Our Interview with Dr. Neva Goodwin

a piggy bank with coins around it

Dr. Neva Goodwin is co-director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, and what she calls a "contextual economist," or someone who works to understand the economy in the context of the social and ecological environment. She's been pondering the difficult questions Green America members have been asking from an academic perspective: How do we create a world where everyone has enough? How do we sustain our planet for our children and grandchildren? How do we shift our consumer culture and corporate greed to an economy that is truly green and truly good for everyone?

Dr. Goodwin talked with Green American editor Tracy Fernandez Rysavy about these questions and her ideas for how we can navigate our way through the closely tied economic and climate crisis once and for all.


TRACY FERNANDEZ RYSAVY: Our economy is obviously broken. From your position as a contextual economist, what is wrong with it?

NEVA GOODWIN: Well, we could start by saying that the economy has been conceptually divorced from its context. The whole idea of growth of the economy makes sense under certain circumstances. When people don't have enough of what they need—that which the economy could provide—then growing the economy to provide more may be desirable. This set of circumstances has been true for most of human history, so it's not surprising that people saw economic growth as a good.

But our economy has certainly reached the point where it could easily provide a good life for all its citizens under certain conditions.

One condition is ensuring better distribution of wealth. When you have very rich and very poor, you have an image of a good life that is unattainable for a lot of society. That's a psychological reason why better distribution is necessary for well-being. The practical reason is the necessity to make sure everyone gets a decent share of the society's wealth.

Today, the goods and services provided by the economy are made available on the basis of who has money to spend on them. The economy as it's currently structured is addicted to growth. But the ecological resources are not growing fast enough – in fact, in present economic systems they're shrinking – to support more economic growth for the whole human population. We should be thinking instead about how to reach some kind of economic steady state.

The critical requirement to achieve that steady state is to figure out how the work and the jobs and the income from jobs can be more equitably shared, while also figuring out how to more equitably share the ownership of the productive resources of the society.


TRACY: Are we reaching the threshold where the growth has to stop? So much of our economic growth in the US is based on innovation, and much of that innovation is in the form of cool things that consume more than our share of resources.

NEVA: This is the toughest question in economics right now. I don't pretend to have the answers, and I don't know anybody else who does. I'm going to just venture out and do the best I can in answering these questions.

First of all, we have really serious ecological threats, which tell us that the current system of production has got to slow down and maybe go into reverse. Particularly because of the types of energy we use, which are producing greenhouse gases. There are also some serious issues in the types of agriculture we depend on, which produce methane and destroy forests to produce more of the food, as well as the goods, that people around the world are demanding.

We get into the very difficult issue here of the critical differences between rich countries and poor ones, because economic growth is a perfectly reasonable goal for people who really don't have a good life. There are a number of people on this planet who don't. For them, of course, one of the first requirements is to have enough to eat.

I think agriculture is a good model for understanding the whole global production system, because food is the thing we most clearly and obviously need, and because it raises the question of sharing. With a growing population, both the worldwide level of meat consumption and the agricultural systems are going to have to really change.

When we look at the global agricultural system, it is capable of producing enough for everyone who is on the planet today, but possibly not under the current systems of agriculture, given current expectations for consumption of meat.

Whenever a country begins to grow out of a state of poverty, the first thing people want to do is add meat to their diet, and that's extremely understandable. For everybody on the planet to have some meat every week, then nobody on the planet can have meat every day. There are lots of people in this country who, by American standards, are very badly off. And yet, they are eating meat once or twice a day, which looks like luxury in the rest of the world.


TRACY: We're in this crisis now, but the general consensus in the media is that we're going to come out of it in two years. Do you think this is actually the time where we're going to have to go into what you called a prolonged "terrible transition" to what we hope is a sustainable economy?

NEVA: If we don't make it in the next few years, what we have ahead of us is a situation in which nothing works as well, there are many more losses, it is much harder to achieve our goals.

We may go on as we are long enough that the sea level rises, the climate keeps changing, we get more severe weather events, we get famines around the world, and we get a lot of armed conflicts resulting from famines, water shortages, and people losing homes. The list of really bad things that are going to come about if climate change gets out of hand is a very long list, and a very, very scary one. Let's hope that we can keep the worst from happening.


TRACY: As part of this solution, many experts are talking a New Deal-type of program of green job creation.

NEVA: That is so sensible. And it gives us the really interesting prospect that economic growth in a form similar to what we have experienced in the last century could continue for awhile. While we make a transition, there will be a lot of wrenching changes. Some old industries will get swept away and be replaced by new ones. But the total number of jobs could stay the same or grow. And they could, in some ways, be better jobs.

So for a period of time, while we are inventing and putting in place the new greener economy, we may be able to maintain the same general system of depending on jobs for income and not having to cut hours yet. I regard this as a grace period in which, if we are smart enough to look ahead and say, "All right, this is the period of transition, let's make the best of it," we might be able to look forward to changing our patterns of growth in the future and make the change in a manner that's sufficiently gradual and sufficiently planned so it won't be horrendously painful.


TRACY: We do have this moment where we could create these jobs, but once we create the zero-waste and zero-emission infrastructure, then what?

