Herman Daly: an economist for eco-social activists

A new book explains how an economist, by challenging orthodoxy, helped activists change the world.

Activists from a wide range of sustainability and social justice movements owe an intellectual debt to the work of Herman Daly, often cited as the father of ecological economics.

Because Daly’s contributions focus on basic principles of science and ethics, they have broad application in many areas of inquiry and activism, including climate, social justice, and development. sustainable. His ideas and theories are unorthodox and disrupt much of mainstream neoclassical economics. Its focus on the basics allows for varied applications to meet local needs and cultures rather than a hegemonic, one-size-fits-all solution to these challenges. Daly’s thought feeds the pluriverse approach for a better world.

The recent biography of Peter A. Victor, Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas, celebrates the man and his ideas and provides an excellent practical summary of Daly’s transformative ideas. By summarizing these ideas and providing references for deeper understanding, Peter Victor has done a service to both Daly and activists around the world.

Daly’s economic writings span six decades and provide a rigorous conceptual framework for a new model of economic thought. One of the main features of Daly’s work is that he reformulates economic thought in terms of natural science and ethical theory. This contrasts sharply with the mainstream economic model, which relies on a series of assumptions, almost all of which can be proven wrong, and which ignores natural science and ethics almost entirely.

Interestingly, Daly began his career as a classical economist, earning a doctorate in economics from Vanderbilt University in the mid-1960s. His decision to study economics undergraduate stemmed from his broad interests in the sciences. and the humanities, and he saw economics as a social science that would allow him to combine these interests. He quickly realized that mainstream neoclassical economics not only had no scientific basis, but also ignored human values ​​beyond self-interest. He came to realize that “neoclassical economics has both feet in the air: disconnected from the Earth and disconnected from Ethics,” writes Victor.

Daly’s mission in life came to link the two – science and ethics – in the reformulation of economic thought. By capturing Daly’s intellectual journey, Victor provides useful insights into how it is possible to challenge basic mainstream assumptions and go beyond their limits. Whether or not that was Victor’s intention, he provided a case study of how to change a dominant and dangerous paradigm, which is particularly useful for serious activists.

Peter Victor does a very good job of linking seemingly disparate events in Herman’s early life with his later theoretical contributions. Herman’s experience of poliomyelitis in his youth, for example, led him to accept limitations. His religious upbringing – and his exposure to poverty during a teenage trip to Mexico – led him to a lifelong concern for social justice. His early work in Brazil also contributed to this focus on social justice and the common good.

Even more impressively, Victor summarizes Daly’s main conceptual contributions in a very succinct and digestible form. The book clearly emphasizes Daly’s ideas, but his personality also comes across as “a warm, gentle, strong-willed man, willing to ask awkward questions”.

Daly developed many concepts relevant to activism that are not always explicitly linked to his works. His rigorous thinking and ethical perspective provide solid theoretical foundations for many alternative approaches to the current neoclassical economic paradigm. But embarking on these works without knowing Daly’s ideas is a bit like crossing a busy highway in horse blinkers. Peter Victor provides an ideal guide through this thoroughfare.

Victor facilitated access to Daly’s theories of how an economy should work to achieve ecological and social, as well as economic goals, with chapters on philosophy, steady-state economics, population and globalization .

Daly, for example, insists on addressing the ecological scale first in the policy formulation process. The physical size of the economy must remain within planetary limits, and there are limits to economic growth in terms of material throughput. Only when this ecological boundary has been established can the second policy priority of distribution be addressed. How can the existing pie be split evenly rather than keep growing the pie so everyone can have a bigger piece? Once these priorities are secured, only then can the market become an efficient means of allocating resources, which is a very different role for the market than its centrality in the current system.

Daly rightly points out that the neoclassical economics insistence on continued economic growth is not only destructive to ecological systems, it is also an excuse to sidestep the question of equitable distribution. The market alone cannot adequately respond to either scale or equitable distribution. Daly points out how increasing the throughput of materials – producing more things to use – might have made sense in an ’empty world’, but is destructive and dangerous in a ‘world full’ of people and artifacts. humans.

Because so many of Daly’s ideas are unorthodox in mainstream economic circles, much of his work has been either ignored or attacked by prominent mainstream economists. There have been several famous debates between Daly and prominent mainstream economists over the years, and the book makes it easy to understand both sides of these debates and where a sensible solution lies (spoiler alert: Daly is always right).

Some degrowth thinkers have also attacked Daly for relying on markets for efficient resource allocation. Victor clearly points out how these criticisms completely miss Daly’s assertion that effective market allocation can only occur after scale and distribution have been addressed.

A steady-state economy is Daly’s answer to a complete world economy, and again Victor does an excellent job of summarizing the main features of Daly’s argument. The steady state economy is often misinterpreted as a dead end without continued economic growth. But Daly is clear that if material throughput is to be brought back within the quantitative limits of the planet, there is no end to the qualitative improvements that can be made to human well-being, some of which can be provided by activity. economic. A stable economy can be dynamic and contribute to human well-being in many significant ways. Victor himself demonstrated that a complex economy like Canada’s can be managed with the right policies, but without growth.

Despite professional and even personal attacks, Daly has received numerous international awards for his thinking and his contributions to many movements, some of which may not know the source of their ideas. His manual Ecological economy with Josh Farley is currently in use at several universities around the world, and has been translated into several languages, including Chinese.

Victor points out how some mainstream economists have taken some of Daly’s ideas and presented them as their own without proper acknowledgment. His book also shows how new economic thinking like that of Raworth Saving donuts popularized Daly’s ideas and brought them closer to the general public. As a result, the media now more frequently question the merits of continued economic growth and refer to ecological overshoot. Mainstream economists even explicitly attack the idea of ​​a steady-state economy, a sure sign of increased recognition.

One of the organizations focusing on the idea of ​​a steady state is the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy (CASSE), a Washington DC-based NGO founded and led by Brian Czech, who tenaciously promoted the new economic paradigm that Daly models so well.

Daly’s insights are critically important to a just and sustainable future. His theories, historical perspectives, rigorous arguments, responses to criticisms of his ideas, and clear moral standing are all helpful in the fight for an ecologically sustainable and morally just society. Peter Victor has done Daly and the rest of us a major service by providing an excellent summary of Daly’s ideas in a well-written reference book for scholars and activists.

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