The inconvenient truth of Herman Daly: There is no economy without environment

The economy depends on the environment. Economics can seem to forget that point. Ines Lee Photos/Moment via Getty Images

Jon D. Erickson, University of Vermont

Herman Daly had a flair for stating the obvious. When an economy creates more costs than benefits, he called it “uneconomic growth.” But you won’t find that conclusion in economics textbooks. Even suggesting that economic growth could cost more than it’s worth can be seen as economic heresy.

The renegade economist, known as the father of ecological economics and a leading architect of sustainable development, died on Oct. 28, 2022, at the age of 84. He spent his career questioning an economics disconnected from an environmental footing and moral compass.

In an age of climate chaos and economic crisis, his ideas that inspired a movement to live within our means are increasingly essential.

The seeds of an ecological economist

Herman Daly grew up in Beaumont, Texas, ground zero of the early 20th century oil boom. He witnessed the unprecedented growth and prosperity of the “gusher age” set against the poverty and deprivation that lingered after the Great Depression.

To Daly, as many young men then and since believed, economic growth was the solution to the world’s problems, especially in developing countries. To study economics in college and export the northern model to the global south was seen as a righteous path.

Headshot photo of Daly as an older man, with glasses and thinning hair,
Economist Herman Daly (1938-2022) Courtesy of Island Press

But Daly was a voracious reader, a side effect of having polio as a boy and missing out on the Texas football craze. Outside the confines of assigned textbooks, he found a history of economic thought steeped in rich philosophical debates on the function and purpose of the economy.

Unlike the precision of a market equilibrium sketched on the classroom blackboard, the real-world economy was messy and political, designed by those in power to choose winners and losers. He believed that economists should at least ask: Growth for whom, for what purpose and for how long?

Daly’s biggest realization came through reading marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring,” and seeing her call to “come to terms with nature … to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.” By then, he was working on a Ph.D. in Latin American development at Vanderbilt University and was already quite skeptical of the hyperindividualism baked into economic models. In Carson’s writing, the conflict between a growing economy and a fragile environment was blindingly clear.

After a fateful class with Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Daly’s conversion was complete. Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian-born economist, dismissed the free market fairy tale of a pendulum swinging back and forth, effortlessly seeking a natural state of equilibrium. He argued that the economy was more like an hourglass, a one-way process converting valuable resources into useless waste. Herman Daly explains ‘uneconomic growth.’

Daly became convinced that economics should no longer prioritize the efficiency of this one-way process but instead focus on the “optimal” scale of an economy that the Earth can sustain. Just shy of his 30th birthday in 1968, while working as a visiting professor in the poverty-stricken Ceará region of northeastern Brazil, Daly published “On Economics as a Life Science.”

His sketches and tables of the economy as a metabolic process, entirely dependent on the biosphere as source for sustenance and sink for waste, were the road map for a revolution in economics.

Economics of a full world

Daly spent the rest of his career drawing boxes in circles. In what he called the “pre-analytical vision,” the economy – the box – was viewed as the “wholly owned subsidiary” of the environment, the circle.

When the economy is small relative to the containing environment, a focus on the efficiency of a growing system has merit. But Daly argued that in a “full world,” with an economy that outgrows its sustaining environment, the system is in danger of collapse.

Illustrations of a square (economy) inside a circle (ecosystem). Energy and matter go into and out of the economy square, and some is recycled. Meanwhile solar energy enters the ecosystem circle and some heat escapes. In one, the square is too large.
Herman Daly’s conception of the economy as a subsystem of the environment. In a ‘full world,’ more growth can become uneconomic. Adapted from ‘Beyond Growth.’ Used with permission from Beacon Press.

While a professor at Louisiana State University in the 1970s, at the height of the U.S. environmental movement, Daly brought the box-in-circle framing to its logical conclusion in “Steady-State Economics.” Daly reasoned that growth and exploitation are prioritized in the competitive, pioneer stage of a young ecosystem. But with age comes a new focus on durability and cooperation. His steady-state model shifted the goal away from blind expansion of the economy and toward purposeful improvement of the human condition.

The international development community took notice. Following the United Nations’ 1987 publication of “Our Common Future,” which framed the goals of a “sustainable” development, Daly saw a window for development policy reform. He left the safety of tenure at LSU to join a rogue group of environmental scientists at the World Bank.

