Monthly Archives: December 2012

Resilience – 2012 Word of the Year?

Even before Sandy, the word ‘resilience’ was on its way to becoming a meme. Then, when a “natural disaster” struck the political and financial powers of New York City – along with countless others – the idea started to take on some urgency.

Ironically, urgency is not a typical approach to resilience. The idea of resilience, in short, is to have the ability to survive and bounce back from “bad things,” whether they be natural or man-made. The reason urgency often doesn’t apply is that, as many have observed, we humans are not well equipped to plan for future possibilities. Especially ones that seem less than imminent or less likely to affect you personally.

Sandy both proved the immediacy of a formerly more or less theoretical threat and showed that it can bring a major American city to its knees. (Katrina’s hit on New Orleans should have accomplished that, but it didn’t, perhaps because NOLA has long lived with the possibility of flooding or because Wall Street is not in New Orleans.) Enough so that resilience is now even a US Senate topic in the form of the STRONG (Strengthening the Resiliency of Our Nation on the Ground) Act introduced post-Sandy by senators from NY, NJ and Massachusetts.

Increasing resilience has long been a reaction to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Building codes are updated; procedures for the aftermath are put in place (though never adequate for a worse-than-the-previous event). They tend, though, to lose out to complacency. In some of the areas devastated by the tsunami that hit Japan, there were century-old stone markers placed after a previous tsunami warning people not to build closer to the shore. But when no tsunamis occurred for a while, the stones were ignored and forgotten. Resilience itself may not be resilient, at least not to the effects of time.

"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants," the stone slab reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point." Source: Huffington Post

“High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” Source: Huffington Post






Sandy-type disasters are not likely to fade with time. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos and the like generally don’t have patterns to their frequency or scale. And it used to be that climate disasters like drought or flooding didn’t either. But where the former are truly natural – “acts of God” – we can no longer say the same is true of the latter.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that Sandy or the Midwest drought wouldn’t have occurred were it not for our environmental “sins.” (Hmm, there must be a religion somewhere that believes these events were indeed acts of God in response to those sins.) But without several anthropocenic multipliers, their effects would certainly have been less. And as there is no foreseeable diminishment of those influences (CO2 levels are not falling, marshes and mangroves are not being re-established, shore development is not abating), it’s apparent that, unlike truly natural disasters, the frequency and scale of climate-related disasters will only escalate.

Which brings us back to resilience and the question of how we deal with the prospect of future disasters. The EcoOptimist in me has somewhat mixed feelings about emphasizing resilience. My  reservations derive from two related issues. The first is that the pursuit of resilience can be seen as the equivalent of throwing in the towel and conceding defeat to the inevitability of climate disruption. The second is that, in our binary either-or thought process, an emphasis on resilience is all too likely to occur at the expense of actions and investments that might diminish the causes of climate disruption (thus in fact leading to that same defeat). The costs of adapting cities will surely divert funds from programs to curtail CO2 emissions.

In a recent talk, I divided climate actions into three categories: prevention, mitigation and adaptation. Prevention is the primary path we’ve been pursuing. Though there’ve been some successes (for example, acid rain), there have been far more failures, mostly in the form of opportunities not taken. This is highly unfortunate because, aside from the obvious reasons, virtually every study has shown that prevention is the least costly approach. It’s going to cost a fortune to build seawalls to protect NYC. If we (or had we) spent that kind of money on cutting greenhouse gases, we’d be far ahead of the game – especially since that investment would provide future returns that seawalls don’t.

Storm surge barrier locations proposed for NYC starting in 2004 after a study predicting the flooding from a “superstorm.” Image is from New York Sea Grant.

Storm surge barrier locations proposed for NYC starting in 2004 after a study predicting the flooding from a “superstorm.” Image is from New York Sea Grant.














