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War of the Words: Rebranding the “Healthy Economy”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/06/2022 - 12:50am in
by Mark Cramer

Industries strive incessantly to increase human productivity, often by way of mechanizing or automating tasks. After all, there are limits to purely human energy, strength, and ability. Without more workers, we require technological innovation to overcome these limitations. Fortunately for the pro-growth industries, technology doesn’t earn wages.

Even outside of the workplace, technology takes the place of utilitarian exercise. Long ago, most people hunted and gathered their own food. Later they walked to markets. Nowadays, those of us who don’t drive ourselves to supermarkets can have our pre-packaged groceries delivered to the doorstep.

Our ever-growing, production-driven economy has converted us into sedentary beings. Studies have shown that as countries become wealthier, Body Mass Index (BMI) for the bottom 80 percent of the population worsens while BMI for the richest 20 percent improves. Degrowing to a steady state, then, is likely to yield significant health benefits for (at least) 80 percent of the population.

Reclaiming the “Healthy Economy”

Part of the path to improving people’s health (and arriving at a steady state economy) includes reclaiming the health-related vocabulary pro-growth economists have monopolized. Adjectives like “healthy” and “robust,” nouns like “recovery,” and verbs like “strengthen” have been reappropriated from the realm of human health for an (ironically) unhealthy economic system. A “robust recovery” in the soft drink industry means an increase in cases of type two diabetes, and the health care industry is “strengthened” when more people are sick.

A $100 bill with a medical mask covering Ben Franklin's face.

An economy designed for perpetual GDP growth is best described as “sickly.”

We might be better equipped to spread the message that taking a brisk walk outdoors is preferable to driving to a fitness club if we first stop describing the growing economy as healthy. If we can’t reclaim the health-related terminology from economic discourse entirely, the least we can do is call a spade a spade; that is, describe a growing economy as “sickly” and replace terms like “green growth” with “brown bloating.”

To introduce viable alternatives, we need to recapture the language, especially as it relates to utilitarian use of metabolic energy. Otherwise, we can win the battle of logic but still be defeated in the war of words. Reappropriating positive health-related vocabulary for degrowth and steady-state alternatives is a great place to start.

Public transportation seems like enemy number one for GDP strategists, if opinion writers for the Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute are the gauge. Yet “active transit” would be an apt phrase for public transportation, with a clear link to public health. When one uses light rail or a bus, it’s necessary to walk to and from the bus stop or rail station on both ends of the commute. It’s fine exercise; as good as any treadmill, and far more stimulating.

In Paris I usually commute by bicycle but using the metro has helped me avoid rush-hour traffic. The brisk walks to and from the metro add 40 minutes of utilitarian exercise, roughly equivalent to the exercise benefit of 50 minutes of biking (the amount it takes for a round trip).

It’s common sense that active transit is healthier than passive. Common sense is corroborated by statistical case studies, too. One such study showed that a mere “one percent increase in county population use of public transit is associated with a 0.221 percent decrease in county population obesity prevalence.”

Degrowing Our GDP and G-U-Ts

Replacing fossil-fueled machinery with human metabolic energy is a simple step towards degrowing some of the most detrimental industries. The automobile industry, for example, is responsible for approximately 4.5 percent of all jobs in the USA according to pro-car researchers. During a policy debate on public transportation at the Paris Hotel de Ville (City Hall), I witnessed car company lobbyists warning that if the municipality curtailed car use, the economy would suffer. (When called out on fossil fuels, they flashed their trump card: the electric car.)

Two people riding bikes down a road with cars parked along the side.

Trading fossil power for human power is a step towards a truly healthy economy. (CC BY 2.0, Kristoffer Trolle)

In other words, these lobbyists believe (or would have us believe) we should rejoice at the opportunity to sit immobilized behind the wheel during a traffic jam because we are “lifting” GDP. Yes, in GDP parlance, we can now lift while remaining inactive.

The CDC has attempted to counteract such lobbyists by explaining what would happen if we kept our cars parked for trips under a mile. The answer is startling. Car trips under a mile equate to 10 billion miles per year in the USA. If Americans traveled half of these trips on foot, the result would be the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road each year. The “health” of the automotive and oil industries would diminish as the health of the American people improves, all while saving drivers $900 billion.

A study cited by the CDC found that eliminating car trips under five miles (round-trip) in urban Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin would result in nearly $5 billion in health benefits from improved air quality. The same study estimated that if half of these car trips were bike trips, $4 billion in healthcare costs could be saved—along with well over a thousand lives.

Another segment of the economy that contributes heavily to GDP with malignant results for our personal health is the food industry, from farming to food services. “Agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.055 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, a 5.0-percent share.” The industries also “contributed” to a “healthy” dose of obesity.

Adults helping a child with gardening at a community garden plot.

What could be better than walking to the grocery store? Participating in a community garden! (CC BY 2.0, d-olwen-dee)

With a healthy dose of human energy, we can grow our own food while staying trim. Local gardening can reduce the role of fossil fuels in food distribution, too. The average tomato travels more than 1,300 miles from farm to supermarket. We can do better than that. Plus, the result for public health would be significant beyond obesity concerns: fresher, nutritious food; revitalized bodies; and fewer trips to the doctor. The more families that do their own gardening and composting, the bigger the hit taken by the food industry and GDP—and the better our health.

Like walking and cycling, gardening isn’t just healthy, it’s satisfying and enfranchising. Many cities have nonprofit organizations that help homeowners convert their lawns into gardens. Even apartment dwellers can participate in community gardens sprouting up in smart American cities and common around the world. These vibrant spaces combine active living with social connectivity.

Who would have thought that the very language of health would be siphoned away from human beings and applied to GDP? Who would have thought that we’d reach a point in history where walking, bicycling, and gardening would become acts of rebellion? I am not an economist, but I suspect that when we use our own metabolic energy in utilitarian tasks, the vast majority of us will be healthier and happier while GDP declines.

Mark Cramer Book CoverMark Cramer is the author of Old Man on a Green Bike: Chronicles of a Self-Serving Environmentalist.

The post War of the Words: Rebranding the “Healthy Economy” appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

The Great Unemployment Fudge

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 14/05/2022 - 2:27am in

In the U.S., we are told, the post-World War II period was a golden age of full employment. High wartime government spending had brought to an end the double-digit unemployment and misery of the Depression, and as war gave way to peace, unemployment settled at a non-inflationary level of 3-5%. It's known as the post-war "economic miracle".

But it's a myth. There was never full employment. The low unemployment of the post-war years is a massive statistical fudge. In fact, over five million people lost their jobs immediately after the end of the war, most of whom never worked again. But they were never listed as unemployed - because they were women. 

The Great Unemployment Fudge started in the "Depression of 1946", described by the Cato Institute as "one of the most widely predicted events that never happened in American history". During the war, there was full employment, GDP was roaring and industrial production was at an all-time high. But much of this was devoted to the war effort. Alvin Hansen was one of many economists warning that sudden cessation of wartime production and employment would plunge the economy back into Depression: “The government cannot just disband the Army, close down munitions factories, stop building ships, and remove all economic controls,” he said. Unemployment forecasts for demobilization ranged from 8 million to 20 million.

Understandably, policymakers were very worried. And with reason. Hansen's warning proved prophetic: as the war came to an end, the economy fell into a deep recession. The fall in real GDP in 1945-46 dwarfs both the Great Recession and the Covid-19 recession. Only the Great Depression was worse:

(source: BLS)

BLS figures show that the fall in real GDP was mainly caused by deep cuts to government spending: in 1946, government spending fell by nearly 65%, and by 1948 the government was running a budget surplus.  But private sector consumption and investment increased. There was quite a boom in residential construction. As has happened so often in U.S. history, the housing market pulled the economy out of recession. 

