The Inevitability of No Growth

declining graph

Sorry to my regulars for my absence. I have been moving about for the last week. The big event was a grandson’s graduation from high school. He is going to follow his older brother to Harvard. Quite an accomplishment.

Today, I am going to talk about Rio and what this gathering could be. There is a lot of chatter on the Web about degrowth and low or no growth economic policies. Some is timed, I believe, to the proceedings in Rio, but not necessarily. An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal railed against “growth economics.” Nothing surprising here except the venue. It’s very strange to see an article so critical of conventional economics and of economists of all leanings. The underlying argument is not, as the piece argued, a general problem that economics and its disciplinarians are wrong about everything. That’s only true insofar as economics paints an incomplete and ofter misleading view of how the world works and what to do about the problems we observe. Most of the problems, as the article implies, come from such errors in the economists’ work.

NOT quite. The underlying problem with (perpetual) growth is simply that there is not enough Earth to support it. It’s already being stretched beyond its limits. Paul Farrell, the author of the article says

Actually something more immediate will force change much sooner. You are not going to like it: United Nations and Pentagon studies predict population growth (the main driver of all economic growth) will create unsustainable natural-resources demands as early as 2020 with global population exploding from seven to 10 billion by 2050. So expect Depression Era austerity, unemployment and a new no-growth economy.

Will we change? In time? Plan ahead? No, we won’t wake up without a collapse. We know the Myth of Perpetual Growth is pure fiction. But we also know our leaders, capitalists, economists and politicians all live in a collective conscience that must believe in this bizarre myth in order to justify everything they believe about the future, about progress, about income and wealth increasing, about a better life.

So we will all hang on … until a catastrophe shocks our world, forces us to wake up and let go, newly aware of the absurdity of the Myth of Perpetual Growth on a planet of finite resources. And it will happen sooner than you think.

I wonder if the attendees at Rio read the WSJ. Then, they might wake up and really do something there. I am afraid that all we will hear is talk about technological and technocratic fixes largely to combat climate change, and see dancing around the growth issue. Another colleague in the sustainable consumption community has an article in the WSJ-Europe edition, with this misleading headline, “How to Shrink the French Economy.” It’s author, Erik, Assadourian, offers the new president of France some advice based on the same premise as Farrell’s article: We cannot grow, we cannot even keep up the present levels of consumption on this finite Earth. Maybe this fact is behind the private space travel ventures that produced the first non-government flight to the Space Station. These entrepreneurs may be betting that we will never give up growth and know that someday, maybe soon, we will need to look beyond the thin layers of the Earth’s crust for the resources to feed the churning economy’s giant maw.

Assadourian offers some solutions up to President Hollande. I suspect these will be the similar to those to be discussed at Rio. He lists six:

  • Tax the rich.
  • Tax social ills.
  • Invest in renewables to improve France’s path to energy security.
  • Make French cities nearly car-free by 2022.  
  • Follow the Netherlands’ lead and create a 200-year plan to address climate change.  
  • Facilitate a return to traditional living arrangements.

 The first four are only the Band-Aids I mentioned above. They can only slow down the draining of the earth’s gas tank. The first may be a major sticking point in Rio in one form or another for the yet-to-be-affluent nations demands for their fair share of the already depleted resources. It’s a good idea, but there is little left to share. The second is an old bromide: internalize the externalities. Again a good idea, but only a form of triage, with no permanent effects against the cancer of growth below the surface.

Renewables is a critical issue and needs to be put in play everywhere without delay. The main arguments against doing this are also tied to growth. The economists argue that such investments may not be needed, and if made, would unnecessarily slow the rate of growth. They argue that the risk of doing nothing is less than the cost to growth. If something really bad happens, it will still be better for the economy to fix it after the fact. Making French or other cities car free is also meritorious, but is only a small move. It is more symbolic than effective. Even as I would see it as positive in the long run, I believe it would have an even greater backlash than ceasing to grow. I am concerned about all the unintended consequences that are sure to arise.

The last two suggestions are tied together. The Netherlands approach is great. Changing the world from the present one where well-being is measured and sought in terms of material wealth is a multigenerational task. The Dutch scale of 200 years is roughly the same as the Native Americans’ seven generation time frame for thinking about “policy” and other decisions with long-term potential impacts. The last item, return to traditional living arrangements, is on track, but does not go far enough. His program, capsulized below, addresses only the surface.

Although youth unemployment is a challenge, multigenerational housing can help address it, creating new ways to share costs among family members. Increasing the desirability of multigenerational housing could be done through tax incentives, social marketing and stimulating new local economic opportunities—such as small-scale farming and animal husbandry, artisanal crafts and repair.

The unspoken word in all of this is sustainability. How can our human species continue to exist on a perhaps mortally wounded earth? And to think clearly about this, we must get out of the mind set of fixing the present broken economic systems and the political economies in which they operate. My image of what is needed is a new version, sustainability-as-flourishing, a positive vision of a healthy Planet, with a level of material consumption consistent with its annual income without invading natural capital. Flourish for humans also implies a transformation of the basic existential view of our species as operating on top of a psychologically based set of needs. Every sociologist and psychologist worth their salt has a different arrangement of these needs. That’s only incidental; it’s the idea of needs that has been driving us in the wrong direction and towards the abyss Farrell warns of.

The return to some traditional infrastructure fails to capture the necessity to go further and return to our primal existential base of care for the world. When we replace, by discarding need as our foundation, this belief in our own consciousness and in the structure of all of our global polities, we can begin to produce and act on some global 200-year plan to attain sustainability. Unless we do that and simply continue to play make believe, we will, I agree, encounter the crash that Farrell and other, like Paul Gilding, think is needed to shake us out of our dreaming and doldrums. I do agree with them that people in those lands that already are driven by evermore growth will not give up what they already now and will not allow the political systems to adopt any policies that interfere with even higher levels of consumption. The Nobelist (non-) economist Elinor Ostrom, who died this week, might have had the framework for a solution, based on cooperation, not the competition that need inevitably creates.

One way that might work is to start efforts to replace the commodified and impersonal economy with, what Assadourian calls traditional means, but this won’t do much unless the reason that what makes them “traditional” is highlighted and appreciated. They grew out of the value of interpersonal connectedness in so-called traditional societies. I believe strongly that the recovery of this ontological sense of what it is to be human is essential and a prerequisite to the transformation of the Earth to make flourishing, the essence of sustainability, possible. Tough talk is needed, and Rio is the place to start.