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Growth and the lesson of COVID: What have we learned?

Tom Horton
Bay Journal News Service

covid-19 economy
(© Alexander Borisenko –

Just as an earthquake mercilessly exposes shoddy building standards, a crisis like the current pandemic lays bare societal flaws. Both present opportunities to rebuild better.

Long before COVID-19, some environmentalists and economists worried about our nation’s blind allegiance to unending economic growth. Pursuing infinite physical expansion of the human enterprise on a finite planet can’t end well. Something has to give, and mostly it’s been the planet — or, in our case, the Chesapeake Bay.

Even environmental organizations that should know better haven’t done a good job of linking economic growth and environmental decline. Or they think that growing “smarter” and “greener” will be enough.

When climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations last year, the press coverage focused on the teenager shaming the world body for inaction in reducing carbon dioxide, the primary agent of climate change. Largely overlooked was her demand that, to prevent ecosystem collapse and mass extinction, nations must give up their “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

Her overall message resonated among environmentalists and liberals, yet I couldn’t think of a single U.S. presidential candidate (there were many in the fall of 2019) who would have touched the young Swede’s “anti-growth” sentiments with a 10-foot pole.

That’s still almost universally so among our political leaders. Indeed, President Trump may have uttered an actual truth in March when he pushed back against the virus-enforced recession we’re in: “This country,” he said, revealing the core sentiment against limits on growth, “was not built to be shut down.”

Obviously, no economy can be shut down as ours has been recently without adverse consequences. But it is especially true when you have built a grow-or-die system, head to toe, as the United States and many other developed nations have done. Even a whiff of a slowdown sends governments and business into panic mode.

Such a system measures success by more building, more consumption of goods and services, and a system of accounting — the gross domestic product — that counts economic activity as a plus, without subtracting its social and environmental costs. A major oil spill may thus cause the GDP to rise.

And so we now see dozens of states desperate to reopen their economies even as coronavirus cases and deaths surge. We see public health experts’ cautions shunted aside and a growing willingness to accept perhaps tens of thousands of excess COVID deaths as the price of resuming growth.

It’s no longer “grow or die”; it’s now “grow and die” — a deadly clear term for the trade-offs between growth and nature, between growth and the Bay, that we’ve been making for decades, if not centuries.

Aided by impressive technological innovation and some decent environmental laws, we’ve managed to tamp down growth’s impacts in the near term. The population in the Bay watershed has more than doubled, while pollution from sewage has been cut in half or more.

But feeding a U.S. population that is expected to grow this century by more than a hundred million — and a global population set to expand by the billions — without severely fouling Earth’s waters? That still eludes us. Wildlife experts believe we are headed for an extinction event, a loss of biodiversity that has only happened a handful of times in Earth’s history. We are, almost anywhere you look, far from able to live sustainably with the rest of nature, let alone live restoratively (our goal for bringing back the Chesapeake).

Further proof is abundant. COVID economic shutdowns have cleared the water in Venetian canals and the air in Manhattan to levels not seen in modern times. Less barge traffic has cleared the water on at least one Bay river.

People are staying home, having family time, walking, bicycling and gardening. The slow-growth world is finally on a path toward reducing enough CO2 to avoid climate catastrophe. But it’s temporary, not to mention a hell of a poor way to achieve environmental and social goals.

So, to what should we aspire? I suggest a “steady-state economy” — one that emphasizes innovation and quality and the concept of “enough” over bigger and the concept of “never enough.”

The concept is not new; the steady-state model has been advocated for decades. It is the hallmark of a discipline called ecological economics — which holds that the human economy can only operate sustainably by staying within the bounds of nature’s economy.

You can’t get from grow-at-any cost to steady-state by merely tweaking modern economics. Steady-state requires a stable population and a drastic reduction of natural resource exploitation.

I think we begin by simply asking, “What kind of economy takes a pandemic to make it sustainable and restorative?” Or perhaps by reading the recent article that inspired this column: “The Silver Lining of the COVID-Caused Recession is Supra-Economic.” (March 24, 2020, on the website of CASSE, Center for the Advancement of Steady State Economics).

Also read anything you can find — and there is a lot — by Herman Daly of the University of Maryland (emeritus) or his Canadian counterpart Peter Victor, both grandaddies of ecological economics.

If you want short and to the point, read Daly’s “Introductory Comments for International Forum on Ecological Economics and Ecological Civilization” (Peking University, Nov. 15, 2019).

COVID has exposed as never before the unsustainability of our economy. An alternative will be complicated, but nature and natural limits point the way clearly.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books about the Chesapeake Bay, including Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He currently teaches writing and environmental topics at Salisbury University. This article was originally published in the Bay Journal and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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