Book Review of
Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train by Brian Czech
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
206 pages, $22.50
The Sunday morning talk shows are host to a variety of pundits debating the week's hottest policy issues. But on one issue it appears that a consensus has been reached: Whether the economy is backtracking or headed full-steam ahead, the belief that economic growth can be sustained in perpetuity trumps all. Sunday morning is for many a time of worship and reflection, but every day a national coalition of media, politicians, and business leaders kneel at the altar of economic growth. It is the creed to which we subscribe, the mantra we subconsciously chant.
An example of this national phenomenon can be found in the debate over the energy crisis in California. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, business leaders and environmentalists are all divided as to how to solve the problem of a demand for energy that has outpaced supply in California (some don't even agree on the problem), yet solutions from all sides rest on the premise that California's economic growth will and should continue.
In Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, wildlife biologist Brian Czech addresses this pursuit of the "American mega-economy" and its effects on long-term ecological sustainability. Czech convincingly and in a very readable way argues that perpetual economic growth is not sustainable, and calls for nothing short of a revolution to establish an alternative economic paradigm. A tall order to be sure, and one that might strike some readers as so unlikely as to deter them from reading further, but a fair hearing indicates that Czech's thesis may prove to be one of the pillars upon which a sustainable future rests.
In order to make the case for a new economic system, Czech first exposes the "runaway train" of economic growth. From the highest levels of federal agencies to political candidates to the media, economic growth has become a national goal. (Interestingly, Czech's writing harkens back to similar tracts from the beginning of the modern environmental movement challenging the religion of growth in the United States. Yet thirty years later, Czech is virtually alone in his writing and the congregation of growth is larger than ever.) "American society has no greater obsession than with economic growth," writes Czech. This school of thought is supported and perpetuated by neoclassical economists. Having moved fundamentally away from the big issues (distribution of wealth, power of nations, etc.) of the classical economists such as Malthus, Smith, and Ricardo, neoclassical economists rely on the principles of substitutability, efficiency, and human capital to posit there is no limit to economic growth.
Paramount among the neoclassical economists was the late Julian Simon, Cato Institute fellow and author of Ultimate Resource 2. Czech describes Simon as the "most influential proponent of unlimited economic growth of all time," whose optimism and selective attention to the facts allowed him to become the champion of human intellect and perseverance overcoming ecological limits to economic growth. Simon's legacy is alive and well today thanks to a host of disciples, such as Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, who espouse economic growth and the "Czech's proposal will raise concerns for some about a cooling economy, layoffs, and potential economic collapse, not to mention those who will claim it is just plain unrealistic."conditions that ostensibly fuel it, namely continued population growth. But the neoclassical assumption that economic growth can continue indefinitely begins to break down in the face of a finite natural resource base and limited space.
Loss of rural land to urban sprawl, rolling blackouts, and water shortages all attest to the crisis facing the "economically impacted environment" as Czech says. Ecological economists, unlike neoclassical economists, recognize physical and biological limits to economic growth. Rather, ecological economists (the most notable among them being Herman Daly, professor of Economics at the University of Maryland and author of Toward a Steady-State Economy, 1973) see the steady state economy as an alternative to economic growth. Unlike a continually growing economy, the steady state depends upon a stable population and minimal throughput of capital. (At this point it is important to note a difference Czech is careful to point out between ecological economics and environmental economics. As Czech suggests, environmental economics is a subset of neoclassical economics. It is neoclassical economics applied to environmental affairs, and therefore rests upon the ideal of continued economic growth.)
The steady state is the new economic paradigm Czech recommends for ecological sustainability, but achieving it requires fundamental societal changes: "a steady-state revolution."
Putting an end to "economic bloating" requires a non-violent social revolution that equals the academic revolution of ecological economics. This is a revolution in public opinion that must be a process by which "the virtually ubiquitous cherishing of economic growth is transformed into an equally ubiquitous castigation of economic growth." Utopian? Perhaps, but Czech's blueprint for change based on his definition of steady-state consumer levels makes it clear he is not just tilting at windmills.
Czech defines the top one percent of consumers as "Liquidators," those who liquidate capital for their own excess. Liquidators are the most conspicuous of consumers. The success of the steady-state revolution depends on castigation of the liquidators, which will be done by the Steady State and Amorphic classes. In Czech's hierarchy of consumers, "Steady-Staters" represent the bottom eighty percent in terms of personal consumption spending. Steady-staters are those who are largely responsible in their consumption patterns and are concerned about preserving the environment for future generations. This includes all of the poor, most of the middle class, and some of the rich. The remaining nineteen percent of consumers are what Czech calls the "Amorphic class." These are the consumers below the liquidators who are generally well educated. In the steady-state revolution the Amorphic class should be "patiently tolerated" because the Steady-State class will need their support in creating disdain for the consumptive patters of the Liquidators. Czech's prescription for castigation of the Liquidators depends, in large part, upon women of all classes rejecting "liquidating males" as suitors, thereby removing the incentive of the liquidators to conspicuously consume and motivating them to reduce consumption. This process will result in a cooling of the economy and creation of the steady state.
Czech's proposal will raise concerns for some about a cooling economy, layoffs, and potential economic collapse, not to mention those who will claim it is just plain unrealistic. Czech offers suggestions as to why the steady-state revolution can become a reality and he assures the reader that in the ideal steady state economy, the standard of living is high enough for all to benefit. But regardless of the likelihood of his proposal, it bears relevance for those concerned about U.S. population size and sustainability issues.
Particularly important is Czech's challenge of the neoclassical sustained growth model. As University of Colorado professor of physics Al Bartlett says "In Growth we Trust" has become our national motto and this poses a major challenge for those who seek to stop population growth or urban sprawl, for example. In fact, the perpetual growth model has become so pervasive that even most environmental groups have bought into it. Understanding the degree to which the perpetual growth model has inundated our culture helps those seeking to stop growth (of population size, of urban land, etc.) understand the challenges they face. Furthermore, a stable population is required for the steady state, and herein lies common ground that advocates of the steady state and those seeking to stabilize U.S. population should explore.
Czech's treatise on the steady-state revolution should give pause to anyone who is concerned about the future our younger generations will inherit. Other alternative economic paradigms have been proposed, but few are as relevant to long-term sustainability. After reading Shoveling Fuel, one cannot help but stop chanting the perpetual growth mantra at least temporarily. To quote Aldo Leopold, "Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings." Perhaps a little "healthy contempt" for perpetual economic growth will turn the lone hymn of the steady state into a chorus of sustainability for the future.