“Erickson’s cri de coeur is bracing and coherent. Progressives should take heed.” ~ Publishers Weekly
“Erickson’s powerful new book shows how flawed economic thinking has shaped not only our economy but also our society and politics. The story is both deeply disturbing and hopeful, as Erickson describes an emerging brand of economics that shifts focus from GDP to well-being. Highly recommended.” ~ James Gustave Speth, former Dean, Yale School of the Environment; author of “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy”
“Interweaving the history of economic thought with stories of his personal scholarly journey, Jon Erickson walks us through the old ways of economic thinking that led us here and reveals a potential path forward. This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about our collective future, and the intellectual tools we need to build a brighter one.” ~ Laura Schmidt Olabisi, Associate Professor, Department of Community and Sustainability, Michigan State University; President, United States Society for Ecological Economics
“A searing, authoritative, and well-documented indictment of an economics that advocates economic growth as the solution for every problem created by economic growth. If you know a young person contemplating a career in economics, you owe it to them to save their soul by giving them a copy of this book.” ~ David Korten, author of “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth”
“Given that the Arctic has mostly melted, it seems axiomatic that our planet’s economic system is not working very well. But Jon Erickson explains – in simple and powerful terms – just why that is, and just what would need to change if we were to actually build a world that worked much better. It’s a real gift to all of us!” ~ Bill McKibben, author of “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon”
“In accessible language filled with stories, ecological economist Jon Erickson shows how growth-driven economies, worsening inequities, and greenhouse gas emissions are interconnected, and thus it is possible to envision alternate paths forward which address all three.” ~ Patricia (Ellie) Perkins, Professor, Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University and editor of “The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Economics”
“This book is a must-read for those who wish to understand how a promising discipline strayed inexorably from a more humane path to one that extols unbridled materialism, inequity, and environmental destruction. Economics can be rescued from its self-destructive path by having more courageous, assertive, and iconoclastic scholars like Erickson.” ~ Steve Onyeiwu, Andrew Wells Robertson Professor of Economics, Allegheny College and author of “Emerging Issues in Contemporary African Economies”
Herman Daly had a flair for stating the obvious. When an economy creates more costs than benefits, he called it “uneconomic growth.” But you won’t find that conclusion in economics textbooks. Even suggesting that economic growth could cost more than it’s worth can be seen as economic heresy.
The renegade economist, known as the father of ecological economics and a leading architect of sustainable development, died on Oct. 28, 2022, at the age of 84. He spent his career questioning an economics disconnected from an environmental footing and moral compass.
In an age of climate chaos and economic crisis, his ideas that inspired a movement to live within our means are increasingly essential.
The seeds of an ecological economist
Herman Daly grew up in Beaumont, Texas, ground zero of the early 20th century oil boom. He witnessed the unprecedented growth and prosperity of the “gusher age” set against the poverty and deprivation that lingered after the Great Depression.
To Daly, as many young men then and since believed, economic growth was the solution to the world’s problems, especially in developing countries. To study economics in college and export the northern model to the global south was seen as a righteous path.
But Daly was a voracious reader, a side effect of having polio as a boy and missing out on the Texas football craze. Outside the confines of assigned textbooks, he found a history of economic thought steeped in rich philosophical debates on the function and purpose of the economy.
Unlike the precision of a market equilibrium sketched on the classroom blackboard, the real-world economy was messy and political, designed by those in power to choose winners and losers. He believed that economists should at least ask: Growth for whom, for what purpose and for how long?
Daly’s biggest realization came through reading marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” and seeing her call to “come to terms with nature … to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.” By then, he was working on a Ph.D. in Latin American development at Vanderbilt University and was already quite skeptical of the hyperindividualism baked into economic models. In Carson’s writing, the conflict between a growing economy and a fragile environment was blindingly clear.
After a fateful class with Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Daly’s conversion was complete. Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian-born economist, dismissed the free market fairy tale of a pendulum swinging back and forth, effortlessly seeking a natural state of equilibrium. He argued that the economy was more like an hourglass, a one-way process converting valuable resources into useless waste.
Daly became convinced that economics should no longer prioritize the efficiency of this one-way process but instead focus on the “optimal” scale of an economy that the Earth can sustain. Just shy of his 30th birthday in 1968, while working as a visiting professor in the poverty-stricken Ceará region of northeastern Brazil, Daly published “On Economics as a Life Science.”
