The Progress Illusion: Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics

My new book will be published this Fall by Island Press! Below is a brief synopsis, and here’s a link to the publisher’s web site:

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.

New Book on “Sustainable Wellbeing Futures”

We have a new edited book coming out in May 2020 entitled Sustainable Wellbeing Futures: a Research and Action Agenda for Ecological Economics. This work is the product of a workshop supported by the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont, and includes contributions from a broad range of scholars and practioners dedicated to shaping the field of ecological economics. As Hunter Lovins writes:

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.

After the Pandemic – Designing a Just and Resilient Economy for All

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.

The UVM Economist Behind Bernie’s Job Numbers

By Arno Rosenfeld. Cross-posted from Gund Institute for Environment.
February 6, 2020

Bernie Sanders’ proposed Green New Deal is sparking innovative work by students and professors alike, says UVM’s Jon Erickson, who crunched job numbers for the plan.

When Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign released job numbers for its Green New Deal proposal last fall, projecting it would put 20 million people to work, it raised some eyebrows.

Politico suggested the figures were “outlandish,” while The New York Times cautioned that job growth was “not so simple.”

But University of Vermont professor Jon Erickson, who created the projections, knew the figures were sound: they came directly from economic analyses he’s been doing for decades.

“Any presidential candidate wants to show big job numbers behind their proposals,” said Erickson, a Gund Institute for Environment Fellow from the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “But these are actually modest numbers given the economic transformation needed to confront climate change. As with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Green New Deal would redefine the economy as we know it.”

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.”

A Just Transition to a Right-Sized Economy

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?”

University of Vermont to Host United Nations Biosphere Delegation

Cross-posted from University of Vermont Communications, October 9, 2019

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.  

More information:

October 11th Meeting Agenda

Map of the Champlain Adirondack Biosphere Reserve

New research on phosphorus surplus in Vermont agriculture

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.

Below is an abstract summary.  You can also read more about the study in a VT Digger article on how “Vermont needs to make ‘tough decisions’ on cow herds“.

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.”

Most U.S. States Face ‘Progress Recession’

Cross-posted from University of Vermont Communications
January 26, 2018

There’s an old adage in business that says, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  This philosophy guides a growing number of economic studies in the U.S. that move beyond narrow notions of economic success, to broader and more nuanced definitions of progress.

One such measure gaining traction in more than a dozen states is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), an alternative to gross domestic product (GDP).  A new study from the University of Vermont (UVM) is the first to publish GPI estimates for all 50 states.

The study suggests the U.S. economy is experiencing a significant “progress recession,” with broad social and environmental costs reducing the uneven benefits of economic growth.

While GDP measures all market transactions of households, businesses, and governments of an economy, it misses a range of key factors. For example, it does not track environmental factors such as air and water pollution, energy and forest depletion, or the social impacts of income inequality. Nor does it account for people’s time and resources that happen outside the market economy, including household work, elder and child care, volunteering, leisure and time spent commuting.

“The GPI methodology estimates some of these missing costs and benefits of economic activity through 24 adjustments to GDP,” says lead author Mairi-Jane Fox, a recent PhD graduate from UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “These adjustments are intended to give us a more accurate snapshot of prosperity. To that end, the 50-state study helps us compare state economies and policy options across broader economic, social, and environmental dimensions, as well as standardize and update macroeconomic indicators for the realities of the 21st century.”

According to the study, the top state GPI performers are: 1. Alaska, 2. Massachusetts, 3. Connecticut, 4. Hawaii, 5. Washington State, 6. New York, 7. Maryland, 8. New Hampshire 9. Rhode Island, 10. New Jersey. Vermont comes in at 11, and California is 14. The worst performing GPI states are: Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, North Dakota, Louisiana, Wyoming.


Interestingly, many states that rank highly under a GDP per capita metric, fall to the bottom of the GPI rankings, including Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. This is due, for example, to depletion and pollution costs in economies that depend largely on fossil fuel extraction. Economies with less reliance on coal, oil, and gas extraction and refining tend to perform better under GPI, recognizing the benefits of transitioning away from non-renewable resources and high carbon emitting industries.

Similarly, several states over perform on GPI given their comparatively low economic output per capita. This includes Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Vermont and Wisconsin.

“While consumption of goods and services, the main component of GDP, is also a main driver of GPI, we do see big variances between states due to differences in income inequality, energy and greenhouse gas intensity, and renewable energy mix,” says co-author Jon Erickson, the Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy at UVM’s Rubenstein School and Fellow of the Gund Institute for Environment.

