Q&A: Virginia environmentalist on ‘fundamental conflict’ between climate and consumerism



Want to see Brian Czech cringe? Simply repeat the claims that uncontrolled economic growth is always compatible with environmental preservation.

The urge to explode this myth prompted the Virginian to create the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy in 2003. CASSE, a nonpartisan organization based in Arlington County, is its effort to educate the public about the ecological benefits of setting national policy targets. that stabilize population and consumption.

Brian Czech

“To say that all growth can be sustainable is exactly the opposite of what we need,” Czech said. “It’s just win-win rhetoric that you can have your cake and eat it too.”

As president of CASSE, the 62-year-old wants Americans to understand how the cult of a booming economy, and particularly gross domestic product, is undermining progress in not just environmental protection, but also national security, economic sustainability and international stability.

“GDP growth used to be a wonderful thing, but now other measures must take priority,” he said. “If you don’t protect the environment, you won’t have a worthwhile economy.”

Czech is aware that such an eco-transformation won’t happen just because his five-person nonprofit is adamant about it.

“An appropriately sized stable economy has to be done intentionally,” the Wisconsin native said. “In reality, it has to be done at the congressional level. Having public policy and consumers on board is crucial.

With his experience in the field and his 1997 Ph.D. in Renewable Natural Resource Studies from the University of Arizona, Czech has what it takes to support the holistic vision advocated by CASSE. He worked as a wildlife biologist before taking his dream job as a national policy-focused conservation biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999.

In this interview with Energy News Network, Czech explained the principles of a steady state economy and what motivated him to stay on this platform for two decades. This piece has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: First of all, you have an impressive professional background. Why did you start CASSE while still working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service?

A: As a field biologist for years, I decided that I really wanted to make a difference with conservation at the national level. My work at Fish and Wildlife focused on the conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation, which was the subject of my PhD. thesis.

In 1999, I was leading a team creating a policy on ecological integrity. It was a long-term project. Then in 2001 I started getting a series of gag orders. I thought, man, what is this?

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I had to find a way to express myself. I created CASSE because it allowed me to find my voice. This is where I could provide information on the limits of growth and the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.

Q: But you didn’t leave Fish and Wildlife until 2017. How did you balance CASSE with your main job?

A: I made some strategic moves. In addition to CASSE, I’ve also signed on as a visiting professor at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center. This way, I had three different hats. I could wear whatever suits the venue.

I couldn’t speak or write about these topics as a Fish and Wildlife employee, but I could as a CASSE representative or a visiting professor at Virginia Tech. I was taking time off from my federal job to put on the CASSE hat or the visiting professor hat.

Q: A steady state economy is designed not to grow. Isn’t this contrary to what mainstream economists cite as proof of success?

A: Most people, as a matter of common sense, understand that population growth and increased per capita production and consumption cannot last forever.

Conventional economists practice neoclassical economics. They are mainly blamed for a total failure to recognize the limits of growth. For example, only capital and labor are considered production functions. What happened to the inclusion of land? They are taught not to even consider the earth.

Q: This concept places great value on ecological limits. Was the idea of ​​a steady-state economy born in science?

A: It originated in science and economics. The term steady-state economics is attributed to Herman Daly, an American economist and scientist who used physics to talk about limits in books and articles in the 1960s.

He was elaborating on steady-state economics, which the philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about in the 1840s. Of course, Mill was focusing on England and issues like overpopulation, pollution, and disease.

Mill has been credited with being the first author to promote a stationary state, which Adam Smith referred to in the 1700s.

One of the most recent books that delved into this topic is “Limits to Growth,” published in 1972. And, interestingly, author and naturalist Aldo Leopold referenced the concept in the preface to his conservation classic , “A Sand County Almanac”, published posthumously in 1949.

If he hadn’t died in 1948, I imagine he would have been a leader in ecological macroeconomics.