His sketches and tables of the economy as a metabolic process, entirely dependent on the biosphere as source for sustenance and sink for waste, were the road map for a revolution in economics.
Economics of a full world
Daly spent the rest of his career drawing boxes in circles. In what he called the “pre-analytical vision,” the economy – the box – was viewed as the “wholly owned subsidiary” of the environment, the circle.
When the economy is small relative to the containing environment, a focus on the efficiency of a growing system has merit. But Daly argued that in a “full world,” with an economy that outgrows its sustaining environment, the system is in danger of collapse.
While a professor at Louisiana State University in the 1970s, at the height of the U.S. environmental movement, Daly brought the box-in-circle framing to its logical conclusion in “Steady-State Economics.” Daly reasoned that growth and exploitation are prioritized in the competitive, pioneer stage of a young ecosystem. But with age comes a new focus on durability and cooperation. His steady-state model shifted the goal away from blind expansion of the economy and toward purposeful improvement of the human condition.
The international development community took notice. Following the United Nations’ 1987 publication of “Our Common Future,” which framed the goals of a “sustainable” development, Daly saw a window for development policy reform. He left the safety of tenure at LSU to join a rogue group of environmental scientists at the World Bank.
For the better part of six years, they worked to upend the reigning economic logic that treated “the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.” He often butted heads with senior leadership, most famously with Larry Summers, the bank’s chief economist at the time, who publicly waved off Daly’s question of whether the size of a growing economy relative to a fixed ecosystem was of any importance. The future U.S. treasury secretary’s reply was short and dismissive: “That’s not the right way to look at it.”
But by the end of his tenure there, Daly and colleagues had successfully incorporated new environmental impact standards into all development loans and projects. And the international sustainability agenda they helped shape is now baked into the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals of 193 countries, “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity.”
I knew Herman Daly for two decades as a co-author, mentor and teacher. He always made time for me and my students, most recently writing the foreword to my upcoming book, “The Progress Illusion: Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics.” I will be forever grateful for his inspiration and courage to, as he put it, “ask the naive, honest questions” and then not be “satisfied until I get the answers.”
We live under the illusion of progress: as long as GDP is going up and prices stay low, we accept poverty and pollution as unfortunate but inevitable byproducts of a successful economy. In fact, the infallibility of the free market and the necessity of endless growth are so ingrained in the public consciousness that they seem like scientific fact. Jon Erickson asks, why? With the planet in peril and humanity in crisis, how did we get duped into believing the fairytale of economics? And how can we get past the illusion to design an economy that is socially just and ecologically balanced?
In The Progress Illusion, Erickson charts the rise of the economic worldview and its infiltration into our daily lives as a theory of everything. Drawing on his own experience as a young economist inoculated in the 1980s era of “greed is good,” Erickson shows how pseudoscience came to dominate economic thought. He pokes holes in the conventional wisdom of neo-classical economics, illustrating how flawed theories about financial decision-making and maximizing efficiency ignore human psychology and morality. Most importantly, he demonstrates how that thinking shaped our politics and determined the course of American public policy. The result has been a system that perpetually concentrates wealth in the hands of a few, while depleting the natural resources on which economies are based.
While the history of economics is dismal indeed, Erickson is part of a vigorous reform effort grounded in the realities of life on a finite planet. This new brand of economics is both gaining steam in academia and supporting social activism. The goal is people over profit, community over consumption, and resilience over recklessness. Erickson shows crafting a new economic story is the first step toward turning away from endless growth and towards enduring prosperity.
Ecological economics has given us the vision of an economy in service to sustainable wellbeing for over three decades. This essential volume combines the best ideas from the leaders in the field with the thinking of young emerging scholars to set forth the research and action needed to make a finer future a reality.
Each chapter outlines a research and action agenda for how this future can look and actions for its realization. While it is difficult to categorize ecological economics in the same way one would a normal academic discipline, some general characteristics can be enumerated, including:
A core problem of creating a future that is both sustainable and focused on the shared wellbeing of both humans and the rest of nature;
An explicit attempt to construct at ‘pluralistic dialog’ with integration across disciplines, rather than territorial disciplinary differentiation;
An emphasis on ‘integration’ of three hierarchical goals of sustainable scale, fair distribution, and efficient allocation;
A deep concern with the ‘biophysical underpinnings’ of the functioning of jointly determined ecological and socioeconomic systems; and
A broad focus on systems and ‘systems dynamics, scale, and hierarchy’ and on ‘integrated modelling’ of ecological economic systems.
