It’s time for a new kind of economy
We’re overusing the earth’s finite resources, and yet excessive consumption is failing to improve our lives. In Enough Is Enough, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill lay out a visionary but realistic alternative to the perpetual pursuit of economic growth—an economy where the goal is not more but enough.
They explore specific strategies to conserve natural resources, stabilize population, reduce inequality, fix the financial system, create jobs, and more—all with the aim of maximizing long-term well-being instead of short-term profits. Filled with fresh ideas and surprising optimism, Enough Is Enough is the primer for achieving genuine prosperity and a hopeful future for all.
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Rob Dietz is the editor of the Daly News and the former executive director of CASSE (Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy).
Dan O’Neill is a lecturer in ecological economics at the University of Leeds and the chief economist for CASSE.
[ CHAPTER 1 ]
HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH?
A person who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.
LAO TZU (SIXTH CENTURY B.C.E.)
A game of checkers offers very little insight into how to solve the world’s intertwined environmental and social problems, or so I thought. In one particular game, my opponent opened with a series of reckless moves, placing checker after checker in harm’s way. When I jumped the first one and swiped it off the board, I briefly wondered if I was being lured into a trap. But it was just a fleeting thought. After all, my opponent was only five years old.
I was playing against my daughter. She had just gotten home from her kindergarten class, and I was giving her a few strategy pointers from my limited bag of tricks. Her moves showed some modest improvement, but after a while, we both lost interest in the game. Besides, there are other fun things you can do with checkers, like seeing how high a tower you can build. At first, we were fast and free with our stacking—we even plopped down two or three checkers at a time. But as the tower grew, we changed our approach. With the light touch and steady hands of a surgical team, we took turns adding checkers one by one to the top of the stack. By this point, our formerly straight tower had taken on a disconcerting lean. On our final attempt to increase its height, the mighty checker tower reached the inevitable tipping point and came crashing down to earth. Like a reporter interpreting the scene, my daughter remarked, “Sometimes when things get too big, they fall.”
I sat back amid the pile of checkers scattered on the floor and smiled. With a simple observation and eight words, she had managed to sum up the root cause of humanity’s most pressing environmental and social problems. Even a partial list of these problems sounds grim:
• Greenhouse gas emissions are destabilizing the global climate.
• Billions of people are living in poverty, engaged in a daily struggle to meet their basic needs.
• The health of forests, grasslands, marshes, oceans, and other wild places is declining, to the point that the planet is experiencing a species extinction crisis.
• National governments are drowning in debt, while the global financial system teeters on the verge of ruin.
People desperately want to solve these problems, but most of us are overlooking the underlying cause: our economy has grown too large. Our economic tower is threatening to collapse under its own weight, and beyond that, it’s threatening the integrity of the checkerboard and the well-being of the players. The economy is simply too big for the broader social and ecological systems that contain it.
That’s a strong indictment against economic growth, but (as we’ll see in the next chapter) this indictment is backed up by scientific studies of environmental and social systems. The evidence shows that the pursuit of a bigger economy is undermining the life-support systems of the planet and failing to make us better off—a grave situation, to be sure. But what makes the situation even more serious is the lack of a viable response. The plan being transmitted from classrooms, boardrooms, and pressrooms is to keep adding more checkers to the stack.
The model of more is failing both environmentally and socially, and practically everyone is still cheering it on … it almost makes you want to climb to the top of the highest building and shout, “ENOUGH!”
Crying out in such a way expresses intense frustration at the seemingly intractable environmental and social problems we face, but it also carries the basic solution to these problems. By stopping at enough when it comes to production and consumption in the economy, instead of constantly chasing more, we can restore environmental health and achieve widespread well-being. That’s an incredibly hopeful message, but it opens up all sorts of questions. What would this economy look like? What new institutions would we need? How would we secure jobs? This book attempts to answer these and related questions by providing a blueprint for an economy of enough, with detailed policies and strategies for making the transition away from more.