Unfortunately, there’s a fundamental question now of whether it’s too late for prevention. If we somehow found the political resolve, could we actually obviate the need for remedial steps? In other words, could the train of global warming be stopped in time? There is a built in lag factor, a delay between the time greenhouse gases are released and its impacts are felt. So the warming of the next bunch of years or decades is preordained.

Hence the need to turn to the next steps: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is finding ways to diminish the impact (versus preventing it). In the case of flooding events like Sandy and Katrina, mitigation would involve efforts such as preservation or recreation of wetlands that can absorb the water. Even oysters, it turns out, can have a role. In addition to their ability to cleanse polluted waters, oyster beds can also slow tidal surges.

“Oyster-tecture” reefs proposed by Scape/Landscape Architecture for storm surge protection in NY harbor. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Rising Currents” in 2010.

“Oyster-tecture” reefs proposed by Scape/Landscape Architecture for storm surge protection in NY harbor. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Rising Currents” in 2010.


Mitigation can also involve less natural methods ranging from porous pavement to the further extreme of storm-surge barriers or seawalls. Here in NY, the stage is being set for a classic environmental battle, with a group led by Governor Cuomo promoting construction of a many-billion dollar barrier and opposition led by Mayor Bloomberg questioning the feasibility of a seawall. (The third camp, deniers, holds little sway here.) The Bloomberg camp points out that, even if the barrier worked when needed, it would have very large environmental impacts of its own and would also merely deflect the water elsewhere, perhaps increasing the damage in neighboring areas. Stalemate.

Hierarchically, mitigation is the path necessitated by the failure of prevention. Adaptation, then, is required when both prevention and mitigation fail. Focusing again on Sandy and NYC, adaptation responses range from elevating buildings (or at least their necessary services) to abandonment of low-lying areas. It would include making our electricity supply better able to endure partial interruptions and our transit systems able to stop flooding or at least recover faster (and cheaper) from it. In larger terms, we’d make our food supply less dependent on transport over long distances.  It’s making our human support system more resilient, in short.

It also is pretty much writing off the idea of returning our planet – and us – to some semblance of sustainability. Andrew Zolli, often called a futurist, wrote recently “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.” The problem with resorting to resilience is that, if the world is still imbalanced, you have to keep moving the goal posts. If we don’t stop global warming, how high will sea levels rise and will the barriers we construct in this part of the century be adequate for the future? Similar questions arise concerning food supplies (or food security, as it’s coming to be known) or, say, infectious diseases spread by climate-driven insect migrations. And those are only some of the impacts that we can try to foresee; how many other side effects might we not have the smarts to anticipate?

EcoOptimism, with its implicit assumption that solutions are available, would have us focus on prevention. It’s much smarter to spend money on ‘front of tailpipe’ solutions — actions that nip the problem before it occurs — than on much more expensive and likely less predictable end of tailpipe reactions. But at this stage in our non-committal response to climate disruption, we’ve almost certainly committed ourselves, by default, to a mix of both positive actions, ideally taken by choice, and necessary involuntary reactions: an all of the above combination of prevention, mitigation and adaptation.

That’s a key point; resilience is undertaken when we realize we have no options left. The seas are going to rise. Crops are going to be disrupted. Storms are going to get stronger. We will have to take responsive measures. (We may call them precautionary, but there’s no “pre” involved. We’re past that.)

Not that resilience is bad. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve come to the point in terms of climate disruption where there’s a strong case to be made for it: for adaptation rather than prevention. We’re talking about building the bomb shelters instead of defusing the bombs. And those bunkers were never going to help much in a post-nuclear war world.

EcoOptimistic solutions are ones that deliver benefits both ecologically and economically, and leave us in a better place than we started. Carbon fees are a perfect example. Assuming the fees are revenue-neutral, we end up with a productive reallocation in which we tax and disincentivize the “bads” while promoting the goods.