NEVA: One answer to the "Then what?" is that by the time we complete the transition to the post-carbon economy, we may have developed very cheap sources of energy. Now, that could give a tremendous boost to the economy because a lot of the things we want to do depend on energy. So we might be able to continue having a lot of what we want in a world of cheap energy.

I see a dip in our energy consumption while we struggle through the transition, and that's going to be a particularly hard time. We may come out of it with cheap, harmless energy, and that is potentially a kind of golden age.

But it's hard for me to imagine a good life after 2050 that is as materialistic and high-consumption as our current life. It may have lots and lots of readily available energy, but it's not going to have the natural resources that we've been spending so freely in the last 100 years.


TRACY: Is that where the social cohesion or community-building element that you've said we need to foster to adapt comes in?

NEVA: Very much so. We need social cohesion to adapt to difficult times. At the same time, the kinds of greater equality that can contribute to social cohesion are also likely to lead to more contentment.


TRACY: Have you thought about programs that would develop social cohesion inside the US and around the world?

NEVA: Let's first talk about the forces that are against social cohesion, which are a lot of the forces of the corporate culture, with the advertising that emphasizes getting ahead, doing better than other people, getting what you want instantly, deserving whatever you want. These have no element in them of sharing and community.

We have a serious problem here, and it's related both to the growth imperative—the fact that producers feel "I've got to sell more of what I produce, or else I'll go under"—and the jobs imperative, that if producers don't sell more, the employees of those firms may be out of jobs. Out of this mix comes this landslide of messages saying, "Consume, consume, consume!"

That's a difficult problem that is intertwined with the whole system. It's hard to know what thread to pull on to untangle it.

But a consciousness of the negative impact of this kind of consumer culture on the whole society—and ultimately on the whole economy and on the ecology—will, I hope, persuade many, many different people to find ways of fighting against it. It's not going to be one idea that will do it.


TRACY: Do you think it's possible for us to get beyond the pressures to consume more, as a nation?

NEVA: It is if we suddenly changed our sense of what's worth having—and I think this is just about to happen, by the way.


TRACY: Really?

NEVA: I see signs of people suddenly feeling like, "Well, I can feel proud of wearing the coat I bought several years ago and driving an old car. I don't have to boast about having the newest gadget." In fact, people might look at little askance at that. I've seen this kind of change quite dramatically since September.

I think there's a potential for a sweeping cultural change. I sense that a lot of people have caught on to the fact that they're not becoming happier by following this rat race that the culture has been pushing on them. One of the big things, of course, is the trade-off of more time and fewer things.


TRACY: There was an "EcoAction" in the last issue of the Green American where we talked about how people were driving less, and most had cited fuel costs as one element, but also had cited concern about the climate as another reason. But as soon as the gas prices went back down, concern about the climate went out the window and driving went back up.

Do you see periods of economic recovery before we go into the big, lasting economic crisis moment, and how harmful can those recovery periods be to growing the consciousness we need that things must change?

NEVA: I think we're going to seesaw back and forth. The stock market jumps back and forth daily. People feel destitute one day and not so bad the next. People aren't dumb. After awhile of this, they're going to realize that one day's high is not to be relied on.

The other thing is that it requires the feeling of being part of a movement. Nobody is going to drive less to save the climate if they think nobody else is doing it. It doesn't make sense. Once people feel that what they're doing is part of a movement, and that the movement as a whole can make the difference, that will increase the motivation.

This summer when gas prices were so high, the movement didn't have a chance to get going long enoughto create the solidarity and sense of being in it together.


TRACY: It's a return to the country-wide thrift aesthetic during WWII, but in a bigger and more diverse way.

NEVA: Yes, and it wasn't only in WWII. Go back to the 19th century, particularly the first half and prior to that. They had such a different attitude toward material things. Thrift was considered a virtue.


TRACY: What changed?

NEVA: It's been a long process of change, composed of many different things. You know, lots of smart people inventing clever new things, many of which are really pleasant to have.

But there also is the way that corporations have been acquiring power as a block since the beginning of the 20th century. In the 19th century, it was understood that a corporate charter was given to allow a group of people to do something that was in the interest of society. Corporate charters were sometimes given for limited periods of time, and if the producers weren't living up to their part of the bargain, the charter could be taken away.

We've come an incredibly long way away from that, where now corporations feel they have a right to do pretty much whatever they want to make a profit.

I'm sorry to say that among economists—Milton Friedman is an unfortunate example of this—it has been said that the only purpose of a corporation is to make profits, and their only responsibility is to their shareholders. And their only responsibility to their shareholders is the profits that they make. So there's the sort of intellectual framework for the current situation.

Then there's a political framework, which is that bit by bit corporations have become more dominant in our society, in terms of their contributions to political parties and politicians, and have been able to gather power. One example is the way they have been able to beat back unionism, which attempted to be a countervailing power to corporations.


TRACY: Do you see signs that more traditional economists are starting to come around to your way of thinking, now that the climate and economic crises are coming to a head?

NEVA: Well, Alan Greenspan admitted he was surprised! Because he had caused a significant piece of the problem by cutting interest rates to keep people spending beyond their means.

People are being shaken up. It's going to take a lot of doing to get economists to question the goals of the economy. And what I tried to emphasize in my textbooks is that the goal of the economy should be to support and encourage human well-being in a sustainable manner for present generations and into the future. That's a very different goal from growth!