as a national goal. On the first page of her annual report for fiscal year 1992, Barbara Hackman Franklin (Republican Secretary of Commerce) said, "Recognizing that commerce has supplanted military and security issues as the main concerns among nations, the 14 diverse agencies that make up the Commerce Department rallied ... to advance a seven point agenda for fostering economic growth." Not to be outdone, in his annual report for fiscal year 1994, the late Ronald Brown (Democratic Secretary of Commerce) said, "The activities of the Department — promoting economic growth through [a myriad of techniques]—have worked in strategic harmony to provide increased economic security for all Americans." The primary, perennial, and bipartisan goal of this massive, cabinet-level department is economic growth.

Even government agencies that are supposed to play an active role in conservation pursue the mission of economic growth. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is the oldest natural resource agency in the federal government and responsible for much of the nation's water quality and wetlands conservation. Since the 1970s, the Army Corps has defined its mission in terms of four programs: national economic development, regional economic development, environmental quality, and social well-being. In 1983, consistent with President Ronald Reagan's emphasis on regulatory impact assessment, the Corps formally prioritized economic development.

Reflecting on trends in American economic policy since his stint as an economic advisor to President Richard Nixon, Herbert Stein lamented, "Growth is now the great god before whom all participants in the discussion of economic policy bow their knee. Merely to allege that a policy will promote growth is sufficient to make a case for it" (from Hamrin 1988:40).

In addition to public esteem and official sanction, economic growth is the subject of much American faith. It is a particularly American feature that each generation believes the following one should and will attain a higher economic standard of living. A 1994 survey found that 63 percent of Americans agreed that there were no limits to economic growth (Madrick 1995). Even our Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, after delivering a litany of species endangered by economic development, announced, "But there is no conflict between wildlife conservation and economic development. We can grow without limit." (I have no citation for Babbitt's statement, but I was there in March of 1997 when it was delivered at the 62nd North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Washington, D.C. I copied it into my notes, discussed it briefly with an overscheduled Babbitt afterward, and brought it up in the open forum later that day. The director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jamie Clark, got stuck dealing with it.)

Understandably, American citizens can hardly resist the continually reinforcing influence of their news media, bipartisan politicians, and government. Or vice versa. But as one studies the phenomenon of economic growth as national ideal, one discovers that all the politicians, news reporters, and bureaucrats combined have only been following the lead of a privileged class of experts. After all, who wrote the syndicated column? Who did the reporter interview on the evening news? Who taught the politician, the bureaucrat, and the citizen what they know about economics? Why the economists, of course.

Economics is a topic that most of us avoid due to its dry, mathematically tedious bearing. My introductory macroeconomics course at the University of Wisconsin had the highest proportion of sleepers of any class I've seen. Most of us bought class notes and just skipped the damned thing. The only thing that lifted the tedium was when a pigeon would get into the towering chamber of Bascom Hall, or when Professor Culbertson would flail away at an intrusive bumblebee. Leave it to Mother Nature to breathe some semblance of life into economics.

We nevertheless live in a society shaped by economists. Malthus, Mill, and Marx established the great debates of Western civilization in the 1800s. They and their cohorts attained the ponderous status of "classical economists," partly in reference to their place in academic time. Thomas Malthus in 1805, for instance, became the first professor of political economy in the English-speaking world. Not coincidentally, it was also a time when a new, capitalistic society offered a way out of the dark ages of feudalistic warmongering, callous kings and queens, and bartering one's way to relative comfort. But "classical" best befits the fact that these economists were much more than number crunchers. The Adam Smiths and the David Ricardos spoke of big, classic issues like the power of nations, the distribution of wealth, and the limits of land. They were political philosophers and beacons of light in a truly new world order. As a group, they produced some of the most influential books ever written, including Wealth of Nations (Smith), An Essay on the Principle of Population (Malthus), and Principles of Political Economy (Ricardo).

The field of economics, then, rests on a fabulous foundation of human thought. But something went awry in twentieth-century western economics. For one thing, it dropped the big issues. As Robert Heilbroner (1992:173) put it, "economics had ceased to be the proliferation of world views that, in the hands of now a philosopher [Smith], now a stockbroker [Ricardo], now a revolutionary [Marx], seemed to illuminate the whole avenue down which society was marching. It became instead the special province of professors, whose investigations threw out pinpoint beams rather than the wide-searching beacons of the earlier economists." This new brand of economics gradually distilled the classicists' efforts into a unified assumption that economic growth is good, pure and simple. So today in a typical introductory textbook (Ekelund and Tollison 1988:147), students read that "The overall goal of macroeconomic policy is the achievement of economic stabilization ... to attain maximum economic growth in the present and future." Economics thus became a science geared toward justifying and facilitating the pursuit of wealth by individuals and nations. In perhaps its most radical departure from the classicists, however, it adopted the assumption that there is no limit to economic growth. In the process, it misinterpreted Smith, denied Malthus and Mill, and ignored Marx. This twentieth-century school of thought came to be known as "neoclassical" (new and different) economics, and it is the mainstream economics today.

