Walking to the Steady State

So far, The Inkling has concluded that a steady state economy is necessary for sustainability. That’s because a steady state economy is a sustainable size and does not require growth for stability – instead it has a constant physical size and that size is sustainable because it is within the capacity of our ecosystems to provide resources (running a steady state economy does not require the degradation of ecosystems).

The use of non-renewable resources would have to be phased out in the transition to the steady state economy. Incorporating the circular economy would help with this (by designing–out waste and using only renewable energy).

Instead of aiming for GDP growth, in a steady state economy the aim would be to maximise wellbeing and a key part of this is to reduce inequality. You should read ‘Addicted to Growth?’ or Demystifying Sustainability if you want to know more.

How we get to the steady state economy is something less well-defined. And one of The Inkling’s original questions was: What sort of political system would be compatible with a steady state economy? But there is no point asking that question without also asking ‘How would we get that political system?’.

When I was an undergraduate, a classmate told me that she considered the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to be a manual for living. Not understanding, I borrowed the book from the library and read it. Afterwards I still didn’t understand. Then recently a steady stater said something to me about how relevant Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was, so I read it again. I think I finally understand. In particular I like this part from page 382:

Phaedrus remembered a line from Thoreau:

‘You never gain something but that you lose something’. And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.

If would be hard for a story about people travelling by motorbike and camping in various harsh climates to not show what it is like to be a part of this world. This is true of my favourite mode of transport too: walking.

I expect that if a car driver sees me walking in rain, the cold or the heat they might feel sorry for me or wonder if I’m mad. But overall I am happy to get rained on and blown around by the wind. I want to feel the sun and be able to notice how sometimes it feels like it is burning holes in my skin while other times it gently warms me. I want to be refreshed and frustrated by the wind. I want to be able to notice the drop in temperature when I pass under a shady tree on a hot day and to feel the warmth that radiates off western-facing walls even after the sun has set. The comfort of a dry home is much more noticeable when you have been soaked by a storm, frozen by the wind or melted by the sun. I don’t want to miss out on the smells in the air, like when you get a whiff of rain just before it starts landing on your head; when my nose tells me that the monster I hear around the corner is a rubbish truck; when I notice my mood brightening as I smell a lemon scented gum, jasmine or gardenias; or when, walking home on a cold, dark evening I am able to sniff clues of what other people are having for dinner.

When walking, your mind is freer to think, there’s more time to look at the things you pass and you can say ‘hello’ to people. Yes, I haven’t forgotten that walking pace is slower than driving pace or that your body uses more energy to do it, but look at the other side of that – having to drive would suggest that you don’t have time or an able body.

When I am out walking, I often have to remind myself that cars are just machines driven by everyday people, not just because drivers occasionally behave like territorial lizards with a one tonne weapon, but because, in comparison to the hardness and vigour of cars, drivers and passengers tend to look like soft-bodied organisms. I am worried because the most common expression I see on the faces of people driving is ‘hurriedness’. I imagine thoughts of “Let’s get this trip over with”, “I can’t wait until this week is over”, “It will be good when I’ve paid my house off or when the kids have grown up and I don’t have to drive them everywhere”. Add a bit of mischief and these thoughts can be extrapolated to “Let’s get life over with as soon as possible so I can lie down and die”.

So maybe drivers just have too much to do, or feel they have to do too much, but what I most suspect of people who drive cars when they could walk is fear. It was only when I thought about the people who do walk that I began to suspect this. I don’t just see lithe grannies and doting mothers walking children to school, or patient retirees taking their backpack or shopping trolley to the shops. I also see misfits – people rejected for being physically or mentally different – people who cannot assume that when they make eye contact with someone they will see acceptance in the other person’s eyes. But they still venture out into the world, on foot and unprotected or veiled by a car. And they still make eye contact. If you have to be brave just to exist then there’s no being scared of going for a walk.

Do drivers fear the people who walk? Do they fear physical discomfort?