These characteristics make ecological economics applicable to some of the major problems facing humanity today in human-dominated ecosystems. It is not so much the individual core scientific questions that set ecological economics apart – since these questions are covered independently in other disciplines as well – but rather the treatment of these questions in an integrated, transdisciplinary way, which is essential to their understanding and effective use in policy. We hope that this book is a substantial step in that direction.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the immense brittleness and vulnerability of the world’s economy. Extended supply chains have collapsed, many staples are in short supply, and life-saving healthcare in many countries is being rationed. In plotting a course forward, should world leaders aim for a return to an economic system that was so easily and greatly damaged, or should they consider this an opportunity to re-think just what an economy should look like, and how it should function?
On March 27th, I was honored to join Boston College’s Juliet Schor and the Post Carbon Institute’s Nate Hagens in a conversation moderated by Dale Willman, award-winning journalist and the Associate Director of the new Resilience Media Project at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
With crisis comes opportunity; perhaps this time it’s a chance to shape a new economic story to address both the current global health crisis and the growing climate emergency.
Erickson, the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy, has long informally advised Sanders’ staff on energy and environmental issues, and over the summer he volunteered to conduct the jobs analysis of the Green New Deal proposal. Using a national economic model of relationships between economic sectors, Erickson analyzed the expenditures of the proposed $16.3 trillion investment over a 10-year planning horizon. The plan’s economy-wide multiplier effects – covering everything from renewable energy development and infrastructure repairs to ecological restoration and climate resilience efforts – added up to a lot of jobs.
Economic modeling is tied to Erickson’s broader research on the environmental and social dimensions of economic transitions, including Vermont’s Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which he pioneered with colleague Eric Zencey. As an alternative to GDP, policy makers in Vermont and around the country use GPI to consider the broader costs and benefits of different development paths.
As the Democratic presidential primary enters its pivotal phase, Erickson says the Green New Deal has sparked an outburst of student ideas and enthusiasm. His undergraduate students have researched and pitched Green Mountain Deal proposals to Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman. Graduate students in the Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) and Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) partnerships, international programs he co-leads, are investigating Green New Deal mobilizations in agriculture, energy systems, and more.
“Students already arrive at UVM looking to change the world,” said Erickson, whose E4A and L4E partnerships include over 50 graduate students at UVM, McGill University and York University working on a just transition. “The question is how do we rapidly create a carbon neutral economy with government stimulus and direction, and do it in a way that empowers the most vulnerable communities with justice, jobs, and hope?”
Erickson is also an Emmy award-winning film producer. He directed the 2017 documentary “Waking the Sleeping Giant” on the new progressive movement in the U.S., centered around Sanders’ 2016 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. His previous film, “Bloom,” focused on nutrient pollution and algae blooms in Lake Champlain.
After years of research showing the need for improved climate policies, and a growing chorus of citizens calling for action, Erickson said it increasingly feels as though policymakers are listening.
“For a long time, ecological economics has been calling for an economic transformation that recognizes pollution limits and prioritizes justice,” Erickson said. “The Green New Deal is pushing decades of research on alternative economies into policy conversations beyond the halls of academia.”
What are the elements of a just transition to a smaller economic system? For example, imagine degrowth of material-intensive activities offset by growth in leisure. Or the freeing of time from the overworked to the underemployed.
In Herman Daly’s exploration of a steady-state economy, he reminds us of the writings of the social critic Bertrand Russell during the Great Depression. In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”, Bertrand proposes a thought experiment:
“Suppose that at a given moment a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”
On October 11, representatives from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Man and Biosphere Program (MAB) and the U.S. National Park Service will gather at the University of Vermont for the Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Reserve’s (CABR) Annual Meeting. The meeting will focus on how to improve human interaction with protected landscapes in order to maintain social, economic and ecological integrity.
Cliff McCreedy and Jon Putnam from the U.S. National Park Service will kick off the meeting on the long-standing importance of biosphere reserves in developing the science of sustainability. McCreedy is the Science and Stewardship Coordinator at the U.S. Park Service and directs the U.S. MAB Program, while Putnam is the World Heritage Program Officer and Western Hemisphere Park Affairs Specialist.