For the Cato Institute, the remarkable rebound in GDP and surprisingly low unemployment proved that worries about government spending cuts re-starting the Depression were unfounded. Blithely assuming away the counterfactual, they claimed that cutting government spending had kickstarted private sector investment and created 4 million new jobs. Unemployment was higher than it had been during the war, of course, but that's because mobilization had artificially depressed unemployment. After demobilization, unemployment rebounded to an average of around 4%: 

It averaged about 4% for the next twenty years. 

But it is extremely odd for unemployment to be so low in a recession of such severity. The Great Recession was in real GDP terms much less severe than the 1945-6 recession, yet unemployment rose to 10%. I wondered if something was artificially depressing the reported unemployment figures for 1945-6. So I went on a hunt. 

I didn't have far to look. This table from a a research paper by the Cato Institute economists Vedder & Galloway - the same people who claimed that the "Depression of 1946" never happened - shows that the increase in joblessness immediately after the war was far higher than the reported unemployment figures. I've highlighted the relevant figures. 

As we might expect in a period of demobililization, armed forces employment fell sharply and civilian employment rose. Federal employment also fell as a result of the government's budget cuts, and non-federal employment rose. This rebalancing from military and government employment to private sector civilian employment shouldn't have caused a fall in the labour force. Yet it did. The first highlighted line shows that between 1945 and 1946, the total labour force shrank by nearly 6 million people. 
It is also evident that despite Cato Institute's gleeful claim that 4 million new jobs were created, job losses during this period were far higher. Total employment fell by 7.27 million. But only 2.5 million people are recorded as unemployed. So nearly 5 million jobless people were not recorded in unemployment figures. 
The detailed figures in this table show us that between 1945 and 1946, nearly three million female civilian employees lost their jobs. As their jobs disappeared, civilian employment among men sharply increased: 
(chart from Evan K. Rose, Cambridge Core)

The fall in women's employment was almost a mirror image of the increase in women's employment as men shifted from civilian employment to the armed forces early in the war. But unlike the men, women did not shift to non-civilian employment. Most of them simply disappeared from the labour force. 
As a result, the labour force participation rate - the proportion of the adult population that is either working or looking for work - fell to less than 60%, a drop of nearly 6% in one year. It did not regain its wartime level until 1981. 

So the surprisingly low unemployment rate in the deep recession of 1945-6 is explained by millions of women leaving the workforce to make way for men returning from the war. 
Did the women want to leave their jobs? Vedder and Galloway say they did:
In particular, millions of women voluntarily decided to withdraw from the labor force and reverted to their traditional roles as mothers, wives, and housekeepers.
This is the heart of the Great Unemployment Fudge. People who voluntarily withdraw from the labour force aren't unemployed. So if women who left their jobs in 1945-6 were simply reverting to being mothers, wives and  (unpaid) housekeepers, they did not need to be included in unemployment statistics. Hey presto, we have an explanation for the remarkably low unemployment in the 1945-6 recession. The GDP fall in 1945-6 was merely the economy readjusting itself to peacetime activity. The "Depression of 1946" really didn't happen. 
But Rose found that far from voluntarily leaving the workforce, women were systematically pushed out to make way for men: 

  • Employers, particularly in manufacturing, were encouraged to replace women with returning veterans, and enthusiastically did so:

    1946 USES report on the airframe industry, for example, notes that employment opportunities were limited “almost entirely to veterans, who receive preference in nearly all plants” (War Manpower Commission 1943–1945, February 1946, p. 13). In 48 large plants with 160,000 total employees, 4,000 veterans were hired in December 1945, despite net employment declines of 2,000 jobs. A similar report on the rubber tires and tubes industry, which had been roughly 20 percent female since it became critical in mid-1944, noted “women to be displaced...many employers have indicated to the USES that they expect to replace most of the women on the production line with men” (War Manpower Commission 1943–1945, January 1946, p. 15).

  • The federal government sharply cut the proportion of women it employed, from 38% during the war to 28% by the end of 1946. Simultaneously, it cut total federal employment by half a million jobs due to budget cuts. This reduction disproportionately fell on women.  
  • Although hundreds of thousands of women applied to the U.S. Employment Service (USES), they were largely ignored by the USES, which prioritised finding employment for veterans. Female placements dropped precipitously as men returned from the war: 

    Furthermore, to prevent women competing with veterans for placements, USES limited placements for women to the kinds of jobs they had done before the war, even though this meant women were less likely to get employment: 

    The USES explained the drops in female placements at the time by noting that “women job seekers have become more sharply limited to the types of jobs which they had held before the war”

  • Some women - notably in cities - were claiming unemployment compensation, which meant they were actively seeking work. Rose says employers actively discriminated against them: 

    Few employers were looking for them, however: 60 to 81 percent of jobs posted in USES offices in these cities specified “men only,” leaving two and half times as many female UC claimants as jobs open for women.

    Rose also says that although the jobs available to unemployed men and women typically paid far below their previous earnings, the wage cuts were deeper for women - 49-53%, as opposed to 34-49% for men. 

  •  Women were "bumped" down into lower-skilled jobs to make way for men in higher-skilled jobs. This happened even in industries which traditionally had large female workforces:

    The USES noted that in the hosiery industry, where two-thirds of employees were female, some women hired to knitting and machine-fixing jobs were “bumped” as veterans returned.

    "Bumping" happened in the jobs market too. Rose observes that for unemployed women who had done semi-skilled clerical work during the war, the chances of finding a similar job after the war were extremely poor.

Faced with discrimination, harsh pay cuts, and unfair job downgrades, many women did indeed opt to leave the workforce. But it is hard to see how dropping out of a labour market that did not want them and was determined to push them out is in any way "voluntary". 
To modern eyes, deliberately pushing women out of the workforce to make way for men appears appalling. But in its time, it was sensible. No-one wanted a return of the unemployment and poverty of the Great Depression. And there were an awful lot of veterans needing jobs. If women had stayed in the workforce, they would have competed directly with those veterans for jobs. At the time, unemployment was considered to be a much bigger problem for man than for a woman, because she was considered only to be working for herself while he was keeping his entire family. So reducing male unemployment had to be the priority, even if it meant large numbers of women remaining jobless for long periods of time. I have no doubt that women were put under considerable social pressure to leave their jobs and return to being housewives and mothers. 

But I have much less sympathy for the blatant misrepresentation of unemployment figures and the poisonous claim that women "voluntarily" left the workforce. Had women still been counted as "available for work" in 1945-6, reported unemployment would have been in double digits - not as high as in the Great Depression at its worst, but certainly of the order of 10-12%, similar to the rates immediately prior to the war. And it would have stayed elevated for a long time. But that would have destroyed the myth of full employment, along with the notion that cutting government spending by 65% in one year can ever kickstart recovery and job creation.

So the Depression of 1946 very much did happen. And its effects were very long-lasting. It wasn't just women who worked during the war who were excluded from the post-war workforce. Women who were children during the war were too, and so were the early "baby boomer" women. Women didn't start to return to the workforce in significant numbers until the second half of the 1960s, and they were still being systematically discriminated against well into the 1970s.
This is by no means the only example in history of a country disguising high unemployment by encouraging some groups of people to leave the workforce. For example, in the early 1980s recession, the U.K. paid older workers, particlarly men, to retire early to make way for younger people. But in no other post-war recession to my knowledge were millions of women systematically pushed out of the workforce without compensation to provide jobs for men. Let us hope this never happens again. 

