Rob Dietz recently published the book Enough is Enough with co-author Dan O’Neill. The gist of the book is that the growth-oriented consumer culture in places like the United States and Europe, where, even in the recent crisis, people are “more concerned with keeping their iPhone than with solidarity”, as one commentator put it, is not sustainable. Indeed, one might mention that, at least at present, the possibility of continuation of relations of the status quo is limited, with consequences of present day policies showing themselves in superstorms, droughts, massive shifts in climatological patterns, among others. The search for alternatives brought me to discover Dietz & O’Neill’s book, and the CASSE movement in general. Their ideas are robust, and the alternative they paint –particularly the emphasis on wealth redistribution and willingness to describe the effects of inquality are timely. The interview covers the book and other projects of CASSE.
The movement’s blog can be found here, and is definitely worth your time.
[working transcript – Updated Jan 22, 2015]
Spirit: Can you tell us the story of this book, and what brought you to write it?
Rob Dietz:Sure. For my own part, it really was born out of looking for a way out of the profound problems that we’re creating for ourselves. I was studying environmental science, economics and conservation biology, and when you look at these fields, it’s just one crisis after another, especially in conservation biology where everyones focused on species extinctions, ecosystem decline, loss of biodiversity. And, essentially, what I came to realize is it’s our pursuit of continuous economic growth that is the cause of these problems. SO, I got really into this idea of how can we have an economy that meets our needs without undermining the life support systems of the planet, and got involved with people like Brian Check and Herman Daly. I was just really taken with this idea of the “steady state economy” that Herman Daly has described over his career, and what I wanted to do with the book was to take that idea and explain it in a way that would help other people understand it, that would help people plug into, “okay, how can I be a part of the solution” and not just be fixated on this problem.
Spirit: You mentioned Herman Daly. Can you give us an idea of who he is, and what is this concept of “uneconomic growth”?
Rob Dietz: Herman Daly is actually a hero of mine, which is pretty odd: to have an economist as a hero. He’s actually one of the founders of ecological economics, which really should be mainstream economics. But, instead of basing economics on theories of supply and demand, instead of dealing with economics from a theoretical view, it starts with a foundation of physics and ecology. And for decades, Herman Daly has been an inspiration for both economists and ecologists. His career — he’s taken a real courageous stance, often swimming upstream, against the conventional economic thought. He’s lead a career in academia, but also been part of the World Bank, where he was trying to get sustainability embedded as a key piece of what the bank does. So, he’s just a person with all kinds of skill, knowledge, razor sharp analytical skill, wit — he writes very beautifully. I’ve been lucky to’ve been able to work with him. I named the blog that we produce “The Daly News”, and it’s just a real honor to work with him. And he came up with this term uneconomic growth, which really means, when the economy expands, there are benefits and there are costs. What “uneconomic growth” means is growth that is costing us more than it’s worth. If you look at where we sit in history, it looks like growing an economy like the US economy is in fact uneconomic. We are accruing costs, like climate change, like further increases in the gaps in the rich and the poor. We are accruing costs faster than we are getting benefits.
Spirit: And what is CASSE? Where did it arise?
Rob Dietz: CASSE; which stands for the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy is a nonprofit organizationt hat was founded by Brian Check. Its purpose is to educate the public on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, and to promote the steady state economy as a postive way forward. So it’s really taking the ideas that Herman Daly and his colleagues helped develop and making those more accesible and hopefully more mainstream. We’ve got a website called steadystate.org, and for about four years I was the executive director of it, and I resigned that position to write the book Enough is Enough with Dan O’Neill, but the organisation is still functioning. I’m still working on the Daly News, which is like the outreach arm, the publication we put out once a week. I’m one of the authors, and of course Herman Daly, and Brian Check as well, and Brent Blackwelder, who used to be the President of Friends of the Earth.
Spirit: Sounds like a great group of people.
Rob Dietz: Yeah, really wonderful to work with, and brilliant minds.
Spirit: When people hear this steady state notion, they tend to think: that’s something that’s un-American or what have you. For an American, personally speaking, I grew up in the South, and you have these sort of “bigger is better” mentalities. People drive big trucks, and there’s all sorts of psychoanalytic theory. I don’t know if you want to get into that, but nevertheless. How do you respond to or what do you make of this idea that peolpe might be abash at this impetuous theory: “what are you trying to ascribe to people’s behavior?, we’re doing fine, we want a part of a bigger pie, this was promised to us”, and so forth and so on? How do you respond to that mentality?
