In the last two posts I have written about how standard economic thinking has carried national economies along a trajectory of growth in the belief that this is the only sure path to societal well-being. In posts to come I will examine in more detail the dynamics of the “hooked on growth” model of managing an economy, and where it has brought us on the human journey, and what alternative paths we might take into the future. In doing so I will draw on the analysis of commentators both inside and outside the discipline of economics and review their various recommendations for the way ahead.
Before doing that, however, I would like to share a personal story. It reveals how struggling with these issues can touch one at a deep psychic level and evoke messages cloaked in metaphor whose interpretation then becomes part of the ongoing struggle of thought and action.
In the last post on sustainable development I drew heavily on the work of Herman Daly, who is an environmental economist, and outlined his criticism of orthodox economic thinking. My story relates to an experience I had after reading Daly rather intensively for several hours.
A Compelling Dream
My wife, Gerri, and I had gone away from home to spend a few days at a lovely ocean resort at Parksville on Vancouver Island. You might say that reading Herman Daly was not a particularly relaxing way to spend time in such a beautiful setting—and you would be right. However, it was a rainy afternoon and evening on our first day there, so I spent a few hours with Daly and finally came to an account about “two pioneers in the economics of sustainable development” who, according to Daly, were variously vilified, rejected and neglected by the community of orthodox economists for daring to make “the discipline of economics take seriously any new insight that fundamentally challenges its customary presuppositions.”
One of the pioneers, Frederick Solly, lived in the the early 20th century. He was not an economist, but a distinguished chemist and a major contributor to the modern theory of atomic structure. As an accomplished scientist he was particularly aware of the responsibility of science for promoting well-being. He also understood its potential to do the opposite. In the second half of his nearly eighty years of life he took a particular interest in what he called the pseudo-science of economics and became a severe critic of its internal flaws and failure to serve society well. Of course, his own greatest failing in the opinion of the economists he criticized was that he was not one of them, and therefore had no credibility as a critic.
Not so for Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the second of the two pioneers in Daly’s account. He was a consummate economist whose work spanned the second half of the 20th century. As a professor at Vanderbilt University he was Daly’s own teacher. For twenty-five years Georgescu-Roegen argued without great success against orthodox economics’ refusal to include what he called the “entropic flow” of inputs from the environment in its model of a functioning economy. He died in 1994 and his later years, as described by Daly, were “marked by bitterness and withdrawal, brought on in part by the failure of the profession to give his work the recognition that it truly merited.”
With this account of intransigent rejection of alternative viewpoints troubling my mind, I went to bed on that first night in the Parksville resort. A few hours later I snapped awake early in the morning with a vivid dream filling my mind. It was so compelling that I had to get up and set down the details, lest I should lose them, as I usually do with my dreams, if I went back to sleep.
In my dream were two young women. Some kind of serious accident had occurred to one of them. My role in the dream seemed to be mainly to bear witness to the seriousness of the accident to the one and to the distress of the other. At first I was concerned that the injured woman was at least stabilized. Then I could turn to the other. When I did so, I became aware that her distress at the injury that had occurred was not as a friend of the other woman, or even as a sister, but rather as a mother.
“How could that be,” I asked, “when you yourself are so young?”
I don’t think I got a satisfactory answer to that question, other than to conclude that a girl can become a mother at a very young age. More to the point, this young woman was, in particular, bewailing the fact that she had written a message that could have prevented the accident, not once, not twice, but three times—and no one had paid any attention to her.
That, essentially, was the dream, fuzzy in detail, as my dreams usually are, but sufficiently compelling that it brought me into wakefulness and forced me to think about it, and, indeed, to get up and set down the outline before I lost it. In doing so I became aware of what I believe the dream was about.
In reading Herman Daly I had become appalled that as an eminent economist he was describing forthrightly the flawed logic and wrong-headed basic assumptions of his most esteemed colleagues, who are the leading economists of the age, and who are exerting such a significant influence in guiding the fortunes of the industrialized economies of the world. And not only was he writing in this way himself, but he told the story of how Frederick Soddy, writing before him as far back as the 1920s, had also raised the alarm and had been ignored. Then he described how his own teacher, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, thirty years later wrote in the same way with similar rejection by his peers. Now he, Daly, in the 1990s was writing in similar vein—all of them addressing audiences of their peers, who were quiet unmoved by their messages and doing nothing to avert an impending catastrophe.
It was then I saw the link to my dream. The young woman injured in the accident was the Earth, and, indeed, the whole of our industrialized civilization. The other woman, still young enough to be in her prime, who had a mother’s concern for an injured daughter, represented the messengers who had sent warnings from three generations without any success in averting the accident.
Significantly, perhaps, in the dream the accident to the first young woman was not terminal—there was hope she would recover. Equally significant, the other woman was still young, in her prime, and if she could get beyond her grief, there was much she could do to heal the injuries of her wounded daughter, and change the outcome for the future.
It is in the context of that dream that I now set down my thoughts, initially formulated at 3 o’clock in the morning following the dream, but subsequently worked out in detail as I try to make clear the difficult but profound messages of these men of great intellect crying out to the world to listen and make changes to the foundational assumptions and practices that are driving human civilization into serious and certain danger if not changed.
Our Personal Dilemma
The dream revealed how deeply disturbed I am at what humanity is doing to the Earth. But perhaps most distressing of all is the realization that all of us are part of the problem as we live our largely unquestioned lifestyles in the communities in which we have been socialized—to be consumers of the Earth’s bounty, to enthusiastically embrace each new technological innovation, to seek our own material advantage, while not paying attention to the larger implications of this behaviour. This leads us to ignore, and at worst dismiss, the teachings and clear rational arguments of those who look below the surface of our industrialized self-absorption. My hope—and, indeed, it must be my faith—is that in writing about these matters, in setting down as clearly as I can the issues and possible solutions, that I will encourage you who read these words to use your own influence and impulse to do no harm, particularly to the little ones coming along behind us, to pursue your own best efforts to be the change we need to see in the world.
I will examine in upcoming posts the reasons why we are forced to behave economically in the way that we do. The system has grown up to compel us to be consumers of the Earth. The system can be changed, but whether or not it will depends on the extent to which, once we understand it, we are prepared to work hard for the changes to be made.
I had intended to write more in this post of substance, but I am now so overcome with feeling that I must stop here and come back to the issues another day. May I leave with you a few lines from a poem by Brian Pergross that I found on the Internet:
“‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ /That is the motto that fills our hearts. /We know this is the path to profound transformation.
We know that quietly and humbly /Individually and collectively /We have the power of all the oceans combined.
At first glance our work is not even visible. /It is slow and meticulous /Like the formation of mountains.
And yet with our combined efforts /Entire tectonic plates /Are being shaped and moved for centuries to come.”