Jack Loeffler


What happens when there is a sun-warmed planet nearly 8,000 miles in diameter that harbors life, one species of which has evolved to become the keystone species that grows steadily in population, devours non-renewable resources at a rate commensurate with population growth, and finally exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet?


Denial? Overshoot? Collapse? Extinction?

All of the above?


It is evident that this, our species, will be brought to our knees should we not collectively muster the wherewithal to veer our course into a state of balance with our Earthly habitat, beginning immediately. It will take time and an enormous shift in collective attitude. But we are an intelligent species. We should be able to do this. Indeed, it would be shameful not to.


One place to begin is to examine the degree to which we are motivated by modern economics. Since we emerged from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle with the coming of warming trends at the beginning of the Holocene epoch, we’ve evolved a hierarchical cultural perspective largely founded on the accumulation of personal wealth and power. Witness the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, the emperors of the Orient, the monarchies of Europe and beyond, and what John Wesley Powell called the “money kings” of the corporate-driven democracy that is modern America.


This characteristic, coupled with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late-18th and early-19th centuries resulted in hastening growth of both human population and average income, setting the trend for the next dozen or so generations. At the beginning of the 19th century, the human population of our planet hovered around one billion souls. Today, we are at seven billion, and anticipate leveling off at nine billion by mid-21st century. And as we’ve grown, we’ve become ever more inventive and frivolous in our expenditure of planetary non-renewable resources, thus continuing in pursuit of growth for its own sake. Economics remains our primary cultural driving force, blindsiding us to the broader spectrum. Somehow, we must collectively veer into a cultural paradigm dominated by the ecological imperative of which economics is but one of an array of factors.


The good news is that we can use economics as one means of broadening our purview. How do we get there from here? We can take a major cue from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, which points out that, “To be sustainable, a steady state economy may not exceed ecological limits.” It isn’t a giant step to recognize that a driving force is human numbers—as long as population continues to rise, so does the toll on natural resources.


But it isn’t as simple as that. During the two centuries it has taken for our species to increase seven-fold, our complexity of lifestyle has increased by many magnitudes. Try to imagine the perspective of a family farmer in eastern America in 1813. Lifestyle was basically handcrafted. The owner-built home was heated by firewood hewn from the nearby woods. Almost all of the food was grown with perhaps a bit left over to sell or trade for metal tools or a rare extravagance. Distant communication was limited to letters that might require weeks or months from pen to perception. Transportation was by foot, by horseback, by wagon, by boat. Education occurred in one-room schools. Social life revolved largely around the church. The already well-to-do maintained their lifestyle at the expense of enslaving fellow humans dragged from distant homelands. Otherwise, people were independent in their passage from birth to death, shaped by mores inherited from their parents, themselves descended from Europeans.


Charles Darwin was four years old. Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman had yet to be born.


Since then, cultural evolution has flashed through time and space within our species, and today we can see what we have wrought, both the good of it and the bad—and the frivolous—much of it borne within the context of modern economics that continues to advance unlimited growth in spite of the evidence that it is ultimately unsustainable.


The 19th-century economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill developed the notion of steady-state economics that should occur after a period of economic growth. He surmised that when a steady-state economy had been achieved to the extent that the struggle to exist was tempered by adequate sustainable means, there would be “…as much room for the art of living and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”


Twentieth-century economist John Maynard Keynes clearly understood that economics should be a means to an end, resulting in collective well-being and pursuit of higher ideals rather than an end unto itself. He wrote “…that avarice is a vice… and the love of money is detestable.” This vice has crept into our society to the extent that for the three generations since the end of World War II, consumerism has come to be regarded as a fundament of modern culture, and the disparity between the rich and the poor has increased enormously over the last years. Economics has distracted societal attention away from what should be the most compelling condition of our time—our collective effect on our planetary ecology.


In 1984, I conducted an interview with human ecologist Garrett Hardin, author of The Tragedy of the Commons and many other publications. I asked him why “Nature abhors a maximum.” Hardin relied:


“That’s a rather subtle idea, and I never realized the importance of it until a very unusual political scientist named William Ophuls pointed out that if you settle on a single measure of excellence, such as profit in a profit-and-loss system, and decide you’re going to maximize the profit no matter what, you can be sure that before you get through you will have minimized some other value that you hadn’t thought of, but which you have high regard for. So…don’t be so one-minded as to try to maximize any one thing. But instead, say, “Here’s a whole mixture of things I would like to have. Profit is one of them.” Also, you would like to have beautiful scenery, you would like to have wild animals, some wildlife, some wilderness areas and so on; and you cannot maximize all at once. What you have to do is to agree on some sort of weighted system. How much do you want wilderness? How much do you want profits? How much do you want oil and gas out of the ground? You have to agree on limits to all of those, and that’s hard to do. That’s a political problem, but you have to try. And if you can agree on how to weight these things, then you can develop a compound measure which would be safe to maximize. Now that is very difficult; nevertheless, that’s the way you have to go. Don’t maximize a single variable.”


Ophuls’ message is compounded by our gradual realization that Nature has indeed abhorred our having maximized the economic imperative at enormous expense to planetary habitat through increased pollution, vigorous extraction of non-renewable resources and forwarding excessive consumerism as an ideal. Born to shop! What a distinction.


In 1990, the International Society for Ecological Economics was founded, based on a model of steady state economics. The first of three major tenets is, “The human economy is embedded in nature, and economic processes are actually biological, physical and chemical processes and transformations.” The field of ecological economics is also founded on principles of gathering trans-disciplinary researchers to focus on economic processes relative to physical reality. In other words, we must conceive of the larger system, identify the entire array of factors, understand how economics ideally fits in with maintaining healthy habitat by gradually determining and achieving an optimum human population relative to the rest of the biotic community, pursuing the use of non-destructive technology and energy production, seeking out the perspectives of indigenous peoples to understand a balanced relationship of humanity to homeland, developing educational curricula that includes understanding how ecosystems work, coming to know the importance of a daily dip in the flow of Nature, and forwarding the realization that economics is a means through which human cultures may achieve new levels of well-being and creativity—or as the eminent entomologist Edward O. Wilson conveys in his book The Future of Life—truly become the mind of this living planet.


This is not something that can be initiated at a national level, nor is it something that would be universally welcomed by the collective will of those who thrive on economic growth for its own sake, those who have specialized in the acquisition of wealth, those who are empowered by wealth. Wealth is addictive, once injected, hellish to come to terms with spiritually, ethically and consciously.


Steady-state economics must foment at the watershed or bioregional level and redefine governance. Farmers’ markets, food co-ops, community gardens, watershed associations, environmental organizations, celebrations and gatherings that harbor a sense of community are fertile turf for grassroots activism. Steady-state economics must then gradually come to be practiced within the context of the greater community, not overly emphasized, yet understood as a mode of ethical conduct to help achieve balance rather than become an end unto itself. Turning habitat into money for the sake of money is wrong. And as Ed Abbey pointed out nearly two generations ago, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”


Jack Loeffler is the author of numerous books, including Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler are contributors and co-editors of Thinking Like a Watershed, a recently released anthology of essays published by the University of New Mexico Press. For more info, visit www.loreoftheland.org



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