Multi-billion dollar seawalls that play catch up with ever-rising oceans are not optimistic endeavors in any sense. Nor is diverting Missouri River waters to the west. These are last ditch efforts that only provide temporary fixes. Zolli writes “Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves.” Resilience, by this description, incorporates both mitigation and adaptation. But it assumes the waves and ignores prevention. I despise metaphors (it always seems there’s a metaphor to prove any point), but it’s the equivalent of adding life preservers rather than making the boat more seaworthy. Or, better yet, altering course to avoid the storm. More life preservers might make sense if you’re already in the storm. We’re probably encountering the outer rings of the storm, and it may or may not be too late to change course. The smart thing to do is choose a new heading, while there are still some choices available, and while holding drills and battening down the hatches just in case.

Fit to be Untied

Were it not for the fact that the original product involved here is totally unnecessary in the first place, this Worst Product Award nomination might have gotten a split decision from the “judges,” i.e. me.



On the one hand, the Magnetie could be seen as a form of dematerialization because it means the wearer no longer needs a tie clasp. If you’re a tie wearer though, you may respond that you never use a clasp anyway, what with those little fabric loop thingies on the back of the tie serving almost the same function. I think the last time I saw one was on Mad Men.

Photo lifted from GQ

Photo lifted from GQ











On the other hand, the tie now gets to do double duty because it’s reversible and can even have a different pattern on each side. So you could rationalize that it takes the place of two ties.

But then there’s the recycling issue. The tie is no longer made of a single material and now requires pieces to be separated later in life. (Does it get recycled with metals?)

I say let’s dematerialize the whole darn thing. I’ll admit a bias here. I’ve been fortunate to have not worked in situations where ties were de rigueur. And my “go to” tie for those times when I do need one is made from a recycled seat belt, so I guess it serves as a statement and not just an ornament.

Ties must have had a purpose at some point in time, but no longer, at least as far as I can tell. They’re no more than an affectation, used to display self-importance, if not of the wearer then of the business or profession that often requires ties. (OK, that’s a bit heavy-handed, but really: what ARE they for?)

Given my recent rant about holiday gifts, it’s unlikely there will be any ties, magnetic or otherwise, under my tree. And that’s just fine.

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations


Wrongest Product Award nominations are open! Send your nominees to ImNotBuyinIt (at)

The New – and Improved — Economy

The core of EcoOptimism is that, contrary to popular and political belief, we have solutions that can simultaneously address economic and ecological problems – and, what’s more, land us in a better place than we started. If you’re into biomimicry, think of these solutions as our attempts at symbiosis.

So when a couple of items lauding examples of symbiotic solutions landed here, it seemed more than appropriate to conjure an EcoOptimism post out of them.


illustration: Lori Greenberg/Bergworks










From The Nation, an article titled “It’s the New Economy, Stupid” explains “What many progressive advocates are calling a “new economy” framework emphasizes not just new jobs but also new policies that simultaneously create a fair economy, a clean environment and a strong democracy.” In the new economy, conventional production and consumption are rethought in favor of alternatives that result in goods rather than “bads,” satisfying jobs with futures, and lifestyles that allow us to flourish.

win-win-smAn example: that article in The Nation refers to a Tellus Institute study that concluded “the United States could create more than 2 million jobs by 2030 by transforming our waste management from incinerators and landfills to recycling and composting. Many of the jobs could shift from large private corporations to municipal unions. [T]his shift would tackle the environment, equity and racial justice all in one shot.” A no-brainer, no?

Another example arrived as an op-ed in The New York Times this week: In “Going Beyond Carbon Dioxide,” the authors address a serious roadblock in solving global warming: CO2 is persistent and reversing its impact is often compared to stopping a train or a cargo freighter. “[E]ven if we are able to [reduce CO2 emissions by as much as half by 2050] over the next 40 years, we would not slow the rate of warming enough by midcentury to moderate consequences like rising sea levels, the release of methane and carbon dioxide from melting arctic permafrost, and a rise in extreme weather.”

Pretty pessimistic stuff. But, they write, there is a viable short-term alternative:

We can slow this warming quickly by cutting emissions of four other climate pollutants: black carbon, a component of soot; methane, the main component of natural gas; lower-level ozone, a main ingredient of urban smog; and hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used as coolants. They account for as much as 40 percent of current warming.

