Steady State – A Book Review

I just reviewed a small book by Geoff Mosley, Steady State:  Alternative to Endless Economic Growth.  Envirobook, Canterbury, NSW. RRP $21.95, 136pp, paperback.  The review is for the newsletter of Nature and Society Forum, based in Canberra.

Scarcely a day goes by without news of some loss or degradation:  a new invasive species, a habitat lost to fire or a shopping mall, a disintegrating ice shelf, a corner shop closing, rising obesity, on and on it goes.  Behind much of this bad news is the relentless growth of our economies and populations.  The casualties are in both the natural world and in our  societies, affecting our health, relationships and communities, as I don’t have to remind this audience. Geoff Mosley argues that we must come to grips with economic growth if we are ever to stop the losses.

Mosley comes from a nature conservation background, having  been active in the Australian Conservation Foundation from its inception in 1965 and its CEO from 1973 to 1986.  He and others came to realise that though they might save pieces of nature, the relentless march of “progress” continued to wreak destruction.  The ACF might win skirmishes but it was losing the war.  He therefore proposed that they add a second strand to their efforts, to look at underlying causes and how they might be addressed.  His proposals encountered reluctance and resistance over many years.

This small book is Mosley’s own effort to address the question of how to shift from a growth economy to a steady state economy.  It’s strength is the breadth of the framework he lays out, covering values, institutions, the physical environment and the social environment.  He stresses the common interest of those concerned for the environment and for social justice, and recognises that current attitudes and entrenched ways of doing things are obstacles requiring attention.

There is increasing attention being given to this question of how a steady state society might work, and how we might get to it, but to my knowledge there are still not many attempting a comprehensive view, though Hermann Daly and NSF deserve mention.  The economic system is the biggest piece to be attended to, but we need to reconsider our whole society and its relationship with the natural world.  Organisations like the New Economics Foundation, the Sustainable Development Commission and even ACF itself are doing important work, and there is much more to be done.  It is important for some of the effort to be directed to the overview, and that is where Mosley’s book fits.

Having said that, I found the substance under the headings a bit thin.  Short as the book is (130 smallish pages), there is some repetitiveness, especially on the problems of the present system.  Part 2 covers this, but then in Part 4, “An Action Plan”, much of it is reiterated under subheadings before moving tersely to what a steady society would be like and how to get there. As someone actively thinking about this challenge, I was interested in suggestions on what institutions we might need, but the list offered is of things to be done rather than of the institutions that might accomplish them.  For example “there are special institutions [to ensure] long term cooperative approaches to resource planning and policy setting.”

I also found Mosley’s perception of human nature to be a bit limited and contradictory.  On the one hand he lists a lot of our negative qualities in the section on present problems, but later has a vision of complete equality, cooperation and total participation in democratic decisions (there wouldn’t be time for much else).  He doesn’t say how we are to shift our collective behaviour so dramatically.  My own view is that we are clearly capable of all the negative stuff and equally capable of noble and loving behaviour.  If we allow ourselves to be driven by fear, as Tony Abbott and the shock jocks urge, then we will sink in negativity, but if we have the courage to trust our better natures then they can prevail much of the time.

As you may infer, there seems to be a strong undercurrent of old-fashioned socialism.  Profit is to be eliminated in Mosley’s vision, and people only contribute what they feel motivated to do.

I think the audience for this book is within the reform movement.  Right-wing detractors would seize upon some of the more idealistic bits to dismiss it out of hand.  However I think the usefulness of the book is its argument that we must think about where we need to go, and how to get there, at the same time as we fight the smaller battles and work on the first small steps to reducing our destruction of our life support system.  Mosley’s framework can stimulate constructive thinking, and he offers it in that spirit.

There are two important distinctions not made by Mosley that I think would better focus the debate on growth.  First is to distinguish quality from quantity.  We must reduce the throughput of resources, and there are some great ideas around on how to do that, notably cradle-to-cradle manufacturing.  However this doesn’t mean we make no further “progress”.  We can continue to find clever ways to do new things, and so improve the quality of our gadgets and our lives.  The living world has been doing this for a few billion years now, with no sign of stopping.  Steady does not mean stagnant.

Second, I think we can move beyond the sterile and stereotyped false dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism.  There are many kinds of market economy, and many more ways in which markets might be harnessed to constructive ends, if we step out of the old ideologies.  There are also many useful roles for governments.  The challenge is to make them work well, whether they are public or private.  Or something else: there are also many forms of local, collective ownership, existing and potential, that cut right through the ideological divide and align incentives with goals more constructively than our present incoherent system.

Finally, I would give the ACF some credit, though Mosley seems to make a fair point that it took them a long time to act.  I happened to participate in a round-table discussion about an ACF draft document that emerged last year as Better Than Growth.  There was a range of views on the draft, including that it left essential things out, like banking  and monetary reform, and that it did not offer a vision of a steady state world.  I agree, but I also think it is well presented and includes some proposals that are bold, in conventional terms, and that strike a balance between what will move policy-makers  thinking along and what they might dismiss out of hand.  I also think the title cleverly steps around the no-growth, stagnation, back-to-the-caves stereotype that growth advocates inevitably appeal to.

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