"Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist" – Kenneth Boulding

"Gross National Product measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile." – Robert F. Kennedy

Growing the economy is not only a good thing, but the only thing. This message barrages us daily from the media, Wall Street, and politicians. But wait a minute. Can economic growth continue indefinitely? Doesn’t our biosphere have limited resources? What happens when we hit the downward slope of the earth’s ability to supply for our needs and economic growth is no longer physically possible? Is our attention even on the right area – does endless economic growth really matter to our happiness, our quality of life?

Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, a book written by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, addresses these questions and more. The book kicks off with some sobering numbers:

  • 7 billion people on earth, with 2.7 billion scraping by on less than $2 per day.
  • 394 parts per million of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere, threatening to destabilize the global climate.
  • $15 trillion of public debt in the United States, an unfathomable sum of money to be paid back by the next generation.
  • 2 percent of adults owning more than half of all household wealth in the world.
  • 400 ocean zones devoid of life, with the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico estimated to cover almost as much area as the U.S. state of New Jersey.

These numbers highlight the growing shadow looming over the current obsession over economic growth throughout the world. The authors lay out how our current economic approach, which they dub the ‘economy of more,’ is damaging the environment, society, and the economy itself. Their main message highlights the alternative of shifting from an economy of more to an economy of ‘enough.’

The authors point to the need for paying attention to earth’s ecological limits, better indicators of economic progress, and more equitably distributing wealth (which they show results in a more vibrant economy and improves quality of life). They suggest numerous practical actions to move toward an economy of enough, aka a ‘steady state economy.’

The authors define a steady state economy:

It’s an economy in which material and energy use are kept within ecological limits, and in which the goal of increasing GDP is replaced by the goal of improving quality of life.

After an introduction and overview, the central portion of the book contains chapters looking at specific issues with the current economic system, such as resource use, population, unemployment, debt and the monetary system, and consumer behavior. For each of these topics, the authors ask and then answer three straightforward questions:

  • What are we doing?
  • What could we do instead?
  • Where do we go from here?

On the topic of providing for our well-being, the heart of economics, the authors summarize work by The New Economics Foundation identifying five ways to improve well-being:

  • Connect – Build relationships with the people around you
  • Be active – Pursue a physical activity you enjoy
  • Take notice – Be curious, be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling, live in the moment
  • Keep learning – Try something new, set a challenge you will enjoy achieving
  • Give – Express gratitude and help others

Beyond the obvious pre-requisite of having enough to provide for basic needs, these actions do not depend on increasing one’s wealth. The economy of enough builds on this wisdom, with the goal of maximizing long-term well-being in place of short-term profits.

This is an important book. A book with such a lofty goal as changing the current fixation on economic growth might appear to be tilting at windmills, Don Quixote style. On the contrary, the authors take a down-to-earth approach as they matter-of-factly acknowledge the real-world challenges facing changing our current economic approach and lay out common sense steps needed to create change.

The authors articulate a clear alternative to the fixation on economic growth in the face of mounting evidence that it is unsustainable. At the same time, their solution also addresses the current issue of the spoils of economic activity increasingly falling into the hands of those who least need it, reducing the current economy’s social sustainability. 

Enough is Enough details why Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is poor measure of economic vitality. As Robert Kennedy pointed out, much of what matters is not measured by this often cited economic indicator. The authors point to alternative measures being used by policy makers in countries including the UK, such as the Happy Planet Indicator or HPI. The HPI as of 2005 showed Costa Rica as the country in the number 1 position while the United States was in 114th position (out of 143 countries). Beyond having enough, increasing wealth is not a prescription for happiness.

This book maps out this critical topic in an engaging and approachable way. I found each chapter thought provoking. I came away wanting to act, to be part of the solution.  While filled with facts, data, and pithy arguments, given the topic, the book also contains something unexpected, namely optimism and hope.

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Phil M


Phil M

Phil Mitchell has expertise managing teams, developing businesses, and directing complex projects. His education includes a BS in Civil/Environmental Engineering from UC Davis and an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas

Things I share: My couch, expertise, tools, pickup truck, meals, wine, and conversation.