Unlike carbon dioxide, these pollutants are short-lived in the atmosphere. If we stop emitting them, they will disappear in a matter of weeks to a few decades. We have technologies to do this, and, in many cases, laws and institutions to support these cuts.

The article continues, pointing out both the feasibility of these actions and the very positive environmental results.  But then the authors go on to point out that, in addition to halving the rate of global warming, there are multiple other benefits such as preventing “an estimated two to four million deaths from air pollution and avoid[ing] billions of dollars of crop loss annually….Many of these actions would improve public health and crop yields in the countries making the reductions, and perhaps encourage them to go further.”

There is a risk, of course, in that pursuing this approach we might fool ourselves into rationalizing that we can avoid dealing with CO2, but that’s not a valid reason to skip what appears to be a clearly win-win program.

Why aren’t we already on these paths? The answer brings us back to the previous EcoOptimism post. As The Nation authors comment “For this movement to grow, it needs three things: a more compelling story of the new economy, more support for local pilot projects and strategic wins at the national level.  When it comes to building a narrative, a more attractive new-economy vision has to be constructed….” Which is the point I was making when I wrote in a recent post “Now we need to make [this vision] concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).”

So maybe I don’t really need to quote myself, particularly when there seems to be a growing clamor – and ample quotes from others — along the same lines. When the dust settles after the end of semester grading crunch, I hope to “relax” with a few more books including Gus Speth’s America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy and Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet. I’m hoping the backlog on my reading list represents a sort of critical mass portending the inevitability of a new economy.

Here Comes the Stuff

Don’t buy me any gifts for the holiday season.

Not that you were planning to (I assume!), but that’s not the point. I’m “consumed,” as it were, by the quantity of things surrounding me and by emotions like garbage guilt. I look around at most of the stuff in store windows and catalogs, and realize that, not only do I not need most of it, I don’t even want a lot of it. Our place is full. If anything, we need to shed possessions. Clothes we rarely wear. Books we rarely read. (Why is it so hard to get rid of books?) Sentimental things we’ve been given but don’t know where to put. Unthinking things we’ve been given and would rather not find a place for.

I’m happy that we have no hamburger-patty-maker type kitchen appliances, and not only because we don’t have anywhere to store them.

When I look at those things, I can’t help it: I see all the materials and energy that went into making them, and I see the space indefinitely occupied in the landfills that they’ll end up in, often sooner rather than later. That’s what I mean by garbage guilt.

Yeah, I know that’s no way to look at a festive season, or at the well wishes and good intentions of those who give gifts. Bah humbug, Grinch and all that. But really I’m happy with – and prefer to have – those well wishes of my relatives and friends, just without the material encumbrances. Let’s have a meal or go to a movie together. Or send a donation to a charity.

Plus I’m picky and hard to buy for, but that’s another topic entirely.

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss




Our apartment is decent sized by NYC standards, though tiny, I’m sure, compared to many a suburban home. It’s certainly much larger than Graham Hill’s Life Edited apartment ten blocks away or many of the other micro digs featured these days in TreeHugger and Inhabitat. But it’s overflowing with stuff, as is our storage space crosstown. Factor in that I’d much rather be a minimalist, and it really doesn’t (or does!) add up.

And this is without venturing into the even more guilt ridden point that there are others who need things far more than I do. So I don’t think I’m being a killjoy in dampening the consumer wave.  (You know, the one that’s supposed to rescue the economy.) What’s the point in having (or being given) something you don’t need – or worse, don’t like? Actually, I think the concept is quite positive.

When you start looking at stuff this way, it quickly becomes a weight on your shoulders. I don’t want go all Buddhist or something on you, but I truly think I’d be happier with fewer material things. I’m not alone in that either. On this week, a post is titled “Married father of two seeks Best Christmas Ever. No presents allowed.” But Greg (the author of the post) and I are apparently far from the norm. His idea was deemed so unusual that it warranted not one, but two, film crews and interviews.

