A steady-state economy is an economy made up of a constant population size and a constant stock of physical wealth (capital). The term typically refers to the national economy of a particular country, but it is also applicable to the economic system of a city, a region, or the entire world. In the history of economic thought, classical economist Adam Smith of the 18th century was the first economist to theorise on the concept of a stationary state of an economy. Smith conjectured that any national economy in the world would sooner or later settle in a final state of stationarity.
Since the 1970s, the concept of a steady-state economy has been associated mainly with the work of leading ecological economist Herman Daly. As Daly's concept of a steady-state includes analyses of natural resource flows through the economy, his concept differs from the earlier, classical concept of a stationary state. One other difference is that Daly recommends immediate political action to establish the steady-state economy by imposing permanent government restrictions on all resource use, whereas Adam Smith and the other economists of the earlier, classical period of theorising believed that the future stationary state of any economy would settle by itself without any government intervention.
The world's mounting ecological problems have brought about a widening interest in the concept of a steady-state economy. Critics of the steady-state economy object to it by arguing that resource decoupling, technological development, and the unrestrained operation of market mechanisms are fully capable of overcoming any resource scarcity, any rampant pollution or any overpopulation ever to be encountered on Earth. Proponents of the steady-state economy, on the other hand, rebut that these objections remain insubstantial and mistaken — and that the case for a steady-state economy is gaining momentum every day.
The steady-state economy is an entirely physical concept. Any non-physical components of an economy (e.g. knowledge) can grow indefinitely. But the physical components (e.g. supplies of natural resources, human populations, and stocks of human-built capital) are constrained and endogenously given. An economy could reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. The objective is to establish it at a sustainable scale that does not exceed ecological limits.
Economists use gross domestic product or GDP to measure the size of an economy in dollars or some other monetary unit. Real GDP—that is, GDP adjusted for inflation—in a steady-state economy remains reasonably stable, neither growing nor contracting from year to year. Herman Daly, one of the founders of the field of ecological economics and a critic of neoclassical economics, defines a steady-state economy as...
|“||...an economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance "throughput", that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption.":17||”|
A steady-state economy, therefore, aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials. Birth rates equal death rates, and saving/investment equals depreciation.
Limits to economic growth
Development of steady-state economics (sometimes also called full-world economics) is a response to the observation that economic growth may have limits. Macroeconomic policies in most countries, particularly those with large economies, have typically been officially structured for economic growth for decades. Given the ecological costs associated with such policies (e.g. anthropogenic global warming, widespread habitat loss and species extinctions, consumption of natural resources, pollution, urban congestion, intensifying competition for remaining resources, and increasing disparity between the wealthy and the poor), some economists, scientists, and philosophers have pointed to the biophysical limits to growth, and questioned the desirability of continuous growth.
Economic growth consists of an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It is facilitated by increasing population, increasing per capita consumption, and productivity gains, and it is indicated by rising real GDP. For millennia most economies, in the current sense of the term, remained relatively stable in size, or they exhibited such modest growth that it was difficult to detect. Proponents of steady-state economics note that the general transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies resulted in population expansion and technological progress. From this they stress that the Industrial Revolution and the ability to extract and use dense energy resources resulted in unprecedented exponential growth in human populations and consumption.
The first serious doubts about the long run prospects for continuous growth in the industrial age are commonly ascribed to Thomas Robert Malthus's work on An Essay on the Principle of Population from 1798. Although many of Malthus's empirical claims and theoretical assumptions have since proved wrong, his broader concerns have remained influential, from eugenics to more mainstream views. The modern debate on the limits to growth was kicked off in 1972 by The Limits to Growth, a book produced by the Club of Rome. The Club of Rome developed computer models and explored scenarios of continuing economic growth and environmental impacts. Their original analysis and several follow-ups specified planetary limits to growth.
Additional studies and analytical tools corroborate much of the Club of Rome's work. For example, the ecological footprint is a measure of how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resource it consumes and to absorb its wastes, using prevailing technology. The Global Footprint Network calculates the world's ecological footprint to be the equivalent of 1.5 planets (as of 2014), meaning that human economies are consuming 50% more resources than the Earth can regenerate each year. In other words, it takes one year and six months to regenerate what we consume in the course of merely one year. This sort of ecological accounting suggests that economic growth is depleting resources at a rate that cannot be maintained in the longer run.
History of the concept
For centuries, economists have considered a transition from a growing economy to a stable (stationary, steady) one, from classical economists like Adam Smith down to present-day ecological economists.