For the better part of six years, they worked to upend the reigning economic logic that treated “the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.” He often butted heads with senior leadership, most famously with Larry Summers, the bank’s chief economist at the time, who publicly waved off Daly’s question of whether the size of a growing economy relative to a fixed ecosystem was of any importance. The future U.S. treasury secretary’s reply was short and dismissive: “That’s not the right way to look at it.”

But by the end of his tenure there, Daly and colleagues had successfully incorporated new environmental impact standards into all development loans and projects. And the international sustainability agenda they helped shape is now baked into the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals of 193 countries, “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity.” Herman Daly and Kate Raworth, creator of Doughnut Economics, discuss pandemic-resistant economies.

In 1994, Daly returned to academia at the University of Maryland, and his life’s work was recognized the world over in the years to follow, including by Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award, the Netherlands’ Heineken Prize for Environmental Science, Norway’s Sophie Prize, Italy’s Medal of the Presidency, Japan’s Blue Planet Prize and even Adbuster’s person of the year.

Today, the imprint of his career can be found far and wide, including measures of the Genuine Progress Indicator of an economy, new Doughnut Economics framing of social floors within environmental ceilings, worldwide degree programs in ecological economics and a vibrant degrowth movement focused on a just transition to a right-sized economy.

I knew Herman Daly for two decades as a co-author, mentor and teacher. He always made time for me and my students, most recently writing the foreword to my upcoming book, “The Progress Illusion: Reclaiming Our Future from the Fairytale of Economics.” I will be forever grateful for his inspiration and courage to, as he put it, “ask the naive, honest questions” and then not be “satisfied until I get the answers.”

Jon D. Erickson, Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy, University of Vermont

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New methodology helps predict soil recovery after wildfires — #Colorado School of Mines

Wildfire research team from Colorado School of Mines. Photo credit: Colorado School of mines

Click the link to read the release on the Colorado School of Mines website (Joanna Urban):

Soils influence water quality, and they are critical to plant growth. However, it has been difficult to predict how plant growth and water quality would change in the wake of wildfires. Now, a team of Colorado investigators has devised new methodology to enable such predictions. The research is published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

“To make practical predictions about recovery, we had to use a modern artificial intelligence tool called statistical learning,” said John Spear, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado School of Mines. “When we fed data about the microbes and nutrients into this model, we were able to predict how soil is changed by fire far more accurately.”

Spear emphasized that combining information on the types and quantities of both microbes and nutrients increased accuracy. Another intriguing discovery was that including microbiota that are uncommon in soil—those that constituted less than 1 percent of the microbiome—was critical to the predictions’ accuracy.

“This apparent contradiction is a fascinating outcome of our study and runs contrary to the common wisdom that if we measure 99 percent of what’s living in soil, we’ll have a great sense of how that soil will behave,” said first author Alexander S. Honeyman, who defended his PhD at Mines earlier this month.

The investigators were also able to predict water quality by analyzing the microbiome for species that affect both soil regeneration and downstream waters, said Spear, who added that the methodology may lead to a better understanding of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem recovery post-wildfire.

In the study, “We went out to two active wildfires in Colorado in 2018 and 2019, and collected soil shortly after the smoldering stopped,” said Spear. “This was as simple as shoveling soil into a bucket. We returned to the same sites for three summers [2018, 2019, and 2020], collecting more samples, and followed up as the landscape recovered from the black of burn to the green of new growth.”

Back in the lab, the investigators measured soil carbon, nitrogen and other important molecules. They also took the census of the microbiome—the species present, and the quantities of each in the soils.

“The trick,” said Spear, “was to do this over and over in a thorough fashion for three years, generating a dataset of more than 500 soil samples. Then, we wanted to see if the pattern of recovery of soil after fire could be predicted from this unique dataset, using statistical learning.”

The methodology worked, despite the fact that the dataset is quite diverse—representing different severities of wildfire and various soil types and seasons. “That’s good news for our approach, because [the methodology] appears to work on many different conditions of soil,”  said Spear.

The research was motivated by Honeyman’s decade of experience as a volunteer firefighter, and having lost his home to a Colorado wildfire in 2010. This experience raised important questions for him. Would soil recover nutrients that had been lost in a fire? The investigators also wanted to know whether water quality would be renewed. “We asked ourselves how we could describe recovery in a way that’s actually useful to land managers,” said Spear, noting that, “our forest service coauthors, who are land managers, really liked this work.”

