“Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple,” said Woodie Guthrie. Nowhere is this more true than in books about economics, filled as they often are with wishful thinking dressed up in pseudo-scientific jargon.
And nobody needs to get off their arrogant high horses and scale down their ambitions in light of peak oil, climate change and other ecological limits to human expansion more than do economists. Two books published by colleagues at a think tank devoted to reforming the economics field aim to bring practitioners of the dismal science back to earth.
Can never get enough
As an author, Rob Dietz is no fool. In Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources Dietz is clearly not satisfied with the lazy argot of mainstream economics to deal with the real question of human economies — how we get and spend in a world where there’s never enough for everyone’s greed.
Dietz shows that he’s genius enough to make things simple for an intelligent lay reader by starting each of his chapters not only with a comic strip panel from the political cartoonist Polyp, but also with an anecdote to argue for an economy where the goal is not more, but enough.
For example, he begins his chapter on overpopulation with the story of his boyhood friend Bobby, who was designed the 200 millionth American when he was born to a Chinese-American family in suburban Atlanta in 1967.
Since Bobby’s birth, Dietz explains, world population has doubled from 3.5 to 7 billion. To help make such a big number understandable, Dietz quotes a couple statistics from National Geographic:
- It would take two hundred years to count to 7 billion out loud.
- In 7 billion steps, you could circumnavigate the globe 133 times (assuming you could walk on water).
Dietz is also not a fool in that he rejects from the outset the founding fiction of all neo-classical economics, namely, that infinite economic growth is not only desirable but that it’s even possible on a planet with limited resources and dwindling places to store our pollution. This is a message that the public and economists alike need to hear again and again in the era of peak oil and climate change. Thanks to Dietz for delivering it in a clear and engaging way.
Big name economists in shocking supply
Dietz’s colleague at the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, Brian Czech, shares an understanding of ecological limits to the economy and promotes it in his book Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution.
Czech’s and Dietz’s books each garnered a foreword by the dean of no-growth economics, Herman Daly, making me wonder if CASSE got some kind of grant for outreach to the economics profession by putting out two books at the same time.
Dietz was trained in economics, but like such pop-econ writers as behavioral economist Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) or Steven Leavitt (author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything), Dietz makes the dismal science accessible and unintimidating.
By contrast, Czech offers up the usual econ class historical figures and schools of thought that we’re all tried to forget since college. This is funny, because unlike Dietz, Czech is an environmental scientist by training. Yet, in Supply Shock, after talking a bit about land and water use, Czech goes pretty heavy into the history of classical and neo-classical economics.
If you can’t get enough of Malthus and Mill, if you want to learn what’s so bad about David Ricardo or if you’ve always wondered about the Marginalist Revolution, then Czech’s survey of the top names in economic theory since the Industrial Revolution won’t disappoint.
Czech’s tome would be perfectly at home in an Econ 101 classroom, and hopefully an open-minded teaching assistant at State U somewhere will be willing to assign it, just to give undergrads a break from standard texts by Gregory Mankiw and others towing the neo-classical line about the goodness of endless growth. But the general reader will probably find Dietz’s approach to the topic of steady-state economics easier going.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice