Food Systems Podcast 41
In discussion with Brian Czech Podcast summary
Thursday, Feb 17, 2022
The case for ecological economics
What happens if economies move away from a focus on growth and GDP? In our latest podcast we talk with Brian Czech, Executive Director for the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), about an alternative model – the steady state economy, how it works, and some of its implications for the food system as a whole. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 28-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more.
Briefly, what is a steady state economy? How is it different from what we have today?
It helps to remind ourselves what economic growth is, and then put it in contrast to that. Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. That entails a growing population or per capital production and consumption, measured with GDP (Gross Domestic Product). A declining economy is decreasing levels of production and consumption in the aggregate… indicated by declining GDP. The steady state economy is the sustainable option in between those two. Stabilized population and per capital production and consumption, stabilized GDP mildly fluctuating around an optimum level.
How could you define that optimum level of GDP?
In a democracy, it’s a matter of weighing people’s attitudes, opinions and preferences towards things like green spaces versus urban areas, levels of trash, the amount of congestion. If the primary concern is the environment and climate change, biodiversity loss, or chemicals, you might say GDP of $90 trillion globally is too much.
We have indicators that allow us to see in proportion what are the concerns of citizens in a democracy, starting with GDP, but also the Living Planet Index, the Human Development Indicator, the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, the Genuine Progress Indicator.
Are stocks of natural capital still depleted in a steady state economy, or do you try to reinvigorate them? For example, how does that work for land or rainforest?
We have renewable and non-renewable resources. Some of the energy resources, for example fossil fuels, aren’t renewable. Once you extract them and combust them for power, they’re gone. Most minerals are pretty much like that. With renewable resources, you mentioned forests. If you haven’t depleted or degraded timber and biodiversity too far already, then they are renewable, meaning they can be recovered to a level that is higher than when they were severely depleted. However, biodiversity can only take so much and when a species is extinguished, it’s gone.
Is there a significant overlap between steady state and the circular economy?
They’re different. And there is no such thing as a completely circular economy. There will be waste in the economic production process. Maybe where the two come together is in the buying of time in the transition from a growth economy to a steady state. We would encourage people to think more in terms of a flow of throughput rather than a circularity with 100 percent recycling.
What happens to the price of food in a steady state economy?
I’m afraid it’s going to go up before there’s significant steady state politics to conduce a steady state economy itself.
A lot depends on when the transition to a steady state economy transpires. If it’s prior to a collapse of an economy, then it can be done with relative price stability. If it’s done after the fact, after a lengthy period of macroeconomic supply shock and inflation of the money supply… then no, there won’t be price stability.
Could you give one policy idea or practical suggestion to create a more sustainable food system (aside from implementing steady state economics).
I would give one of the top policy recommendations toward establishing a steady state economy, which is land conservation. Maybe we could view it as a matrix of ecological integrity – including stocks of natural capital and funds of ecosystem services. You may have a forest that’s a stock of timber. It’s a stock of wildlife. It helps to maintain stocks of water. It’s concurrently a fund of ecosystem services that help to maintain an agricultural economy on agricultural bases outside the forests, like pollinators and scavengers and soil aerators.
The more we depend on monocultures that are dependent on heavy loads of fertilizer and energy – that’s very dangerous and it’s very unstable. We need the resilience provided by ecological integrity and a biodiverse matrix for the agricultural sector.
If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 28-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.
Brian Czech has a Ph.D. in renewable natural resources studies from the University of Arizona with a minor in...see more political science. The founding President of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), Brian is also a Visiting Professor at Virginia Tech, where he teaches ecological economics in the National Capitol Region.