Time To Stop Worshipping Economic Growth

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Above Photo: From PopularResistance.org.

There are physical limits to growth on a finite planet. In 1972, the Club of Rome issued their groundbreaking report—Limits to Growth (twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages). The authors predicted that by about 2030, our planet would feel a serious squeeze on natural resources, and they were right on target.

In 2009, the Stockholm Resilience Center introduced the concept of planetary boundariesto help the public envision the nature of the challenges posed by limits to growth and physical/biological boundaries. They defined nine boundaries critical to human existence that, if crossed, could generate abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.

The global economy must be viewed from a macro-perspective to realize that infringement of the planetary boundaries puts many life support ecosystems in jeopardy. Without functional ecosystems, the very survival of life forms, as well as human institutions, is put in doubt, including any economy. There is no economy on a dead planet!



These boundaries apply to the economy because the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the ecosystems that make life on earth possible. (Some understanding of ecology should be a prerequisite for an advanced degree in economics!) Scientists are concerned that we have already overstepped the boundaries on biogeochemical flows(nitrogen) and biosphere integrity (genetic biodiversity).

Today’s global economy and the various regional and national economies regularly neglect planetary boundaries. Crossing a boundary is tantamount to crashing through a guardrail and plunging over a cliff. The blind encouragement of economic growth that does not respect these boundaries is setting up human civilizations for collapse. Two of the most harmful types of growth are ruthless andfutureless. 

Ruthless growth benefits a few at the top but does nothing for the middle class. One of the reasons that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has attracted larger and larger audiences is that he says the most crucial issue facing the United States is the gross discrepancy between the middle class and the billionaire class.

Futureless growth destroys resources, such as water, forests, fisheries, and farmland that will be needed by our children and grandchildren, and by wildlife. Futureless growth directly conflicts with common family values. We tell our children to save for the future rather than squander their money. We don’t tell them to outspend their peers. We don’t tell them to judge the quality of their lives based on material possessions and quarterly financial reports.

To remain within the nine planetary boundaries, nations must shed the fetish of economic growth and transition to a true-cost, steady state economy. Some of the critical transition steps include:

  1. Replacing the GDP as a measure of well-being (lots of work has been done on coming up with an index of sustainable productivity).
  2. Getting the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to require corporations to disclose their pollution externalities (the SEC is not hopeless, as can be seen by its recent decision to require CEOs to publish their salaries along with those of the average workers at their companies).
  3. Going to a four-day work week to secure fuller employment (this has happened in some European countries; Canadian economist Peter Victor has papers on why this is a crucial transition step).
  4. Dematerializing the economy (i.e., so that it’s cheaper to repair an appliance than it is to buy a new one).
  5. Identifying the areas in which the economy should grow—and those where it should shrink or degrow (i.e., the usage of fossil fuels must shrink sharply, and in so doing, roof-top solar will grow to become a much larger part of the global economy).
  6. Identifying the most heinous types of economic growth (ruthless and futureless) and showing how their costs exceed their benefits.
  7. Stabilizing population to keep humanity from further transgression of the nine boundaries.

There are about seven billion people on earth today, and forecasts indicate there will be nine billion by 2050. Already, almost one billion malnourished people are feeling the squeeze, as they painfully bear testimony to the truth of what Malthus predicted two centuries ago. Key first steps to stabilizing population in a progressive way are:

  1. Empowerment of women.
  2. Requiring all foreign assistance to be designed so that women will be better off as a result.
  3. Making contraceptives widely available.

Our global economy is treating the planet as if it were a business in a liquidation sale. Even environmental organizations—devoted to environmental protection— have been slow to acknowledge the major causes of environmental degradation, such as perverse economic incentives encouraging raw resource extraction and non-renewable energy use. We need environmental leaders to speak out for a new, just, and true-cost economy; and to challenge the mindless embracing of economic growth—even ruthless and futureless growth. Environmental leaders should be driving the push toward refocusing economic thinking on the changes that we will have to make if we are going to move to a healthier economy that exists within the nine planetary boundaries. Only if humanity stays within these nine boundaries can it continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

  • gininitaly

    Well the ‘One World’ bankster megalomaniacs haven’t been ignoring this issue… in fact they’ve been hard at work for a hundred years making sure that what’s left of this planet will be in their hands.

    They’re most definitely pro population control, which is why the USA has become a war economy and has given carte blanche to the resource rapists, bankers and monopoly corporations. The bankers dangle cash carrots to 3rd world dictators and then squeeze poor countries with debt so that there is nothing left for their people but slavery, that thanks to the IMF, World Bank and Bank of International Settlements….

    At that point the only thing they can sell is cheap labor and if they don’t, it’s the US military’s duty to the bankster/monopolists to blow those countries to smithereens with as much ‘shock and awe’ as our mighty pentagon can muster.. and it’s plenty, after all that’s the only thing we (our gov) spends our tax dollars on anymore… oh yeah, and our debts to the FED and China.

