I’ve been reading letters and opinions about the economic growth of Rappahannock County ever since I got here ten years ago. I’ve paid my taxes and otherwise stayed out of county affairs. I’ve been growing vegetables, cutting firewood, and hunting just enough to keep me out of the meat aisle at the grocery store. It’s a lot like it was growing up in Wisconsin, only warmer!
But I also run the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). This grand-sounding organization is actually a small nonprofit based in Arlington. Fortunately, I’m able to run CASSE primarily from here in the Rapp, with satellite internet and a land-line phone, spending as little time as possible in the beltway.
I established CASSE in 2003 when my previous employer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prohibited me from talking about the conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation. The gag order was hard to take, because the conflict was the topic of my Ph.D. research in the 1990’s. I’ve written books about it, published journal articles, taught courses through Virginia Tech, and given talks at dozens of colleges and universities around the world.
When I read “The Noah Option” by Ron Maxwell (Rappahannock News, April 18) — a passionate summary of the conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation — I finally decided to chime in. I studied the conflict at the national level, but it happens at all levels where growth occurs. County citizens aren’t powerless in the face of this conflict; they can control the rate and amount of growth that occurs, at least within the county.
I’ve found that, in growth debates, it helps to remind each other exactly what “economic growth” really means. It’s nothing magical or mysterious. Economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services. That means growing human population and consumption per person. It’s measured with GDP.
Let’s not be fooled by the Big-Money think tanks when they gush about “sustainable growth” or “green growth.” As GDP grows beyond a healthy level, resources get scarcer, places get crowded, traffic increases, noise gets louder, the environment degrades, long-term jobs cannot be sustained, stress increases, mental health declines, government institutions break down, nations compete for the remaining resources, and wars break out. In other words, the conflict extends far beyond wildlife. It’s really a conflict between economic growth and: 1) environmental protection, 2) economic sustainability, 3) national security, and 4) international stability, pretty much in that order.
While Rappahannock County isn’t a key player in the Pentagon or the United Nations, we’re all citizens of the county, the state, and the USA. What we do here has effects at each level. If every county turns into an Arlington or even Loudoun County, the profound problems listed above become overwhelming. Arlington and Loudoun are allowed to exist only because of the rural counties, including Rappahannock, that feed, clothe, and shelter them. Meanwhile many of the Arlington and Loudon citizens maintain their sanity by exploring the open spaces of the counties further west. Rappahannock County — exactly how it is today — is good for the citizens of the county, the state, and the USA.
You don’t have to be an ecologist or an economist to understand the perils of perpetual growth. In fact, farmers, hunters, and fishermen probably have a deeper understanding of this than anyone else. They see the proverbial (or literal) bulldozer coming their way. They find their old hunting grounds posted, polluted, or paved. They feel the taxes pressuring them out of their lifestyles and into that growing, global economy, where ever-more manufacturing and services are demanded. Growth is the universal threat to the rural life, to the Rappahannock life, and eventually to everyone across the board.
As Alan Zuschlag (Rappahannock News, May 9) pointed out, Rappahannock is far from the only county in this struggle with the forces of growth. Everyone in the USA — and that’s hardly an exaggeration — is dealing with it. I’ve seen it every single place I have lived; dozens of places over the decades.
I first saw it from our little homestead on Highway 54, out on the fringes of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The survey stakes appeared when I was in high school. The old place is unrecognizable from when I grew up. The front door is in the back, for starters.
I’ve seen it first-hand in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, Arizona, and Texas. Now I’m seeing it here. How much more can the USA take? How much more can the planet take? This isn’t about tree-hugging, either; it’s about sustaining communities, economies, and cultures while avoiding wars, disease, and the environmental unravelling that could haunt posterity forever, starting with the kids and certainly including the great grandkids.
So, what would we call an economy that’s not growing, an economy that instead is stabilized and sustainable? We might as well call it by its academic name: the “steady state economy.” That way it can’t be mistaken for whitewash such as “green growth.”
Just as there is nothing magical about economic growth, there’s nothing sinister about a steady state economy. It’s simply stabilized population and consumption per person, indicated by a stabilized GDP. A steady state economy can occur at any level from county to national to planetary.
A steady state economy protects what remains of the environment. Therefore, a flourishing economy with long-term jobs can be maintained. A sustainable, healthy, non-bloating economy is the foundation of national security, and contributes to international stability, which in turn protects our national security even more.
Don’t let anyone tell you the steady state economy is “stagnant,” either. That’s like saying a healthy person must continually gain weight to avoid stagnation. There’s plenty of room for consumer preference and technological choices in a steady state economy. More importantly, there’s time for the more important things; family life, spiritual growth, political civility, and international diplomacy.
Rappahannock County has a rare and tremendous head start in “steady statesmanship” due to its comprehensive plan. The folks who came up with the plan were prescient in recognizing the perils of perpetual growth. Recent clamoring to “update” the plan to accommodate economic growth is actually backwards. It would have been a good idea in the 1950’s, maybe even in the 1980’s. But two decades into the 21st Century, when “smart growth” is an oxymoron?
The fact is that Rappahannock County, as we know it, is a steady state economy. Why? Because it sure wouldn’t be the Rapp with perpetual growth.
— The writer lives in Castleton