No-Growth Economics and You

by Joshua on July 29, 2010 · 1 comment

Kevin Drum with Mother Jones has a great blog. However, I was surprised to read a recent response to a no-growth article – Kevin is apparently a growther, not willing to accept the fallacy that is continued economic expansion on a finite planet. What Kevin might not realize is that increasing the size of the macro-economy on a planet that doesn’t grow, with resources that remain constant (actually, since we’re in overshoot, our resource base is steadily decreasing), means increasing scarcity, not wealth.

There are, as with many of his posts, tons of comments. I have made a few and I invite you to comment there as well. Here are the first two of mine:

Kevin,

I’m seriously disappointed in you. I mean, truly disappointed on a massive scale. Of all people, I figured you would see the truth behind this argument and the ridiculousness of the idea you can continue economic expansion on a finite planet equitably.

You seemingly failed to do any other research around it and jumped to the conclusion (falsely) that a non-growth centered economy wouldn’t work or wouldn’t be pleasant. Actually, most of human history was a steady, non-growing economy and we did just fine. Why do we suddenly think the last hundred years is how the next thousand will go?

Read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. It’s a book, but also available as a shorter report or even as a summary if you really don’t have time. Or read Peter Victors book, mentioned in that article, where he actually shows how a future in a steady state economy is desirable over the continued expansion of the economy.

Basically we have two options:

(1) Focus on development (not expansion) of our society in a sustainable fashion, thus improving the lives of most of the population and actually confronting climate change, hunger, and poverty; or

(2) Keep betting on the horse that has been losing the game: growth. Meanwhile, as our economy expands and our biosphere REMAINS THE SAME SIZE, we will each of us have less and less – less water, less food, less fuel, less nature. Further growth = increased scarcity.

Growth has failed to increase our happiness (after a certain point of basic needs, further growth adds little or nothing to our happiness).

Growth has failed to end poverty: it has, in fact, increase it.

A non-growing economy would not be stagnant. A dynamic steady state economy is the result of focusing our energies on improving our society instead of making it bigger. We actually have a chance of accomplishing the things that the growth economy has failed at: eliminating poverty, improving equality, tackling climate change.

The last one is without a doubt, absolutely impossible in a growing economy – for the very same reason why we cannot improve our technology fast enough to make up for growth (also known as decoupling, which is a myth).

Lastly, we our ultimately bound by the physical laws of the universe – the laws of thermodynamics will eventually make any further improvement in efficiency, and therefore growth, impossible.

Please read up on this topic before you go spinning the dogma of growth. Economic growth is the largest threat to human society.

Cheers,
Joshua Nelson
steadystaterevolution.org

And, in response to a comment about decreasing work hours and increasing leisure time:

Actually, total work hours were decreasing steadily because of increasing productivity from the beginning of the industrial era until the 70s/80s. Then came the worse president in our nation’s history: Ronald Reagan. History will remember him as the president who eliminated publicly funded college, threw a bunch of mentally ill out on the street to fend for themselves and pioneered the vision of growth-at-all-costs, greed-focused economics.

What happened in that era was a reversal of that decreasing work hours trend. Prior to this shift increases in productivity would partially decrease work hours and partially increase production (grow the economy). Today, all productivity and efficiency increases go directly to expansion of the economy, because work hours remain the same (or increase), dumping it all into growth.

A good book on this topic is Juliet Schor’s Plenitude: The Economics of True Wealth, or you check out her lecture at a Seattle City Hall event.

We could eliminate our staggering unemployment by cutting back the average work week. We could do away with economic expansion by, in part, placing all productivity gains into producing the same amount in less time – working less, put still producing. This is where the more leisure time comes from: less work, similar pay.

They’ve partly been doing this in many European countries (where they continued on the path we gave up in the 70s/80s). The French work 35 hours a week and Germans have a flexible work week. Most Europeans also get around 8 weeks of vacation a year (not like our measly 2 weeks in the US) and in some countries (Sweden) there is 3 months of paid maternal and paternal leave after a birth. [Update: Sweden specifically has 16 months paid leave as it turns out]

Any wonder why these countries consistently rate higher on happiness and well-being metrics?

We should be focusing on prosperity and improving human well-being, not making more stuff and destroying our planet. The results are in on the economic expansion: it only works to a certain point, after which is actually undermines our happiness. Besides, why are people so opposed to working less and having more free time? I’d love to have more time with my son, focusing on my writing, reading, or actually getting to the gym. I find it so strange that there is an uproar against having more free time.

Perhaps the view of a better world is too must of a fright because it shows clearly the flaws of the current world?

Cheers,
Joshua Nelson
steadystaterevolution.org
postgrowth.org

Check out Kevin’s blog (outside of the growth post, generally a great blog) and comment here.

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