As climate change contributes to more frequent fires, it is critical that we understand how to manage the recovery of burned soil, particularly in the western U.S., said Spear.

Spear noted that the methodology could likely also be applied to agriculture to boost food production “even while using less water and less fertilizer, thus saving money.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the American Society for Microbiology website.

Ruedi Water and Power Authority board unveils valley-wide outdoor watering standards: Guidance focused on time of day and day of week — @AspenJournalism #RoaringForkRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

The Weaver Ditch as it winds through Sopris Park in Carbondale. While the ditch is an amenity for the community, the water in the ditch comes directly out of the Crystal River, which is often stressed from lack of water. Some Carbondale residents irrigate their lawns and landscaping with the town’s ditches, like the Weaver Ditch, that flow through town. A new unified outdoor watering standard would not apply to those who use ditch water, but they still are encouraged to comply. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Click the link to read the article on the Aspen Journalism website (Heather Sackett):

In an effort to unify the Roaring Fork watershed, a local agency has developed valley-wide outdoor watering standards that its board members hope will be adopted by municipal water providers. 

Last week the Ruedi Water and Power Authority board, which is made up of representatives from local towns and counties, gave its unanimous support to a set of unified permanent watering standards. The standards are focused on time of day and day of week for outdoor watering and would apply to any residential or commercial customer receiving municipal water from the city of Aspen, town of Basalt, town of Carbondale, city of Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Water & Sanitation District and Mid-Valley Metropolitan District. 

The proposed schedule would limit outdoor watering to between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. three days a week. Properties with odd-numbered addresses could irrigate on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; even-numbered properties could water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. No outdoor watering would be allowed on Mondays. Water providers could still enact more stringent restrictions depending on local conditions in their areas; the standards are intended to be a new baseline.

“If we can make this change, the idea that (watering restrictions) change from year to year to year will go away,” said Rachel Richards, Aspen City Council and RWAPA board member. “It’s going to be much easier and less expensive than having to tell people every year what the rules are this summer.”

The new watering standards were developed with the help of a project accelerator grant from WaterNow Alliance, which according to its website is a network of water leaders advancing climate resilient water strategies, and Boulder-based environmental advocacy group Western Resource Advocates. Outdoor watering of lawns and landscaping is often the largest water use category for local water providers; for the city of Aspen, outdoor irrigation represents about 70% of total water use. 

The proposed schedule would result in water savings because watering would happen during the coolest periods of the day, peak demands would be reduced and one day a week of no watering would allow storage to be refilled, according to a memo from WaterNow Alliance and WRA. 

“The three-day-per-week schedule is relatively easy to communicate to residents and other water users and it can be easily programmed into all types of irrigation controllers,” the memo reads. 

The valley-wide watering standards were an outgrowth of the regional water efficiency plan, said RWAPA Executive Director April Long. 

“We learned from the providers that were part of that plan that they still really needed some unified messaging about outdoor water use,” Long said. “We realized we don’t even have common ground to tell people exactly what to do because we have so many drought stages, and restrictions implemented in different ways. We actually need some baseline standards so we can provide a common message that’s not confusing for all of our residents.”

There are some exceptions to the standards. Outdoor watering can still occur any time of day with a handheld hose or drip irrigation. And those who irrigate with water from a ditch, like many residents in the town of Carbondale, are not subject to the standards, but are encouraged to comply. 

The standards lay out penalties for violation, including a written warning for a first violation, and fines increasing to $500 for a fourth violation. But proponents will focus solely on an education campaign for the first season before issuing warnings or fines. 

The next step is for Long to present the watering standards to each of the participating municipalities and get them approved by elected officials. 

This story ran in The Aspen Times on Nov. 19.

Map of the Roaring Fork River drainage basin in western Colorado, USA. Made using USGS data. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

US approves largest dam removal in history to save endangered salmon: Four dams on California-Oregon border to be decommissioned on #KlamathRiver, which fish use to reach spawning grounds — The Guardian

Click the link to read the article on The Guardian website. Here’s an excerpt:

Dam removal is expected to improve the health of the Klamath River, the route that Chinook salmon and endangered coho salmon take from the Pacific Ocean to their upstream spawning grounds, and from where the young fish return to the sea. The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order surrendering the dam licenses and approving removal of the dams. The project has long been a goal of several Native tribes whose ancestors have lived off the salmon for centuries but whose way of life was disrupted by European settlement and the demand for rural electrification in the 20th century.