Brock Bastian writes about how we need pain (and when he talks about pain he means things like holding your hand in icy water, eating chillies, doing squats or going for a run – things I’d call discomfort rather than pain) to provide a contrast for pleasure, and that pain promotes pleasure, keeps us connected to the world around us, reduces feelings of sadness, makes tastes more intense, bonds you with others and increases cooperation. That’s a lot to miss out on because you are worried that you might get a stitch when you walk up the hill on the way home.

Driving instead of walking because you fear missing out on something else means you miss out on the best conversation time (try walking with your family or a friend and see), time to pick dandelions, pat cats, pick up litter or do that ‘exercise’ we all need to do to make up for all our labour saving devices.

And I can’t help noting when I see labour saving devices are used in other over-the-top ways: using a ride-on mower for a patch of grass that isn’t as wide as the mower; or a ditch-digging machine operating for three days to dig about 20 metres of trench while 11 people with seven vehicles hung around watching; or the painfully slow process of four people supervising a crane as it collects about half a cubic metre of cement at a time from a cement mixer-truck and carries it gingerly over to the middle of a building site.

Sure, driving rather than walking might mean you have more leisure time (or maybe just more time to earn money), but when the exercise that was once integrated into life has become something that we bolt on (probably in a gym) at the end of a mentally exhausting day, and when we know that some discomfort actually makes us happier, does it show that it is really humility that we are avoiding? Other labour intensive activities like growing and preparing your own food or making things by hand get their own TV shows and have become hobbies openly enjoyed by people who are well off enough to have leisure time. So rather than walking being a hardship, I suspect walking is still just too humble – as if it would only be ok to walk if you could make it clear to anyone who saw you that you had a helicopter at home (or at least, you must wear expensive exercise clothes while walking, to prove that you are out to burn energy, not trying to get somewhere).

Walking is multitasking that works – you can get somewhere, do exercise and think at the same time. But it isn’t anything new. It doesn’t involve new technology. Why would you do something as simple as walk when you can spend money buying something fancy that promises the same benefits? When I see how easy it is to ignore the things that are already here or that we already know and instead look for something shiny and new to buy, build or design, I wonder whether, instead of being fixated on trying to find the ‘best’ political system to go with the steady state economy, we should just try to start using the political system we already have. If you did manage to design the perfect system you’d still need to get support for it, from leaders and voters, before anything changed.

If you want to change the goal of a system you need to change the paradigm. Paradigms are things that people assume to be true and so changing the paradigm involves changing their view of reality. Naturally, this requires repeated encounters with evidence, and denial is a common reaction because it can be terrifying to accept what it would mean if the evidence were true. It is also natural to try to find ways of fitting the new evidence to the existing paradigm (like “Let’s have ‘green growth’”). Getting a person to change their paradigm is a bit like erasing all their previous imagined futures. It is not compelling to step forward into a future that is completely blank and so if you really want to make it easy for people to take that step, you need to help them draw in new versions of the future.

We don’t really have to start with a blank page. Just like the footpath exists parallel to the road, there are aspects of the steady state economy that already exist in parallel to the growth economy and we should be identifying these as well as identifying the things that are incompatible with the steady state economy.

There could be more than one version of the steady state economy, and the version we get would depend on things like how long we take to act, and how well different options are promoted. By accepting limits we may find that necessity really is the mother of invention and come up with things that can’t yet be imagined. Nevertheless, I’ll try to do a quick sketch of how I picture our journey to the steady state.

What would we erase? Let’s start with fossil fuels. What do we draw in their place? Renewables, obviously. If you want to talk about how that won’t work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, go and tell it to people who have lived off the grid for 20+ years, or to the people (http://bze.org.au/about, http://www.ceem.unsw.edu.au/staff/mark-diesendorf) who have been busy showing that we can power the whole grid using renewables. What would be a better thing to ask is how we would be able to maintain and manufacture a supply of the equipment necessary to generate energy renewably when the equipment currently uses non-renewable materials. That’s something that would need working out even if it were possible to burn all the fossil fuels first.