“The reining philosophy is that unlimited economic growth will compensate for environmental losses, climate change, or time with loved ones. And despite claims that a growing economy will trickle-down to everyone, GPI and other studies show that the gap between the rich and poor is growing faster than ever.”

Erickson helped develop the first state-level GPI study that has since become Vermont law, the first state law to mandate the use of GPI to guide economic policy.  GPI is now one of the main indicators in Vermont’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. Other state governments to incorporate GPI as a policy metric include Maryland, Washington, and Hawaii, and faculty and student fellows of the Gund Institute have completed GPI studies for Maryland, Ohio, Utah, Oregon, and Massachusetts.

While GPI is an improvement over GDP, Fox and Erickson seek further improvements for the indicator. “For example, GPI penalizes states that extract fossil fuels, but not the states that import it. That should be addressed,” adds Fox. “And while GPI measures income inequality, it currently doesn’t track data on racial or gender inequality. Indicator research in the field of ecological economics is addressing these issues, as governments work to adopt metrics that recognize not just the size of the economy, but it’s capacity to deliver shared benefits with less social and environmental costs.”

The 50-state study will appear in the May 2018 volume of the journal Ecological Economics, and is currently available from Science Direct.  Full analysis and results from Mairi-Jane Fox’s Ph.D. Dissertation are available from ScholarWorks @ UVM, and the complete data set and computations can be downloaded as a spreadsheet from the Gund Institute.

More Links:

Other States Joining Vermont to Develop Genuine Progress Indicator,” Vermont Public Radio, Oct. 18, 2013.

Beyond GDP: U.S. States have Adopted Genuine Progress Indicators,” The Guardian, Sep. 23, 2014.

Genuine Development in the States,” YouTube, Gund Institute Research Slam 2014.

Towards a Genuine Progress Economy in Vermont,” YouTube, UVM Sustainable Business Keynote, 2012.

Recruiting PhD Students for “Leadership for the Ecozoic” Partnership

Position: The Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont (UVM) in Burlington, Vermont and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, seek up to ten PhD students to join the Leadership for the Ecozoic partnership in Fall 2018. The cohort will focus broadly on developing and applying systems-based approaches to ecological economics, law, ethics, and related transdisciplinary efforts to research and chart pathways to the Ecozoic.

Background: The Ecozoic represents a vision for the future founded on mutually enhancing relationships between human societies and the global community of life. Leadership for the Ecozoic (L4E) is a global partnership initially based at McGill University and the University of Vermont to work toward that vision by: (1) advancing transdisciplinary scholarship in select doctoral programs to educate and empower new leaders for the Ecozoic; (2) co-creating a global research-to-action network to heal and restore Earth’s life support systems and foster a mutually-enhancing human-Earth relationship; and (3) mobilizing and focusing higher education resources and communication on multi-faceted, human-induced, planetary disturbances. A central L4E goal is to enable the development of thought leaders for the Ecozoic era. The partnership builds on the strengths of UVM and McGill in ecological economics and the initial Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) partnership that currently includes about 40 graduate students, 80 collaborators, and 25 academic, government and NGO partners.

The Ecozoic: “Ecozoic” is a term for an era coined by Thomas Berry, outlining a comprehensive objective of humanity “to assist in establishing a mutually enhancing human presence upon the Earth.”  As Berry and Swimme in The Universe Story (p. 251) maintain, “This cannot, obviously, be achieved immediately. But if this is not achieved in some manner or within some acceptable limits the human will continue to exist in a progressively degraded mode of being.” Berry further states in a chapter on “The University” in The Great Work (p. 85), that universities must decide whether they will continue training persons for temporary survival in the declining Cenozoic Era or whether they will begin educating students for the emerging Ecozoic.”  This partnership charts a course for enabling the Ecozoic.

Offer: PhD students at UVM and McGill may receive a 12-month stipend for 3 years to support their research, the L4E shared coursework, an internship with a partner organization, and other partnership-related work assignments.  Tuition support will be available via scholarships and supplementary teaching assistantships.  Travel and research funds are also available.

Qualifications: PhD candidates, accepted by their host university (UVM or McGill).

Application: Interested students should contact one of the following:

McGill University
Peter G. Brown:
Applicants must apply to the Department of Natural Resource Sciences in “Renewable Resources” by February 15, 2018.

University of Vermont
Jon Erickson:
Applicants must identify a Fellow from the Gund Institute for Environment as an advisor, apply to a UVM PhD program of interest, and apply for an L4E assistantship at

Applications from women and people from diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds are encouraged.