Like Greg, I grew up with a mountain of gifts, piled in our case beneath a “Hannukah bush.” (In my teen years, we developed early eco traditions of using the Sunday “Funnies” for wrapping paper and buying live trees, which I would lug out the patio door and plant in the back yard on New Year’s Day – having dug the hole at Thanksgiving.) I remember not being able to sleep on the Christmas Eve when I strongly suspected there was a train set awaiting me on sawhorses in the basement. For theoretically Jewish kids, we made out great. Of course the holidays should be joyous for kids and gifts are part of that. But let it be things with meaning, not plastic throw-aways. I loved that train set and spent many a weekend building elaborate landscapes for it. There were many other gifts, though, whose longevity could be counted in hours.

Fortunately I don’t work in a company where we have Secret Santas. If I did, would it be acceptable for the wrapping to enclose a card acknowledging a charity donation? Or perhaps a gift certificate to a local business? I’d be plenty happy receiving either.

However, if you’re still unconvinced, there are of course things I covet. (That enlightened I’m not.)  But they tend to be expensive and electronic, so I’ll settle for a fun dinner at a local joint.

Less is More, More or Less

Thanksgiving, the celebration of bounty, seemed a completely appropriate time to contemplate the corollary concept of enough. Hence one of my tasks for the weekend (why do I always think a day or two off, or even a long plane flight, will give me the time to catch up on everything?) was to read the advance copy of Enough Is Enough sent me by co-author Rob Dietz. A bit overoptimistic I was. I’ll blame the lingering L-tryptophan effect. But I’ve only missed the goal by a bit.

Dietz is the executive director of an organization called CASSE or the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, a mouthful as large as the (first) slice of leftover pumpkin pie I had for breakfast on several of the days following the feast. “Enough Is Enough” rolls off the tongue much more easily (than CASSE, not pumpkin pie), and the strong, memorable title makes me almost wish CASSE would change its name to accompany the book.

The basic tenet of the steady state economy (or SSE) is an observation that makes complete sense: you can’t have infinite growth in a finite system. Unfortunately, conventional economics – perhaps in an attempt to defy its characterization as the dismal science – says otherwise. Its faith in unending growth portrays it as both possible and desirable.

EcoOptimism, though based (obviously) in optimism, doesn’t subscribe to this delusional belief in the virtues of growth. In another post, I’ll discuss how that self-serving faith is actually more akin – as faith-based ideas tend to be – to a religion than it is to a science. So much so that, in attempting to escape the “dismal science” moniker by being less dismal, conventional economics may have instead lost its reasoned science aspect.

What’s in a name?

Part of the politically untouchable faith in growth derives from the positive nature of the word growth. How could growth possibly be bad or undesirable? And, even after proving that it is, finding an appealing word or phrase to convey that idea is a difficult task, yielding less than positive terms. Ungrowth? Uh uh. Degrowth? No better. Is the opposite of growth diminishment? Nothing appealing in that. Another suggested term, post-growth, gets warmer, but still doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

And so we get to steady state economics. Though it ain’t exactly catchy ( as noted above) SSE at least doesn’t succumb to easy connotations of negativism and survives the first round of sound bite tests. Steadiness, especially when compared to the booms and busts of recent history, has much to be said for itself.

Going Steady

But the goal of SSE is not so much to steady the rough ride of economic cycles as it is the creation of a path for continuing human growth within the constraints of an amazing yet finite planet. And it’s also more than (merely) achieving sustainability. It is the decoupling of economic growth from human flourishing. It is the enabling not just of a future, but of a positive future.

