Credit: Mumtahina Tanni / Creative Commons

Want to watch Brian Czech cringe? Just repeat claims that unchecked economic growth is always compatible with conserving the environment.

The urge to explode that myth prompted the Virginian to create the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy in 2003. CASSE, an Arlington County-based nonpartisan organization, is his effort to educate the public about the ecological advantages of setting national policy goals that stabilize population and consumption.

Brian Czech
Brian Czech

“Saying that all growth can be sustainable is the exact polar opposite of what we need,” Czech said. “It’s just win-win rhetoric that you can have your cake and eat it, too.”

As CASSE’s president, the 62-year-old wants Americans to comprehend how worship of a burgeoning economy, and particularly the gross domestic product, harms progress on not only environmental protection, but also national security, economic sustainability and international stability.

“GDP growth was once a wonderful thing, but now other measures need to be prioritized,” he said. “If you don’t protect the environment, you’re not going to have an economy worth a hoot.”

Czech is aware that such an eco-transformation won’t happen just because his five-person nonprofit is adamant about it.

“A rightly sized steady-state economy has to be done intentionally,” the Wisconsin native said. “In reality it has to be done at the congressional level. Having public policy and consumers on board is crucial.”

With his on-the-ground experience and 1997 doctorate in renewable natural resources studies from the University of Arizona, Czech has the chops to back up the holistic vision that CASSE advocates. He worked as a wildlife biologist before accepting his dream job as a conservation biologist focused on national policy with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999.

In this interview with the Energy News Network, Czech explained the principles of a steady-state economy and what has motivated him to stick with this platform for two decades. This piece was lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Q: First, you have an impressive professional background. Why did you create CASSE while still working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

A: As a field biologist for years, I decided I really wanted to make a difference with conservation on a national level. My job at Fish and Wildlife focused on the conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation, which was the topic of my Ph.D. thesis. 

In 1999, I was leading a team creating a policy on ecological integrity. It was a long-term project. Then, in 2001, I started receiving a series of gag orders. I thought, man, what’s this? 

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I had to find a way to speak out. I created CASSE because it let me find my voice. It’s where I could provide information about limits to growth and the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.

Q: But you didn’t leave Fish and Wildlife until 2017. How did you balance CASSE and your main job?

A: I made some strategic moves. In addition to CASSE, I also signed on as a visiting professor at Virginia Tech’s Northern Virginia Center. That way, I had three different hats. I could wear the one appropriate for the venue. 

I couldn’t speak or write on these topics as a Fish and Wildlife employee, but I could as a CASSE representative or a Virginia Tech visiting professor. I would take leave from my federal job to put on the CASSE hat or visiting professor hat.

Q: A steady-state economy is designed not to grow. Isn’t that counter to what conventional economists cite as evidence of success?

A: Most people, from a common sense perspective, understand that population growth and increased production and per capita consumption can’t go on forever.

Conventional economists practice neoclassical economics. Mainly, they’re criticized for a total failure to acknowledge the limits of growth. For instance, only capital and labor are discussed as production functions. What happened to including land? They are taught to not even consider land.

Q: This concept places a high value on ecological limits. Did the idea of a steady-state economy originate in the scientific realm? 

A: It originated in science and economics. The term steady-state economy is attributed to Herman Daly, an American economist and scientist who drew on physics to talk about limits in books and papers in the 1960s. 

He was elaborating on the stationary state economy, which philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote about in the 1840s. Of course, Mill was focused on England and problems such as overcrowding, pollution and disease.

Mill was credited with being the first author to promote a stationary state, which Adam Smith had referenced in the 1700s.

One of the more recent books that delved into this topic is “Limits to Growth,” published in 1972. And, interestingly, author and naturalist Aldo Leopold referenced the concept in the preface of his conservation classic, “A Sand County Almanac,” published posthumously in1949.

If he hadn’t died in 1948, I imagine he would have been a leader in ecological macroeconomics.

Q: Can a steady-state economy speed up the U.S. transition to wind, solar and other renewable energy? If so, how? 

