Home > The Economy and the Planet > Steady-state


from Edward Fullbrook

There is a letter of mine in the current issue of the London Review of Books.  It is as follows.

Old Blue Banger

In 1963 I backpacked through Southern Sudan. So, naturally, reading Jonathan Littell’s ‘A Journey in South Sudan’, I tried to make connections between there then and there now (LRB, 30 June). I wasn’t very successful. Place and tribe names remain the same, but today’s referents seem to belong to a different anthropological period from the ones I knew. Littell writes:

“The streets of Juba … were metalled not long ago and the traffic never lets up: there are 4x4s with radios and humanitarian logos, more luxurious SUVs … vans, pickup trucks, motorcycles, endless streams of public minibuses, the occasional Hummer, bright yellow or orange. There are many substantial-looking buildings, bars, restaurants, businesses, cellphone and computer shops, beauty salons, clothing stores.”

In 1963 the only real buildings in Juba were a Barclays Bank and a government guest house that was far beyond my means. Twice a day you might see a battered Land Rover or a small lorry, but no bikes, motor or otherwise, that I remember.

One day on Juba’s main street a car appeared, an old blue banger. What a sight! I hadn’t seen a car since leaving Khartoum four weeks earlier. It pulled up beside me and a white man’s bald head came out from a rear window. He introduced himself as the American ambassador. ‘I flew down in a Piper Cub from Khartoum just for the day.’

Even then Juba was half an anthropological period removed from the rest ofSouthern Sudan. Beyond the city limits, loin cloths were virtually the only apparel, and for men they were optional. Utilitarian spears were an everyday sight. Between Wau and Juba, a distance of 350 miles, I saw only one structure that was not made entirely from un-machined materials. It was a gazebo with metal insect screening tacked onto a light frame of milled timbers. Inside, its African owner, also in his early twenties, served me tea and told me his life story in perfect Home Counties English. His mother had died in an epidemic and his father in the claws and jaws of a lion. Missionaries passing through took him into their care and eventually back to England. Recently he had graduated from a British university and had returned to help his people – although of course he didn’t express it this way – into a different anthropological period. Obviously he and others succeeded; Littell otherwise would not have gone to South Sudan to write his article. I don’t mean to be nostalgic or sentimental, but it was with some sadness that I read it.

So you have a rough picture of what life in terms of economic development was like in Southern Sudan half a century ago.  But I was not in any way thinking of economics when I wrote it.  Reading my letter in print this morning just as I was about to put on my economist hat, however, it occurred to me that in my travels back then through Southern Sudan I had observed concrete examples of two economic ideas now rapidly moving upwards on the global intellectual agenda.  And both have recently featured in the RWER.

The first was a steady-state economy.  Outside Juba they predominated everywhere and had for at least centuries.  The economies were local in structure and geared not to growth but instead to maintaining a level of sustainable sufficiency, so that, baring externalities (conquest from the north and technology from the West) the quantities and qualities describing their economies were independent of time.                   

The second large timely idea whose exemplification I observed in Southern Sudan is rarely enunciated but is increasingly with us because it is implicit in the concept of a steady-state economy.  Realizing such an economy depends on the values which predominate in the society to which it belongs.  More precisely, it requires a non-consumer society, meaning one in which its members’ primary identity and purpose are independent of consumer aspirations.  Economies belong to cultures and visa versa.  Each depends fundamentally on the other.  Selling the idea of a steady-state economy depends on selling the idea of a non-consumer society.  That is a job not yet seriously begun.  Clearly also it is an idea that has now been lost in Southern Sudan.  They of course were starting from an ultra low level of economic development.  And I would not for a second deny any people the right to attain a level of economic development that is considered right for others.  But I cannot with confidence say that the people there in 63 – who more than once sheltered me overnight for free in their conical huts of thatch – were not as happy or happier than those living there today.

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  1. October 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm | #1

    Reading Edward’s letter about Sudan in ’63 (when I was 1 yr old), I am struck by how much simpler and less consumeristic things were around the world. Having moved back to my childhood home, with it’s wood stove and outdoor privy (latrine), I know that there is hope for us to turn things around. The appeal of the fast-paced life of the overworked consumer has lost it’s glamour to any who have lived it long. The fact that our privy can now be “wifi equipped” does not take away from the fact that what we remove from our lives is equally important as what we add. We form our habits, then they form us. Said another way. “whatever you own, owns you.”