We already know that happiness (yes, I know that’s a mushy subjective quality, but there actually are ways to define and measure it) does not correlate with economic growth, at least not in the long run. In the richer nations (the “developed” world), where essential needs have largely been met, the acquisition of more material things does not lead to happier or more fulfilled lives. And acquiring things is, after all, an integral part of material growth and its measure, the appropriately named Gross Domestic Product. But even with this knowledge (which is not nearly widely enough known), how is the iconoclastic case against growth made? And accepted?

I have nearly the same image in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, but this is from Enough Is Enough












There’s been a plethora of books on this topic of late. I’ve written about some of them before: Prosperity Without Growth, The End of Growth, Plenitude, eearth, et. al. But in virtually every case, what’s been missing from the iron-clad arguments has been an accompanying roadmap. We have a general idea of where we want to go, but no idea – especially not a convincing one – how to get there.

Indeed, this shortcoming is a major part of the purpose behind EcoOptimism. Along with the lack of concrete steps, I’ve been positing that we need verbal descriptions and perhaps graphic illustrations (I must still be in a Thanksgiving state of mind because that made me think of the “twenty seven eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and the paragraph on the back of each one” from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant — but I digress) depicting what our un/re/de/post-growth future will look like.

Happily, Dietz and co-author Dan O’Neill have brought us much closer to answering the how-the-hell-do-we-get-there question. Each chapter in the section “Strategies of Enough” as well as most of the chapters in the third section “Advancing the Economy of Enough” begin by asking “What Are We Doing?” and proceed to “What Could We Do Instead?” Then they move to the part I devoured each time: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Dietz and O’Neill are, of course, thoroughly familiar with the concepts of a Steady State Economy. But, they write, “we had been asking ourselves for some time how a steady-state economy would work in practice.” What are “the policies and transition strategies that would turn [a SSE] vision into a reality?” Those questions, as it happens, are the same ones I’ve been asking since I started focusing on the “New Economy.”

They’ve done a terrific job on the second question. First they demolish the conventional argument that growth is the solution to poverty, poor education and unrepresentative rule as well as pollution (the argument proffered by groups like the WTO and mainstreamed by Bjorn Lomberg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist). Toss out the convenient and misleading metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Our economic history strongly declares otherwise.

Responding to the Econ 101 tenet “Market prices give no reason to believe that natural resources are a limit to economic growth,” they almost literally scream “This statement may be true, but it reveals more about the failure of markets than the absence of limits!” This is the core of an argument many of us have been making in various forms for years: a “free” market can work only if everything is priced accurately. And our current markets, which consider almost every resource and service provided by nature to be free, are far from that point. “Prices often fail to capture the effect of resource depletion, waste generation, and loss of ecosystem services. As a result, the market sends improper signals—if it sends any signal at all—regarding the sustainability of throughput levels. We need to eliminate this market failure….”

What’s Enough?

Making economic growth the measure and the goal does humanity a huge disservice. Growth, in the gross unqualified version that we currently reflexively strive for, is a false god asking us to sacrifice everything (our lives, our planet) in search of a future nirvana that cannot possibly be the result. The problem, putting aside such relevant constraints as physics and, yes, economics, is that we’ve set our goal on the wrong sight. “More” is not only unachievable; it is undesirable. And the opposite of more is not less; it’s enough – provided that what we achieve enough of is what we in fact need to grow qualitatively. This becomes a two-part question: first, what is “enough,” meaning what sates us and leaves us better off than we started and, second, how do we get to that state?

We can continue the overly obvious Thanksgiving analogy here. For most of us, the quantity of the food leaves us with that content but overstuffed lagginess and perhaps the feeling that we overdid it. We certainly could live without it, though most of us would choose not to. Why? Because we enjoy the ritual, the company … and the food. What, more precisely, is it that makes the holiday so valued to so many? It’s not the amounts of food that we often wish we had exercised a bit more willpower to resist. It’s the circumstance, the associations and the experience (both social and sensorial), not the amount of food. In a crude way, this sums up the difference between the economy of growth and the economy of enough. Economic growth, after a point, does not translate to improved well-being. And after that point – the point at which basic life needs have been met — our economic and social goals should change course.

