Knowing the Earth’s Limits

Stewardship: for as long as I have lived, worked, and worshipped with Quakers, I have heard this term identified with the core testimonies of Friends. It’s a word that’s been around for a while, and many of the modern liberal Quakers that frequent my home meeting in Westtown, Pennsylvania, would be quick to supplement this old-fashioned word with a trendier set of terms to fully describe our stewardship responsibilities in this day and age. They’d use phrases such as “environmental sustainability;” “reduce, reuse, recycle;” or “buy a hybrid car.”

A word we are less likely to hear is “economics.” But as I learned recently, this word, though less likely to call up images of organic rooftop gardens or Birkenstocks, is much more closely tied to the stewardship testimony than I thought. From the Greek root oikos, meaning “house” or “dwelling,” and nomos, another Greek root related to management, law, or use, the word economics is very closely related to the word ecology, derived from the same oikos root (though ecology implies the study of our home rather than management of it). While economics is unrelated to the thoroughly English stewardship, the two words have become inextricably intertwined for me. They are both all about finding the best ways to manage our home on this planet.

As a student and teacher of science and math, I never gave economics much thought, perhaps because I had a vague prejudice that there were more useful things to think about than money. Like many others, I mistakenly believed that economics was mostly about money. At a less conscious level, I also had difficulty relating to the way the “the economy” was universally discussed in the media: the perpetual question of whether it was “doing well” (that is, growing) and what the government ought to do to make sure it kept growing as fast as possible for as long as possible. This kind of talk didn’t quite square with my homegrown ideas about how my wife and I should manage our own little family economy, which involved doing work we loved, receiving reasonable amounts of money for it, and making sure to live within our means so we could concentrate on simply living the lives we felt called to live. What did worrying about the global economy have to do with that?

That all changed one day in 2005 when I picked up the September issue of Scientific American and saw an article intriguingly titled “Economics in a Full World,” written by Herman Daly at the University of Maryland school of public policy (a copy is available on Within a half hour, I saw the entire discipline of economics in a different light. In this article, Daly introduces a little-known branch of economic thinkers who call themselves “ecological economists.” The article spoke directly to my discomfort with economics as a discipline and described an alternative way of thinking that instantly rang true to me. Suddenly, I realized how crucial it was that we master economics—apply it truly and correctly, that is—to secure a sustainable future for our species. This, I thought, is worth looking into further. A few years later I had taken courses in economics, researched the work of ecological economists such as Daly and Robert Costanza at the University of Vermont, and altered my career path. I am now in my third year of teaching economics to Westtown School juniors and seniors, a task that I consider one of the most important things I do.

So what was so compelling about Daly’s article and the theories of these so-called ecological economists? For the first time, I heard that not all economists agree that growing the economy at all costs is sustainable or wise. I learned to decouple the term “economic growth” into the more usefully separated ideas of “human well-being” and “resource throughput,” which allowed me to realize that our welfare can still advance even if resource use remains constant. Yet this idea can’t even be formulated using our current measures of economic growth. Ecological economists recognize that what we call the “economy” is a human system embedded in our natural world and is, therefore, subject to nature’s limitations as well as sustained by its bounty. By intentionally assuming that nonrenewable resources cannot be extracted without limits, and that ecosystems cannot absorb an unlimited amount of waste, ecological economists arrive at a few radically different conclusions from other economists.

First and foremost among these different conclusions is the idea that resource use could grow too much for the Earth’s ecosystem to handle. We mine ever larger amounts of nonrenewable resources for purposes that have relatively little benefit for our quality of life, a phenomenon Daly labels “uneconomic growth.” For our ancestors, resource use was small enough and people were poor enough that increasing resource use and improving the quality of life were, for all intents and purposes, synonymous: a person who is starving, homeless, and unclothed can only be made better off by producing more food, shelter, and clothing, which is only possible through an increase in production. However, an advanced economy receives far smaller benefit from increasing production, while the costs of production could tip the ecosystem into collapse. Ecological economists, therefore, believe that there is an optimal scale for the economy, and that the current growth economy, though appropriate in the relatively empty world that has characterized the majority of human history, eventually needs to be replaced by a steady state economy. This is the only way to sustain our well-being indefinitely in the full world that we are rapidly approaching.