Rob Dietz: Well, that’s a tough one. You’re right, our culture has been based on a “bigger is better” mentality. Clearly, we have a consumerist culture. The advertisers are pushing to sell as much product as they can. media, politicans, and certainly economics professors are all united around this whacky idea of continuous economic growth. But, I think when you start to really look at what that means, what is it that were growing, people can see through this what I call “wishful thinking”. This idea of infinite expansion on a finite planet it just can’t work. The alternative that can work, and that can lead to a better life: rather than pursuing this unattainable goal that’s wrecking the life support systems of the planet and that’s , especially in wealthy nations, not making us any better off, why not aim for an economy that takes “enough” as its goal. Instead of this constant chase for more and all the problems that that leads to why not aim for “enough”? I think that when people sit down and wrestle with that idea a little bit it certainly starts to make sense. You see these slogans like “the one who dies with the most toys wins”. I think all of us see that as rather hollow and shallow. It’s not the case.
Spirit: It’s a really materialist notion.
Rob Dietz: Yeah, completely materialist. The idea is that your economy should support a better life rather than just more stuff. Well, there’s better ways to achieve that rather than just try to increase production and consumption of goods and services.
Spirit: So, this is what makes you a “cheerful doomer”?
Rob Dietz: Yeah, I kind of came up with that name. “Doomer” has sort of a negative connotation. But I think that the doomer crowd is looking at the realities of the world, that we’ve just crossed over 400ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, our biological diversity is declining by the day, we’ve got dead zones in the ocean. We’ve got serious, serious — not just environmental , if you look at the social side, too — a billion people are going to be hungr each night. These are huge problems that I think the doomers are not denying. They’re looking at them in the face. And the reason for the “cheerful”: I know it’s hard to be cheerful about this stuff, and I’m hugely worried. That’s why I wanted to work in this arena and why I wanted to write a book that could hopefully change some of what’s happening. The cheerful part is there is a way out. And that is, that once we let go of this obsession with growth, well then we’ve got all sorts of policies and pathways to working toward better lives.
Spirit: And perhaps more relations among loved ones, family, community.
Rob Dietz: Yeah, one of the things that we talk about in trying to change the consumerist culture in the book is that there’s alot of new research on happiness and on life satisfaction, and what we now know is that in order to live satisfying lives, the things that we need are strong relationships with our family and friends, we need to be active, weve got to have opportunities for continuous learning and we need to be mindful of where we are and the things that are going on around us. The good thing is that all of those things can be had without an ever growing economy. We just need to overhaul the institutions and the policies we have, so that those things are supported rather than trying to extract as much financial wealth out of the system as possible, or trying to accumulate the most toys we can.
Spirit: You’re starting to sound a bit like Jimmy Carter.
Rob Dietz: (laugh) I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.
Spirit: I think in this case it’s a good thing.
Rob Dietz: I do think he was one of the few presidents who saw the problems who saw the problems, and who saw them decades ago, to his credit. Unfortunately the way he communicated it didn’t really resonate as strongly as you would hope. And, of course, cheap oil and some of the things that that brought along with it sort of undermined his message. And, we sort of started down a pathway towards sustainability, and the rug got pulled out from under it.
Spirit: Did Herman Daly — to get back to this individual — have success steering the ship at the World Bank, or was he booted?
Rob Dietz: He did have success. I think he was there for six years. Although, he’s told me a story — and he’s put it down in some of his essays, too — where he was writing up a model, just a very simple model, showing that the economy is a subsystem of the broader ecosystems that contain it, and you cant just look at the economy in isolation, because if there are no bounds on that system then of course you would think that it could grow forever. So, he was just making a simple drawing to show that the economy exists within a broader system. It exists on the planet. It’s no brilliant insight, right? Anyone can see that. But he got alot of pushback for that. His bosses were telling him “that’s not the way to look at the system, we shouldn’t be looking at the economy in that way”. So, I certainly wouldn’t say he changed everybody’s mind there, but I think he certainly made some inroads, and the World Bank definitely benefited from having him there.
Spirit: I’ve heard Stiglitz give talks about the sort of “Sturrheit” (German for “stubbornness”) of the people in the World Bank. I guess he wouldn’t have success with the whole shebang.
