A new book by UVM economist Jon Erickson, “The Progress Illusion: Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics” (Island Press, December 1) explores the harsh economic realities that have led to skyrocketing inflation, growing inequality and to polarized politics, and the climate crisis.
A leading voice in ecological economics, Erickson explores his personal journey away from a belief in traditional trickle-down economics – and even more progressive concepts like “green growth” used in sustainable businesses.
In this Q&A, Erickson discusses the book, which has caught the attention of CNN and other media. UVM’s Professor Blittersdorf in Sustainability Science and Politics explains how economic, social, political and cultural changes can lead to a sustainable and just future.
Let’s start with the title “The Progress Illusion”. What is the illusion?
The Illusion of Progress is a fairy tale about humanity’s place and purpose in the world. It’s a story built on hyper-individualism and limitless growth that is at odds with ecological reality and our innate sense of justice. It’s an illusion that economists have taught and practiced for decades, and one that has contributed to the global economy doubling in size every 25 to 30 years while eroding the very foundations of society and quality of life.
What are the challenges of “green growth”?
Green growth has become a buzzword in business, government, international development agencies and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He states that the global economy can continue to grow by two to three percent a year and dodge the environmental limits of our planet through technology and efficiency.
But at a growth rate of 3%, we would still double the global economy in just 24 years. Given how intertwined environmental depletion and pollution have been with growth in the past, I see no path to climate stability or biodiversity goals in heroic assumptions about development and sustainability. adoption of technologies owned by green growth proponents. Wanting a “Star Trek” economy avoids the political and cultural shifts necessary to live well within our means.
In the book, you relate your personal development as an economist. How would you sum up this journey?
My change of direction started in middle school. Saturated with the “greed is good” philosophy of the late 1980s, I set out to study economics, a business major, and earn a lot of money. But I inherited my mother’s sense of fairness and love of the outdoors, and began to realize that traditional economics was at odds with the higher goals of social justice and stewardship. of the earth. When I started looking for bridges between economics, ethics and ecology, I discovered the emerging field of ecological economics and haven’t looked back since.
What role do government and collective organization play?
We see communities coming together to build more sustainable and equitable economies, including cooperative-owned businesses, natural asset trusts, and local planning of watersheds, food basins and energy basins. Our challenge is to intensify these efforts. At the state and federal levels, new measures are being adopted to encourage more just and sustainable outcomes, such as the Authentic Progress Indicator – of which Vermont was a leader – and new natural capital accounts by l Biden administration. There is no lack of good ideas and good intentions, only a lack of political will to break with old ideas.
You advocate radical pragmatism. How would you define that?
Radical pragmatism recognizes the concrete, short-term things we need to do. For example, I’ve spent a career researching how a carbon tax could help wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But we also need deeper and more comprehensive changes away from the status quo. The radical part means moving beyond voluntary market mechanisms to take actions such as banning new fossil fuel infrastructure, as some US cities and counties have done. We must break with the social, technical and economic dependencies that block climate impacts.
You write that culture influences our vision of the economy. Please elaborate.
Economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote “economic ideas…cannot be seen apart from the world they interpret”. It helps to understand the ideology behind our existing economic system in order to change it.
My interpretation is that our consumer culture encourages us to live beyond our means and that powerful interests privatize the benefits and socialize the costs of an economy that no longer serves our whole society. Among the ways to shatter the illusion that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, let alone desirable, is to explore new cultural narratives that embrace the caring and sharing side of humanity.
Provided by the University of Vermont
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