“I'm no genius,” says economist Herman Daly, “and others can outwork me. What I do is ask the naive, honest questions, and then I’m not satisfied until I get the answers.”
This modest self-assessment aside, many who know his work are convinced that Daly’s way of asking naive, honest questions—in four books and more than one hundred articles—amounts to a kind of reverse Copernican revolution in economics—a revolution that, to quote one reviewer of Daly’s For the Common Good (1989, written with John B. Cobb Jr.), “[puts] the earth and its inhabitants back at the center of the economic universe.”
A former professor at Louisiana State University, a six-year employee of the World Bank (with which he parted more or less amicably—“I was tired of the pomposity,” he says), and currently a research scholar at the University of Maryland, the 56-year-old Daly brings the careful, fluent lucidity of an experienced teacher to his exposition of what's wrong with what some have called “the dismal science.” What’s wrong are some of the most basic assumptions of economics.
“For the last two hundred years,” he says, “the dominant goal has been to make economies grow. We’ve finessed everything else, including justice, telling ourselves that we’ll just grow more and then there’ll be more justice. But we are on a collision course with biophysical reality.”
In Daly’s neat and compelling formulation, ozone depletion, the death of fish stocks, runaway population growth—the whole congeries of environmental degradations—are showing economic conventional wisdom up as self-contradictory: “We say we need to clean up the environment; to clean up the environment we need to be richer. But maybe getting richer is actually making us poorer.” The reason? The world economy is far larger with respect to the biosphere than it was during the age of the classical economists.
“The old textbooks saw an economy as a circular flow of value from households to firms back to households, via production and consumption,” he explains. “They abstracted out the environment completely, and that wasn’t stupid at a time when economies were small compared to ecosystems. But now, with growth having gone on for so long, we’re actually spending our natural capital. It’s reached an insane point.”
Classical economics also abstracted the human being into Homo economicus—economic man, a creature defined primarily as a pursuer of self-interest. But for Daly no economy can serve human beings if economics refuses to see the need for cooperative endeavor and the building of a collective good—community, in a word. At the same time, as Daly writes in For the Common Good, “it is important to think of the community served by the economy as enduring indefinitely through time....The industrial economy is only a part of what Wendell Berry has called the Great Economy—the economy that sustains the total web of life and everything that depends on the land.”