Blue Planet Prize Goes to Daly

Blue Planet Prize Goes to Daly

By   |  Jan. 31, 2015

The Blue Planet Prize was awarded to Professor Herman Daly in November of last year in Tokyo, Japan.  It was a controversial nomination, due to Daly’s anti-growth ideas in economics.  During the ceremony, a powerful congratulatory message was presented on behalf of John B. Cobb, Jr., who co-authored with Daly the seminal 1989 book, For the Common Good.

The Blue Planet Prize is presented to distinguished individuals or organizations worldwide in recognition of major contributions to solving global environmental problems in the hope that it will encourage efforts to bring about healing of the Earth’s fragile ecosystems.  The Asahi Glass Foundation (Tokyo) established the Prize when the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), better known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.  Past recipients include Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Karl-Henrik Robèrt, to name a few.  Daly is Professor Emeritus of the University of Maryland and a founder of the International Society of Ecological Economics.

Professor Daly has been advocating the concept of Steady-State Economy (SSE) for nearly four decades.  He argues that it is rational to think that economic growth should stop when the marginal cost of economic growth begins to exceed its marginal benefit. Beyond that point, further growth brings about dis-economy, or growth-induced problems, which do more harm than good to the quality of life and welfare of society.

Daly believes that humans as a whole have already passed this point, an understanding that is supported by such concrete biophysical evidence as the collapse of fisheries in many parts of the world, the rapid disappearance of tropical rain forests and of biodiversity, the depletion of underground aquifers, reduction of the ozone layer, etc.  Daly argues that we should turn away from a strategy of dependence on continuous economic growth (that is, expansion) and focus more instead on redistribution of wealth and learn to live within the means of finite nature.  For Daly, economic growth is not a panacea to solve such modern problems as poverty, income inequality, crime and conflict, etc.

The idea of a paradigm shift away from sustained economic growth has faced strong opposition throughout the world.  In Japan, for example, denial against the near-absolute value of economic growth has been considered a taboo in the last several decades. Even a very progressive and ecologically-minded economist like Hirofumi Uzawa felt uncomfortable with and criticized Daly’s idea of a non-growth, Steady-State Economy. Professor Uzawa is himself a Blue Planet Prize Laureate (2009).

I obtained secret information that during the selection committee meetings of the Blue Planet Prize, argument was made against an award to Daly because of his anti-growth ideas.  The fact that he survived the tough selection process, however, shows how Japanese society has become more aware of the biophysical limits to growth. Thus, a more suitable atmosphere has been generated to accept the radical concept of a non-growth economy or SSE.  I suppose that the eastern Japan earthquake and consequential Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 may have something to do with this new trend.  “Money fetishism,” one aspect of “growth mania,” has become less intense in Japan after the disaster.  Interestingly, the marriage rate has increased since 2011:  perhaps more people realize the importance of human bonds and mutual caring.  Money could not protect lives against disaster. Instead, community integrity and prompt provision of biophysical goods were the ones which mattered in the disaster-hit areas in Tohoku region.

I believe that two Laureates of Blue Planet Prize in 2012 paved the way for Daly’s receipt of the award, namely William Rees (Professor Emeritus of the University of British Columbia, Canada) and Mathis Wackernagel (President, Global Footprint Network, USA). Rees and Wackernagel are co-developers of a sustainability indicator, Ecological Footprint (EF). Ecological Footprint calculation results show that in order to sustain the human economy as a whole, 1.5 “Earths” are necessary.  This suggests that the human economy has already exceeded the planet’s biocapacity.  Further growth induces more problems than benefits.  Another EF calculation shows that based on the Japanese average consumption rate, some 2.3 Earth-like planets are required. This means that Japanese dwellers should cut their consumption by more than half.  The EF results seem to have had some impact on overall Japanese awareness of the problem. World Wildlife Fund Japan has been active in promoting the EF concept and conveying the calculation results and its implications, using the phrase, “One Planet living.”

So far, two of Daly’s books have been translated into Japanese (Beyond Growth and Ecological Economics, the latter co-authored by Joshua Farley); a booklet of interviews was also recently published.  More books and articles of Daly’s and of authors with similar concerns should be translated into Japanese in order for these seminal ideas to get broader coverage. I know the need firsthand, insofar as I teach ecological economics and other sustainability courses at Doshisha University, Kyoto.

In Japan, the Society for Studies on Entropy (SSE) acts as one of the main academic associations for studying ecological economics. The association was established in 1983, as many as five years before the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) was founded.  Even though the membership of SSE is in decline, I am hopeful for the revitalization of the association because Japanese society as a whole has become more open to the radical idea of a Steady-State Economy, which is symbolized by the award to Professor Daly of the prestigious Blue Planet Prize.

By Professor Yoshihiko Wada, Doshisha University Faculty of Economics, Kyoto, Japan.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.