Game On or Game Over for the Environment?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/04/2022 - 1:14am in
by Mai Nguyen

In January 2022, Microsoft announced that the company planned to buy the videogame company Activision Blizzard for almost $70 billion, giving it control of franchises like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and World of Warcraft. This signaled to the world the potential of gaming for the tech industry’s pursuit of speedier growth despite technology being an already high-demand industry.

Activision Blizzard sign at gaming convention.

Microsoft bought Activision Blizzard, usurping many profitable franchises, most notably Call of Duty. (CC BY-SA 3.0, Dinosaur918)

I understand the appeal of video games; I own a couple of consoles, and I keep up with the latest gaming news. While many dismiss them as a waste of time, video games are a medium that enable us to tell incredible stories in a way that movies or books can’t quite replicate. They provide a level of interactivity and customizability that allows the player to immerse themselves in a grand story. I’ve fought to protect my family from Japanese crime society in Yakuza and lived my fantasy life as the homeowner of a castle in The Sims. And just like any other hobby, fans can find communities centered around their favorite games.

But while video games flaunt a unique (and at times addicting) charm, with every growing industry is a dark side of depleting resources.

Growth of the Industry

Video games have come a long way since their simple beginnings, starting with a simple tic-tac-toe game in 1952 before ballooning to a billion-dollar industry. Later, the 70s and 80s brought the release of several milestone game consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). In 1989, Sega released the Genesis to compete against the NES, triggering the first “console war” and the release of scores of popular games for both consoles.

At the end of 2021, Newzoo reported 2.95 billion gamers worldwide and predicted 3 billion by 2023. The market for video games has only grown in the past few years, thanks partially to the pandemic. As time at home increased, so did new hobbies. From 2019 to 2020, the number of U.S. console gamers increased by 6.3 percent and console sales surged 155 percent worldwide by March 2020.

Nintendo sold more than 14.3 million units of its Nintendo Switch console during the pandemic, likely due to the release of the relaxing life-simulator game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Similarly, PlayStation experienced an 83 percent boom in game sales in the first quarter of 2020, 74 percent of which were digital downloads.

The Internet has played a large part in video game success, and not just because of online play. The Internet made it possible to play video games as a profession, not just a hobby. YouTube videos, especially “Let’s Play” videos, made it possible for viewers to experience games they were unsure about buying, often with comedic commentary. YouTuber PewDiePie spent 2013 to 2015 as the most subscribed YouTuber thanks to his Let’s Play content and continues today with 111 million subscribers.


Gaming: once merely a hobby, now a global “esport” phenomenon. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Maxime FORT)

Twitch also played a significant role in shaping the gaming industry by allowing viewers to interact with their favorite gamers in real time, from voting on how the streamer will play a game to sending direct messages. YouTube, too, has a streaming feature. Polygon reports that YouTube streamers put in 54.9 million hours of content in 2020, versus 55.4 million hours in 2019. Don’t let the slight decline in total content fool you, though. Viewership nearly doubled to 6.19 billion hours in 2020 from 3.15 billion in 2019.

Esports, or competitive video games, is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, with a total audience of 335 million in 2017 rising to 645 million in 2022. The growth of esports and their viewership means more energy and resource consumption required for gaming equipment. Hardware companies encourage customers to invest in the most powerful parts in the market, from processors to entire PCs, a strategy many believe drove the industry to a $1.5 billion value in 2017. And while esports are still a relatively small source of revenue for the gaming industry, BITKRAFT predicts that figure will grow with the introduction of new competitive games.

Today, the gaming industry has at least a $175 billion value (BITKRAFT suspects it’s even bigger), but it could more than double by 2028 as the industry takes advantage of the increasingly widening platform offered by mobile gaming.

A Look inside the Game Case

While the gaming industry has internal issues like the lax attitude towards toxic workplace culture, beefing up the industry spells out something even more ominous for the environment.

Like cell phones, with the hype of each new-generation console, there lies a danger of gamers trashing old consoles for the new model. As of 2022, Nintendo sold 103.5 million Switches. PlayStation sold 116.9 million PS4s, and PS5 consoles braved shortages and hit 17.3 million sales. Of course, these shiny new models come at an ecological cost. To conduct electricity, consoles depend on mined materials including copper, nickel, gold, and zinc. The circuit board and other parts are tucked into a plastic case, which is formed from crude oil and natural gas.

There is more room for customizability with PC gaming. Gamers can buy prebuilt computers with their desired specs, or they can build one themselves. In both cases, however, gamers tend to go for the parts with the most powerful specs. These components require huge amounts of power, with some GPUs using over 300 watts in a ten-minute test run. Such excessive energy consumption is also exacerbated by incredibly tight release dates between new parts. The GPU giant Nvidia consistently releases components collections several times a year.

Nintendo has launched initiatives for recycling hardware and complying with e-waste regulations, but recycling should never be our first resort to solve the waste problem. While e-waste recycling seems like the obvious step to making the industry sustainable, the current state of e-waste recycling has a host of problems. In the formal recycling process, waste is mechanically separated and shredded for further sorting by hand. To avoid the costs of adhering to safety and pollution-control regulations in the USA, companies often export the waste to developing countries for informal recycling. At these workshops, workers recover valuable metals by burning away the plastic devices, leading to hazardous conditions and increased emissions.

Photo of a dumping site for e-waste, which includes video game consoles, PCs, and other hardware.

Old consoles and PCs get dumped for the newest tech, resulting in considerable e-waste. (CC BY 2.0, Curtis Palmer)

However, nowadays, next-gen gaming is taking on a sleeker look with digital downloads and cloud gaming. But while gaming is moving away from physical game discs, experts say that digital services won’t be the cure-all to gaming-related emissions. Gaming represents 34 terawatt-hours of energy and 24 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, equivalent to 85 million refrigerators. Cloud-based game subscriptions like Google Stadia or PlayStation Now, which allow players to stream from an online library of games to their device, are highly demanding of servers. These subscription services allow users to stream games from huge data centers, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, are extremely energy-intensive, and take up almost as much space as ten football fields, all while producing tremendous amounts of heat.

The increased use of centralized technology will pressure game companies to consistently stay up-to-date on the latest equipment, which could contribute even more to the e-waste problem. One study found that cloud-based gaming requires significantly more energy per hour than similarly powerful local gaming equipment.

Video Games for Good

On the bright side, many of the thousands of video games in existence have environmental messages. You can fight as Cloud Strife against the evil Shinra Electric Power Company in Final Fantasy VII, or run renewable energy projects in Sims 4’s Eco Lifestyle pack. You can even explore Central Park through the eyes of a bee and defend your hive from humans in Bee Simulator. Games like these help spread environmental awareness and push the world towards sustainability in a way that no advertisement campaign can; at least, the UN believes so.

Mirai is the protagonist of E-Line Media’s educational underwater diving adventure game Beyond Blue, inspired by the BBC nature docuseries Blue Planet II. The player guides Mirai, leader of a deep-sea research team, as they investigate whales and sea turtles and uncover the secrets of the deep. Alan Gershenfeld, co-founder of E-Line Media, told DW, “The more gamers care about the ocean, the more they want to explore the ocean, avocational or as a career. I believe, that’s the key towards ocean preservation.”

In Eco, players must collaborate to use natural resources to build a civilization and develop the technology to destroy a planet-threatening asteroid. The game gives the players the option to build governments and economies, and each of the players’ decisions has the potential to benefit or harm the environment. Eco is currently still in development and is available for early access, but it already has thousands of positive reviews lauding the game’s teamwork mechanics under its belt.

