EcoMind Thought Trap #1


EcoMind: changing the way we think, to create the world we want. Frances Moore Lappé. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

In EcoMind, Frances Moore Lappé (most notably of Diet for a Small Planet fame, written in 1971) sets out seven “thought traps” which she seeks to defeat and replace with better ways of thinking. In this essay I am going to deal just with the first of these thought traps, and probably the most important, concerning the “growth” issue.

She expresses the first thought trap as follows:

“Endless growth is destroying our beautiful planet, so we must shift to no-growth economies.”


Well, this statement looks like it’s true!  So what’s the problem?  How is it a trap?

Lappé’s book is an example of polemics, the practice of attacking opposing views (as opposed to advancing your own views). Polemics is a dangerous business. Sometimes, it immortalizes the view that you attack (as in Tertullian’s work Against Marcion, because all of Marcion’s original writings have now disappeared). My favorite polemic title of all time is Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism — an Infantile Disorder. You don’t even have to know what “left-wing” communism is to smile at this title.

The problem with polemics is that a lot of people will not even have read the authors or the views which you are attacking. For the benefit of these people, you have to carefully set out not only your own views but those of your opponents.  Ideally, it becomes a kind of Socratic dialogue, as we see the interplay of opposing ideas and gain insights into both sides.  But as we will see, Lappé hasn’t set out her opponents’ view very well.  Even worse, she has set out her own views in a confusing way that doesn’t address the issue she is supposedly confronting.

But here is what I find amazing about this chapter.  Her reasons are interesting, and as I go through the chapter, I agree with almost everything! She’s even a vegetarian!  Her points are not only right but important as well. But the one point she misses, she has so totally missed, that it totally discolors the whole conversation. The point she has missed is the one that she sets out to refute.

Lappé’s Issue With “No Growth”

She first raises a valid point; “no growth” is going to be a hard sell. But then she says that the problem is deeper than that “no growth” isn’t sexy enough (p. 20). It has several shortcomings. I am going to go into some length to explain her point of view to make clear where the confusion lies. Keep in mind, by the way, that I actually agree with virtually all of the positive points she makes.

1. Growth and abundance.

“[This view of growth] leaves unchallenged the prevailing assumption that what defines today’s economy is in fact ‘growth’ — ever-expanding abundance. . . . It blinds us to the reality that what we’ve been doing actually generates much more waste and scarcity than abundance — for many now and for many more in the future” (p. 20).

She cites resource waste, energy waste, water waste, food waste as examples of things to which this view makes us blind.

“Let’s call it what it is: a system that in fact stymies growth and even quickens diminution and death” (p. 22).

2. Markets and waste.

She then asks where this waste and destruction comes from. It comes from the way we have designed markets.

“Evidence suggests a basic design flaw in our peculiar version of a market. . . . we’ve turned this useful tool into a formula for disaster — a market that ends up producing waste and destruction because it is largely driven by one-rule: Pursue what brings the most immediate and highest return to existing wealth holders” (p. 23).

3. Consequences of flawed market economics.

This flawed market has several consequences:

(a) It responds to market signals, but not to nature’s signals due to “externalities” such as public health impacts of coal.

(b) It concentrates wealth in the hands of a few.

(c) This wealth concentration in turn disrupts the political process by allowing the wealthy first to dominate public conversation about the economy, and thence to gain control of the economy.

4. Positive solutions needed.

“So here we are,” concludes , “and calls for ‘no-growth’ clearly can’t save us” (p. 29). We need a positive set of answers to substitute for the “no-growth” economy, namely, “economies that register and respond to nature’s laws in a democracy accountable to the citizens” (p. 30). To that end she suggests keeping wealth dispersed through fairer taxes, low interest rates, stronger labor unions, breaking up monopolies, and access to education and health care.

She gives some examples of companies and groups that epitomize her insights, including a carpet company, a nonpesticide movement in India, the “local first” movement, and Costa Rica.

5. Alternatives needed to GDP.

Finally, we need to rethink the idea of gross domestic product (GDP), and instead measure the economy through such things as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which goes further than mere measures of financial wealth.

These are, I think it is fair to say, her points against this “thought trap.” What do we make of it?

How Accurate is Lappé’s Attack?

Even though, as I’m reading the chapter, I agree with almost everything she says, she has distorted the basic issue so fundamentally that I must take exception.  It may be hopeless to try to explain it to her readers (or to her), but here are my concerns.

1. Anyone who has actually bothered to read Herman Daly will immediately recognize that Lappé has incorporated many of Daly’s insights. In fact, virtually everything she says was said by Daly years or decades before she wrote EcoMind. Take, for example Daly’s textbook from 2004 (co-authored with Joshua Farley), Ecological Economics.  Daly also says that today’s economy is producing waste and inefficiencies; that the market is fundamentally flawed; that it concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, and generates abundant externalities; that we need to revise the tax structure in a progressive way, and most conspicuously that we need an alternative to GDP for measuring wealth.