My training in science had primed me for the upending I experienced as I considered Herman Daly’s article. I realized I had always been uncomfortable with the idea that anything could continue to grow exponentially forever. Exponential growth eventually reaches limits, whether in physics, biology, or computer science. Why would the economy, rooted as it is in the earth, be any different?

The economics community finds it difficult to accept the idea that the Earth is governed by this principle, primarily because the data shows clearly that the limits of the Earth’s capacity have not been reached. Economic theory predicts a price spike in the face of scarcity, and aside from mildly rising gasoline prices, economists don’t see evidence of such scarcities in prices of natural resources. In the past, as critical resources have been depleted, viable and even superior substitutes have been found. For this reason, every doomsayer, from Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s (who predicted global collapse due to overpopulation and starvation) to the writers of the controversial 1972 book The Limits to Growth, has been largely dismissed by mainstream economists, simply because their predictions of environmental catastrophe—some of them embarrassingly and wrongly specific—have not yet materialized.

The fact is, global ecological collapse, if it occurs, will be a onetime event with inherently unpredictable timing. We don’t know exactly what the earth’s limits are, and technology (also currently growing exponentially) has changed which resources are demanded and in what amounts. But ecological economists assert unequivocally that the earth does have limits, and an economy built on exponential growth is bound to discover those limits the hard way. Our decisions right now can make the difference between a world which provides for our species forever and a world in which we squander our nonrenewable resources while destroying our renewable ones.

I was lucky that the spark of my own interest in economics preceded a global economic disaster by just a few years, just enough time to learn my new subject and prepare a course! At just the moment the economics class became available to Westtown students for the first time, banks were failing (or being bailed out), the stock market was plummeting, and the U.S. government was printing more than a half trillion dollars of new money and spending another trillion on stimulus packages. The media was in a continuous uproar about the Global Financial Crisis. That first year, students signed up for my class in droves, many of them perhaps just to learn more about what everyone was so worried about. They didn’t necessarily expect to hear about a renegade band of economic thinkers who were questioning the core goals of the discipline—but they got to learn about it anyway.

Most of my students simply want to learn the traditional theories of economics. And, to be truthful, that’s mostly what they get. Keep in mind that the vast majority of the principles that ecological economists believe and use routinely are exactly the same as those used by mainstream economists. In fact, in my class, I use a traditional college introductory economics textbook (which actually leans slightly to the conservative, being written by former George W. Bush adviser Gregory Mankiw). But I also supplement with about a half dozen handouts and worksheets that present and employ the principles of ecological economics. I think the separation is important: I want my students to be clear about what material is part of the mainstream canon of economic theory and what is currently considered to be on the fringe; it will do them no good to enter a college class naively expecting steady state economics to have any currency with their professors. But my students certainly read about, consider, and work with these alternative perspectives. Whether they adopt those views or not, they end up in possession of an alternative vision. Some of my most talented students have gone on to study economics in college, and my hope is that their awareness of ecological economics will change the landscape of the conversation about growth economics wherever they go.

Many Friends are ready to hear about a coherent way to reconcile sound economic theory with a different assumption about the Earth’s true limitations. But the conversation needs to widen: there are still too few people who have heard of ecological economics, let alone take it seriously enough to dislodge their widespread assumptions. The time is ripe for the idea of a steady state economy to enter into common vocabulary, even in the United States, where we are perhaps the most thoroughly addicted to growth at all costs. Perhaps the word “recession” will eventually be defined differently, decoupled from the misleading idea of “growth” and tethered usefully to the more relevant (though more difficult to measure) ideas of human welfare and development. If Quakers, many of whom accept the idea that our environment has limits and can be permanently damaged, can embrace the economic consequences of this assumption—that we need to make the transition to a steady state economy—we can help move the ideas of ecological economics from a radical movement into one that is discussed in the media and taken seriously by politicians and responsible citizens alike. Perhaps, in this future, the words “stewardship” and “economics” can come to be regarded, properly, as synonyms.

Elson Oshman Blunt

Elson Oshman Blunt teaches statistics, physics, and economics at Westtown School in Westtown, Pa., where he lives on campus and serves as a dorm parent. In the past, he has attended meetings in Madison (Wisc.), Durham (N.C.), and Sandy Spring (Md.), before becoming a member of Westtown Monthly Meeting.

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