Adam Smith is famous for the ideas in his book The Wealth of Nations. A central theme of the book is the desirable consequences of each person pursuing self-interest in the marketplace. He theorized and observed that people trading in open markets leads to production of the right quantities of commodities, division of labor, increasing wages, and an upward spiral of economic growth. But Smith recognized a limit to economic growth. He predicted that in the long run, population growth would push wages down, natural resources would become increasingly scarce, and division of labor would approach the limits of its effectiveness. He incorrectly predicted 200 years as the longest period of growth, followed by population stability.
John Stuart Mill, a pioneer of economics and one of the most gifted philosophers and scholars of the 19th century, anticipated the transition from economic growth to a "stationary state". In his magnum opus, Principles of Political Economy, he wrote:
...the increase of wealth is not boundless. The end of growth leads to a stationary state. The stationary state of capital and wealth… would be a very considerable improvement on our present condition.
...a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the art of living, and much more likelihood of it being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on."
John Maynard Keynes
John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the twentieth century, also considered the day when society could focus on ends (happiness and wellbeing, for example) rather than means (economic growth and individual pursuit of profit). He wrote:
...that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable… We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.
The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems - the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.
The Widow's Cruse is the name Keynes gave to a parable from the bible for a magical cup of oil, using the biblical term "cruse" for "cup". It was first discussed in his Treatise on Money to help explain why at the limits to growth, investing for economic expansion becomes unprofitable for all. His way of correcting this situation and create economic stability at the limits of growth we would now call a "sustainable design" for capitalism.[original research?] It was discussed as for some future time when increasing capital investment would naturally meet diminishing returns for the system as a whole. Continuing increases in investment by the wealthy would then cause over-investment and result in "conditions sufficiently miserable" to bring the net savings rate of the economy to zero. He called the solution to the problem "the widow's cruse", after a biblical parable of Elijah coming to stay with an old widow and making her cup of oil inexhaustible.
The Cambridge intellectuals trying to understand Keynes' Treatise on Money misunderstood and called it "the fallacy" instead. Though Keynes described it more clearly in The General Theory, a misunderstood idea is what it has remained. As a response to the natural over-investment crisis at the climax of capitalism it would have relied on the good will of the wealthy in spending enough of their own earnings to restore profitability to the rest of the economy. The original misinterpretation was that it was intended to restore growth rather than to allow growth to end without conflict. The misunderstanding has been generally repeated by other economists, except Kenneth Boulding who frequently referred to the eventual necessity to limit investment growth in response to environmental impacts and diminishing returns, and later by P.F. Henshaw as a general principle of systems ecology. That Keynes' solution would stabilize the economy as conditions became miserable due to over-investment, but at the expense of ending the automatic concentration of wealth, is likely to have been one of the more confusing features to most economists who tried to understand it.[original research?]
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen recognized the connection between physical laws and economic activity and wrote about it in 1971 in his magnum opus on The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. His premise was that the second law of thermodynamics, the entropy law, determines what is possible in the economy. Georgescu-Roegen explained that useful, low-entropy energy and materials are dissipated in transformations that occur in economic processes, and they return to the environment as high-entropy wastes. The economy, then, functions as conduit for converting natural resources into goods, services, human satisfaction, and waste products. Increasing entropy in the economy places profound limits on the scale it can achieve and maintain.
Around the same time that Georgescu-Roegen published his magnum opus, many other economists, most notably E.F. Schumacher and Kenneth Boulding, were writing about the environmental effects of economic growth and suggesting alternative models to the neoclassical growth paradigm. Schumacher proposed Buddhist Economics in an essay of the same name in his book Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher's economic model is grounded in sufficiency of consumption, opportunities for people to participate in useful and fulfilling work, and vibrant community life marked by peace and cooperative endeavors. Boulding used the spaceship as a metaphor for the planet in his prominent essay, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. He recognized the material and energy constraints of the economy and proposed a shift from the cowboy economy to the spaceman economy. In the cowboy economy, success is gauged by the quantity and speed of production and consumption. In the spaceman economy, by contrast, "what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput (that is, less production and consumption) is clearly a gain."
Herman Daly, a student of Georgescu-Roegen, built upon his mentor's work and combined limits-to-growth arguments, theories of welfare economics, ecological principles, and the philosophy of sustainable development into a model he called steady-state economics (see below). He later joined forces with Robert Costanza, AnnMari Jansson, Joan Martinez-Alier, and others to develop the field of ecological economics. In 1990, these prominent professors established the International Society for Ecological Economics. The three founding positions of the society and the field of ecological economics are: (1) The human economy is embedded in nature, and economic processes are actually biological, physical, and chemical processes and transformations. (2) Ecological economics is meeting place for researchers committed to environmental issues. (3) Ecological economics requires trans-disciplinary work to describe economic processes in relation to physical reality.