Rob Dietz: You know, it’s a tricky thing: economists can go through all of their training without natural science, without ecology, without physics, and so they wouldn’t necessarily have the broad set of understanding and tools to get what Daly is on about. So, if they’re doing their jobs, the economists, and they’re focused on what they think is the right path: for instance they think that growing the economy is a way to improve health, then of course that’s what they’ll focus on. But in the meantime, they’ll be ignoring all the costs of that growth. And that is something the ecological economists refuse to do.
Spirit: You have this notion of overconsumption, deficits, trade deficits. Someone like Dean Baker is writing about the great import — something that’s being overlooked — the fact that the United States is buying, the argument goes, so much more on the basis of — if we were to proceed — on the basis of mercantilism: you always produce more than you consume. We’re losing that game. And yet there is, at least in the US, this continuation of the idea of “living above one’s means”, credit based — easy credit. How far down that rabbit hole can one go? How does that relate to your idea of “enough”, and what are the institutions that can form around? I was just reading a report on the Stern Review suggesting that “top down approaches are problematic”, and there if you don’t — say the Kyoto Protocol — you have all these production based measures. If on the aggregate people are buying all of thes echeap goods again from Walmart or wherever, and they’re driving big cars, not insulating their homes — there’s apparently an astounding figure of businesses and homes in the US that have literally no insulation. So what are some institutions that can maybe increase the pressure on the bottom end…?
Rob Dietz: Well, I think you’re hitting on an important point, the kind of “well, how can we make this transition and where is it going to come from?”. I think it has to come from both sides, honestly. You’re not going to get to an economy that is organized around “enough” unless the people participating in that economy accept that as a value. And you’re also not going to get there if the institutions at the top, you know, the corporations, the government, or whatever institution that it is, if those institutions don’t take that up as their goal as well, you’re not going to get it. Well, how do you do that? Well, it’s very tricky. I think from a “bottom up” approach we’ve got to be more informed in talking about these ideas. That’s, again, a big reason for writing the book. At least the folks I’ve talked to, it’s resonated with them. We want to live lives that are meaningful that aren’t taking more resources than we need so that the future, our children, grandchildren have a chance to live good lives as well. So, figuring out how to get that value, that satisfaction of “enough” into our life goals is huge. You can see it runs counter to alot of the things that are happening. We talked a little bit about advertising, its effects on people. Most advertising is made to make you feel like you’re missing out on something, or that you have an emptiness that can only be filled by consuming more products. The research is quite clear and I think even the intuition is quite clear that once we follow that path it doesn’t really work. Sure we all need to consume enough to meet our basic needs and consume to have some comforts, but going beyond the point of “enough”, it just doesn’t help. So, I think doing things that can help us get past the insecurities and the poor results that come from advertising, for example. I think it largely boils down to getting educated, to getting informed, to understanding what really does lead to good, long, healthy, happy lives.
Spirit: There’s this question: you have the Protestant work ethic, that you have a right to mastery over the earth. “We are the shepherds of the planet”. You see this in particularly in the Old Testament literature, but really all throughout the Western tradition, as opposed to the Eastern tradition, where there’s alot more talk about harmony, and the positive and the negative, and this sort of thing: balance, and these sorts of things. They might just be a more sane culture. But anyway, that’s not our task today.
Rob Dietz: Well, it’s hard to say, because you see the same kinds of pursuit of growth in eastern nations as you do in western ones. If there’s one thing that seems true around the world, it’s that we’re united in our pursuit of bigger economies. There may be one exception in Bhutan, which is an eastern nation with a tradition of Buddhist philosophy, but I suppose they’re the one exception that proves the rule. It’s this overall intention to grow a bigger economy that’s causing the inability to be good stewards of the environment, of the planet. So, I think if you’re looking at how do we change, well, honestly I think it’s going to take crises. At the top of this you mentioned the financial crisis, and that certainly shook up alot of people both high income earners and low income people, who were all affected by what happened. But it didn’t really shake things up enough to get a systemwide change. The solution that we followed was for government to bail out the banks and try to keep things going as they were. I think through more crises people are going to start to realize that this is insane, this pursuit of infinite growth on our finite planet. So, the issue then is what ideas are they going to turn to. And that’s why I think it’s vitally important to be spreading the word about the idea of a steady state economy and the idea of forming your economy around the idea of “enough”, rather than around the principle of “more”.
Spirit: On a more abstract level: how do you think this idea that’s now hitting the press, I seem to be reading more and more articles about it, on the concept of the basic income. I guess it was very big in the 60s, and it disappeared for awhile, it went off the radar. But it seems to be making a comeback now, especially in Europe. How does that tie in with your plan?
