books growth sustainability

Shoveling fuel for a runaway train, by Brian Czech

“American society has no greater obsession than with economic growth” says Brian Czech in the first chapter of Shoveling fuel for a runaway train: errant economists, shameful spenders and a plan to stop them all. It is an obsession fed by the media, government, and citizens themselves, a self-reinforcing philosophy of more. It is hardwired into our culture, and so universal is the consensus that economic growth is a good thing that the possibility of limits isn’t even discussed.

But there are limits to growth – it’s a matter of common sense. It’s also a matter of physics, and the book explains Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s thermodynamics-inspired theories of economics. And it’s a matter of biology. Conservationists understand the idea of ‘carrying capacity’, the maximum population that can be sustained in a given space. Economists apparently don’t.

In the face of this kind of communal blindness, Czech argues that economics needs a ‘Copernican revolution’. The Ptolemaic earth-centric understanding of the universe became increasingly shaky as science developed, and finally fell apart when Copernicus showed that the planets in fact orbited around the sun. Economics is in a similar shape, an unsustainable model patched together with ideas about de-coupling and substitutability.

The steady state economy will eventually replace it, and the idea of endless growth will crumble away. Czech sees this as a cultural change, and talks more about society than about government policy or a new macroeconomics. His solutions focus on cultural attitudes. ‘Growth’ has mostly positive connotations, for example, and we have been “conditioned to appreciate, cheer and serve” economic growth. But not all growth is equal, so we need a new name to distinguish the good from the bad. Czech settles on ‘economic bloating’.

There are also some odder ideas. Czech is a conservation biologist by training, and he devotes a surprising amount of time comparing people to elk or peacocks. In these species, the males show off their ‘wealth’ and strength, and the females choose a mate based on their display. Reading rather directly from this, he suggests women have “a special role to play in the steady state revolution”, by choosing not to marry rich men. It’s a rather simplistic read on how humans choose each other, in my opinion.

Shunning rich people is something of a theme. Using Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Czech suggests that showy consumerism is a failure to move forward developmentally, a craving for esteem from others when we should be moving on to self-actualization. Therefore, the really rich “tend to have serious intellectual and social shortcomings” and “pity and revulsion should be applied to the liquifying class in all types of social situations.”

This ‘liquifying class’ is where the theory begins to go astray, because Czech basically divides the whole of society into three classes. There are the filthy rich, who he calls the ‘liquifying class’. This is the top 1% of spenders, “the man with the 10,000 square foot home, the 100-foot swimming pool”. The flipside of the liquifiers is the ‘steady state class’, which is a full 80% of people, with an ‘amorphic class’ of undecideds in-between. Make showy consumerism socially unacceptable, persuade people that they don’t need to be excessively rich, and the job’s done.

This makes no sense to me. I disagree with the idea that “you have to be rich to be a liquidator”, and that 80% of us can be let off the hook. The average American uses five times their fair share of the earth’s resources, the average European consumes three times an equitable share. Surely only one-planet living can really be described as a ‘steady state’ lifestyle?

There don’t appear to be any poor people in Czech’s classes either. He mentions poverty here and there, but doesn’t suggest that anybody needs more. No talk of redistribution here. I can only assume that this class theory is a result of a US-centric book. There is no global perspective at all, little awareness of just how bloated American society actually is when compared to Asian or African lifestyles. By looking no further than the United States, the problem becomes the 1% who spend the most. If anything, those percentages are reversed – perhaps 1% of Americans are living genuinely sustainable lives, with an amorphic inbetween and 80% consuming far too much. For all the insights at the beginning of the book, the solutions in the second half drastically underestimate the problem.

I don’t want to sound too harsh. This is an ‘exhortation’ to social change, not an economics manifesto, and on that level it works. It’s also worth mentioning that Shoveling fuel for a runaway train was written in 1998. That makes it a forerunner to much of the current discussion about the steady state economy, and ahead of its time. Czech has made the steady state understandable, bringing it out of economics circles and putting it into layman’s terms, and he is doing wonderful things with CASSE. It’s an easy read and describes the problem well, and it is spot on about economic growth being a cultural problem. You just might want to turn elsewhere for the solutions.


  1. I would agree that Brian’s book is a bit rocky in the second half. He could do well to release a revised edition to improve that, but the first half is a solid argument against continued growth.

    I believe he does hit somewhat of a realistic idea of what a social revolution in the US would have to look like, roughly, or what it would need to succeed at current (or 1998) levels. Perhaps he avoids the topic of an international view in order to focus on the US – the biggest, baddest consumers of them all. If we recognized the need for a steady state, that would be a big international development (not to discount other countries, any of whom would be just as big of a deal).

    Sure, most Americans are using way more than their fare share (in a global sustainability view), but in a social revolution you must make some account for relativity. I would infer that Brian’s meaning is to start the ball rolling, using the majority of the US (who, relative to the US, make less, consume less, than the “fat cats” in power). Hopefully this will inspire more reflection in our consumption and once the ball is rolling it can push us all to a lower consumption, more sustainable lifestyle.

    I was inspired by the concept of a social revolution, though I would agree more with your view points on the necessary scale that Brian doesn’t really hit, I still think Brian’s overall view is a good one. Of course, I did name my blog after his concept of a “Steady State Revolution.” 🙂

    Great review, Jeremy! And nice work getting the “hat tip” from nef’s recent blog post!


  2. It’s been quite a while since I read this outstanding book, but I seem to recall that his description of the process of marginalizing the uber-rich was just the beginning of the transition.

    And if your problem is with focusing on only the most-consuming 20% of the population, you (and Brian) are talking about U.S. population. Could it be Brian was referring to 20% of the world’s population? I don’t recall.

    Thanks for bringing more attention to this book.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

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