Neither Growth nor Greed Is Good


One of the usual arguments I get after talking about Flourishing, is that economic growth is necessary for the health or a nation and of the businesses within it, and that my way to flourishing requiring an alternative to such growth is either flawed or simply impossible. Before attempting to clarify my reasoning, let me say, categorically, that I do not claim that growth is inherently bad. I argue that the state of the world is such that continuing growth is producing unintended consequences that outweigh whatever benefits accompany it. I am not attacking the neoclassical economic models that lead to the necessity of growth on ideological grounds although there are plenty of such grounds for this tack. My view springs from a non-ideological, pragmatic, systems framework.

The skeptics in the audience generally point to the unfulfilled prediction of Thomas Malthus, who claimed in 1798 that the exponentially growing population would soon outstrip the linear growth in the supply of necessary resources leading to a societal collapse. He failed to anticipate the technological spurt in productivity that would give the lie to his forecast. Another critic found this prediction stemming from the time of the Greeks, quoting Tertulian, an early Christian scholar, who wrote “our teeming population is the strongest evidence our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us from its natural elements. In every deed, pestilence and famine and wars have to be regarded as a remedy for nations as the means of pruning the luxuriance (large numbers) of the human race.”

Those who use these scholars as proof that growth has always been enabled by technological advances overlook or ignore the context in which these men lived. They lived in times when the world was “empty,” using Herman Daly’s metaphor meaning the human impact on the globe was insignificant relative to the available resources necessary to support existent civilizations. Today the world is “full,” again using Daly’s metaphor. Estimates of our consumption of the Earth’s resources, including the solar energy incident on it, suggest that we are now already using about 1 1/2 Earth’s worth, and because of the rapidly expanding economies of the tigers, we are headed for 3-5 earth equivalents.

I have often pointed to a simple demonstration that illustrates the consequences of continuous growth in a finite world. If you place some yeast cells in a beaker of sugar water, the population of cells will begin to grow exponentially, but eventually it will relatively suddenly stop growing and start to decrease until no cells are left alive. The cells begin to stop growing as the food supply starts to run out, and also because the cells are poisoned by their own accumulating wastes. (See image) A lesson here, perhaps. Air pollution in China is killing large numbers.

“But what about the growing global population,” the critics persist, “don’t we have an obligation to provide for them?” Yes, I believe we do. If we are to accept flourishing as our global objective and vision, then we must employ that concept on a global systems scope. But we must do that without relying simply on expanding the materialistic economies of the world. The whole idea of sustainable development grew out a moral commitment to share the Earth’s fruits fairly with all people living today and in the future. Economic growth is not a moral notion; it is merely a means to allocate scarce resources most efficiently. There is a huge irony in this last sentence for the scarcity of goods in economic terms is only relative to the supply and is never measured in absolute terms. But the Earth is finite and critical resources, like energy, drinkable water, or breathable air, are becoming absolutely scarce, that is, the Earth is now full.

The response to relative scarcity in economic theory is technological or institutional innovation such that productivity will leap forward at a rate larger that that driving the depletion of the resources. This kind of innovative advance did take place at the time of Malthus and for several centuries thereafter. Technological optimists, within and without the field of economists, continue to believe technology will save us. Given the damage done to the world by the destructive power of technology, Martin Heidegger said, in 1966, “Only a God can save us.” He was certainly influenced by the terrible destruction of WWII, but his words echo today in the light of the terrible state of the world at the hands of our technologically driven lifestyles. While we are still destroying lives and the land with our weapons of war, we are destroying the Earth with our means of normal existence: cars and trucks, power plants, mining, clear cutting, overfishing, etc.

We do have a moral duty to care for all life and the Planet on which it exists, but there is absolutely nothing in that statement that demands material (economic) growth. Growth requires a system to produce goods and services and another to afford the exchange of those goods among those who consume them—a market. Free markets, the kind that go hand in hand with our neoclassical models, are amoral. Robert Heilbroner, an eminent economic historian, wrote in 1993:

There are two reasons why economic driven behavior cannot become the order-generating force for any society to which the socialist* label could be properly attached. The first, often featured in critical literature, is that societies driven by the need to accumulate capital, and subjected to the pressures of the market, suffer from severe deformations, including the alienated consciousness induced by extensive commercialization, the deformation of individual character caused by the over-division of labor, and the socially harmful bias toward self-directed rather than other-directed values. A second, less familiar but no less serious objection is that a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.

  • By socialism I mean a society unmistakably disconnected from the very idea of economic determinism, severed from capitalism’s most powerful history-shaping characteristic—namely, its subordination of behavior to economic imperatives.

I strongly believe the moral and practical imperative to live within our means must be heeded now. There is no hope of a flourishing world if we do not, whether the image of flourishing is disconnected from a measure of material wealth or not. Charles Dickens was well aware of this when he gave us Mr. Micawber’s famous recipe for happiness:

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

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