With delight, we could erase all the dotted lines that signify planned new motorways and airports, at least until we’d worked out how to power planes, trucks and cars with 100% renewable resources (and without liquidating anymore ecosystems or clearing any more land to create the energy source). We wouldn’t have to erase the infrastructure we have already built though. It would still be here in the steady state economy, if its use was worth the maintenance.

‘Disposable’ products would need a rethink. If they were necessary then they’d have to really be disposable. Rather than sulking that we couldn’t have all the stuff we’d anticipated having, it would be wiser to prioritize – which resource intensive products or services are really the most valuable to us? How could we produce those things sustainably?

We’d erase sacking people because of productivity gains or downturns and instead reduce working hours – sharing jobs instead of depriving people of paid work. We’d erase ridiculously high incomes – a maximum income limit could be set (at a certain multiple of the minimum wage) and we’d erase regressive taxes.

We’d erase policies that encourage having lots of children and we’d stop using GDP as a measure of our progress.

What things would we leave? The things that build our mental and physical strength, build community, and include all people in society. We’d need to strengthen the things that reduce the gap between rich and poor, like free education, health services (including family planning) and legal advice. We’d need the services that try to prevent corruption and other abuses of the poor by the rich. We’d need the institutions that protect and study our ecosystems and keep track of our natural resources. We’d leave the services that resolve conflicts and teach us how to communicate more effectively. We’d leave progressive taxes.

What new things would we draw in? We’d introduce limits on the use of renewable natural resources and monitoring of those resources so our use didn’t exceed what was truly sustainable. For non-renewable resources, we’d have to steadily reduce extraction, eventually stopping completely. In the meantime, as well as recycling and reusing these materials, we’d have to find renewable alternatives for the things we didn’t want to do without.

We’d draw in the equation births + immigrants = deaths + emigrants so that immigration levels could be adjusted in order to stabilize population.

We’d draw in activities that build soil and biodiversity so we could farm sustainably, because sustainable farming would mean no non-renewable inputs and no net land degradation – so we’d have to make the land we already use as productive as possible. We’d draw in lots of people remediating damaged ecosystems (investing in our natural capital) and they would be smiling because at last their job had been given the priority it deserved.

We’d erase research that aims to make it possible to exploit our natural resources faster or more cheaply and draw in more research aimed at answering the important questions of the steady state economy, such as finding renewable alternatives for non-renewable resources, the best ways to improve ecosystem health, how to get the most out of limited resources, and how to stabilize an economy that isn’t growing.

We’d erase the aim of economic growth from the economics, banking and finance professions, and, with a freshly sharpened pencil we’d replace it with sustainability and equity. Then these experts could direct their knowledge onto managing the transition to the steady state economy. People who have borrowed or invested in a growth economy will be vulnerable and so we could draw in things like the creation of debt-free money and/or reduction of debt via a partial amnesty – to be used when income is reduced relative to debt, to prevent personal, as well as economic, collapse.

We’d draw in a new set of indicators that span the economy, environment and society so that we could track our progress towards the goal of maximising well-being.

We’ll slot-in environmental and social aims above the aim of profit for businesses so that making money becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself.

We’d draw in people being more physically active – to reduce the demand for energy and because exercise and even some manual work is good for us, because we’d have more time to do it and because it makes people happy. Less able bodied people would have their labour saving devices, but we’d have removed barriers to walking and cycling and we’d focus on keeping our bodies in good working order.

To signify our internal change, we’d cross out the label on people that says ‘consumers’ and replace it with ‘citizens’ and we’d see them acting accordingly – living their lives as if they were more worried about their eulogy than their resume.

Last but not least, we’d draw in all the detail of the natural world, in colour, and then step back to admire our beautiful planet and be happy to be a small part of it.

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