THE BLOG
02/11/2013 05:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

When Enough Is Enough

Since the dawn of civilization humanity has been engaged in the relentless pursuit of more. Our relentless desire for more has led us to procreate more, extract more, harvest more, trade more, build more, produce more, sell more, promote more, and consume more.

In the pursuit of more, we drain wetlands, level off mountains, harvest ancient forests, lay waste to the soil, despoil the oceans, hunt animals to extinction, and call it progress. We worship more. Evangelists tell us that God wants us to have more. We persuade ourselves that more is selfless and virtuous; we only want more for ourselves so that others, too, might have more. More is the yardstick by which we gauge our progress; we take no account of depleted resources or environmental degradation. We have grown accustomed to more and reject out of hand the idea of less.

It's time to challenge our obsession with more. It's time to consider the radical idea that our reckless and relentless pursuit of more might be yielding less happiness and satisfaction. That, at least, is the compelling thesis of Enough is Enough, a bold new book by Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill. Dietz is the former director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), while O'Neill, who has a PhD in ecological economics, is the chief economist for CASSE.

Environmentalists have been warning for decades that the human enterprise is putting Mother Nature out of business and that our consumption of scarce resources is imperiling the welfare of future generations. Dietz and O'Neill have environmental credentials, but they are also economic thinkers. They argue that economic growth as we have known it is not sustainable and that we must, if we are to avoid economic collapse, make the transition to a "steady-state economy."

A steady-state economy, as they define it, is one that maintains a stable level of resource consumption and a stable population. It's an economy in which "material and energy use are kept within ecological limits, and in which the goal of increasing GDP is replaced by the goal of improving quality of life."

Living within ecological and resource limits is a daunting challenge, but Dietz and O'Neill insist that we don't have a choice: Either we bring our consumption of resources into balance with nature or nature will ultimately put us out of business. Many of us can accept that conclusion, but few among of us are willing to accept their corollary conclusion: Economic progress, as it is traditionally defined, must come to an eventual halt.

We cling to the idea that technology will keep us going. We hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that increased efficiency in the use of energy and natural resources will enable us to become sustainable before it's too late. But Dietz and O'Neill argue that we are trapped by Jevon's Paradox; increases in the efficiency of resource use tend to lead to higher resource consumption. They insist that "de-coupling" economic growth from resource consumption is essential, but hardly sufficient to stop the ongoing destruction of the bio-systems needed to sustain economic growth. They note that between 1980 and 2007, the "material intensity" of the global economy (i.e., the amount of biomass, minerals, and fossil fuels required to produce a dollar of world GDP) decreased by 33 percent, but that total resource use still increased by 61 percent. In other words, all the gains in resource efficiency were wiped out by the overall expansion of the economy.

Dietz and O'Neill sketch out the broad policy changes that would be required to achieve a steady-state economy with full employment. They include better measurements of economic growth and well-being, limits on material and energy consumption, a stable population, reduced inequality, and a shorter workweek. In a steady-state economy, consumer goods would be made to last longer and when products are broken they would be repaired, rather than thrown away. Science and technology would be focused on conserving resources, not exploiting them. People would be consuming less in the way of resources, but enjoying more leisure time. What we would lose in the way of material comforts would be compensated for by less stress, more connection with family and friends, and more time for physical exercise and creative pursuits.

Dietz and O'Neill do not provide a detailed blueprint for their steady-state economy; they acknowledge that they are in uncharted waters. Nevertheless, they raise critical questions and pose some possible solutions to the great economic conundrum that we now face. For all those who are concerned about the future of the planet or worried about the viability of the current growth model, this is valuable and provocative reading.