Lappé has really been totally unfair to Daly and to the entire school of ecological economics, with which (quite honestly) I do not think she is that familiar. But we can see that her first point (above) is completely refuted. If, as Lappé claims, framing this as a “growth versus no-growth” problem means that we miss all of these issues which Lappé discusses, how does she explain the fact that Daly not only is aware of them, but has actually has done considerably more than Lappé to promote them?

2. This leads to the next problem, her pervasive use of the “straw man” argument. Herman Daly is quite clear what he means by growth: he means an increase in the physical “throughput,” the flow of raw materials and energy through the economy. It has nothing to do with genuine progress, human happiness, or anything else. In fact, that is precisely a point which Daly not only makes repeatedly, but which is also central to his whole writing. Beyond a certain point, increasing flow of raw materials through the economy actually reduces human happiness and progress.

Therefore, I question how much Lappé has studied Herman Daly, or any of the other ecological economists. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what Herman Daly’s position is on economic growth.

3. O. K., let’s look at the question of growth itself. Lappé dodges the question of growth by defining it in a different way than either Herman Daly or the Limits to Growth study (which she also attacks) ever did. Growth is “ever-expanding abundance” (p. 20). She then completely dodges the question of whether growth is good, by saying that our economy is, in this definition, not growing in the first place! Therefore, talking about growth (“abundance”) being good or bad is misleading, since it isn’t a characteristic of the economy in the first place.

But neither Daly or the Limits to Growth study define growth as abundance. Abundance is a value concept. It implies that certain things are good (health, leisure time, plenty of cookies, etc.) and other things are bad (disease, war, insufficient cookies, etc.). To define growth in this way (what Daly calls “development”) is to set up measurements that we certainly should set up, but which currently are not incorporated into our way of measuring things in the economy. This is a point on which Lappé and Daly agree, by the way, which makes sorting all of this out even more confusing. It seems that Lappé is aware of this agreement, but still insists on arbitrarily defining growth in a way that denies the problem in the first place.

4. Properly phrased, the issue of growth is a narrower, objective question: is the amount of physical throughput in our economy a problem, and what, if anything, should we do about it? By “throughput” I mean the total, physical quantity of raw materials and energy from low-entropy natural resources (e. g. copper mines, oil wells, croplands) through the economy and back to high-entropy sinks (the atmosphere, oceans, landfills). See Ecological Economics, p. 440. Climate change (too many greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere) and peak oil (not enough oil to sustain our economy) are both examples of limits to growth in the sense of limits on throughput.

And here’s the answer. YES! In fact, not only is this a problem, IT IS THE MOST CRITICAL PROBLEM FACING THE PLANET RIGHT NOW, even more critical than the blatant inequality and lack of democracy that both Lappé and Daly thoroughly agree on.

If our atmosphere could endlessly absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases without ill effect, we wouldn’t have a problem with climate change. Or if there was plenty of oil in the ground, we wouldn’t have to worry about high oil prices or “peak oil.”

Even if we could wave some magic wands and make unwanted climate change go away, and produce unlimited oil supplies from the earth, I’d argue that a number of things should be changed in our economy. We shouldn’t have the corporations in charge of our political process, for example, and we might run into shortages of other things (like arable land). BUT the combination of climate change and peak oil could literally wipe out the human species and all life on earth. Runaway global warming is one of the issues James Hansen raises in his important book, Storms of My Grandchildren. It’s the difference between “humanity has some problems” and “humanity is wiped out, along with all life on earth.” THAT’S the point that Lappé is missing.  The scale of the economy (how big it is, physically) is the issue you have to face before you face any other.

5. And here’s the clincher. Lappé never once mentions the issue of “peak oil.” In fact, while she does to her credit talk about climate change, she never mentions it in this chapter. To talk about the issue of “limits to growth” and not to talk about these two issues (the prime cases of “limits to growth”!) is such a critical omission that we are forced to ask if she even understands the question at all.

I will add one final point. Let’s suppose that we get Daly and Lappé at the table together and ask them to agree on terminology here. Let’s suppose further that they both agree that the best way to measure true “abundance” (Lappé) or “development” (Daly) is through some measure like the GPI or ISEW (“Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare,” see Ecological Economics, p. 233-236). We could then ask the question, are there limits to how big “abundance” could get?

Even when defined in this way, and even if we made Daly and Lappé co-dictators of the world, I think there are limits to abundance. In fact, we may have so exhausted the planet that we have already passed limits to abundance as well. This is because of the huge increase in population due largely to the Green Revolution and cheap fossil fuels. Now that fossil fuels are becoming scarce, it is not clear that we will be able to sustain our current system of agriculture at all. David Pimentel has plausibly argued that this maximum human population is about 2 billion, less than 1/3 of the current 7 billion.

Even if things aren’t quite this bad, and we could have “true abundance” with 8 billion humans, it is clear that there are limits to how much abundance the human race can create on this planet, no matter how it is measured.

I wish that writers of such intelligence and skill as Frances Moore Lappé would use their considerable skills to make this issue clearer, rather than trivializing it. The points she raises are almost all correct, but the central point of her chapter — that concern about endless growth is a “thought trap” — is just flat out wrong. In fact, endless growth is precisely the most critical problem which the human race faces.


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