Before diving into the science (Chapter 2) that clarifies why enough is preferable to more, it’s worth thinking about it from a commonsense perspective—perhaps even incorporating the wisdom of a checker-stacking kindergartner. More is certainly a good thing when you don’t have enough. For instance, if you can’t find enough to eat, then more food is better. If the alarm wakes you up before you’ve gotten enough sleep, hitting the snooze button and resting for a few more minutes feels great. If you didn’t study enough to pass an exam, then spending more time hitting the books would have been useful. But what about times when you do have enough? Eating more food leads to obesity. Sleeping too much could be classified as a medical condition. Studying more could mean missing out on other things in life. More, then, may be either helpful or harmful, depending on the situation, but enough is the amount that’s just right.
People often overlook this relationship between more and enough, especially in economic affairs. It took me a long time, a lot of dot-connecting, and even some soul-searching to get it. My path to understanding began years ago in an improbable place.
When I was a kid living in the sprawling suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, I had a poster taped to the wall of my bedroom. In the background of the poster, a gaudy mansion sits on a seaside cliff. The light at dusk bathes the scene in a soft, orange glow. A walkway curves down from the mansion to a huge garage that takes up the whole foreground. The taillights of five luxury cars (a Porsche, a Ferrari, a Mercedes, a BMW, and some other fancy ride that I can’t recall) stick out from the arched openings of the garage. Scrawled across the top of the poster is the title: “Justification for Higher Education.”
The strangest thing about this poster was that I didn’t find it strange at all. The culture—my culture—is largely about owning things, and the more the better. The prospect of owning a big house and an expensive car or two seemed like a valid reason for attending college. My cluttered closet, which sat right next to the poster, provided further illustration of the culture. The entire closet floor was covered with Rubik’s Cube–style puzzles, Star Wars action figures, and other plastic ghosts of Christmas past. Like a fish that pays no attention to the fact that it’s swimming in water, I was swimming in a consumer culture and had no idea of its existence. This culture, which values owning and consuming over doing, being, and connecting, goes hand-in-hand with an economy that pursues more.
One day, having resolved to clean my room, I stared at the mess in my closet, and something clicked into place. I realized that I received precious little joy from all these things. Their novelty had long since worn off, and now I was just spending time shuffling them around when I could be doing something else—anything else! When I finally took the sensible step of giving the stuff away, I felt lighter and freer. I felt as though I had enough.
A few years later when I went to college, I majored in environmental studies. But, worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a high-paying job to “justify my higher education,” I also majored in economics. In truth, I was hoping to combine lessons from the two fields—to use the tools of economics to fix environmental problems. And what problems they were! Climate change, degraded water and air quality, persistent toxic substances, loss of soil productivity. These are what E. F. Schumacher called “divergent problems,”1 meaning (among other things) that you couldn’t solve them overnight with a couple of tweaks to the system.
In contrast, the economics program seemed to gloss over the problems. Environmental issues barely figured in the discussion, and social problems, such as poverty and inequality, received only slightly more attention. The problems that we did study, such as how to forecast future prices and smooth out business cycles, mostly came with stepwise prescriptions. You supposedly could solve these problems with a few tweaks to the system (as well as some nearly incomprehensible mathematics).
I had a tough time trying to apply economic methods to environmental problems, both inside and outside of academia. Admittedly some of the fault lay with the practitioner, but I found economics (at least the economics I was learning) to be ill-equipped to deal with the divergent problems of the day. I don’t mean to be overly harsh. The discipline definitely contributes some useful tools and helpful ways to analyze worldly matters, but I mostly failed when I tried to apply its lessons.
When faced with failure, it’s helpful to get a fresh perspective. Author, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry offers an outstanding piece of advice for how to do that. He maintains that you’re unlikely to solve big problems by talking about them remotely. You have to see them for yourself. He says, “[I]t is in the presence of the problems that their solutions will be found.”2 Later, when I was working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I got a chance to follow Berry’s advice. That’s when the landscape taught me something important about enough.
Bosque del Apache, a wildlife refuge in central New Mexico, is an enchanting place. On winter mornings, as the desert sun rises over the San Pascual Mountains and illuminates the marshlands along the Rio Grande River, tens of thousands of waterfowl take to the skies. The immense flocks of snow geese and sandhill cranes are quite a sight, and so are the flocks of binocular-toting bird enthusiasts. These visitors are able to encounter wildlife on a scale that’s become rare these days.
It can be a magica...
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