Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Full-World Economics"
An exchange on the essay Economics for a Full World

Nancy Folbre

I come to this as a friendly outsider, not an ecological economist, but as a feminist political economist critical of mainstream economics, neoclassical theory, and conventional definitions of GDP.

While I agree with much of what Daly says, I will focus on one disagreement where I hope I can add some value.

I don’t like the “full” vs. “empty” metaphor. It reminds me of a gas tank (except in this case, full is bad, and empty is good).

Much depends on what particular tank, bottle—or, more broadly, what conceptual space—one is referring to. Growth can be defined in many ways, and it is ironic that the definition implicit here—increase in the number of humans and the stuff they produce and consume—invokes a very traditional notion of GDP as material output.

As Robin Hahnel puts it, “A good place to start is by asking precisely what it is that is growing, because often people are not talking about the same thing at all.”

I study primarily services—services of care for others. We can increase both the quantity and the quality of services we provide for others without “filling up” any more space. I also think we can improve our ability to share existing resources and services in efficient and equitable ways, enabling a growth in consumption independent of growth in production. We can consume things other than “stuff.”

Yes, current forms of economic growth are ecologically unsustainable. But this is due not only to filling up space or using up resources, but also to disruption and destabilization of ecological services. “Stuff” is important, but it is not everything. Consider the potential to completely destroy our ecosystem with nuclear war or genetic engineering gone awry.

Daly asks, “Can we produce a ten-pound cake with only one pound of ingredients, simply by using more cooks and ovens?” I love this question, which reminds us that substitutability is limited by taking us into the kitchen. But we do not have to keep living on cake. We can and should find other ways of sustaining ourselves. This will require growth—growth in creativity, in commitment, and in valuable services to others, even as we try to reduce our physical “throughput.”

The fact that I dislike the “full versus empty” metaphor does not mean that I disagree with Daly’s general perspective. In fact, he’s worth at least a million neoclassical economists (which is probably more than actually exist today). Furthermore, he takes up a lot less space.

Nancy Folbre
Nancy Folbre, a feminist theorist and political economist, is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of several well-known books, including Greed, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas; The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values; and Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family.

Cite as Nancy Folbre, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Full-World Economics," Great Transition Initiative (June 2015),

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