The Law & The Profits vs. Natural Law & The Prophet: Herman Daly & the Future of the Human Prospect


This is intended as background material for a forthcoming review of a book and tribute to the life-long work and insight of Herman Daly by Peter Victor.  The review will seek to highlight Herman Daly’s impact upon the economics of sustainability and the prospect of human survival in the global ecosystem.

[…  forthcoming in response to the publication of Peter Victor’s book on the life and work of Herman Daly:]


A related recent online event:

Speakers are: Herman Daly, Peter Victor, Katherine Trebeck, Ellie Perkins and Tim Jackson.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021
6.30–8pm (UK time)


The USA and UK, like so many countries, face a grave dilemma: how to regain pre-pandemic levels of economic activity and growth while reducing the already excessive environmental impacts of climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and contamination of air land and water. The ‘code red alert’ of the most recent IPCC report on climate change exemplifies the seriousness of these problems but it is only one of several globally significant environmental threats crying out for attention. The dilemma is that a return to unending economic growth, especially in advanced economies, is unlikely to be the answer.

Herman Daly is one of very few professional economists in the world who has devoted his entire career to resolving this dilemma. His economics for a full world has been widely recognised through numerous national and international prestigious prizes and awards. His pathbreaking work on the steady-state economy provides the foundation for new approaches to economics finding favour especially among younger people such as well-being economics, doughnut economics, post-growth economics and degrowth. Daly, born and raised in southern Texas is admired for the clarity of his thinking and expression as well as his kindly manner. He is a founder of ecological economics which views the economy as embedded in and entirely dependent on the biosphere. Nothing in economics could be more relevant to advancing our understanding of and finding solutions for the climate crisis and sustainability.

Take, for example, the multiple ways in which the calculations of “market economics” have driven Earth’s ecosystem to decline and collapse.  The perversion of the “market pricing” of water — and thereby the treatment of water as if it were an “investment asset” for high-speed capital transactions —  is a prime example of the danger that Herman Daly warned against.  He consistently pointed to the absolute failure of standard economic thought when it came to assessing value in a complex ecosystem.  See, for example, the discussion (inspired by Daly’s perspective) of the poverty of standard economic thinking following from its mistaken assumption that “price” can be a measure of value in a complex ecosystem.


[A forthcoming essay will explore this core problem.  It will be based upon the newly published book by Peter Victor from Routledge Press and a variety of Herman Daly’s published work drawn from numerous sources].

Many outside the realm of professional economists understand the fundamental critique of Herman Daly’s work in these terms….

For key insights available from Herman Daly’s work as it is embraced beyond economics see particularly:

Herman Daly’s impact beyond the limited framework of market-oriented economists is often misunderstood or simply ignored on the part of those whose orientation to the world began in the guild of professional economists.  The problem with this perspective is that the “sand box” of professional economics is too small.  Herman Daly understood this from the outset because he was not embarrassed to explore at the economic logic of creation itself.  He realized that we live in a world we did not create, we cannot control and we must not destroy.   As he saw it, his task was to try to convert economists into realizing that what they thought they were focusing upon — human strategies for species-specific utilitarianism — was itself too small for survival in a complex ecosystem.  Their approach was akin to arguing that …. “we should protect the whales because we want to assure the maximum satisfaction of the whale-watchers.”

Herman Daly realized that this was too myopic as the basic orientation of the profession of economics.  Instead, he began to re-assess economics as a field as if it were a subset of a functioning ecosystem which could only persist over time by delivering a “return” to all of its constituent species.  As any ecologist will point out, there is no “centricity” in an ecosystem.   It only functions as a system as a continuous system of exchange of matter governed by the second law of thermodynamics. 

Hence, in reality, there could be no such thing as an anthropocentric economics if it wished to be honest about the human role in a functioning ecosystem.   As a species we do not photosynthesize.  We depend inescapably upon organisms that can photosynthesize, so there is an upper limit on the human prospect set by the trophic structure of the entire global ecosystem system.   Economists that devise systems of “maximum return” for the human species alone are sadly accelerating our own extinction as a species because their perspective ignores that no matter how clever we are, humankind cannot transcend the second tropic level in an ecosystem. 

