Revised 3 September 2021

The ecological constraints on population and technological growth will inevitably lead to social and economic systems different from the ones in which we live today. In order to survive, humankind will have to develop what might be called steady state. The steady state formula is so different from the philosophy of endless quantitative growth, which has so far dominated Western civilization, that it may cause widespread public alarm.” -  Rene Dubos, 1969.

The concept of a steady state for humankind is not new. In 322 BC Aristotle (2009) stated: 

"Most persons think that a state in order to be happy ought to be large; but even if they are right, they have no idea of what is a large and what is small state...  To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled." 

John Stuart Mill wrote the following in his 1848 book Principles of Political Economy:

 "If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it. … It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the art of living and much more likelihood of its being improved". (Mill, 1965, p751-4)

John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose prescriptions played a dominant role in directing the global economy out of the 1930's depression, believed that the age of growth was only a temporary one and that in the meantime "foul is useful and fair is not" until we have passed through the growth phase, "the tunnel of economic necessity" (Keynes, 1971)

Arthur Cecil Pigou was an English economist at the University of Cambridge where he trained many Cambridge economists who went on to fill chairs of economics around the world. His main contribution to economics was in the field of welfare economics in which he introduced the concept of externality and the idea that externality problems could be corrected by the imposition of a Pigovian tax. The externality concept remains central to modern welfare economics and particularly to environmental economics.

In 1935, Pigou published the book The Economics of Stationary State as an academic exercise:

“In one sense this book is merely an introductory prelude to economics; for it has nothing to say of processes of change or conditions of disequilibrium. But over the field it covers it aims at being thorough. Starting with very simple conditions and thereafter introducing successive complications, it builds up a picture of the way in which fundamental economic forces work themselves out. The forces are, of course, no less present in a moving than a stationary world. 

… in our imagined stationary state no less than in the actual world, the maximum principle is at work; and the fact that the environing conditions are moderately simple enables us to grasp its significance with sureness and precision. This is my excuse, if excuse be needed, for publishing a book of this character. The analysis worked out in this book cannot by itself make any large contribution to the study of real life. It provides a taking-off place, but little more; a first stage only, which needs extensive supplement. The building is much more than the foundation. But, none the less, to take pains over the foundation is not to waste time."

Pigou set out the minimum conditions of steady state:

“In every form of economic stationary state, even the least rigorous, the number, the age distribution, the sex distribution and the quality of the units that make up the population, the total amount of work that they do, and the total stock of capital equipment (as measured in the amount of work and waiting that goes to make it) must all be conceived as constant. Of course stationariness in this sense does not mean frozen fixity; individual drops composing the water-fall are continually in movement, though the waterfall itself remains. Wear and tear take place, but it is always exactly offset by replacement. Moreover, the rates of wear and tear and replacement are constant; there are no jumps involving variations in the aggregate of work done by industries that make capital goods.” 

A copy of Pigou's book in the University of Auckland Library, New Zealand had been borrowed three time by 1936. It was not until 1978 that the book was next borrowed by an architectural student with a background in physics. Focus of economics students and staff had been on growth economics over the intervening decades. The tenet of growth values is found mainly in Western cultures whereas Eastern philosophy has much to offer with their view of humankind as being a part of nature as opposed to dominating nature. The "middle way" in finding the "right livelihood" is one of the requirements of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path (Sangharakshita, 2007). 

*****  To be continued - sources of content. 

1954 Brown, H. The Challenge of Man's Future, New York, The Viking Press, 1954.

1955 Cottrell, F. Energy and Society: The Relationship Between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development. New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1955.

1971 Georgescu-Roegen, N. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1971.

1971 Odum, H.T. Environment, Power, and Society. London, Wiley, 1971. 

1972 Friends of the Earth. The Stockholm Conference: Only One Earth. London, Earth Island Limited, 1972.

1972 Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers, and W.W. Behrens. The Limits to Growth. London, Earth Island Ltd., 1972. 

1973 Daly, H.E., Editor. Towards a Steady-State Economy. San Francisco, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1973.

1974 Schumacher, EF. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. London, Abacus, 1974.

1976 Odum, H.T. and E.G. Odum. Energy Basis for Man and Nature. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1976. 

1977 Ophuls, W. Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. San Francisco, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1977.

1977 Lovins, A.B. Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable Peace. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1977.

1984 Odum, H.T. Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology. Niwot Colorado, University Press of Colorado, 1984 Revised Edition. 

1998 Bossel, H. Earth at a Crossroads: Paths to a Sustainable Future. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

2000 Pearce, D. and E. Barbier. Blueprint for a Sustainable Economy. London, Earthscan Publications Ltd., 2000.