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Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop them All

Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 220
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  • Book Info
    Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train
    Book Description:

    Americans have been conditioned to appreciate, cheer, and serve economic growth. Brian Czech argues that, while economic growth was a good thing for much of American history, somewhere along the way it turned bad, depleting resources, polluting the environment, and threatening posterity. Yet growth remains a top priority of the public and polity. In this revolutionary manifesto, Czech knocks economic growth off the pedestal of American ideology. Seeking nothing less than a fundamental change in public opinion, Czech makes a bold plea for castigating society’s biggest spenders and sets the stage for the "steady state revolution." Czech offers a sophisticated yet accessible critique of the principles of economic growth theory and the fallacious extension of these principles into the "pop economics" of Julian Simon and others. He points with hope to the new discipline of ecological economics, which prescribes the steady state economy as a sustainable alternative to economic growth. Czech explores the psychological underpinnings of our consumer culture by synthesizing theories of Charles Darwin, Thorstein Veblen, and Abraham Maslow. Speaking to ordinary American citizens, he urges us to recognize conspicuous consumers for who they are—bad citizens who are liquidating our grandkids’ future. Combining insights from economics, psychology, and ecology with a large dose of common sense, Czech drafts a blueprint for a more satisfying and sustainable society. His ideas reach deeply into our everyday lives as he asks us to re-examine our perspectives on everything from our shopping habits to romance. From his perspective as a wildlife ecologist, Czech draws revealing parallels between the economy of nature and the human economy. His style is lively, easy to read, humorous, and bound to be controversial. Czech will provoke all of us to ask when we will stop the runaway train of economic growth. His book answers the question, "How do we do it?"

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92560-1
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PROLOGUE: A Wilderness Trail to an Economic Tale
    (pp. 1-14)

    The only parts of Jake above water were his lips and nostrils, gasping at the precious oxygen in the cold Nevada air. The north fork of the Humboldt River had the rest of him entombed in frigid, churning snowmelt. I was too cold to be frantic as I cut the diamond hitch from his left side, hoping the plastic milk crates I called panniers (which contained most of my life’s possessions) would not rush away in the current. My campfire knife-sharpening diligence paid off as the buck knife sliced cleanly through the half-inch rope. On shore was the ranch hand...


      (pp. 17-26)

      “We shoulddoublethe rate of growth, and we shoulddoublethe size of the American economy!” hailed candidate Jack Kemp during the vice presidential debate of October 9, 1996. Kemp was firing away from the bandwagon, and there’s never been a redder face under whiter hair. He knew Americans have long been instilled with the ideal that economic growth is good, that economic growth solves societal problems. He figured they would vote for the candidate who could pull off the most growth. Less emphatic, Kemp’s opponent Al Gore nevertheless sanctioned the growth race with the impeccably wry retort, “Well,...

      (pp. 27-43)

      In his debate with Al Gore, Jack Kemp did not hail, “We shoulddoublethe amount of materials we consume, and we shoulddoublethe amount of waste we produce!” He knew that Americans have become concerned about conservation and especially about pollution. And he knew that Al Gore, who has some expertise in these matters, would have taken him severely to task. And yet, that’s just about what Jack Kempdidsay! Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. To double the size of the petroleum sector (strictly defined and not including...

      (pp. 44-61)

      Substitutability, efficiency, and human capital have been the bulwarks of the neoclassical theory that economic growth may continue in perpetuity. As these concepts are exposed to the realities of limited materials and productive space, diminishing returns to efficiency, and absorptive capacity for pollutants, we can expect neoclassical economists to do two things. Eventually they will recharge their arguments about substitutability and efficiency by resorting to the topic of space travel. But first, I suspect, they will devise new concepts to apply to an Earth-bound economy. And my guess is that their new concepts will have much to do with the...

