Herman Daly passed away on October 28. He was one of the founders of the “ecological economics” school of thought. The big contribution of Herman Daly to our knowledge is his explanation of a simple idea: the economy is part of the environment, not vice versa.
To most non-economists, the idea that the human economy is part of our larger world (atmosphere, sun, soil, water, minerals, plants, animals, and people) is common sense. Of course the economy is part of the environment, how could it be otherwise? But sometimes, as Herman Daly remarked, it’s the simplest things that are hardest to understand. If you understand that the economy is part of the environment, then congratulations: you know more about the basis of economics than most economists, including the ones to whom our political leaders look for advice.
If the economy is part of the environment, then the economy must have physical limits. Yet politicians, economists, and just about everyone else assumes that economic growth will and should continue. We have clearly badly overshot any sustainable limits to economic growth, and are now face to face with the results. Climate change is the best known problem to threaten civilization, but more wait in the wings: peak oil, mass extinctions, water shortages, overgrazing by cattle, deforestation, soil erosion, and others.
Our society and political system remain paralyzed, unable to act in the face of these obvious issues. This is a crisis of the very first order, and we need all the help we can get. Economists should be our allies in this struggle. Aren’t they the experts on “economic growth”?
Unfortunately, except for the ecological economists, economists are not only clueless, they are actually obstructing the path towards an environmentally sustainable economics. We need Herman Daly’s ideas now more than ever; and we must be the continuation of Herman Daly’s thinking and efforts.
Herman Daly was, of course, many other things to many other people, including his family and his students. Among much else, he worked for the World Bank, was a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, and was the author of numerous influential books. I read his textbook Ecological Economics (co-authored with Joshua Farley) over a decade ago, and as we speak there are a number of other books of his on my shelf, all of which I have studied and profited from: Beyond Growth, For the Common Good (co-authored with John Cobb), and Toward a Steady-State Economy (editor and contributor). In 2009 he gave a talk to the United States Society for Ecological Economics, with some very helpful, if somewhat technical, policy recommendations: “From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy.” You can read his obituary here.
I never met him, but we inadvertently have two things in common. First, we were both at Vanderbilt University in 1967 (he was just getting his Ph.D., and I was just starting out). Also, we both sought to underpin a practical and ethical approach to the wider world with an ethical and spiritual understanding of the human place in the universe (see his book, For the Common Good).
Here’s a link to a video of a webinar that he did shortly before his death, a talk entitled “Ecological Economics in Four Parables.” (Unfortunately and annoyingly, the audio portion of the talk cuts out, usually for 10 to 30 seconds, at various places in the video, but this doesn’t detract from the overall ability to understand what he’s saying.) He discusses a wide range of topics, although you can tell from his responses that he is ready for other, younger voices to take over. That seems to be our job now.