Representatives from the World Network of Biosphere Reserves will also give presentations on nearby biosphere reserves in Quebec and Ontario, as well as reserves in Brazil and Ukraine. Presentations from organizations in Vermont and New York will illustrate the use of the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework for local sustainability initiatives. A highlight to the day will be signing a “twinning agreement” between CABR and the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Network in Ontario, in part to “develop and strengthen models for rural community sustainable development.”
“In the face of unprecedented human impact on Earth’s life support systems, we need international sharing and coordination at bioregional scales now more than ever,” says Jon Erickson, the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at the University of Vermont and host of the meeting. “Our shared future depends on the ecological connectivity of our landscapes, the resilience of our renewable resources, and diverse learning communities.”
In 1976, UNESCO began designating biospheres with the aim “to establish a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their environments.” Now in its fifth decade, a growing network of 701 biosphere reserves in 124 countries is the proving ground for “sustainable development,” the balancing act of the environment’s capacity to support our economic aspirations.
“The urgency of the climate crisis makes clear humanity is dependent on the health and stability of the earth system that we share with all life. But our day to day experience is in regional ecosystems and economies, where we live, work, and play,” says Kelly Cerialo, co-chair of the CABR advisory committee and Assistant Professor at Paul Smith’s College. “Confronting global environmental challenges necessitates international cooperation, but action in our home watersheds and biospheres proves what’s possible.”
Each biosphere reserve is meant to fulfill three basic functions, including the conservation of our landscapes and biodiversity, development of economies that are culturally and ecologically sustainable, and support of biosphere research and education. The international coordinating council of the UN MAB Programme met earlier this year and added 18 new biosphere reserves to the growing international network. In contrast, the United States recently withdrew 17 sites. CABR is one of 28 US sites remaining.
“CABR is one of the largest biosphere reserves in the US network, with a long history of environmental stewardship with significant benefits to our economy and communities,” says Brian Houseal, co-chair of CABR and former director of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Adirondack Ecological Center. “Economy and ecology need not be at odds, and our region can both share our experiences and learn from others in a global network of biosphere reserves.”
The October 11th meeting is from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm at the University of Vermont’s George D. Aiken Center, and is sponsored by the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, Paul Smith’s College, Gund Institute for Environment, UVM Environmental Program, Leadership for the Ecozoic Partnership, and the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.
New research by PhD alum Michael Wironen is out in the journal of Global Environmental Change on “Phosphorus Flows and Legacy Accumulation in an Animal-Dominated Agricultural Region from 1925 to 2012” (aka Vermont). We found that although the overall surplus of phosphorus in agricultural in Vermont has declined since the 1950s, excess phosphorus continues to accumulate on Vermont fields and waterways. Gains in agriculture efficiency has been more than offset by livestock intensification, and since 1982 feed imports have been a larger source of P inputs than fertilizer.
Abstract. Phosphorus (P) is a scarce but critical input for agriculture, yet its overuse can lead to water quality degradation. Most P applied as fertilizer and manure binds to soils, accumulating over time, constituting a legacy source with implications for mitigating nutrient pollution. To investigate how the flows and balance of P evolved over a period of rapidly changing technology, agricultural practices, and land cover, we modeled P flows in Vermont’s dairy-dominated agricultural system at county- and state-levels from 1925 to 2012. An important dairy exporter, Vermont faces water quality challenges complicated by a mismatch between the scale of the market and that of policymaking, a common occurrence in export-oriented agricultural regions. Over the period analyzed, agricultural soils accumulated at >1000 tonnes of P annually, accruing a legacy stock >230,000 tonnes. The peak surplus of 4439 tonnes occurred in 1950, declining to 1493 tonnes per annum in 2012. Legacy P accumulation at the state-level ranged from <1 to> 16 kg ha−1, depending on year and measurement method. The decline in total P surplus reflects an 82% decline in fertilizer use that was partly offset by an increase in animal feed imports, the largest source of P entering Vermont since 1982. Despite declining inputs, milk output doubled, evidence of increased P use efficiency. Simultaneously, animal unit density increased by >250%, enabled by rising feed imports. While feed is imported and milk exported, manure remains in Vermont; hence, Vermont soils continue to accrue legacy P at rates > 5 kg ha−1, undermining efforts to reduce P runoff and achieve water quality targets. We discuss the governance, management, and policy implications, outlining opportunities to improve input accountability to address the persistent P imbalance. We highlight constraints facing regional policymakers due to increased embeddedness in commodity trade networks.”