  2. Dave Taylor
    October 12, 2011 at 4:46 pm | #2

    Thank you so much for this, Edward. It shows vividly and movingly how economics can be taught and enriched by choice narrative as well as explanation hung on taxonomy and structural analysis.

  3. Bruce E. Woych
    October 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm | #3

    When people build an economy based on the mutual value of service and stability, there is a steady state in the feedback loop of economic communication.

    When the academic geniuses of economics created the maximizing principles of profit and wealth, it not only cut that line but obliterated it along with the true concern for the end results until the damage hits home. In our economy, that damage is sent to other peoples homes. It is all just “doing business” and the perpetrators are “just doing their job.”

  4. Bruce E. Woych
    October 12, 2011 at 9:53 pm | #4

    i realize that it is practically dogma, but “consumer society” has too much of a categorical cosmology to it. the truth is that we are living in a profit driven society and that is methodically operationalized as consumer society in a suspicious casting of blame onto the recipients that are merely fattened cows in a “fordist” colony. (Where I take “fordist” to imply not only planned obsolescence but path dependency upon inefficiency in the service of profit motive). I realize this is clearly not the “economist’s” proportionate rationalism; but I would say it is more of an anthropological realism in situ.

  5. October 13, 2011 at 12:52 am | #5

    Muchas Gracias, indeed, Edward! Sad, but too true, and thanks also for what I’ve refrained from bringing up so far, the dreaded spectre of a non-consumerist “sustainable” economy. I suppose I may as well have… The letter and comments remind me again that we have a few ancient sustainable economies still going strong, at least locally. After all, why should Yap Islanders give up perfectly good money that’s been sitting where it’s at for a very long time. The best example, while probably strained beyond the breaking point now, may be found in Helena Norberg-Hodge’s “Ancient Futures” on the ecocentric economy of Ladahk’s religiously oriented sustainable culture. Had they not evolved a sustainable economy, they would not have built a sustainable culture in an environment resembling a freshly terraformed colony on Mars. See the preview at > http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Futures-Lessons-Ladakh-Globalizing/dp/1578051622/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1318462418&sr=1-2

    This may be a good point to suggest a rereading of Jared Diamond’s classics, especially Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. Since it looks like neither the victims nor the plutocrats are ready to choose ecological or economic success, I suggest a close reading of The Economics of Happiness in Ancient Futures and E.F. Schumacher’s essay on Buddhist Economics. As most of you surely know, when a N-CE NeoLib asked what compassion had to do with economics, he answered, “Economics without compassion is like sex without love.” Why he thought a NeoLib N-CE ego demon would make sense of that is beyond me. Which reminds me, it may be a good time to revisit Small is Beautiful and Soylent Green.

    Really, though, I’m far more optomistic than I might seem. I am actually a Schonian Twainian, completely convinced — by experience and good anthropology — that as things get severely worse more rapidly, the odds of radical change increase proportionally. Diamond’s work shows real world examples of changes that were appropriate, sufficient, and those that weren’t. Naturally, there are many other examples of both kinds. The Buddhist republic of Bhutan is or was a good one. And we might say that modern civilization is a very curious example of a long series of very mediocre responses to extreme survival crises (causing our extreme polycrisis).

    Hopefully, we will soon see the plutocrats opting in favor of the GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) metric proposed by His Highness, Jigme Wangchuk, former Dharma King of Bhutan. I think that will only happen if RWE/ARE luminaries start playing a more proactive role in the transition. We shall soon see.

    If the Chinese and the rest of the rapidly developing cultures of the “3rd World” keep using conventional, bricks, concrete, and American-style carcentric city planning policy (designed for the convenience of the oil industry & vehicle manufacturers & conventional road building corporations, instead of human beings), then the melting of the polar icecaps & large glaciers would speed up by 2 or 3 times faster than it’s accelerating already (which is fast but unmeasurable). That would accompany other effects of accelerated CO2 & methane release, in turn accelerating all other effects of radical climate change. I know that may seem dauntingly unpredictable but, hey, when has the uncooperative nature of AR ever kept a determined economist from doing new studies & new projections?

    I’m sure there are some very good hard science folk & computational simulation nerds out there that will jump at the chance to help. Wanna bet?

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