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Herman Daly: “Essays Against Growthism”

Essays Against Growthism

Herman Daly

Published 25 March 2015 by WEA Books, $10.00
This book is available to download in PDF, EPUB (for iPad etc.) and MOBI (for Kindle etc.)


  1. The Economy as Subsystem of the Ecosphere
  2. An Economics Fit for Purpose in a Finite World
  3. Integrating Ecology and Economics
  4. Dualist Economics
  5. Three Limits to Growth
  6. Depletion of Moral Capital as a Limit to Growth
  7. A Population Perspective on the Steady-State Economy
  8. The Guardian and Monbiot versus Forbes and Worstall
  9. Use and Abuse of the “Natural Capital” Concept
  10. Cold War Left-Overs
  11. Krugman’s Growthism
  12. Full Employment versus Jobless Growth
  13. The Negative Natural Interest Rate and Uneconomic Growth
  14. Top 10 Policies for a Steady-State Economy

1 . The Economy as Subsystem of the Ecosphere

When I worked at the World Bank, I often heard the statement, “There is no conflict between economics and ecology. We can and must grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time.” I still hear that a lot today. Is it true? Is it possible?

Although it is a comforting idea, I fear that it is at most half true. The “true” part comes from a confusion of reallocation with aggregate growth. There are generally always possibilities of better allocation – more of something desired in exchange for a reduction in something less desired. This is the domain of microeconomics. Aggregate growth, by contrast, means more of everything as measured by GDP – it is the domain of macroeconomics, and is the meaning of growth in this discussion.

The economy is an open subsystem of the larger ecosphere that is finite, non-growing, and materially closed, although open to a continual, but non-growing, throughput of solar energy. When the economy grows in physical dimensions it incorporates matter and energy from the rest of the ecosystem into itself. It must, by the law of conservation of matter and energy (First Law of Thermodynamics), encroach on the ecosystem, diverting matter and energy from previous natural uses. More human economy (more people and commodities) means less natural ecosystem. In this sense the statement is false. There is an obvious physical conflict between the growth of the economy and the preservation of the environment.

  1. graccibros
    March 25, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I take the work of Herman Daly seriously, as well as Richard Smith’s Green Capitalism: The God that Failed, and hope to be purchasing both very shortly. Meanwhile, I have been reading Mark Blyth’s book on Austerity, which reads so fluidly and powerfully I had to wonder whether he was an economist at all. A hybrid, it turns out. And a fellow Scotsman. This right after reading Thomas Edsall’s book on the domestic politics of austerity. A grim, ghastly work that we should read so that we have no illusions about where we are. And I put them all up against Gar Alperovitz’s “What Then Must We Do,” Gus Speth’s last three works and Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything.”

    And I look around me at the Western poorer edge of Maryland, adjacent to West Virginia and Pennsylvania, who have bought, out of desperation and no competing viable ideas about the political economy, green or not, and bought into fracking, (hopefully not MD, we may postpone it 3 years, if ever, in the legislative balance just now, end of March Annapolis) continuing their joint 19th-20th century nightmare with coal and its unfinished business-transferred public costs onto yet another generation; oh yes, at the higher levels natural gas fracking has its justifiers in fruit of American technology must be deployed and freeing the nation from foreign dependence…save the Ukraine from the Ruskies…but I wish, I just wish I could put forward with any degree of political realism, put forward a serious alternative to the bad jobs, fleeting jobs likely at the end of a high cost gas bubble that fracking provides, be able to look desperate young men in the eye and say do this instead, it’s better all around and at equal pay…you can see the beginnings of an outline of something different in this region, WVA and western MD, a green alternative but right now, it can’t be scaled up in time to meets the needs for fuller employment…and the very idea of a worker and environment friendly state doing the scaling that needs to be done, and supplying the cheaper capital to do it…well, Blyth’s book tells you why that isn’t within reach – yet – to end on a more hopeful note. Or the gap between the upper-middle class greens and the unorganized but desperate working class men…throw the gender issues into the mix…(can Hillary bridge them, bridge to the men not just the women the handlers navigate her towards) and now I’m not ending on such a hopeful note…let’s throw race and Van Jones into this mix…with his old green jobs book…anyone remember that and can relay it here with the history of his Icarus fall out of the Obama administration…and within just one sentence I’m not so hopeful. kind of where Steve Fraser ends up in his difficult but rewarding “The Age of Acquiescence.”

    I haven’t Acquiesced, but I’m aging.

    • March 26, 2015 at 1:39 am

      When we can’t meet full employment because if the world’s population worked 40 hours a week all life would be extinct far sooner than later.

      Question the idea of jobs.

      • graccibros
        March 26, 2015 at 1:53 pm

        Yes, yes, fair enough Garrett, that’s where Daly, Smith and Klein drive, Smith maybe being even more radical than Klein, measured by the scope of the transformation his logic demands: not the path of Chinese and Indian logic, certainly. But here’s where culture comes in; if you understand the Religious Right and the Austerity Right – and let’s include the German’s and that Milan based Italian austerity school in the mix, this is a Protestant Ethic – work, save and then spend obsession, blending quite fully into the American Dream, so even if our progressive green economic logic says 70% of us have “to sit it out” to save the ecological “commons” I can’t imagine any premise further from political reach than setting work aside.

        I haven’t changed my mind that full employment redirected to green alternative infrastructure and the repair of past damages is the “fabled” bridge, with the destination being revised as we work our way along. If you read Larry Summers “Inclusive Austerity” you’ll see that he has taken a few baby steps in the right direction, but that’s all…and its far short of the Daly-Smith-Klein-Alperovitz urgings…and remember, it’s only an intellectual platter that perhaps Democratic politicians will chose from on their own whims and intuitions.

        Although most economists tend to look to Asia for the ingredients to mull over, and the shape of things to come, let’s try the fate of Mexico to understand the full impact of globalization, and the full costs of ignoring the importance of work, and what happens when society says it’s not our job to supply meaningful jobs, because only the private sector can do that. Start applying that analysis to the immigration discussion in the US and you’ll see how far we are from an intellectual pathway to where our enlightened green ecos want to take us. This comes from my work trying to understanding Reyna Grande’s “The Distance Between Us” her autobiography, which was kind of an official Maryland State Cultural read this fall. What she left out was nearly as important as what she left in…

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