End of the Earth? Prophets irritate


"Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development," by Herman E. Daly. Beacon Press. 264 pages. $27.50

This seems like an unlikely book to recommend to a general audience.

The subtitle contains the word ""economics."

Furthermore, the subtitle contains the phrase ""sustainable development." Even the book's author, a University of Maryland economist, says the term is "dangerously vague."

There is more that would seemingly sabotage the book's attraction. It spouts philosophy, especially John Stuart Mill's, unfamiliar to readers lacking a classical education. It is didactic; Daly knows what it will take to ensure world survival, and knows the majority of his highly educated colleagues are wrong. It contains equations that look not only like economics, but also like mathematics.

I was prepared to dislike the book. I had never heard of Daly-though later, I recalled reading about his controversial ideas in the Wall Street Journal. I had never thought about ""sustainable development." My classical education is lacking. I usually dislike didactic people. I last took an economics course 30 years ago as a university freshman, and found it baffling. I last took a mathematics course as a high school sophomore, and disliked it.

Yet this book is recommended for a general audience. We have to share this Earth, and we have to think about our children sharing this Earth. That means we must pay attention to those with good ideas, even if those persons sometimes present their cases in complicated ways. Daly's is a type of environmentalism that might ensure future generations have a future. The explanations of arcane ideas, while sometimes arcane, are frequently clear and satirically amusing. Daly discusses how his philosophies have played in the real world, especially during his employment at the World Bank.

Sustainable development, to Daly, means less quantitative expansion (such as new housing developments in suburban Baltimore) and more qualitative improvement (such as higher occupancy rates in existing housing developments, accompanied by remodeling to make the homes energy efficient).

Nothing less than the fate of humankind is at stake: ""Population growth and production growth must not push us beyond the sustainable environmental capacities of resource regeneration and waste absorption. Therefore, once that point is reached, production and reproduction should be for replacement only. Physical growth should cease, while qualitative improvement continues."

Daly's recipe for survival has consequences for highly industrialized societies and those less so. The U.S. populace, for example, must cut back consumption of energy inefficient foods and manufactured goods. The Chinese populace, as another example, must restrain itself from wanting to live like so many U.S. citizens. Imagine what would happen to natural resources if billion Chinese suddenly acquired refrigerators. Imagine the consequences of the Chinese switching to a beef diet, given that every pound of meat requires 10 pounds of grain be diverted from human mouths to cattle, which in turn exhaust grasslands to the extent that forests are converted to grazing areas.

Readers who fail to share Daly's dire predictions for Earth will quite likely think him naive. They might place him with all other alarmists who have predicted a degredation of life that so far has not come to pass. My reading is that Daly is less alarmist than cautious.

Daly's ideas, so common-sensical, are ridiculously controversial because they would limit growth. He explains the views of his critics, then makes fun of them. His didactic approach will surely grate on some readers. But prophets who turn out to be correct are often the most irritating folks among us.

Steve Weinberg has written seven books, most recently "The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques." At his home in Columbia, Mo., he is currently finishing two books: a social history of investigative journalism, and a biography of muckraker Ida Tarbell.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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