Herman Daly realized the approach of neo-classical economics was too small-minded for the task at hand.  Even in our day with groups devoted to “ecological economics,” Daly’s insights suggest that their world is too small.  Many of them have spent their time sadly devoted to the fruitless effort to “modernize” or “update” the vocabulary and analytical tools of professional neo-classical economics to a world that is just beginning to realize that humans live in an ecosystem.   This has lead to the “greening of economics” more often than it has to a full-blown and much needed re-assessment of the ecological basis of all human production and exchange behavior.  

This is perhaps why, Herman Daly’s writings and insights have had a far greater impact outside the field of professional economists.  He recognized and showed us all very clearly why the discipline of “market economics” itself is bankrupt as a framework for human survival in a functioning ecosystem. 

His influence among non-economists has been to point out — and through the gist of his writings illustrate again and again — that economists are the people who may know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.  This insight resonates with anyone who is NOT a professional economist and has experienced the frustrations of the “un-real” calculations made by economists concerning their very own lives.

It is no mystery, therefore, why Herman Daly’s work has not been resoundingly applauded by professional economists.  Yet the totality of his work has been crucial for the evolution of human sensibilities on a much larger stage.  When famous public figures like Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers were finally exposed as major advocates of an economics of an illusory policy of “growth über alles” it became clear to the wider world that this American economic system is now — and always has been — built upon major fantasies and illusions about how the ecosystem works.  

The History and Full-Cost Accounting of the “Green Revolution:”

In our day — in the post-Clinton world, no matter what the pundit, James Carville, might wish to quip — it “is NOT the economy, stupid! It is the ecosystem!

Thanks to Herman Daly, this insight is now well established if not fully absorbed or understood.  Some of the difficulties in accepting this framework can be seen in the significant and growing ecological critique of the “Green Revolution” and its aftermath.  Just as Herman Daly underscored that economists had misunderstood that the economic system was a subset of a functioning ecosystem, so too ecological critics of the “Green Revolution” have now made it clear that the problem with the achievements of Norman Borlaug (the “Wizard” founder of the “Green Revolution”) and the generations of his followers is that they misunderstood that sustainable agriculture cannot, and therefore must not, become petro-dependent.

Daly’s critique of economics has therefore paralleled and enabled the ecological critique of the “Green Revolution.”  From this perspective it is apparent that the tragedy of the “Green Revolution” in historical perspective is that Borlaug and his followers have succeeded in a record-short period of time in converting the global agricultural ecosystems from solar-based technologies to petro-intensive technologies in the post World-War II era.   They thereby created a growing and seemingly irreversible dependence of this “miracle-crop” agriculture upon non-renewable resources — the accelerated use of which has accentuated the emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane to the atmosphere — all of which aggravate climate change.  What, therefore, looked initially as a remarkably beneficial convergence of “modernized agriculture” has proven to be a slow building ecological catastrophe with the prospect — if current trends are not reversed — of victimizing billions of humans in the future whose ancestors it was designed explicitly to benefit.  This represents not not only a poorly executed set of individual agricultural development schemes, but rather a more fundamentally flawed petro-dependent logic upon which all “modernized” agriculture is based.

For an illuminating presentation of the grand differences in approach to the understanding of humankind’s primary production systems — that is, its agriculture and its evolution and prospects for future survival — see the discussions about the agriculture of the “green revolution” that in many regards parallels Herman Daly’s critique of neo-classical economics:

Those interested in exploring Herman Daly’s wider impact in this “larger-world” ecosystem can view some talks and short essays written under his influence for the theologians at the Harvard Divinity School

We look forward to reading Peter Victor’s new book to see if it reflects some of these aspects of Herman Daly’s larger impact on human consciousness.  Herman Daly’s genius is that he has allowed us all to begin to envision what will be needed from now onward for an effective transition to a sustainable future for humankind on this small planet — the only life-supporting planet in the known universe.  There is no planet “B.”  We only have one Earth.  We only get once chance.

T.C Weiskel

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