Screeched to a Halt

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Illustration by Steve Brodner, for The New Yorker.

Legitimate political debate, here in the States at least, seems to have ground to an agonizing halt. Mainstream media is increasingly a platform for shouting matches between angry guys with blue ties and angry guys with red ties, and Congress—the deliberative body in charge of getting things done—is operating with the effectiveness of a gummed up, rusty bike chain. The U.S. Senate is looking particularly bad. An August feature in The New Yorker quotes Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet: “Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?”

Inching toward agreement on anything, it seems, won’t come without a ridiculous amount of foot-dragging, stalling, and excuse-making. If the stakes weren’t so high (the climate bill is officially buried), watching adults act like 5-year olds on the way to the dentist would be somewhat amusing.

What does all this mean for moving serious conversation about post-growth economic models into the mainstream? Probably quite a bit.

Currently, in the U.S., nearly every political question is framed by the perpetual push and pull between the rules of the market and the rules of government. Debate boils down to acceptable ratios of whose rules should rule: 60% government, 40% market? 70/30? 30/70?

But forests, the atmosphere, and hungry stomachs don’t have a horse in this race. Ecological limits raise raw, physical questions—ones that make the ideological “market vs. government” wrestling match seem petty. Still, this is where the country seems to be politically. Where do post-growth alternatives fit?

A recent post in the “steadystaters” Google group (which I’d encourage everyone to have a look at, if you haven’t already) raised some important and tough questions along these lines. Here’s a small excerpt:

Filibuster. Photo via U.S. Senate Historical Office.

“At some point one or more of us will be looking at a TV camera attempting to articulate the need for a SSE [steady-state economy] and answering the somewhat hostile questions of some protagonist who ardently believes that a free market can solve all, or almost all, economic issues.

Do we think/conclude/recommend that a relatively free market has an important role to play? Is it our position that central governments have done an acceptable job or have an acceptable track record in “managing” their respective economies and therefore should continue to exercise those power on the road to a SSE?

Is it our position that there are many hundreds of occupations and sectors of our economy that need to go away? Will we have the cahunas to tell perhaps hundreds of millions that their occupations need to go away or be legislated away and they need to start learning how to do something that is productive AND sustainable?

I predict we would be treated about as well as the Luddites were.”

Tough questions, but a surefire path to Luddite-ness would be not supplying compelling answers. (And, ahem, I think the term the poster was looking for was “cajones.”)

I’d love to hear reactions to the questions posed in the Google group post, especially from folks outside America. Is the political situation in your country more or less amenable to the steady state conversation? How is it different? Can post-growth economics somehow refresh the political scene in America—and get us past red/blue deadlock?

Published by Scott Gast

Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.