Knowing minds like this exist in the game industry makes me optimistic, especially considering the growing number of gamers worldwide. And with the industry becoming more mainstream, it’s important that these gamers come to terms with the industry’s flaws and strive to become a force for good.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Even if game companies were to wholly commit to environmental protection, the fact remains that gamers never want to buy the least-powerful equipment. These game systems are incredible, and the games look and feel as fun as they do thanks to the massive amounts of resources required to make them. Perpetual growth of any industry can never be sustainable. However, we can also tell that video games aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

To tackle this issue, we can find gaming’s steady-state potential by focusing on increasing our hardware’s lifespan instead of buying more than we need. While next-gen system release dates largely line up with the end of the predecessor’s lifespan, backwards compatibility between consoles is a rare sight; you can’t play your PS3 games on your new PS4. Providing ways to play older games and extending the life of consoles seem like good first steps.

Digital stores like My Nintendo Store and PlayStation Store offer libraries of classic games, not to mention the new games in development for older consoles. However, whether it’s buying a console or building a PC, it’s tempting to give in to upgrade trends and buy the latest, most powerful innovation in gaming technology. But you don’t necessarily need the very best specs and up-to-date tech to have a quality gaming experience. You’ll survive without a 4K-capable graphics card and butter-smooth frame rates; it’ll be easier on your wallet as well.

But scaling back on new gaming purchases is just one part of the solution. We can also take notes from games like Beyond Blue and Eco by actively using the medium to spread the word about sustainability and steady-state economics. CASSE developed Limits to Growth, a playground game that introduces kids to fairness and sustainability in the context of steady-state economics. To the play the game, players go through rounds within their individual houses, represented by a hula hoop, and one planet represented by a rope. In each round, players have the option to “upgrade” their house by adding another hula hoop. Once the planet is filled up with hula hoops, some students might “die.” This is a fun and easy way to teach children about the foundations of steady-state economics, but developing a limits to growth video game could bring it to the next level.

What if CASSE Joined the Game?

The multiplayer open-world survival genre with sandbox elements is the perfect playground for bringing the message to life. Imagine starting in a virtual world much like our Earth, except it’s completely untouched by human civilization. The virtual Limits to Growth game (perhaps Stable Planet has a catchier ring) begins with choosing the biome—aquatic, grassland, forest, desert, or tundra—where the game will take place. While exploring, players can observe and learn about the biodiversity of their chosen environment. Players may catch lion cubs play-fighting in a savanna, gawk at Galápagos penguins gliding through cool waters, or admire the crystal-blue sky occupied by a V-formation of geese. Players are simply dropped into the colorful, virtual world with nothing but a few basic tools (like a hatchet, bow and arrows, and fishing rod) in their inventories, and they must find food and build shelter to survive.

Mockup Xbox game cover for the hypothetical game "Stable Planet" inspired by CASSE's position on economic growth.

Mockup game cover for Stable Planet. Do you have what it takes to create a sustainable civilization?

Like in Eco, players live together in a civilization server and make decisions that impact the world around them, from hunting a single deer to clearing out a forest for a village. While collaboration is encouraged, individual players may choose (or not) to build and upgrade their own homes at the expense of natural resources like timber and fisheries. Certain upgrades require more advanced tools, which call for even more raw materials.

Players can eventually vote to build communal structures, such as a power plant for electricity or ports for trade with visiting non-player characters (NPCs) representing different civilizations. Of course, these major upgrades require substantial resources; the gamer sees these resources decline in quantity and quality. Open-world games like Minecraft encourage players to grind away at virtually infinite resources like wood and stone, but Stable Planet would make it clear that resources, including occupiable space, are finite or not quickly renewable.

In the game, with each collective and individual decision, consequences to GDP and the environment follow. The server’s GDP appears as a scoreboard overlaying each player’s screen. The number starts at zero and stays a cool green color until players’ economic activities proliferate. This is a major mechanic in the game, as it may—and eventually should—serve as a driving force for players’ decisions.

One group of players may decide to chase a high GDP and expand production far beyond sustainable, survivable levels. In this case, GDP continuously grows on the scoreboard, with digits increasing on a spinning meter (similar to the CASSE website). If players’ choices lead to furious growth, the scoreboard’s visuals would intensify, the number pulsing red with sparks flying off the board. Some players may interpret this as a good thing. After all, a booming economy is a healthy economy, right?

The state of the environment, however, reflects that high GDP in a different light. To expand iron trading, for example, players may build a huge plant to make mining easier, but a host of environmental consequences ensue; emissions visibly cloud the air and players’ health bars gradually deteriorate, lands lose arability, and wildlife species recede into extinction. While players may simply choose to move their settlement someplace else on the map, the “open” world is not infinite; this process can only be repeated so many times before they run out of space. With nowhere else to go, players die one by one from starvation or illness.

On the other hand, smart players may decide to manage GDP differently. They have the option of building a civilization based on what’s needed to survive. Instead of perpetual building, they can spend more time playing with friends and family, or joining other players in “town hall” meetings. GDP growth will slow, with the scoreboard once again emanating a cool green glow.

One civilization may enjoy an abundance of high-tech toys and a sky-high GDP—with all the problems that come with it—but yours can enjoy the bounty of nature and other pleasures of a good life. Like many open-world games, Stable Planet has no definite end, and instead encourages players to explore different ways to interact with their environment and other players, for better or for worse.

Mai Nguyen, editorial intern for Spring 2022 at CASSE.Mai Nguyen is the Spring 2022 editorial intern at CASSE, and a junior at George Washington University.

The post Game On or Game Over for the Environment? appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

A Perfect Storm for Inflation: COVID, Loose Money, and Putin

by Brian Czech

The current bout of inflation should be no surprise to steady staters. We have national and global ecosystems pushed to the limits by population and economic growth. At the same time, we have monetary authorities and heads of state—neoclassically oblivious to limits—eager to stimulate the economy with loose money. It’s a recipe for inflation.

Gift of inflation.

A simple warning issued in March 2020: full tweet here.

We tweeted all the way back in March 2020 that inflation was coming. If it wasn’t already in the works from COVID-caused supply shocks, President Trump’s fiscal stimulus (CARES Act) put it there. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan came a year later (and one year ago today). These fiscal policies were politically prudent and remedial for many, but they fanned the flames for inflation.

And now we have a two-pronged supply shock emanating from the steppes of Eastern Europe. Russian energy and Ukrainian grain (plus Ukrainian energy and Russian grain) are now sanctioned, restricted, and constricted. The Russian threat also puts even more pressure on NATO countries and Russia to let loose with yet another round of money.

All this creates a perfect storm for an episode of inflation that will be long-lasting and global. If the war in Ukraine spirals further out of control for a protracted period, this inflationary period could become one of the worst in world history. It’s time to take a 21st century look at the fundamentals of inflation, and plan for the storm ahead.


Inflation is one of those confounding concepts—a bit like gravity—that is at once easy to understand and subjected to baffling analysis. Fortunately, a perfectly clear and memorable phrase can be used to grasp it: “too much money chasing too few goods.” As such, you tend to know it when you see it. If you’re old enough to buy a beer, you’ve already seen plenty of it.

Three animated dollar bills chasing a runaway shopping cart full of goods.

Too much money chasing too few goods.

Economists distinguish “demand-pull” inflation from “cost-push” inflation. These are two sides of the same coin (so to speak), but the phrase “demand-pull” connotes the “too much money” aspect of inflation, while “cost-push” connotes “too few goods.” Yes, the distinction has a chicken-and-egg aspect: Given either pull or push, inflation is hatched.