Ecological economics has become the field of study most closely linked with the concept of a steady-state economy. Ecological economists have developed a robust body of theory and evidence on the biophysical limits of economic growth and the requirements of a sustainable economy.
Herman Daly's concept of a steady-state economy
Since the 1970s, Herman Daly has been the world's leading proponent of a steady-state economy.:81f Throughout his career, Daly has published several books and articles on the subject.:117–124 He has also founded a center for the advancement of the steady-state economy. According to two independent comparative studies of American Daly's steady-state economics versus the later, competing school of degrowth from continental Europe, no differences of analytical substance exist between the two schools; only, Daly's bureaucratic — or even technocratic — top-down management of the economy fares badly with the more radical grassroots appeal of degrowth, as championed by French political scientist Serge Latouche.:549 :146–148
According to Daly, the premise underlying his concept of a steady-state economy is that the economy is an open subsystem of a finite and non-growing ecosystem (the natural environment). The economy is maintained by importing low-entropy matter-energy (resources) from nature; these resources are put through the economy, being transformed and manufactured into goods along the way; eventually, the throughput of matter-energy is exported to the environment as high-entropy waste and pollution. Recycling of material resources is possible, but only by using up some energy resources as well as an additional amount of other material resources; and energy resources, in turn, cannot be recycled at all, but are dissipated as waste heat. Out of necessity, then, any subsystem of a fixed nongrowing system must itself at some point also become nongrowing.:xiii
Daly argues that nature has provided basically two sources of wealth at man's disposal, namely a stock of terrestrial mineral resources and a flow of solar energy. An 'asymmetry' between these two sources of wealth exist in that we may — within some practical limits — extract the mineral stock at a rate of our own choosing (that is, rapidly), whereas the flow of solar energy reaches Earth at a rate beyond human control. Since the Sun will continue to shine on Earth at a fixed rate for billions of years to come, it is the terrestrial mineral stock — and not the Sun — that constitutes the crucial scarcity factor regarding man's economic future.:21f
Daly points out that today's global ecological problems are rooted in man's historical record: Until the Industrial Revolution that took place in Britain in the second half of the 18th century, man lived within the limits imposed by what Daly terms a 'solar-income budget': The Palaeolithic tribes of hunter-gatherers and the later agricultural societies of the Neolithic and onwards subsisted primarily — though not exclusively — on Earth's biosphere, powered by an ample supply of renewable energy, received from the Sun. The Industrial Revolution changed this situation completely, as man began extracting the terrestrial mineral stock at a rapidly increasing rate. The original solar-income budget was thereby broken and supplemented by the new, but much scarcer source of wealth. Mankind still lives in the after-effect of this revolution.
Daly warns that more than two hundred years of worldwide industrialisation is now confronting mankind with a host of problems pertaining to the future existence and survival of our species:
|“||The entire evolution of the biosphere has occurred around a fixed point — the constant solar-energy budget. Modern man is the only species to have broken the solar-income budget constraint, and this has thrown him out of equilibrium with the rest of the biosphere. Natural cycles have become overloaded, and new materials have been produced for which no natural cycles exist. Not only is geological capital being depleted, but the basic life-support services of nature are impaired in their functioning by too large a throughput from the human sector.:23||”|
|“||Entropy is the basic physical coordinate of scarcity. Were it not for entropy, we could burn the same gallon of gasoline over and over, and our capital stock would never wear out. Technology is unable to rise above the basic laws of physics, so there is no question of ever 'inventing' a way to recycle energy.:36||”|
In Daly's view, mainstream economists tend to regard natural resource scarcity as only a relative phenomenon, while human needs and wants are granted absolute status: It is believed that the price mechanism and 'technological development' (however defined) is capable of overcoming any scarcity ever to be faced on Earth; it is also believed that all human wants could and should be treated alike as absolutes, from the most basic necessities of life to the extravagant and insatiable craving for luxuries. Daly terms this belief 'growthmania', which he finds pervasive in modern society. In opposition to the dogma of growthmania, Daly submits that "... there is such a thing as absolute scarcity, and there is such a thing as purely relative and trivial wants".:41 Once it is recognised that scarcity is imposed by nature in an absolute form by the laws of thermodynamics and the finitude of Earth; and that some human wants are only relative and not worthy of satisfying; then we are all well on the way to the paradigm of a steady-state economy, Daly concludes.
Consequently, Daly recommends that a system of permanent government restrictions on the economy is established as soon as possible, a steady-state economy. Whereas the classical economists believed that the stationary state would settle by itself as the rate of profit fell and capital accumulation came to an end (see above), Daly wants to create the steady-state politically by establishing three institutions of the state as a superstructure on top of the present market economy:
- The first institution is to correct inequality by putting minimum and maximum limits on incomes, maximum limits on wealth, and then redistribute accordingly.
