Limits to Growth III: The Steady State

If there are limits to growth and therefore how far our economies can grow what can be done about it? Economist Herman Daly has a possible answer in the Steady State Model.

“An economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance ‘throughput’, that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption.”

Daly, Herman. 1991. Steady-State Economics, 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, DC. p.17.

What Daly is describing is an economy that has reached a stable population level and a low-level of consumption. For most of human history our struggle has been about getting enough resources to survive but now we have surpassed that need. We have more than enough for everyone and are reaching the point where continuing to produce is a danger to us all.

The Steady State would be smaller in size, consumption and environmental impact as it would need less to sustain itself.  It’s as much a new form of economics as it is a new way of evaluating progress and value.  GDP would no longer be an adequate measurement  as production and consumption are not the pillars of progress in the Steady State.

The massive accumulation of wealth needn’t be the focus of a society and in face the Steady State requires that it not be.  Money could exist but massive accumulation tends to promote inequality which breeds an unstable society.

Achieving a steady state economy requires adherence to four basic rules or system principles:

  1. Maintain the health of ecosystems and the life-support services they provide.
  2. Extract renewable resources like fish and timber at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated.
  3. Consume non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and minerals at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by the discovery of renewable substitutes.
  4. Deposit wastes in the environment at a rate no faster than they can be safely assimilated.

The Steady State is a simple concept but politically is extremely difficult.  We’re not just discussing a policy change but instead a changing of principles and values.

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