Today I went head to head with Forbes magazine, challenging the idea that further economic growth is the answer to today’s problems. But before I explain about that, I need to outline a bit of background…
I’m a volunteer for CASSE, the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. A steady state economy is a truly sustainable economy, that delivers an equitable and high standard of wellbeing to all citizens while operating within the biophysical limits of our planet. This means an economic system that operates beyond growth, as infinite growth on a finite planet is not sustainable or even possible. Instead a steady state economy aims to reach an optimal size and then stay balanced at that size. This doesn’t mean science and culture cannot develop, of course they can, and should. But it does mean less waste and less consumer products. It means better instead of bigger. Qualitative improvement rather than quantitative growth.
CASSE is an America based think-tank organization that does all it can to promote steady state economics. I live in the UK so I can’t do any physical volunteering for them, but I’m part of an ‘online response team’ which basically means they email me links to relevant online articles and I’m asked to go and leave a comment about the issues with economic growth in a full world of dwindling resources and the steady state solution.
Recently I received an email from CASSE alerting me to an article on the Forbes website called Why Economic Growth is Exponentially More Important Than Income Inequality and suggesting I respond to it. Now, I generally have a fairly cool disposition. But this article sure got me fired up. It started off with a catalog of amazing things growth has achieved in the last century. Fair enough. It went on to bitch at Obama a bit for allegedly caring about equality too much. It suggested growth will be better for the poor than increased equality – ignoring the fact that the richest 1% of the population get the vast majority of the benefits of growth, and ignoring the fact that in the West, poverty is generally relative – meaning increased equality is the only way to resolve it. Very dumb. Then it got really crazy. The second half of the article was a wishlist (framed as a certainty) of things growth could achieve in the future. It was a sci-fi fantasy hogwash of internet-connected contact lenses, digital medical chips in people’s blood, talking walls and animated AI doctors. Uhh, right. Sure. Oh, and they managed to get some casual climate change denying in there, too. What did they call it? The “environmentalist extremist fraud” which is “trying to reverse the industrial revolution”. Oh my god.
I had to calm myself down a bit before hitting the keyboard, because I didn’t want to be too brash and be written off as some kind of ‘crazy environmental extremist’. I’m sure it’s too much to ask for the readership of Forbes to change their whole outlook just because of some comment on some article, but I at least wanted to present my thoughts in a reasonable way that wasn’t too feisty or extreme. Here’s what I wrote:
No one is denying the amazing achievements economic growth has yielded over the 20th century. I’m the first person to praise electricity, running water, the internet, medicine, mobile phones and the rest.
But your assumption that economic growth will continue relentlessly is mistaken. Growth requires natural resources as the initial inputs, and such resources are not infinite. Fossil fuels and minerals are becoming seriously depleted, as are renewable resources such as water, fish and timber. Even land will become a constricting factor as the global population heads towards 9 billion, all expecting an increasing standard of living. The sad fact that you’re a climate denier does not, unfortunately, stop climate change from existing. It’s not something like religion that you can simply choose whether to subscribe to or not. Have you seen the IPCC papers? These people are not ‘leftist environmental extremists’ – they are word class pHD trained scientists from around the world. Very different to the actual environmental extremists who are living in yurts and who probably couldn’t understand a scientific report, much less write one. But I doubt something as simple as common sense will persuade you. Even taking the serious problem of climate change out of the equation, continuous growth in a finite and increasingly crowded world is still not possible. You mention that growth allows environmental protection. Only for localised and highly visible pollution. Even in this case, growth can pay for mess to be cleaned up but it cannot create new reserves of natural resources, or create more land. The uncomfortable fact is that there is a limit to economic growth. But don’t worry, I’m not a doom and gloomer. I don’t want us to go back to living in huts or anything – nor do I think this is at all likely. I’m very optimistic about the future, but for slightly different reasons to you. I see a future where relentless economic growth is no longer necessary to develop amazing green technologies, unleash scientific discoveries and improve human health and wellbeing. Post-growth economics will be the future, and to me that’s an even more exciting prospect than the sci-fi fantasy you paint with the second part of your article. It’s more exciting because it’s actually possible in this century. Thanks for your article and if you feel like finding out more about post-growth economics check out steadystate.org
To understand the context you obviously need to read the original article. But yeah, what do you think? How would you have replied?
I was struck by how clueless this author – a man called Peter Ferrara – seems to be about the concept of limits. It doesn’t appear to be anywhere in his mind. Well, my mind boggles to understand how he can think this kind of growth-forever policy can have any connection to reality. Let alone how he can think the current economic system is the best way to help the poor! He can’t really think that, can he? And he’s so casual to admit he’s a climate change denyer. Crazy. I wonder if this is normal for American economists? In the UK they tend to at least pay lip service to climate change, even if they do nothing about it! What really worries me is how respected Forbes is as a publication. This stuff isn’t just going to some crazy guy’s blog. It’s probably read – and taken seriously – by millions.
Well if even a couple of those people read my comment and give just a square-inch of mind-space to questioning the sanity of the growth model then I’ll be very happy.
We desperately need to question it.
P.S. I mean absolutely no disrespect to any environmentalists who happen to live in yurts. Please understand I was just trying to underline my point that IPCC scientists are a far cry from tree-hugging hippies. No harm meant!