My friend and colleague, Eric Zencey, died on the first day of July this year, 2019. I’ll miss his dry humor and his powerful mind. But most of all, I will miss engaging him on his visionary thinking about our finite planet. Eric and I wrote a book together on the environmental movement in Vermont, Greening Vermont. We were an odd couple to be writing together, he an economist, I a landscape architect, but I think we both learned a lot about each other and the challenges we face in this age of a changing climate.
Eric’s academic work was mostly concerned with a set of alternative indicators of macro-economic performance, known as the genuine progress indicators (GPI). He would patiently explain to those who asked, that while some measures of economic health, most notably our GDP, are based solely on volumes of financial transactions, the GPI takes into account the environmental and societal costs of those transactions. This is a necessary equation he would say because we live on a finite planet and our pursuit of happiness — also known as our pursuit of a robust economy — must not exceed our finite planet’s resources and must distribute the wealth equitably.
Eric took GPI seriously. “If you let the sun dry your clothes, the service is free, there is no economic transaction, and it doesn’t show up in our domestic product; if you throw your laundry in the dryer, you buy and then burn fossil fuel. You’ve made a financial transaction, increased your carbon footprint, made the economy more unsustainable — and ironically you’ve given GDP a bit of a boost.”
Eric would go on to note that “The basic problem is that gross domestic product measures activity, not benefit. If you kept your checkbook the way GDP measures the national accounts, you’d record all the money deposited into your account, make entries for every check you write, and then add all the numbers together. The resulting bottom line might tell you something useful about the total cash flow of your household, but it’s not going to tell you whether you’re better off this month than last or, indeed, whether you’re solvent or going broke.”
The bottom line for Eric was the need to honor the finite nature of the planet’s resources and the dangers of inequitable wealth distribution.
Eric understood that the happiest people in the world are living in countries where the disparity between the rich and the poor is negligible and where consumption does not exceed capacity.
So, by those accounts, in our nation’s case, we’ve probably exceeded the bounds for achieving happiness. We do know that one in five Americans uses food stamps and that the richest 1 percent holds 40 percent of the wealth. New York Times columnists note that it is more correct to refer to ourselves as the 99.9%, as it is more likely that 0.01% of the population owns that 40% of wealth. These figures suggest that no one is happy.
Eric would remind us that we seem to have lost our way, and the pursuit of happiness has become a meaningless exercise in cash flow, devoid of benefit. Too many of us earn too little and too few of us earn too much and we’re all rapidly depleting our finite resources.
What is there to do? Eric talked about what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” let the outmoded economic structures fail and replace them with new, more suitable structures.
Sounds painful. But there needs to be some sort of radical departure from our economic structure that consumes more and more of what we have less and less of and uses less and less of what we have more and more of. We need a system that conserves our natural and cultural resources while it employs our people. We need a common language for the concept of ecological economics. We need to pursue happiness for all without exceeding our ability to replenish our resources.
Eric felt strongly that the GPI needed a home somewhere, a foothold from which to spread the word about measuring happiness and securing it for everyone. That’s why the Gund Institute for Environmental Economics at the University of Vermont created the Eric Zencey Prize for Ecological Economics. The prize of $4,000 issued every other year to a winning author will celebrate the best writing on the planet’s environmental limits and society’s capacity to share.
We need to find that sweet spot where the cost benefit equation is balanced, where the pursuit of happiness doesn’t deplete our finite resources, where there is little disparity between the rich and the poor. Our challenge is to find it quickly and peacefully. The Eric Zencey Prize will help to get us there, by sharing Eric’s visionary thinking. Let’s make it our goal to double the $100,000 pool so the prize can be offered every year. Please give to the fund.
Weekly Planet contributor Elizabeth Courtney is an author, a landscape architect, former chairwoman of Act 250’s Environmental Board and former executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org