- The second institution is to stabilise the population by issuing transferable reproduction licenses to all fertile women at a level corresponding with the general replacement fertility in society.
- The third institution is to stabilise the level of capital by issuing and selling depletion quotas that put quantitative restrictions on the flow of resources in the economy. Quotas effectively minimise the throughput of resources necessary to maintain any given level of capital (as opposed to taxes, that merely alter the prevailing price structure).
The purpose of these three institutions is to stop and prevent further growth by combining what Daly calls "a nice reconciliation of efficiency and equity" and providing "the ecologically necessary macrocontrol of growth with the least sacrifice in terms of microlevel freedom and variability.":69
Among the generation of his teachers, Daly ranks Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Kenneth E. Boulding as the two economists he has learned the most from.:xvi However, both Georgescu-Roegen and Boulding have assessed that a steady-state economy may serve only as a temporary societal arrangement when facing the long-term issue of global mineral resource exhaustion: Even with a constant stock of people and capital, and a minimised (yet constant) flow of resources put through the world economy, the Earth's mineral stock will still be exhausted, although at a slower rate than is presently the situation.:366–369 :165–167
Responding specifically to the criticism levelled at him by Georgescu-Roegen, Daly concedes that a steady-state economy will serve only to postpone, and not to prevent, the inevitable mineral resource exhaustion: "A steady-state economy cannot last forever, but neither can a growing economy, nor a declining economy".:369 A frank and committed Protestant, Daly further argues that...
|“||... the steady-state economy is based on the assumption that creation will have an end — that it is finite temporally as well as spatially. ... Only God can raise any part of his creation out of time and into eternity. As mere stewards of creation, all we can do is to avoid wasting the limited capacity of creation to support present and future life.:370||”|
Criticisms and rebuttals thereof
Critics of the idea of limits to growth present two main arguments:
- Technological progress and gains in efficiency can overcome the limits to growth
- The economy can be de-materialized so that it grows without using more and more resources.
These can be called the technological optimist and decoupling arguments respectively.
Decoupling means achieving higher levels of economic output with lower levels of material and energy input. Proponents of decoupling cite transition to an information economy as proof of decoupling. Evidence shows that economies have achieved some success at relative decoupling. As an example, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per dollar of economic production has decreased over time. But those gains have come amidst the background condition of increasing GDP. Even with decreases in the resource intensity of GDP, economies are still using more resources. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels have increased by 80% since 1970.
Ecological economists also observe that an economy is structured like an ecosystem – it has a trophic structure that controls flows of energy and materials. In nature, the producers are plants, which literally produce their own food in the process of photosynthesis. Herbivores consume plants, and carnivores consume herbivores. Omnivores may eat plants or animals, and some species function as service providers, such as scavengers and decomposers. The human economy follows the same natural laws. The producers are the agricultural and extractive sectors, such as logging, mining, and fishing. Surplus in these sectors allows for the division of labor, economic growth, and the flow of resources to other economic sectors. Analogous to herbivores, some economic sectors, such as manufacturing, consume the raw materials of the producers. Higher level manufacturers are analogous to carnivores. The economy also features service providers, such as chefs, janitors, bankers, and purveyors of information. The key point is that the economy tends to grow as an integrated whole. More manufacturing and more services requires more agricultural and extractive surplus. The trophic structure of the economy puts limits on how much of an economy's resources can be dedicated to creating and distributing information.
Both technological optimists and proponents of decoupling cite efficiency of resource use as a way to mitigate the problems associated with economic growth. But history has shown that when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, the rate of consumption of that resource actually tends to rise. This phenomenon is called the rebound effect (conservation) or Jevons paradox. A recent extensive historical analysis of technological efficiency improvements has conclusively shown that energy and materials use efficiency improvements were almost always outpaced by economic growth, resulting in a net increase in resource use and associated pollution. Furthermore, there are inherent thermodynamic (i.e., second law of thermodynamics) and practical limits to all efficiency improvements. For example, there are certain minimum unavoidable material requirements for growing food, and there are limits to making automobiles, houses, furniture, and other products lighter and thinner without the risk of losing their necessary functions. Since it is both theoretically and practically impossible to increase resource use efficiencies indefinitely, it is equally impossible to have continued and infinite economic growth without a concomitant increase in resource depletion and environmental pollution, i.e., economic growth and resource depletion can be decoupled to some degree over the short run but not the long run. Consequently, Herman Daly and others in the ecological economics community have advocated that long-term sustainability require the transition to a steady-state economy in which total GDP remains more or less constant (see above).
- Ecological economics
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