When the Polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island first began to carve Moai, the enormous monolithic human figures, their island was lush and filled with birds and animals. Erecting Moai, which could be up to 10 meters high and weighing up to 75 tonnes, were truly a sophisticated intellectual and physical feat. But soon, tribes began competing to erect larger and more sophisticated sculptures. A lack of foresight left them using resources at increasingly unsustainable rates:
Forests were clear-cut for canoes, ropes and firewood. Farms producing sweet potatoes, taro and sugarcane stripped soils of available nutrients. Bird, fish and porpoise populations dwindled to extinction by overhunting. Blind to the impact that a growing population would have on the environment, inhabitants used up the island’s resources until there was nothing left.
Clearly, our small planet has limited resources and unsustainable growth can lead to a society’s demise. Amazingly, most economists have not cared to heed these warnings. One group that has, is known as the school of ecological economics, which uses the phrase “uneconomic growth” to refer to economic expansion that depletes valuable resources in a way that makes us worse off:
When the economy’s expansion encroaches too much on its surrounding ecosystem, we will begin to sacrifice natural capital (such as fish, minerals and fossil fuels) that is worth more than the man-made capital (such as roads, factories and appliances) added by the growth. We will then have what I call uneconomic growth, producing “bads” faster than goods—making us poorer, not richer.
The goal is often referred to as a “steady-state economy,” (which is different than the steady state considered in the Solow growth model). Here, the economy is stable in size, only fluctuating mildly, and it remains within ecological limits. An important aspect of such a school of thought is the interdisciplinary nature, which requires input from natural and social scientists of all sorts.
A steady state economy, therefore, aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials. Birth rates equal death rates, and production rates equal depreciation rates.
Loads of information can be found at http://steadystate.org/