    • 4 SIMON SAID
      (pp. 62-77)

      Much of chapters 2 and 3 could be classified as theoretical, but I prefer to classify it as common sense. And, when you think about it, there is a fine line between theory and common sense. Both are constructed with bits and pieces of knowledge, variable amounts of reasoning, and generous doses of observation. Common sense is the working man’s repository of theory. But not everyone is enamored with common sense. Julian Simon, for example, was fond of exhorting his readers to avoid its distractions. While touting the infinitude of natural resource supplies in his bookUltimate Resource 2he...

      (pp. 78-106)

      As the Emeritus Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin has documented, it is always difficult for a discoverer to gain the respect of those who presume a knowledge of the terrain. “ ‘Knowledge’ was the barrier to knowledge,” Boorstin (1983:344) said of the many medieval attempts to replace antiquated Greek anatomy. Leonardo da Vinci almost broke through the barrier, as a posthumous analysis of his writings revealed, but he was first and foremost an artist, so the many needed revisions had to wait for “real” students of anatomy like Vesalius. Likewise, it is always difficult for the chemist to gain...


    • 6 THE STEADY STATE REVOLUTION: Precepts and Terminology
      (pp. 109-122)

      An old adage states that democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. We live in the world’s model democracy—a fact for which to be supremely grateful—and for many of us, majority rule is indeed synonymous with democracy. However, majority rule has long been recognized by philosophers and historians as a dangerous principle that threatens the bigger picture of democracy, including equality, freedom of information, and public participation. This threat is called the tyranny of the majority. When misled, ignorant, or frenzied, the masses can wreak...

      (pp. 123-146)

      If economic bloating is to be halted, the majority will have to develop a particular perspective of the liquidating class in the same manner that majorities developed perspectives of oppressive kings, slaveowners, or robber barons. Depending on the knowledge level of the liquidator, there basically are two appropriate steady state perspectives, each of which will be discussed, and neither of which are very congratulatory. As a forenote, however, this element of the steady state revolution is not revolutionary unto itself. Even while economic growth was good for society, the liquidating class was looked upon with some disdain. In 1913 the...

      (pp. 147-157)

      To effect the steady state revolution in public opinion, the primary shift in the majority’s perception involves the liquidating class, which is the problematic class in terms of economic bloating. However, it may also help to develop a particular perspective of the steady state class, a perspective that rewards the membership thereof. Such a perspective will encourage steady staters to remain steady staters, and will encourage amorphs to temper their consumption.

      In chapter 6, the steady state class was defined as the bottom 80 percent in terms of personal consumption expenditures. This category roughly corresponds to the categories of “poor”...

      (pp. 158-162)

      Although the personal consumption expenditures used to define the liquidating and steady state classes were not pulled out of a hat, neither were they divined from Providence. Obviously the consumptive behavior of the 79th percentile varies little from that of the 80th percentile, as does the 98th from the 99th. There is, however, atremendousdifference between the consumptive behavior of the 79th and the 99th percentile, probably far more than that between the 59th and 79th, or even between the 39th and 79th—certainly enough difference to readily distinguish the liquidating class from the steady state class. Therein lies...

      (pp. 163-176)

      To this point, the discussion of the steady state revolution in public opinion has focused on steady state perceptions of the liquidating, amorphic, and steady state classes. A society that is alarmed by economic bloating and which develops the perspectives of pity and revulsion toward its liquidators will, in the process, motivate those liquidators to reduce consumption. At the same time, gratitude and reverence shown toward steady staters will encourage membership in the steady state class. In such a society, amorphs will have an incentive to shun exorbitant liquidation and gravitate toward steady state consumption. With the display of thrift...

  7. CONCLUSION: Laying New Tracks
    (pp. 177-182)

    Common sense—the working man’s collection of theory—tells us that economic growth cannot continue in perpetuity. Substitutability, efficiency, and human capital all facilitate economic growth, but the employment of each is ultimately limited by laws of physics and ecology. When the biophysical limits are tested, the system starts to react with warnings like water shortages, species extinctions, and climate change. Economic growth is therefore like most other growth phenomena; it is a wonderful thing in its early stages, but its utility declines as it proceeds. At some point it becomes a bad thing—it becomes economic bloating. At that...

    (pp. 183-196)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 197-210)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-211)