Rob Dietz: Well, I think the idea gets back to the idea of the fair distribution of wealth. If you are talking about an economy that limits the amount of energy and materials that flow through it to sustainable levels, to a level that environmental systems can withstand, then you have to start thinking about how that gets divided up, how people get access to it. And so you’re talking about fair distribution of wealth. People sometimes get nervous about that, you know, “what do you mean, you want to take money out of my pocket?”. Well, it’s not really like that. The idea is that we’ve got these huge gaps between the haves and the have nots right now and it’s become wildly unfair. Just as an example: I saw the statistics that hedge fund managers brought in. And in 2012, the last year, the top earning hedge fund manager took home $1,057,692 per hour. So, you start thinking about that number. That’s as much — he made as much in a year as it takes the average American family to earn in 2 decades. And that’s for an hour of his time. So, it’s crazy the gap between the very rich and the poor. And we know that these gaps cause all sorts of problems in society. If you have these big gaps, yoU’re more likely to have problems with crime, violence, teenage pregnancy, psychological problems. The epidemiological studies have been done, and it’s clear across nations and across states, we know that if you can lower the gap between the highest earning people and the lowest earning, you essentially get a healthier society. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed that out beautifully in the Spirit Level. So, one way of getting there is what you’re talking about. I think of it as the bandSpirit: you put a floor below which no one can fall and a ceiling, above which no one can go. Now, it is clearly undemocratic for this hedge fund manager to earn that much money —
Spirit: Or for the executives at AIG, or wherever that was. I was reading an article that stated that when the bailout funds were going out that there were certainly banks — perhaps it was GMAC — that were receiving a plug from the taxpayer continued paying out bonuses to their executives, which they had to rename. They named them a “retention bonus”. Because they hadn’t performed well.
Rob Dietz: Yeah, it’s crazy to see the amounts of money that are flowing into the pockets of people that are already controlling too many things in the economy, and then to see others going with nothing and no opportunity. And so, the idea of a basic income or a citizen’s income, and also that of a ceiling on income — you know, if you’re going to earn a million dollars plus per hour maybe your tax rate ought to be a little bit higher, and, you know, not be able to offshore that money, hide it away. There are alot of ways that you can work to get those kinds of policies in place, and from the other side if you grant a basic income to all people or all families, then you can do away with some of the other services that government provides that are aimed directly at the poor because they would then have the income to be able to pay for some of those services themselves.
Spirit: And then, the mechanics of the society which has “enough”: how would it look? You have the idea, typically, this was echoed in the postwar context of the trades/workers unions between them and the employers (big businesses), this has only worsened in recent years, that union members would be okay with stagnant wages as long as, this was the agreement, they were getting a small share of a growing pie. One reproach to your social model might be excepting a socialist revolution, they’re (the workers) not going to be appeased with taking less.
Rob Dietz: I think the politics of it are pretty hard to unravel. But you’re right: the elites that are earning a million plus dollars an hours, they’re not going to go in for limiting their income. And many people at the bottom still have a lottery mentality as well: you know, “one day I’m going to be that rich person!”, you know “I don’t want that to be taxed away”, “I don’t want to have limits on what I can earn”. But I think we’re looking at a total systemic change from this mentality of more: more stuff, more people, more consumption, everything more, to switching that to “enough”. This is a change in world view, it’s a change in value systems, and certainly a change in institutions. We’ve got the growth imperative built into our financial system, we’ve got it built into the way businesses make decisions. That needs to change. Instead of growth imperative, we need an “enough” imperative.
Spirit: Do you have any strategic links to businesses or government or nongovernment agencies to promote these ideals, in the US or in Europe or elsewhere? What successes and inroads have you made setting up institutional relations?
Rob Dietz: I can’t really speak that well to the inroads that CASSE is making just because I havent been that involved in the last couple of years. I can say that the Daly News has been getting picked up and spread around quite a bit, and the audience has been growing. Our message is resonating. I think as more people start to recognize the problems they’ll be looking for solutions. The idea of a steady state economy is logical, elegant and I think we’ve laid out enough of a blueprint in the book that people could understand how this might actually work, where they might be able to plug in where they might be able to help with the transition. So, I do think that it will be a more popular idea. But as far as working with a government agency: certainly I’ve had some inroads with discussions with government officials in the past, but I don’t know if there are any strategic relationships at present.
