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War and peace and the steady-state economy

Herman Daly

Source: Flickr cc

My parents were children during WW I, the so-called “war to end all wars.” I was a child in WW II, an adolescent in the Korean War, and except for a physical disability would likely have been drafted for combat in the Vietnam War. Then came Afghanistan, Iraq, ISIS, the continuous Arab-Israeli conflict, Syria, Ukraine, etc. Now as a senior citizen, I see that war has metastasized into terrorism. It is hard to conceive of a country at war, or threatened by terror- ism, moving to a steady state economy.

Peace is necessary for real progress, including progress toward a steady state economy. While peace should be our priority, might it nevertheless be the case that working toward a steady state economy would further the goal of peace? Might growth be a major cause of war, and the steady state a necessity for eliminating that cause? I think so.

A greater number of people requires more space (lebensraum) and more resources. More things per person also requires more space and resources.

Recently I learned that the word “rival” derives from the same root as “river”. People who get their water from the same river are rivals – at least when too many of them are each drawing too much.

For a while, the resource demands of growth can be met from within national borders. Then there develops pressure to exploit or appropriate the global commons. Then comes the peaceful penetration of other nations’ ecological space by trade. The uneven geographic distribution of resources (petroleum, fertile soil, water) causes specialization among nations and interdependence along with trade. Are interdependent nations more or less likely to go to war? That has been argued both ways, but when one growing nation has what another thinks it absolutely needs for its growth, conflict easily displaces trade.

As interdependence becomes more acute, trade becomes less voluntary – more like an offer you can’t refuse.

Unless trade is voluntary, it is not likely to be mutually beneficial. Top down global economic integration replaces trade among separate interdependent national economies. We have been told on highest authority that because the American way of life requires foreign oil, we will have it one way or another.

International “free trade pacts” (NAFTA, TPP, TAFTA) are supposed to increase global GDP, thereby making everyone richer and effectively expanding the size of the earth and easing conflict. But growth on the entire planet has become uneconomic – increasing costs faster than benefits. It now makes us poorer, not richer. These secretly negotiated agreements among the economic elites are designed to benefit private global corporations, often at the expense of the public good of nations. Some think that strengthening global corporations by erasing national boundaries will reduce the likelihood of war.

More likely we will just shift to feudal corporate wars within a post-national global commons, with corporate fiefdoms effectively buying national governments and their armies, supplemented by already existing private mercenaries.

It is hard to imagine a steady state economy without peace; it is hard to imagine peace in a full world without a steady state economy. Those who work for peace are promoting the steady state, and those who work for a steady state are promoting peace. This implicit alliance needs to be made explicit.

Contrary to popular belief, growth in a finite and full world is not the path to peace, but to further conflict. It is an illusion to think that we can buy peace with growth. The growth economy and warfare are now natural allies. It is time for peacemakers and steady staters to recognize their natural alliance.

It would be naïve, however, to think that growth in the face of our environmental limits is the only cause of war. Obviously relevant are evil ideologies, religious conflict, and the “clash of civilizations” which also cause wars. And so national defence is necessary, but uneconomic growth does not serve to make any country stronger.

The secular western nations have a hard time understanding that religious conviction can motivate people to both to kill and die for their beliefs. Modern devotion to the Secular God of Growth, who promises heaven on earth, has itself become a fanatical religion that inspires violence as much as any ancient Moloch. The 2nd Commandment, forbidding the worship of false gods (idolatry) is not outdated. Our modern idols are new versions of Mammon and Mars.

Source: Real World Econ Rev, 2 May 2015 economy/#more-18806

Herman Daly is an ecological and Georgist economist, and an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland.

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