Given that “too much money” and “too few goods” are aggregate measures, inflation is a macroeconomic phenomenon, but sometimes sectoral price increases are conflated with inflation per se. If everyone suddenly wants a pet rock, the price increases, but that’s not inflation, demand-pull or otherwise. Similarly, if rocks become harder to find, the price increases, but that’s not inflation, cost-push or otherwise. Consumers can turn to cheaper pet sticks or pet ants, or simply eschew the pet sector entirely. Prices don’t go up across the board. The price of pet rocks is simply a microeconomic phenomenon reflecting the supply and demand thereof.

It makes little sense, then, to talk of inflation exclusively in terms of pet rocks, widgets, or even lumber. It would seem that the proper way to measure inflation would be with a relatively full basket of goods, monitoring the cumulative price over time. That is, in fact, what the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does with the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

The BLS doesn’t need to include every single good and service stemming from the thousands of industries identified in the North America Industry Classification System. You might, for example, leave out the pet rocks. Surely, however, you wouldn’t want to omit groceries and gas, would you?

Yet that is precisely what economists at the Federal Reserve do with the curious concept of “core inflation,” which accounts for the prices of most goods and services except food and energy. For ecological economists, “core” sounds like a misnomer when the most essential goods are omitted. The rationale of economists at the Fed is that food and energy prices are more volatile than those of other goods; the core should be more stable. A less volatile core measure is supposed to make things easier for forecasting and goal-setting purposes, but it’s hard not to suspect some kind of political fish lurking in the waters circa 2000, when the Fed adopted the concept.

The notion of a non-volatile inflation metric is a bit like thinking, “When we weigh the patient, let’s not include the fat in the midsection, because that area jiggles around more than the rest of the body.” If it’s not a political red herring, the notion of a foodless, energy-absent core measure of inflation is yet another example of the conventional economics profession overlooking the primacy of the agricultural and energy sectors at the trophic base of the economy.

When you think about inflation, do you think it wise to omit grocery bills and gas prices? I didn’t think so. Neither would moms, car drivers, or eaters. (Have I left anyone out?)

Century of Supply Shock

In this article, “supply shock” takes on two meanings. We have the typical meaning of a sudden and steep decline in the supply of a resource, such as an oil shock resulting from an embargo. Of immediate concern, though, is the absolutely macroeconomic scenario I wrote about in Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. A suite of essential resources are dwindling rapidly, although unobserved and out of mind for most. Soils, groundwater, sawtimber, fisheries, various minerals, and conventional energy resources become ever scarcer as the global population grows and the stocks of these resources are eroded, compromised, or outright liquidated. We’re entering an era or a century of Supply Shock, corresponding with other labeled periods such as the Anthropocene and Sixth Great Extinction.

Some may argue that, by definition, the ongoing, background declines of natural resources are trends, not shocks. That would be a fair argument if we were talking about one resource, but supply curves across the board are moving inward, and faster by the decade. Soon enough, the cumulative effect will be stunning to generations accustomed to dealing piecemeal with temporary supply issues, such as an oil embargo here or a fishery collapse there.

Furthermore, economists and politicians are still living in a fantasyland, expecting new technologies to save the day. By the nature of their professions, they tend to be older folks who’ve seen many a 20th century problem overcome with new technology. Unfortunately, most of them seem to have little sense that the low-hanging technological and thermodynamic fruits have been picked, leaving the shelves barer and less accessible for this century. The impending wake-up call will be quite a surprise to them, as it will be for the media who cover them.

For the broader public then, which in turn gets its fuzzy understanding of economics from the mainstream media, the combination of widespread shortages and the limitations of technology will suddenly appear overwhelming. People (exceedingly few of whom read outlets such as the Herald) will be wondering, “Why weren’t we hearing about this in advance?” They’ll be shocked.

In other words, while the economy of nature is undergoing its Sixth Great Extinction, the human economy is entering the Century of Supply Shock. The money supply will be chasing fewer goods, and the stage will be consistently set for inflation, just waiting for feckless fiscal and monetary actors.

Fiscal Stimulus

Biden launching the American Rescue Plan.

President Biden touting the American Rescue Plan. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0, Eric Haynes)

Thus far we’ve had three rounds of economic impact payments—aka “stimulus checks”—to buffer the majority of American citizens from the economic impacts of COVID. Direct payments totaling approximately $867 billion have been or will yet be made pursuant to the CARES Act (2020), the Consolidated Appropriations Act (2020), and the American Rescue Plan (2021). $456 billion is somewhat attributable to Trump (who signed the first two bills), and $411 billion to Biden (who signed the American Rescue Plan). The total is not far from a trillion dollars; roughly five percent of American GDP and well over one percent of global GDP.

Where did such a huge sum of money come from? While it’s a little more complicated than this, the money is mostly debt. The CARES Act, for example, was signed by Trump on March 27, 2020, well into the fiscal year, which itself was budgeted for long before COVID-19 was even identified. In other words, the money came out of thin air, much like COVID.

That means we instantly had an inflated money supply, by definition, chasing goods already becoming scarce in the age of Supply Shock. Demand-pull and cost-push forces were already at work, with the depths of the COVID pandemic yet to come. The subsequent two fiscal stimuli packages were more planned and better budgeted, but still “financed” largely by debt, conducive to further inflation.

COVID-Caused Recession

The COVID-caused recession brings us back to the “fewer goods” part of the inflation equation. While COVID-19 triggered an initial wave of positive demand shocks for such home-bound supplies as toilet paper, pasta, and paper towels, negative demand shocks slammed the hospitality, entertainment, and certain retail industries. (Imagine being an airline or a dentist during the depths of the pandemic.)

Sports and entertainment sectors took a heavy hit during the COVID pandemic.

More importantly, virtually all sectors were slowed by supply chain issues resulting from workplace shutdowns and an erosion of the labor force due to covid deaths, illness, and exposure avoidance. The ultimate avoidance tactic was retirement or resignation. Millions of workers—especially the very young and the retirement-eligible—learned they didn’t necessarily need to work. Not when they were receiving stimulus checks while saving the expenses of commuting and parking. The Great Resignation is “still in full swing,” too.

Only higher-income individuals and families weren’t eligible for stimulus checks. That means those who received the checks were fairly dependent upon them for essential goods and basic services; the checks weren’t deposited in savings accounts. The demand for such goods (most notably food) is price-inelastic, too, so the sudden glut of debt-based money was bound to settle into the prices at grocery stores, convenience stores, and pharmacies. That’s demand-pull inflation.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, setting in motion supply shocks at the trophic base of the economy.

The Volatile Mix of Gas and Grain

The relevance of trophic levels in the structure of the economy is about to take center stage in the tragic play called Inflation 2022. Almost one-fourth of the world’s wheat and nearly a third of its barley comes (normally) from the grain belt stretching from western Ukraine through southwestern Russia. Ukraine alone provides about 16 percent of the world’s corn. Significant shares of rye, soybeans, potatoes, vegetable oils (most notably sunflower), and numerous other food staples emanate from this breadbasket of Europe.

Ukrainian agricultural production and transport will be severely challenged by the Russian invasion. The vast majority of wheat in this part of the world is winter wheat; planted in fall and harvested in summer. If the war remains hot into the summer, with most Ukrainian men—and many women as well—occupied with fighting, farming will suffer. Farmers are also facing shortages (high prices) of fertilizers and pesticides at a time when income flows and even basic financial operations will be difficult to maintain. Similar problems will be faced in all of the major Ukrainian agricultural operations. For what surplus might remain, export routes along the Black Sea are cut off.