Spirit: I presume you include, I read in the first sections of the book, you talk about reducing population growth and you explicitly mention “noncoercive measures”. How do you convince people not to have sex? Is it tax incentives?
Rob Dietz: Well, we have a huge opportunity, first of all, in that there’s a statistical coincidence: it’s about 80 million unplanned pregnancies per year, which is just about equal to the population growth around the globe. So, we’re increasing population by about 80 million a year, and that also just happens to be the number of unplanned pregnancies. So right there you have a huge opportunity to move toward population stability by making sure that people have good access to contraceptives and good information about them. So, there’s a noncoercive way, a simple way right there. The second way is education. If every child has the chance to get an education in society, we end up with empowered women and enlightened me. There is a huge correlation between education and smaller family size. So, really, I think those are the two best noncoercive means we have. Working towards opportunities in education and providing better access to contraceptives.
Spirit: There is always this outside, sometimes spontaneous process of technological innovation. There are certain theories, laws we call them sometimes. How contingent is this model of society upon the status quo of technology as we see it today?
Rob Dietz: The technology issue is an important part of the story, no doubt about it. And there’s no question that technological advances have the ability to push back the limits to growth. What was limiting before, when you have a technological advance might not be limiting in the future. But, what you see is that if growth is the overall goal of society, you eat up the breathing room that gets produced by the technological advance. The best example I can give for that is the Green Revolution. Back in the 60s, there was alot of fear about the possibility of famine and starvation in alot of countries — India, in particular — and the story goes that Norman Borlog and his colleagues developed the technology to implement the Green Revolution. They essentially bred a bunch of strains of wheat that were drought-resistant and figured out the fertilization techniques and irrigation techniques and basically were able to up the productivity of farm. But, instead of taking that breathing room and stabilizing our production and consumption, we just grew population again, until we are arriving where we are today, where we even have more profound problems where we’re changing the entire global climate, where we have groundwater & soil depletion. Basically what happens is we pushed away the limits to growth, but instead of using that breathing room in order to figure out how to run a sustainable society, we used that breathing room for additional growth and find ourselves facing even tougher problems now.
Spirit: Speaking of one of these problems, to segue into maybe the last major issue: climate change. You hear mainstream neoliberal economists, they talk about future discounting: “How does something that won’t spell out for another 200 years influence what I do today” and “should it influence what I do today?, etc.” How do you respond to that point of view?
Rob Dietz: I think this is our chance to prove how smart we are, or possibly how stupid we are. 200 years seems like a long time to an individual and to me it seems like a long time, but it’s not, especially when taken in the context of planetary systems. So, an economy that’s focused on the very short term, such as the corporate economy that’s focused on quarterly revenues and profits doesn’t really have any way to respond to these longer term trends. And that’s why we need to be shifting towards institutions that do take the long term into account. I don’t know about you or your readers, but once we passed 400 ppm I was just feeling — to me that’s a really scary threshold. It’s just a round number that doesn’t mean anything…
Spirit: Well, 400? What does that mean? Sun go up, sun go down, I don’t notice a difference!
Rob Dietz: That’s the crazy thing: we didn’t really change behavior. It was covered pretty well even in the US, but it didn’t change what anybody really did. It didn’t change the institutions. We barely paused, and then it was “business as usual”. We’ve got to start building in the ability for us as inviduals and us and communities and us as businesses and us as countries to make decisions that are based on long term health rather than just short term profits. We’re clever beings, the question is whether we’re wise beings.
Spirit: There was that question that Ernst Mayr raised in a book, that the average lifespan of a species has been somewhere around 100,000 years, that we’re reaching that timespan. Will we show ourselves of being able to supercede that limit (be the exception), or are we going to prove the rule?
Rob Dietz: Interestingly enough, we collected blurbs for our book, and Noam Chomsky read a draft of it, and he gave us a quote that talked about Ernst Mayr. And Chomsky said, “Humans seem to be intent on confirming the argument of biologist Ernst Mayr that higher intelligence may be a lethal mutation. But the grim prognosis is not inevitable.” And he went on to say that the “construvtive” ideas in our books combined with “the will to act”, we have a solution, we can build “a steady-state economy geared to meeting human needs.” So I think thats the real challenge, the big challenge facing humanity: can we overcome some of our more impulsive ways of doing things, and come up with an economy that does meet our needs without undermining the life support systems of the planet.