“The Klamath salmon are coming home,” Joseph James, chairman of the Yurok tribe, said in a statement. “The people have earned this victory and with it, we carry on our sacred duty to the fish that have sustained our people since the beginning of time.”

Climate change and drought have also stressed the salmon habitat; the river has become too warm and too full of parasites for many fish to survive.

Klamath River Basin. Map credit: American Rivers

#SanJuanRiver #snowpack and streamflow report — The #PagosaSprings Sun #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #CRWUA2022

Click the link to read the article on The Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:


According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report, the Wolf Creek summit, at 11,000 feet of elevation, had 5.6 inches of snow water equivalent as of 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 16. The Wolf Creek summit was at 108 percent of the Nov. 16 snow pack median. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins were at 112 percent of the Nov. 16 median in terms of snowpack.

River report

Stream flow for the San Juan River at approximately noon on Nov. 16 was 75.1 cubic feet per second (cfs), according to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) National Water Dashboard. These numbers are down from a nighttime peak of 123 cfs at 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 16. This reading is also down from last week’s reading of 141 cfs at noon on Nov. 9.

Snowball water plant cost assessment: $37 million — The #PagosaSprings Sun

The water treatment process

Click the link to read the article on The Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

On Nov. 10, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) Board of Directors heard an update from William Canter- bury, of Canterbury Construction Management Services, on his assessment of the costs of the Snowball water treatment plant expansion. Canterbury began his assessment by highlighting that PAWSD is currently in a construction man- ager at risk (CMAR) arrangement for the construction of the plant, with PCL Construction Services Inc. as the construction firm. He explained that he performed an independent cost estimate on the elements of the expansion.

Canterbury stated that, to his assessment, the project is indeed a $37 million job instead of a $25 million job, although he indicated that there are some elements of the project that he still wanted to speak with PCL about and that his final report would not be finished until the next week.

“Overall … they’re pretty much on the mark,” Canterbury stated. “I don’t see anything that jumps out at me.”

A century ago in #ColoradoRiver Compact Negotiations: “I wish to warn #California…” — InkStain @jfleck @R_EricKuhn #COriver #CRWUA2022

Enthusiasm in Imperial. Screenshot of the Imperial Valley Press front page November 17, 1922.

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (Eric Kuhn and John Fleck):

The world outside of Bishop’s Lodge in New Mexico got its first glimpse of the nascent Colorado River Compact on in the days following the Nov. 16, 1922, meeting as Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover briefed reporters on the barest details of what was transpiring behind closed doors.

For the first time, folks back home in the seven Colorado River Basin states saw the emergence of the idea of an “upper division” – Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico – and a “lower division” – Arizona, Nevada, and California.

“Definite allotment of an equal amount of the waters of the river was agreed upon between the two divisions,” wire stories out of Santa Fe reported, “and provision was made for the summoning of a second commission some years hence for the equitable division of the unallotted water, in light f the then increasing knowledge and increasing need.”

“Preference in rights for the use of water is to be established to agriculture,” reporters were told, “and none of the existing rights in the basin are disturbed.”

Southern Pacific passenger train crosses to Salton Sea, August 1906. Photo via USBR.


For the Imperial Valley, vulnerable to flooding in the river’s southern reaches, the news was good. “The commission agreed upon the extreme agency for immediate erection of control work to protect the Imperial Valley from floods,” the wire dispatches continued.

The reaction in Imperial Valley was immediate.

“Protection of Valley is Assured”, the Imperial Valley Press headlined.


But in addition to enthusiasm, there were warnings of the struggles to come.

“I wish to warn California right now,” Arizona Governor-elected George W.P. Hunt said in a telegram to the Arizona Republic, “and you can make it as strong as horse-radish that has just been ground, that while I am governor I am going to stick up for Arizona’s rights.”

Arizona, Hunt said, should be entitled to half of the Colorado River’s flow. “The center of the river is a state line,” Hunt said. “The center of the river is where the rights of one state cease and those of the other begin.”
The seeds of decades of conflict between Arizona and the other states of the basin were being sown, even as the Compact’s final drafting was not complete.