Q: Can a stable economy accelerate America’s transition to wind, solar and other renewables? If so, how?

A: It absolutely is. Our US economy currently stands at around $20 trillion. Let’s say we set a goal of a $30 trillion US economy. We would need all kinds of energy, from both renewables and fossil fuels, to sustain this.

On the other hand, if we instead say, back to a $10 trillion economy, then we have a chance to run that economy on renewable energy with less fossil fuels in the mix.

Engaging in a stable economy should be a conscious decision. There is a huge gap between the steady state and what we would call a failed state economy.

Q: Can a steady-state economy slow emissions of heat-trapping gases? How or how not?

A: It is the level of the state of balance that is so important. We have already exceeded the long-term capacity, so we have started to call an increase in GDP economic inflation instead of economic growth.

An obsession with GDP means that greenhouse gas emissions will only increase. It is difficult, if not impossible, to produce enough renewable energy in an even higher GDP scenario, in part because it is so difficult to align infrastructure and transmission needs.

At CASSE, we talk about degrowth before we can return to a stable and sustainable economy. And one of our policy positions is a cap on the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.

Q: Have other countries achieved stable economies?

A: To our knowledge, no country has officially adopted this goal. But New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that the government’s fiscal policy goals will focus on the well-being of New Zealanders, not GDP. We would call this a sense of steady state.

The most famous case is that of Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness, with the King saying that matters more than GDP.

Q: Even if the US Congress is not in favor of a stable economy, can individuals or local governments take concrete action?

A: Yes. My one-word answer is “less,” as in buying fewer things. CASSE wants people to start realizing that every time they go to a store, they are influencing GDP and the macroeconomic flow of money.

If you are buying, do not buy exaggerated items. For example, think of all the extraction that had to go into building a Hummer, with all its bells and whistles, versus a bike with its smaller footprint.

Like anti-smoking campaigns, we must make conspicuous consumption unacceptable. A bloated economy is stifling the future of our children and grandchildren.

Q: The late Democratic Senator Robert Kennedy said in the 1960s that gross domestic product “measures everything but worth it.” Does a steady-state economy call for the replacement of GDP?

A: No. What we need to do is treat the GDP [differently]. … This means introducing parameters such as the real progress indicator and the human development index. Using different tools to measure how social and environmental stressors are managed provides insights into finding an optimal level of GDP.

Identifying this optimal GDP is the greatest challenge for democracy in the 21st century. But he must take into account the advantages of clean water, clean air, a stable climate and open terrain. This is why stable statesmanship is a potential political unifier. It’s not a right or left thing.

Q: Is it risky for the United States to aim for a stable state if other countries do not? Wouldn’t that mean falling behind?

A: I think falling behind in a race to unsustainability is a good idea. The ecological footprint of the United States should be considered as a kind of crime.

Q: Going into detail, you mentioned the Jobs Act of 1946 as an obstacle to a stable economy. Congress obviously amended this law in the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. In short, what adjustments are needed?

A: The original bill was not a huge obstacle, but the amendment is. It’s like central planning in the way it sets the goal of economic growth for the US government. Fiscal and monetary policy and agency missions and programs are all designed to contribute to growth.

First, the name should be changed to the Sustainable Full Employment Act. It needs a major overhaul and CASSE has a proposal for that.

Q: It seems that the transition to a steady-state economy would be gradual. If you had a magic wand, what three changes would be at the top of your wish list?

A: One would be a president who understands the limits of growth and fundamentally understands that the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, national security, economic sustainability and international stability would make a huge difference.

Second, let’s get to the tax code and get rid of subsidies for luxury items like SUVs. It is a handy fruit.

Three replaces the principles of neoclassical economics with those of steady-state economics in university curricula and among government civil service positions and political appointments.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yes, related to the previous question. Environmental journalists must provide context in their stories. All of the issues they cover – from pollution to land loss to development – ​​stem from the larger issue of the race for a more robust GDP.

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