In addition, Russian commodity exports have been banned, not only by receiving countries but, in retaliation, by Putin himself. That means grain from the USA and Canada, along with lesser grain belts in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, China, India, Australia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey will be needed to feed the world. Wheat and corn prices are already skyrocketing, and supply shocks from the “chernozem” belt of Ukraine/Russia are reverberating into the price points for all cereal grains including rice.

Meanwhile, as steady staters know, money originates from the agricultural surplus that frees the hands for the division of labor unto all other sectors. That’s the trophic theory of money, which links the real (trophically structured) economy with the monetary sector in a manner that makes inflation easier to understand. The trophic theory of money implies that, if agricultural surplus declines, less real money is “authorized.” When the agricultural decline is sudden, as with a pronounced, cereal grain supply shock, the nominal money supply is just as suddenly inflated. And this is precisely the current situation.

In other words, no one should be wishfully thinking that inflation can be confined to the grocery store. All the money in the world—real money that is, adjusted for inflation—stems from agricultural surplus (or more generally, food surplus, which at this point in history is all about cereal grains). This underscores the truly macroeconomic aspect of inflation. It’s not only market forces that reallocate demand into different sectors, spreading price increases along the way. Rather, the money supply—same supply used for all goods and services—is inflated from the moment the agricultural surplus declines. If it takes a little longer for prices of some goods and services to increase, relative to others, the difference can be chalked up to the trophic procession of production from agro/extractive at the base to heavy manufacturing (and rough services) in the middle to light manufacturing (and refined services) at the higher levels. That’s why, in these early stages of the Russian invasion, commodity prices have increased faster than others.

Of course, one such commodity is energy; most notably crude oil and natural gas, supplies of which have also and suddenly been disrupted by the war. These are probably the most widely reported commodities for several important economic, environmental, and geopolitical reasons. I bring them up here primarily to highlight their linkage to agricultural production. Cereal grain production in the chernozem belt has become heavily mechanized, and the trend continues. As if all the other hurdles weren’t enough for Ukraine and Russian grain production and export, rapidly rising fuel prices add further to the cost-push inflationary pressures.

As global leaders, think tanks, and corporations analyze or plan for the future, they may want to pay close attention to the economic effects of the war in Ukraine. We’re learning a painful lesson about how disastrous things can become when we push beyond reason for growth. The planet can only produce so much food, oil, natural gas, and all the other resources. Yes, renewables are coming online for powering electricity grids, but the wheat combines of the Eurasian steppe don’t turn on a dime, and renewables may never cut it for the type of sheer horsepower needed for cultivating the chernozem of Eurasia, North America, or any other grain belt.

The money supply, on the other hand, can become inflated overnight, impacting the lives of billions of people in short order and with long-lasting consequences for families and businesses.

The warning signs are clear now, and they’re not all about the environment. The biggest, newest red flag on the planet is inflation, the dreaded tax-in-effect that hits everyone, everywhere. In the Century of Supply Shock, inflation will always be nipping at our heels, ready to run wild with any agricultural supply shock, ready to run loose with any feckless “stimulus,” fiscal or monetary. It’s yet another warning that we need a new approach: degrowth toward a steady state economy.

Brian Czech, Executive Director of CASSEBrian Czech is the executive director at CASSE.

The post A Perfect Storm for Inflation: COVID, Loose Money, and Putin appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

True Conservation: A 21st Century Vision for the Next Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 14/01/2022 - 2:55am in
by Brian Czech

The 21st century challenges to wildlife conservation are unprecedented. The ecological integrity of the nation and planet is unravelling before our eyes. Species and ecosystems are disappearing, if not immediately off the face of the planet, then via slow, dead-end emigrations as they respond to climate change.

It’s not as if climate change was needed to imperil fish and wildlife. Climate change is actually the fourth major crisis in the past 150 years. First was the overhunting that extinguished numerous species (for example, passenger pigeon) and extirpated many others from much of their range (for example, bison). Next was habitat loss: the degradation, destruction, and wholesale replacement of habitats in every state. Think for example of the Florida panther or the San Joaquin kit fox. Third, intimately interlinked with the second, was the pollution of air, soil, and water, most dramatically represented by the buildup of DDT that nearly extinguished the bald Eagle, peregrine falcon, and other symbols of the American wilds.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service logo

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs a recovery plan, based on a vision of True Conservation. (CC BY-NC 2.0, US FWS-Pacific Region)

And now, due to the greenhouse gases emitted by a $90 trillion global economy (driven significantly by the $20 trillion American economy) we have climate change; perhaps more aptly labeled “global heating.” Actually, climate change has been impacting wildlife populations for decades, but we are just starting to realize how ubiquitous and devastating the effects are.

Furthermore, the habitat and pollution crises are far from over. While the growth of the economy has slowed in recent years, it’s not for lack of intent or pro-growth policy. Economic growth remains the overriding domestic policy goal of the USA as well as an American priority in international affairs. As long as this holds, wildlife will be increasingly imperiled and extinguished as habitats are lost and polluted.

Finally, no one should assume the overhunting problem has been solved forever. As the economy outstrips its long-term capacity, society faces a 21st century struggle for subsistence. Widespread poverty will bring more intensive hunting and fishing, liberalization of game laws, and ultimately poaching.

Much has already been lost, but priceless populations and species of wildlife hang in the balance. American taxpayers are counting on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to lead the way in protecting our wildlife heritage. Who else would they expect to do the job?

The problem is, the agency has lost its way. That’s my opinion, after nearly 20 years at FWS headquarters (ending in November, 2017). Inconvenient truths have been shrouded for the sake of perks and pleasures among the higher ranks. No one person is going to fix the FWS, yet some individuals are especially important to the future of the agency. None is more important than the director, and the Senate faces an impending choice on who to appoint.

Herein, I propose a vision that the FWS director will need in order to be effective. I’ll call it “True Conservation.”

Professional Background, Personality, and Priorities

A vision of True Conservation isn’t possible without certain intellectual prerequisites. That’s not a reference to intelligence; that trait should go without saying. Rather, I’m referring to a mastery of particular fields of knowledge. For starters, the director must be an expert in wildlife biology and ecosystem ecology. An FWS director without such mastery is like an attorney general without a law degree or a treasury secretary without an economics education. Given the glut of wildlife biologists, a bare minimum of a master’s degree should be required.

Yet expertise in wildlife science is far from sufficient for True Conservation. An effective director must be an expert on the threats to wildlife. Otherwise, how will they know what to fix and how to fix it? A busy stint as director, which will come and go in a flash, is no time for figuring it out. The director must come in especially with a solid grasp on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation. She or he (hereafter, “they”), in other words, must have a solid background in ecological economics; in particular, ecological macroeconomics.

Passion is another prerequisite, but it must originate for the right reasons and apply to the right things. Let us not mistake outdoors enthusiasm for conservation passion. It’s not enough to be a passionate hunter, fisher, or birdwatcher, or a passionate defender of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. A True Conservation director will be willing to sacrifice fun times in the field in order to conduce the political, policy, and cultural changes required to slow the runaway train of economic growth. A vision short of that is High-Paid Fun in the Field, not True Conservation.

The FWS director must be politically savvy, not for purposes of personal advancement, but rather for deft and timely rhetoric. The 21st century director needs the ability to subtly undermine or outright refute the catastrophic win-win rhetoric that, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” Opportunities to refute such rhetoric will come every single day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They must be taken while the director has the podium and the position.

True Conservation Themes

The FWS director will face a panoply of conservation challenges. They must wisely appoint the proper assistants to handle most of these challenges, because the director must maintain a focus on the big-picture, long-term themes of True Conservation. The most important themes will be a conservation ethic, steady-state economics, land conservation, ecological integrity, protecting the Endangered Species Act, conserving biodiversity, and adapting to global heating.

