Home > The Economy and the Planet > War and peace and the steady-state economy

War and peace and the steady-state economy

from Herman Daly

My parents were children during WW I, the so-called “war to end all wars.” I was a child in WW II, an adolescent in the Korean War, and except for a physical disability would likely have been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Then came Afghanistan, Iraq, the continuous Arab-Israeli conflict, ISIS, Ukraine, Syria, etc. Now as a senior citizen, I see that war has metastasized into terrorism. It is hard to conceive of a country at war, or threatened by terrorism, moving to a steady state economy.

Peace is necessary for real progress, including progress toward a steady state economy. While peace should be our priority, might it nevertheless be the case that working toward a steady state economy would further the goal of peace? Might growth be a major cause of war, and the steady state a necessity for eliminating that cause? I think this is so.

More people require more space (lebensraum) and more resources. More things per person also require more space and more resources. Recently I learned that the word “rival” derives from the same root as “river.” People who get their water from the same river are rivals–at least when there are too many of them each drawing too much.

For a while, the resource demands of growth can be met from within national borders. Then there is pressure to exploit or appropriate the global commons. Then comes the peaceful penetration of other nations’ ecological space by trade. The uneven geographic distribution of resources (petroleum, fertile soil, water) causes specialization among nations and interdependence along with trade. Are interdependent nations more or less likely to go to war? That has been argued both ways, but when one growing nation has what another thinks it absolutely needs for its growth, conflict easily displaces trade. As interdependence becomes more acute, then trade becomes less voluntary–more like an offer you can’t refuse. Unless trade is voluntary, it is not likely to be mutually beneficial. Top down global economic integration replaces trade among separate interdependent national economies. We have been told on highest authority that because the American way of life requires foreign oil, we will have it one way or another.

International “free trade pacts” (NAFTA, TPP, TAFTA) are supposed to increase global GDP, thereby making us all richer and effectively expanding the size of the earth and easing conflict. But growth in the full world has become uneconomic–increasing costs faster than benefits. It now makes us poorer, not richer. These secretly negotiated agreements among the elites are designed to benefit private global corporations, often at the expense of the public good of nations. Some think that strengthening global corporations by erasing national boundaries will reduce the likelihood of war. More likely we will just shift to feudal corporate wars in a post-national global commons, with corporate fiefdoms effectively buying national governments and their armies, supplemented by already existing private mercenaries.

It is hard to imagine a steady state economy without peace; it is hard to imagine peace in a full world without a steady state economy. Those who work for peace are promoting the steady state, and those who work for a steady state are promoting peace. This implicit alliance needs to be made explicit. Contrary to popular belief, growth in a finite and full world is not the path to peace, but to further conflict. It is an illusion to think that we can buy peace with growth. The growth economy and warfare are now natural allies. It is time for peacemakers and steady staters to recognize their natural alliance.

It would be naïve, however, to think that growth in the face of environmental limits is the only cause of war. Evil ideologies, religious conflict, and “clash of civilizations” also cause wars. National defense is necessary, but uneconomic growth does not make our country stronger. The secular west has a hard time understanding that religious conviction can motivate people to both to kill and die for their beliefs. Modern devotion to the Secular God of Growth, who promises heaven on earth, has itself become a fanatical religion that inspires violence as much as any ancient Moloch. The Second Commandment, forbidding the worship of false gods (idolatry) is not outdated. Our modern idols are new versions of Mammon and Mars.

  1. May 2, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    War is like an earthquake: It is the result of mounting tension between tectonic plates that move in opposite directions, none being willing to give ground to the others.
    Greed, poverty and inequality are the lubricants of the tectonic movements.

    The idea of “lebensraum” used by the National Socialist ideologues to justify an invasion of eastern Europe by the Hitler administration was just an excuse for blatant territorial greed.
    This is proven beyond a shadow of doubt by the fact that Germany of today has no difficulty in supporting its population from its present land base.

  2. Marko
    May 2, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    A light bulb with a filament that lasted 100 years would be an advance toward a steady-state economy. We could make them that way , but we don’t because it’s bad for profits. It’s more profitable to make light bulbs that go “pop” on a regular basis.

    Similarly , we find that it’s more profitable if countries – in , e.g. , the Middle East – go “pop” on a regular basis. When you’re the boss and you’re trying to make the sales or gdp numbers for the next quarter , that’s how you roll.

  3. May 3, 2015 at 2:12 am

    One of these days humanity will see the wisdom in sharing the Earth’s abundance.

  4. Macrocompassion
    May 3, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Oh shame to Man, devil with devil dammed!
    Firm concord holds, men only disagree
    On creatures rational and full of hope
    And heavenly grace and God proclaiming peace.
    Yet live in hatred, emnity and strife,
    Proclaiming their might, and levy cruel wars,
    Wasting the earth, each other to destroy,
    As if, (which might induce us to accord)
    Man hath not enemies enough besides,
    Who day and night for his destruction wait.

    John Milton

  5. Ack Nice
    May 7, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    on that “continuous” Arab-Israeli conflict:


  6. Ack Nice
    May 8, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Read it and weep with me?


    In 2014, one person was forced to flee their home every 3 seconds. Every 3 seconds, another person had to flee their home, for all of 2014.

    Religious and racial differences are not causing the wars. Inequality is. Where there are religious and racial differences but socio-economic sameness there is peaceful cohabitation. Where there is economic inequality that runs down religious or racial lines there is conflict and violence.

    People write whole books about economics and about peace – and never once mention fairpay justice.

    What words will work to ring humanity’s bell hard enough to wake a world sound-snoring asleep to the root cause of all the horrors? Are we dropping all these bombs on our heads to try to wake ourselves up?

    Urgent to the Federation of Galactic Councils

    Re: Survival of planet Earth, solar system ExB213, galaxy MaDas/5

    Situation critical; very close to destruction; request immediate intervention; inequity factor is 1,000,000,000 [one billion] and rising; most powerful species is victim of bigpicture blindness; cannot see the overall situation; this species has technology and weapons capable of destroying entire planet 60 times over; please send emergency response team ASAP; code 10; need equipment for disabling uranium-based bombs; repeat: extreme inequity increasing exponentially, driving violence to infinity; planet could burn at any moment; species has very confused and imperfect ideas about work and wealth; self-destruction is rampant since reward and sacrifice were divorced; species lacks conscious perception of value of justice and of connection of injustice and violence; recommend you send 1000 indestructible teachers; species has driven itself mad; most unable to overcome inertia, many vulnerable to psychosis and panic mentality; obedience to custom and convention is solidified; submission to accepted ideas is extreme; sense of alarm at situation is extremely slight; recommend extreme caution; planet is worth saving, has some interesting lifeforms

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