A: It absolutely does. Our U.S. economy is at about $20 trillion now. Let’s say we set a goal of a $30 trillion U.S. economy. We would need all kinds of power, from both renewable energy and fossil fuels, to maintain that.

On the other hand, if we instead say, let’s revert back to a $10 trillion economy, then we have a fighting chance of running that economy off renewables with not nearly as much fossil fuel in the mix.

Committing to a steady-state economy has to be a conscious decision. There’s a huge gap between the steady state and what we would call a failed-state economy.

Q: Can a steady-state economy slow emissions of heat-trapping gases? How or how not?

A: It’s the level of the steady state that’s so important. We’re already beyond long-term capacity, so we started calling an increase in GDP economic bloating instead of economic growth.

An obsession with GDP means greenhouse gas emissions are only going to increase. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to build enough renewable energy in a scenario of even higher GDP partly because aligning infrastructure and transmission needs is so hard.

At CASSE, we are talking about degrowth before we can get back to a sustainable steady-state economy. And one of our policy positions is a cap on fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

Q: Have other countries achieved steady-state economies?

A: As far as we know, no country has formally adopted this goal. But New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the government’s fiscal policy goals would be geared toward the well-being of New Zealanders and not the GDP. We would call that steady statesmanship.

The more famous case is Bhutan and its gross national happiness, with the king saying that it mattered more than GDP.

Q: Even if the U.S. Congress doesn’t buy into a steady-state economy, can individuals or local governments take concrete action? 

A: Yes. My one-word answer is “less,” as in buy less stuff. CASSE wants people to start realizing that every time they go to a store, they have an influence on GDP and the macroeconomic flow of money.

If you do buy, don’t purchase over-the-top items. For instance, think of all the extraction that had to happen to build out a Hummer, with all its bells and whistles, as opposed to a bicycle with its smaller ecological footprint.

Just like anti-smoking campaigns, we have to make conspicuous consumption unacceptable. A bloated economy chokes out the future for our kids and grandkids.

Q: The late Democratic Sen. Robert Kennedy said in the 1960s that the gross domestic product “measures everything except that which is worthwhile.” Does a steady-state economy call for replacing the GDP?

A: No. What we need to do is to treat the GDP [differently]. … That means bringing in metrics such as the genuine progress indicator and the human development index. Using different tools to measure how social and environmental stressors are being handled gives insights about finding an optimal GDP level.

Identifying that optimal GDP is the greatest challenge for democracy in the 21st century. But it needs to take into account the benefits of clean water, clean air, a stable climate and open land. That’s why steady statesmanship is a potential political unifier. It’s not a right or left thing.

Q: Is it risky for the U.S. to aim for a steady state if other countries don’t? Wouldn’t that mean falling behind?

A: I would think that falling behind in a race to unsustainability is a good idea. The ecological footprint of the United States ought to be considered some sort of crime.

Q: To get into the weeds, you mentioned The Employment Act of 1946 as a barrier to a steady-state economy. Congress evidently amended that act in the 1978 Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act. Briefly, what tweaks are needed? 

A: The original bill wasn’t a huge barrier, but the amendment is. It’s like central planning in how it sets the goal of economic growth for the U.S. government. Fiscal and monetary policy and agency missions and programs are all designed to contribute to growth.

First, the name should be changed to the Full and Sustainable Employment Act. It needs a major overhaul and CASSE has a proposal for that.

Q: It seems the switch to a steady-state economy would be incremental. If you had a magic wand, what three changes would top your wish list?

A: One would be a president who gets the limits to growth and fundamentally understands the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, national security, economic sustainability and international stability would make a massive difference.

Two, let’s go to the tax code and get rid of subsidies for luxury items like SUVs. That is low-hanging fruit.

Three is replacing the principles of neoclassical economics with those of steady-state economics in university curricula and among government civil service positions and political appointees.

Q: Anything else? 

A: Yes, connected to the previous question. Environmental journalists need to provide context in their articles. All of the issues they cover — from pollution to the loss of land to development — stem from the broader issue of the race for a more robust GDP.

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.