Wildlife conservation is a pipe dream without a truly widespread conservation ethic. It is up to the director, as much as any other figure in the federal government, to cultivate such an ethic. This doesn’t take a degree in sociology or psychology, much less marketing or advertising. (The latter, especially, would be cynically ironic.) Rather, it requires a passionate exposition of the diversity and wonder of our American wildlife, along with the small and simple, everyday practices that conserve our resources and therefore our wildlife.

The director will have an entire agency as a crucible for cultivating a True Conservation culture. The director should commence cultivating on day one from their very own office. The lowest-hanging fruit is the light switch. Shutting the lights off will be a message to assistant directors, other staff, and visitors.

It’s not enough to talk about Aldo Leopold, leave the lights on, and go eat a steak. If you can’t walk the talk, don’t walk to the podium.

Conservation practiced in the halls of FWS—starting at the director’s office—will emanate to the Department of the Interior, other agencies, and ultimately the American public. After a few months of mastering the messaging in-house, the director should do all in their power to get the True Conservation message out to the public. This will be within the director’s purview, with resources such as the National Conservation Training Center, visitor centers, and an entire communications staff at their disposal. “Turn out the lights, use your own mug, and bring your own bag.” That’s a message all Americans will find relevant, not just wildlifers.

Aldo Leopold portrait 1944

“Nothing could be more salutatory at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings,” Aldo Leopold wrote in his 1948 preface to A Sand County Almanac. Leopold would have little patience for FWS rhetoric of “stimulating the economy.” (Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

The next major theme in True Conservation is steady-state economics. This doesn’t mean the director should, upon the inaugural day, issue a press release renouncing the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978. What it means is, from the very start, the director should be taking baby steps toward correcting the fallacious win-win rhetoric, and lengthen those steps throughout their term.

Chances are the director may never utter the phrase “steady state economy” on television, over the radio, or even before Congress. They can leave a lot of that to the next director. However, this director—the one to be appointed by President Biden—needs to get the ball rolling and cannot abide ignorant notions of “green growth.” However subtly the occasion calls for, the director must interject with pithy lessons on limits to growth, the conflict between growth and conservation, and in some venues, at least, the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative. By now, the director will find plenty of empowerment in the long list of true conservation giants—Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, the late E.O. Wilson, and so many others (including past FWS director Lynn Greenwalt)—who have put their good names to the steady-state mission.

True Conservation absolutely requires land protection. Any FWS director will have a head start at the helm of the National Wildlife Refuge System: 568 national wildlife refuges encompassing over 800 million acres. Don’t be misled by the heady figures, though. The vast majority of acres (over 700 million) are offshore and largely titular, reflecting a political contest during which presidents Bush and Obama “designated” marine conservation areas, but with weak teeth, as a subsequent, GDP-obsessed president quickly demonstrated. Second, of the 95 million terrestrial acres, most are over large expanses of Alaska where little else would have occurred anyway. (Such acreage is cynically referred to in conservation circles as “rock and ice.”)

That said, over 20 million acres of national wildlife refuges in the contiguous 48 states are jewels of wildlife conservation, from the tiny Watercress Darter NWR (Alabama) to the sprawling Desert NWR (Nevada). Protecting these refuges will be one of the greatest privileges in the director’s life. They better understand the threats.

When the director thinks about land protection, they should start with one key question: What is a national wildlife refuge a “refuge” from? By now it should be clear what the answer is: the economy. Agriculture, mining, logging, domestic livestock production, commercial fishing, manufacturing, urbanization/services, and the infrastructure that ties it all together such as roads, power lines, and canals; these are what the director is charged to protect the Refuge System from.

National parks, too, are refuges from the economy, albeit with different purposes. In fact, all units of the conservation estate including national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, state parks and forests, and county parks are to some degree refuges from the economy. Yes, many of these lands are used for limited economic activities—most notably logging on national forests and cattle grazing on BLM lands—but overall, the economy is precisely what these lands are protected from.

The problem is refuge lands will be under constant pressure to produce, and not just for outdoor recreation, but the supposed “higher and better” economic uses. The pressure will come directly from the private sector and from other, growth-oriented government agencies, directly and indirectly, as many of these agencies assist the private sector for purposes of GDP growth.

The director must start making inroads to higher levels of government. The greatest hope for a breakthrough in macroeconomic deliberations at the Cabinet level lies with the Secretary of the Interior. Such a breakthrough is highly unlikely unless the Secretary is first informed by, and can subsequently lean on, a knowledgeable FWS director, who must drive home the point that the FWS mission is undermined by the goal of GDP growth that has permeated the government. The director will need to recruit allies from within FWS and other Interior agencies in this effort to get the Secretary conversant with the fundamental conflict between economic growth and not only the FWS mission, but much of Interior’s collective mission.

Meanwhile, partly as a result of encroaching economic activity, and largely as a result of global heating and other ubiquitous threats (for example, proliferation of “forever chemicals”), the director will face tricky decisions even on the protected lands of the Refuge System. Pursuant to the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (Refuge Improvement Act) and the subsequent “ecological integrity policy,” known to FWS insiders as “601 FW 3” (Part 601, Chapter 3 of the FWS Policy Manual), the rule of thumb is to manage refuges consistent with natural conditions. This is a philosophical cornerstone, not a cookie-cutter prescription. Exceptions may occur, especially when a refuge was established with other purposes legislated (for example, certain industrial activities at Crab Orchard NWR in Illinois).

Some at FWS have thrown their hands in the air, correctly acknowledging the game-changing effects of global heating, but incorrectly proclaiming it’s game over for the ecological integrity policy. They’ve based their forfeit on the incorrect impression that the policy requires refuge managers to forever maintain natural conditions. As the lead author of the policy, I know that was never the intent. Rather, the ecological integrity policy simply requires refuge managers to assess what natural conditions were, based upon historic records and the archaeological, anthropological, climatological, and ecological data. All else equal, then, if a management action would take the refuge even further from those natural conditions, it would not be advisable (for example, managing for an artificially high ratio of game:non-game populations). Also, a management action itself can be less natural than others, and therefore less preferable (for example, using herbicides to reduce woody vegetation, rather than prescribed fire).

In the original policy—the one that would have passed with strong directorship—my policy team included a chronological frame of reference for natural conditions spanning the millennium from 800 AD to 1800 AD. This allowed for substantial plant community succession and evolutionary pathways accommodating warm and cool periods (Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age, respectively). The latter endpoint (1800) was designated not so much because of the mere introduction of industrial technology, but rather the rampant acceleration (“take-off” as W.W. Rostow called it) of the economy as wrought by industrialization, and therefore the rapid demise of wildlife habitats and populations.

Unfortunately, the directorate leadership, down to the level of the Refuge System Chief, caved into political pressure and deleted this crucial element of the policy. However, the concept was kept alive via Natural Resources Journal. A chronological frame of reference—essential for any comparison of conditions—helps us to understand that naturalness is no longer possible, but is still an ideal to hold to.

Vince Lombardi gave an imperfect analogy when he said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” The director must hold fast to the concept of ecological integrity, or may otherwise lose control of the Refuge System and see it turn into a circus of hunting reserves, shooting ranges, zoos, concession stands, and who knows what else for purposes of “stimulating the national economy.”

