Ralph Meima opened the discussion by talking about the work of futurist and author Ernest Callenbach and the book Ecotopia’s version of steady state economics. He talked about a number of looming problems that he sees with the growth economy and as a reference point said that 80% of terrestrial animal biomass is accounted for by human bodies, farm animals, pets and parasites. This led to an analysis of the improbability of a growth-based economy being able to continue indefinitely.
Eric Zencey is an author and fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. He gave an extended Powerpoint presentation on classical vs. sustainable economics and described conventional capital in three forms: built, natural and social. The four dimensions of sustainability are economic, ecological, social and cultural. One interesting point he made is that there are actually two means of growing the economy – increasing production and increasing efficiency. Eric believes that to be sustainable, an economy must live on current solar input, which is finite. His writes a blog with the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and the Daly News.
Donnie MacLurcan is an Australian who co-founded PostGrowth.org. He started his talk with a story of a friend in the middle of a remote African forest. The culture there has a practice of when a person achieves a certain level of wealth they throw a big party designed to use up all of their wealth, and afterwards when that person is amongst the poorest in the village they are given a mark to designate what they have done for the community. In many parts of Latin America there are serious discussions taking place on what ‘the good life’ really means. He described the Islamic prohibition on charging of interest, and how two billion people globally ascribe to this to one degree or another under Islamic law.
In many ways MacLurcan believes that we are already transitioning to new economic systems, and gave as examples Freecycle and Via Campesino – the 200 million ‘subsistence’ people who think of themselves as developing steady-state ways of life. He talked about the whole open source movement, and as an example the Factor E Farm in Missouri which is developing open source plans for 50 of the most important types of farm equipment. He believes that the future is already here, and that if we could just look around with clear eyes we would see it.
The one thing that MacLurcan is still searching for is a macro-economic model of non-consumption. His inspiration for this was an engineering firm in the outback of Australia that operates as a non-profit. Once their initial loans were paid off they designate 100% of their profits to building the company and giving back to the community.
Judy Wicks of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia pointed out that non-profits are cumbersome to start and operate, and that everything MacLurcan has suggested is possible to do as a for-profit business, if the entrepreneur has a clear sense of what is ‘enough.’ MacLurcan pushed her on this and believes ardently that if a structure is in place that allows for the accumulation of wealth most people will use it to do exactly that. Wicks talked about reaching a point in her business when she did not want to grow it any more in the conventional sense, and chose instead to focus on growing other things, like the consciousness of her staff and clientele.
There was a very interesting discussion on population and sustainability that followed, and MacLurcan described the work of William Ryerson and the Population Media Center to develop soap operas that teach the virtues of being single for women, i.e. not having children. Part of their success is due to the fact that they have a very clear philosophy of not being preachy, religious or condescending and instead use subtle messaging. They have supposedly been tremendously popular and successful in a number of 3rd world countries, and an Amerian version is being developed in Hollywood.
– Tad Montgomery