So here’s another call for a steady state economy for an environmentalist, this time a respected blogger. I really despair of this incredibly pessimistic attitude. It’s also completely barmy. The global economy is currently worth an estimated $62 trillion, or $10,500 per head at purchasing power parity. How would you fancy that as your annual salary? Didn’t think so! I think we can comfortably agree that most other people earning over the global mean would feel similarly, and hence the idea is dead at birth. Steady staters may claim that an SSE doesn’t have to equate with communism, but it does sound awfully like it in some key aspects.
I have a sneaking suspicion that what many SSE proponents envision is a national steady state economy rather than a global one. Presumably this would therefore be closed to immigration? How about that for a new left-right partnership? And apart from the insufferable sense of moral superiority that it might give them, since a large part of global economic growth is now taking place in poor countries, and that this economic growth generates lots of global externalities (did someone mention greenhouse gases?) one wonders exactly what good it would do the SSE-adopting countries.
I am firmly in favour of conservation and development, and I’m even more certain that the communities where we work are, though they’d probably be quite happy with an annual salary of $10,500. That said there are some big issues out there which often get left unmentioned for the sake of political correctness. How far off are the limits to further growth? We don’t know the full answer (so how can you set the correct level for a steady state economy?), but one or more water wars in drier parts of the world seem a likely outcome for the 21st century. If everyone in the world ate as much meat as your average Yankee we’d need multiple Earths just to grow all the animal feed. Then there’s this global warming thing that’s gotten everyone up in arms.
Almost every social and environmental problem in the world would be easier, possibly much easier to resolve if there were less people sharing our planet. It should be possible to talk sensibly about population and demography without being accused of advocating neo-eugenics or sounding like Paul Ehrlich on LSD.
Technology can certainly help, but it won’t solve every problem, and the steady staters are also right to point to the need to include things like natural capital in accounting standards (national and corporate). Simply choosing the right reference points could do a lot to avert our global headlong rush into catastrophe. Two things prevent this from happening right now: we don’t really yet know how to value stuff like biodiversity (or even how many billions of tonnes of carbon we can safely pump into the atmosphere), and heavy political resistance in favour of the status quo. Probably things are going to have to get somewhat worse, and natural resources ever scarcer, before the tipping point to change comes. Pushing SSE nonsense in the meantime, however, isn’t going to help our cause.