This does not by any means signify stagnation, which is perhaps the main problem with the term steady state – it’s vulnerable to being misinterpreted as a call to sacrifice. In reality, it’s the opposite of sacrifice; it’s finding the true value and measure of progress. As Dietz and O’Neil more succinctly put it: “the economy can develop qualitatively without growing quantitatively.”

It’s People!

Environmentalists all know that our problems stem from the combination of too much consumption (or rather, unnecessary and inefficient consumption primarily by people in the rich nations) and too many people (who, increasingly, are in the poorer nations). And therefore any real solution has to address both problems.  While the first part is certainly key, the second part – population growth – is the elephant in the room. It’s an incredibly delicate and laden topic. To its credit, Enough Is Enough doesn’t skip over it, as most such discussions do. “We need smaller footprints but,” they emphasize, “we also need fewer feet.”

The authors underscore the point that the number of unintentional pregnancies in the world each year (80 million) is equivalent to the annual growth of the human population. This means we don’t need to dive into heavy-handed intrusive programs like the Chinese one-child-per-family rule. We can achieve steady population through education and voluntary birth control.

The Role of Wall Street

When I discuss ecodesign in my classes, I emphasize that there are two ways to approach changing the environmental impact of a product. One is the “tweak,” which involves one or more relatively small and incremental changes to the design. The other is the “innovation,” which demands rethinking the problem (often by rephrasing the question) to find alternative ways of achieving the result the product provides. Often this leads to what has come to be called disruptive technology, a fancy phrase for a new way to do something that reduces the old to history. Think Internet versus encyclopedias. Or 3D printing replacing mass production.

I found myself categorizing the suggestions within Enough Is Enough the same way. Many of their proposals required minor alterations to our current ways of doing things. Others, though, are more like the “square one” approach. For instance, in the chapter “Enough Debt,” they propose some fundamental changes to how the financial world operates, ranging from the technical (requiring reserves on loans to be 100%) to the structural (decreasing the size and power of financial institution below the “too big to fail” level and – here comes the part that will elicit protests of socialism – democratizing the means of production).

Instead of hailing and idolizing the financial arena as the source of investment and growth as we currently do, the authors say we should be viewing it as a cost. “The fewer resources needed to accomplish this service [helping money to flow where it’s needed in the economy], the better off society is. So we should aim to minimize the cost represented by the financial sector—it should account for as small a percentage of total economic activity as possible.” We’ve come to see the financial world as an end in itself (how’s the market doing today?), forgetting in the process that its purpose is to be a means to the improvement of our lives. “Instead of focusing on using money to make more money, financiers should be focusing on serving a stable economy, an equitable society, and a healthy biosphere.”

Enough is (Almost) Enough

Enough Is Enough does an admirable job of making the off-putting topic of SSE much more approachable and enticing, but (ironically) leaves me still wanting more. The authors fully understand that “for people to embrace the concept of a steady-state economy, they need to understand how it would work and why it would be preferable to what they’ve become accustomed to.” They’ve brought us much closer to this point, but I came away still wanting to know what it will feel like and look like and how we will experience it.

This shortcoming – and I’m nitpicking through an exceptional book – strengthens the underlying need for what I see as a primary mission of the EcoOptimism blog: providing that visceral taste of a positive future. Enough Is Enough lays the policy groundwork. Now we need to make it concrete and present it in a form people can relate to in order to convince an understandably skeptical populace.  This requires the merging of policy wonk-dom with the visioning and communicating designers can provide (with perhaps some added oomph from the PR and advertising worlds).

Dietz and O’Neill write “An enlightened transformation to a steady-state economy is a profoundly hopeful prospect.” Not one of doom and gloom or involving sacrificing the “American way of life.” The overriding need is to develop and successfully present this thoroughly desirable future so that we will pursue it, not because we have to but because we want to. Enough Is Enough is a major step on that path.

Enough Is Enough will be released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers on January 7, 2013