Newsweek: The No-Growth Fantasy

by Joshua on March 24, 2010 · 2 comments

Newsweek recently published an article titled, “The No-Growth Fantasy: Europe’s Attack on Capitalism.” Calling a no-growth economy a fantasy is a bit delusional, I think continued economic growth is the real fantasy here. I just commented on that article, my response is below – expanded past their comment section’s character limit.

“A large part of what was taken as growth was financed by unsustainable bubbles in credit and asset prices.” Most of our growth in the past 50 years has been nothing but bubbles: credit bubbles, housing bubbles, internet bubbles, property bubbles – even a Uranium bubble. We all hate when the bubble pops, why get back on the growth horse and expect different?

You discuss resource depletion as if it can be thinned down to last forever, while we continue to grow the economy (and therefore, the amount of resources needed). Efficiency is key, for sure. However, you can only get so efficient! If we could reach 100% efficiency we’d be able to use the same gallon of gasoline in our cars over and over again forever. Even if you don’t trust those pesky laws of thermodynamics, common sense should tell you this is pure nonsense.

And discussions of “barely tapped potential of genetic engineering and other plant-breeding technologies” envision a future of mutated plants, crowded cities, and soylent green. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live in a world of genetically engineered food supplements, packed into a tight living space, simply because we didn’t want to think outside of economic growth. Besides, these technologies will have their limits as well, assuming we can make them viable in time, and then what? What’s the next thing we can latch onto in order to keep this hamster wheel spinning?

“Even if the critics are right and growth is going to be harder to attain post-crisis, that’s no reason to give up on it. Just the opposite: all the more reason to spend our energy coming up with the right policies—from education and innovation to entrepreneurship and competition—that will help foster it.” Right, pick something to keep the wheel going because you’re afraid to deal with the transition to a stable, just, sustainable economy? This is cowardice shrouded in a cloak of misplaced optimism.

Capitalism & Marxism vs Growth

“Critiques of growth have always been, at their core, about uneasiness with capitalism itself… Marxist idea of ‘economism.'” Let us first realize a few important concepts here: Capitalism is an economic system where there is private control of production. That is all it truly entails. Socialism is an economic system with worker or public owned production. Communism is an economic and social structure with government owned production. None of these systems are preferential to economic growth unless we choose them to be. Economic growth is a human creation. Perhaps none of these systems are right? Shouldn’t we question this and try to create a system that does work?

Calling a no-growth economy socialism or communism is disingenuous at best, outright deceitful at worse. Tim Jackson‘s work, Prosperity Without Growth, shows that continued growth of developed economies is not only conflict with the biosphere but continued economic growth is harmful to our wellbeing and happiness. Forgive me if this sounds too optimistic, but I think I prefer my wellbeing and happiness over growing our economy. The two are undeniably separate conditions.

Furthermore, the promises of the growth economy we’ve designed are not being fulfilled. We have more poverty, more environmental problems, and larger inequality now that we did 30 years ago – yet our economy has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. There is plenty of food, water, and work out there – yet our system creates people with too much and people with too little, because economic growth is preferential to those already at the top.

Continued economic growth also defies the natural order (in nature everything finds a biophysical limit or it is wiped out). Far be it for us, with our tiny brains, to think we can out think nature – which has billions of years of experience figuring these things out. Yet this is the tone with which you defend economic growth. Before you start talking about separating economic growth from environmental problems, read Tim Jacksons work. I wrote a summary of the decoupling counter-argument here.

There is a thing in micro-economics called optimal scale, that is missing from macro-economics, which states that something grows to a perfect point and further growth is actually detrimental. We need a macro-economic optimal scale. This requires the application of sustainability to the social science that has lacked the concept – internalizing the “externalities,” so as not to work off an unfinished equation. This is a steady state economy.

A Steady State Economy

A steady state economy was envisioned by John Maynard Keynes, the economist that shaped most of our economic theory and policy today, as well John Stuart Mill, another founding economist. Both realized that a growth economy was a means to an end, not the end itself. They recognized that we would at some point be able to put behind us this growth for something better – focusing on development of our society. They’re not the only ones, either.

You should read more about the steady state economy, because we will reach it either by destroying our ecosystem (and likely our society) and being forced into it by mother nature OR we can choose a sustainable path in which we maintain our society and ecosystem for future generations, finding a balance and focusing on developing things like social justice, increasing our knowledge, and enlightening ourselves. These are the higher paths that we all want – happiness, prosperity, and increasing wellbeing – these do not require the size of the economy to increase.

I suggest you check out the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Read Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, or the shorter, free report online. Pick up a Herman Daly book, Gus Speth’s The Bridge at the Edge of the World, or Brian Czech’s Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. For god sakes, don’t listen to the dribble this magazine publishes, they are obviously hanging on the last threads of a dying ideal – spinning the same old rhetoric and adding to the counter-intuitive notion that economic growth can continue infinitely on a finite planet.

A sustainable society will require a sustainable economy. A steady state economy is what humanity existed within for most of our history. They last 75 years of economic expansion have brought a lot of good, but now it brings with it more bads than goods. We should use our vast knowledge to take the next step and stabilize the economy, make it socially just, and create a planet that can continue to support human life. This is the only means of creating a global society that improves well-being and prosperity in a sustainable fashion.

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