    The United States and the EU are now doing the same with even the formerly well to do western countries… or why else would there be ‘Austerity’ for everyone but the 1% who have been busily ‘branding’ monopolies and buying up governments everywhere? All the laws are being changed in favor of the rich and only the rich, to hell with the rest… why? Because we’ve all become useless mouths.

    We are now in the throws of WWIII whether most know it or not. It’s been a financial war, an oil war and a resource war and most despicably… a war on the concepts of Democracy and self rule… all while people stay hypnotized by their tvs and the latest IPhone, violent films, Jesus, sex, sports, guns and surpassing the Jones’ for the biggest car money can buy. We’ve been divided, neutralized and conquered for a grand purpose.. of which we must remain oblivious or at least distracted.

    90% of the media is owned by 6 corporations who blithely tell us what to think and what to buy, handily fed ‘acceptable’ news bites that the rulers through the CIA, choose as fitting for maintaining a docile public with the correct message. They are militarinzing the police and criminalizing citizens, free speech and dissent will soon be vanished.

    Mr. Blackwelder…. rational ‘solutions’ have no part in this agenda, which is why they are never mentioned, after all, we have the world domination game by our feudal lords to move leathally foreward.

  • Mark Brown

    I think the author did a good job at illuminating the
    shortsightedness and destructive nature of capitalism … especially
    since Wall Street measures “growth” and profits from one fiscal quarter
    to the next. The obstacle to any reformation to the existing system is
    that there may be quarters — or multiple consecutive quarters — where
    there may be no growth … especially of profits. In fact, there may be
    quarters of negative growth in the process of becoming sustainable.

    Can the economic system of capitalism be reformed to be sustainable? This author, and many others, believes it can. I do not.

    Capitalism, by its inherent design, exploits all resources (human and
    natural) for the the purpose of immediate, ever-increasing growth and
    profit. More, more, more is the constant battle cry of capitalists!

    It is my belief that capitalism cannot be “fixed” or reformed to be a kinder, gentler economic system. Its exploitative behavior is inherent.

  • Aquifer

    Not sure where you got the idea that this author “believes” capitalism can be reformed to be sustainable from this piece. I didn’t get the impression that he was advancing or critiquing any “ism” – it’s more “if the shoe fits, wear it” – methinks that any “ism” that isn’t focused, like a laser, on the bottom line of planetary sustainability for its inhabitants can take us down the wrong road ….

    CASSE is an excellent site, IMO, – it’s head is Herman Daly, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Ecological Economics”, who writes pieces there, as well ….

  • Aquifer

    “We’ve been divided, neutralized and conquered for a grand purpose..”

    But not without our consent ….

  • Aquifer

    Great piece! Includes all the basics in simple language that “we the people” can understand and relate to – we need more pieces like this (and the CASSE site has some good ones….)

    “Growth” is still the Golden Calf (now grown up as WS Bull) that just about all economists, right, left, and center bow to, which has always struck me as a bit bizarre – we stop “growing” in size in our late teens (vertically, horizontally is another story :)) but nobody seems to think it’s a tragedy or something to be thwarted; in fact, I suspect that we rather well understand that we would be quite uncomfortable if we continued to grow throughout our lives at the same rate we do as kids – the one biological entity that has continuous growth as its paradigm, cancer, we want to stamp out. MN has sustained life through billions of years by building in “limits to growth” – why the hell we haven’t figured out that “Mother knows best” and applied those limits to our economic system, I have yet to fathom, unless it is because we haven’t put “Mother” in charge of that …

    But Mother is getting pretty sick of being abused, and ignored, and, as they say, Hell hath no fury like the wrath of a woman scorned …

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  • AlanMacDonald

    The only “growth” we have is the cancerous “growth” of an undiagnosed Empire.

    As Zygmunt Bauman hauntingly puts it, “In the case of an ailing social order, the absence of an adequate diagnosis…is a crucial, perhaps decisive, part of the disease.”13

    Berman, Morris 2011 “Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire”

    Our hidden disease is the cancer of Empire, and none of these lying phony witch-doctor candidates of the neocon ‘R’ Vichy party and the smoother lying neoliberal-con ‘D’ Vichy party knows anything, nor will ever say shit about the cancer of Empire that is our stage four terminal disease.

    It may be hard to “replace GDP” as an economic measure, but as I recommended to Dean Baker of CEPR years ago, we need a balancing measure of economic’growth’ (as cancer ‘grows’) which would be the GDNEC (Gross Domestic Negative Externality Costs) which are the unaccounted but damaging byproducts of this Disguised Global Crony-Capitalist Empire — which is fast eating our ‘body politic’, our country, and our small fragile world to death.