When the word "economics" is used without any qualifying adjectives by a reporter, politician, or bureaucrat, it invariably means neoclassical economics. When someone speaks of an alternative school of economic thought, like "ecological economics" (which will be explained later), an adjective is used. But unless your reading interests take you deeply into the sphere of economics, the economics you encounter will almost certainly be neoclassical. Of course, as with most highly developed fields of study, there are alternative views of how the economics discipline may be classified. In one alternative, neoclassical economics was born with the tenure of Alfred Marshall at Cambridge in the late 1800s. In another, neoclassical economics is simply an elaboration of classical economics, both passing away around 1959 with the death of Arthur Pigou (chair of political economy at Cambridge from 1908 to 1944). In this view, the current predominant model is classified as Keynesian economics (a classification to be partly explained in the following paragraph and further in chapter 2). But most economics texts and practitioners employ the "neoclassical synthesis," classifying Keynesian economics as a special case of neoclassical theory, and that is the convention I will follow. All this may sound a bit confusing, but the important point is that neoclassical economics, in this book and in most others, refers to the collective body of economic theory that dominates economics today.

Riding on the shoulders of the classical giants, the neoclassical economists' expertise has long been sought by politicians and high-level bureaucrats who want to know what actions to take to better the lot of humankind—not to mention obtaining more votes and bigger salaries. It all started when John Maynard Keynes, Marshall's star pupil and champion of macroeconomic manipulation, helped the western world to think it was figuring its way out of the Great Depression. But the thought that subsequent neoclassical economists could be wrong about the limits to economic growth has not received serious attention anywhere in mainstream society. Certain radical economists and many ecologists have objected, but their arguments are seldom heard outside of academia. That is partly because science is too dry for most Americans. After all, if you work forty hours a week and take care of a family, you don't want to read about dull serious stuff in your spare time. Also, people in academia (university professors, primarily) tend to be competitive and egotistical. You have to be competitive to make a living in academia, and competitiveness is a natural counterpart to egotism. Just like football players want to be known for gaining the most yards or scoring the most points, professors want to be known for having the most profound thoughts or publishing the most scientific journal articles.

Note that I did not say publishing the most books or newspaper articles. Professors in the sciences (as opposed to those in the arts) differ from football players in that they generally care little about what the "fans" think. The ones they need to impress, if not for their own egos then for their professional advancement in the university system, are other scientists. And the currency that scientists deal in is scientific journal articles, in which scientists compete to display academic originality. Because all the simple things have been said in many ways, demonstrating a pioneering thought is difficult to do without writing something incredibly complex. So, for instance, Professor Bhaskar (1981:363) writes, "scientific development involves a fallible dialectic of explanatory and taxonomic knowledge, on which modified Aristotelian and Lockean realist positions in the theory of universals and perception respectively are seen to be entailed." Meanwhile, Professor Hannon and his colleagues (1986:397) write, "A sufficient condition for the equality of energy intensities calculated using the commodity-technology assumption (Eq. (8)) and the process-technology assumption (Eq. (10)) is that the commodity weightings in the process-technology assumption are the energy intensities, i.e., p = ε." (In case you're wondering, Eq. 8 was ε(c,c) = EPg-1C-1(I - BC-1)-1 and Eq. 10 was..., ah forget it.)

This is not to say that professors from the sciences never write for the general public. But few do regularly, and even fewer do successfully. In the sciences, you are trained not to write in an entertaining fashion that would be enjoyed by the general public. Science is dry stuff, and rightfully so. Dry language guards against the tainting of scientific findings by emotion, trickery, and in-efficiency. Thus and thankfully, Professor Bhaskar did not write, "Believe it or not, scientific development involves a pathetic dialogue of redundant taxonomic knowledge, on which good-ol'-boy 'realist' positions in the freakishly contorted theories of perception are found to pile like a lot of crap!" After years of writing for science journals, writing with some semblance of style, grace, or humor becomes a real challenge (note the preceding) that few scientists invest time in, especially when academic competition calls for continual scientific writing. But occasionally one encounters a professor who seems to care less about what other professors think than what the public thinks, and puts forth the effort. Outstanding examples from economics include Robert L. Heilbroner and John Kenneth Galbraith.

In summary, economic growth is a cherished American ideal. It is touted by politicians of both parties, praised in newsprint, and monitored nightly on TV. It has long been a goal of our federal government, and supposedly has "surpassed military and security issues" as the prime federal concern. Trying to decide who is the driving force in this complicity of media, government, and citizens is a chicken/egg quandary. But aside from their historical value, chicken/egg arguments are always moot; once you have either, the other will follow. Even if the public were not enthralled with economic growth, surely it would become so given the continual psychological reinforcement of media and government minions. However, just as the chicken/egg argument overlooks the rooster, attributing America's obsession with economic growth to the public, government, or media overlooks the planter of the seed: the neoclassical growth economist.

Join UC Press

Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more