While the Refuge System is important for wildlife conservation, education, and research, refuges are a miniscule fraction of the 48 contiguous states. The director must be a passionate defender of lands, public or private, especially in cases where a species is under imminent threat. This brings us to the next theme, protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The ESA cannot be understood, much less effective, without an awareness of its economic nexus. It was designed as a collective stop sign. If a project is going to further imperil a federally listed endangered species, it encounters the ESA stop sign. Otherwise, by definition, that species is firmly on the road to extinction. Fortunately, the stop signs are easy to see from a distance, and rarely create hardship for well-planned business enterprises.

Unfortunately for wildlife, projects (commercial and public alike) proliferate in lockstep with GDP, many of them are poorly planned, and the causes of species endangerment are like a who’s who of the economy. That’s why the ESA is nothing less than a prescription—albeit an implicit one—for a steady state economy.

Lynn Greenwalt and other FWS leaders

Lynn Greenwalt (second from right) stood out at FWS for speaking truth to power. (CC BY 2.0, americaswildlife)

The director’s challenge, then, is not to hide the meaning of ESA and try to sneak it into the political end zone with the win-win rhetoric of “green growth.” The challenge starts again with the baby steps of raising awareness—one mind at a time—that in fact we cannot have our cake and eat it too. The ESA is not the enemy. In fact, it is much like a friend, warning us against unsustainable behavior such as gluttony or recklessness. We really ought to cherish this friend, not ignore it, much less gut it in Congress.

The director with a True Conservation mission will also resist the temptation to emphasize “game” management purely for the pleasure of hunters and fishers. We thought those days were behind us by the time I was hired (1999) as the first “conservation biologist” in FWS. The principles of conservation biology—most importantly the conservation of biodiversity at large—were behind the Refuge Improvement Act and subsequent FWS visioning exercises such as Fulfilling the Promise and Conserving the Future. Just because one president was so obsessed with GDP growth that even the conservation agencies were brought to bear for “stimulating the economy”—including ramped up sales of arms, ammunition, and all manner of hunting and fishing gear and activity—doesn’t make that shameful episode a legacy to retain. Refuges cannot be treated like another pawn in the chess game of GDP growth. Yes, hunting and fishing is compatible with many of our national wildlife refuges, but on very few refuges (those with legislated exceptions) should it be a top priority. That wouldn’t be True Conservation.

Finally, and coming full circle, the 21st century director must have a cogent response to global heating; that is, a problem-solving approach that addresses the root cause. This is no place for regurgitating a primer on climate change and the Refuge System. In the long-term big picture, it just doesn’t matter if FWS builds a dike here or rescinds a fire prescription there. The real point for True Conservation is that the director must help to magnify the staid assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the single most driving variable in greenhouse gas emissions is GDP.

Institutional Reform

The incoming director will have plenty of in-house clean-up to do, too, especially at headquarters. Among other things, FWS suffers from poor hiring practices, outdated training priorities, conservation hypocrisy, suppression of science, and the low morale that comes with all the above. None of these problems are intractable. I’ll offer just a few ideas for reform, enough to help buttress a True Conservation vision from within the agency.

Given the aforementioned glut of well-qualified wildlife biologists, a graduate degree should be required for biologist and manager positions. (No more boasting by sons of earlier employees that they managed to land a biologist job without a graduate degree.) Merit-based civil service hiring procedures should be strictly applied, and supplemented with additional requirements if necessary, so that a chief can’t come into headquarters and summarily hire a staff of drinking buddies from the field. This entails hiring by a committee of peers from other programs, without the involvement or input of an immediate supervisor. Any downsides to this approach are outweighed by the proven penchant for cliquish hiring.

Given the True Conservation themes—conservation ethic, steady-state economics, land conservation, ecological integrity, protecting the ESA, conserving biodiversity, and adapting to global heating—the director will need to revamp the training curriculum at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC). Training on the conservation ethic and land conservation are reasonably developed already. The other themes could use some work, and the theme that stands out as in most need of development is steady-state economics.

Given that True Conservation is essentially a steady state economy, FWS seems almost like a sham without a basic understanding of steady-state economics at the staff level, and substantial knowledge of it among the leadership teams. Every FWS employee ought to be conceptually equipped to describe the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation in venues ranging from the elevator to the conference podium. FWS leaders should be able to hold their own in the inevitable debates with economists and “green growth” salesmen, and to proffer a vision of steady statesmanship in the Senior Executive Service and potentially at higher levels in the Administration and Congress.

The conservation ethic is taught about in some NCTC courses, but that doesn’t mean it’s taught. That’s going to take True Conservation leadership. Meanwhile, “conservation hypocrisy” ranges from leaving the lights on to investing in oil companies via the Thrift Savings Plan. One of the most reprehensible—and most correctable with True Conservation—is the tendency of FWS chiefs to treat their jobs like full-time tourism. There’s always an excuse to travel to a refuge for “oversight,” a conference for “networking,” or even a foreign wildlife agency for “consultation.” Yes, some of these events are legitimate, but if a comprehensive travelogue of FWS chiefs were published for the past few decades, it would be scandalous, especially accounting for the per diem “costs” that are substantially pocketed. Given the carbon footprint of airline travel, the hefty price to the public, the easy access to online conferencing, and the backlog of duties at the desk, FWS (and other government) flights should be phased out, if not by law then by director’s order.

Suppression of science is a nefarious phenomenon. Not only is truth and reality hidden from the taxpaying public but, to put a slight twist on Donald Rumsfeld’s lament, we don’t know what we don’t know. By the very nature of a gag order, we can never really know how many government employees have been gagged, on what topics, for how long, or why. It’s a slippery slope, shutting up an employee or shutting down a topic. Every scenario is different, but in True Conservation, an FWS director doesn’t gag a biologist for raising awareness of the trade-off between economic growth and wildlife conservation. If ecological macroeconomics is a strong suit of the employee, the director recognizes the value and cultivates it rather than snuffing it out. They consult with the employee and either incorporate the knowledge into FWS programs, bring it to the attention of the Secretary, or, if politically vulnerable, work out an assignment for the employee in a more durable agency such as the State Department, while FWS works on developing the wherewithal to deal with the “800-pound gorilla.”

Although there would have been exceptions among a “hook-and-bullet” cohort, FWS morale probably reached an all-time low at FWS during the Trump Administration. (It hadn’t been very high since 2014, when most headquarters staff were moved to cubicles in Falls Church, Virginia.) The covid pandemic hasn’t helped, because it’s kept a lot of already-insecure staff further in the dark of telework. Furthermore, I believe that each of the institutional shortcomings noted above, plus of course the sweeping sociopolitical challenges to ecological integrity, have discouraged the majority of FWS employees. Morale must have reached rock bottom when Aurelia Skipwith, Trump’s FWS director, told employees in an all-hands meeting that she’d gone back to law school after being constrained by the law while working for Monsanto.

If the next director leads strongly on the themes of True Conservation and fixes the antiquated, corrupting institutional problems at headquarters, morale will soar! Practicing as well as preaching conservation will garner respect. Steady-state economics—with only the basics required for staffers—will refresh a workforce that otherwise faces a growing sense of futility. Not giving up on ecological integrity will ensure employees that they’re working for the long term, not just a generation or two of hunters and fishers.

Finally, extinguishing the win-win, no-conflict rhetoric will boost morale by excising the cancerous tumor of conservation cynicism. Yes, there most certainly is a conflict between growing the economy and conserving wildlife. The Wildlife Society, U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, American Society of Mammalogists, E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Lynn Greenwalt, and many other leading conservation individuals and organizations have acknowledged and explicated it. It’s long overdue for FWS to do likewise. Only when enough acknowledgement exists in the polity can the conflict be responded to wisely.

Brian Czech, Executive Director of CASSEBrian Czech is the executive director of CASSE. He served as the first conservation biologist in the history of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1999-2017.

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