Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way our society will be able to become both sustainable and equitable, providing a good quality of life for ourselves while allowing other species to flourish, is if we abandon economic growth and consciously transition to a postgrowth society.
I realise that’s a tall order, but I have to stay optimistic that it’ll happen in my lifetime. Otherwise, I’m just not sure what hope we have. We can use increasingly expensive technofix solutions to mitigate environmental problems, and we can continue to throw money at social charities, but it’ll be like popping painkillers. It won’t heal the core problem.
There are many contenders for the true identity of the ‘core problem’.
Some say it’s the separation of humanity from the rest of nature. Others get even deeper and say it’s the ideological separation of matter from spirit. Many say it’s human greed, but I’d suggest that greed is just a symptom of perceived scarcity. Some say it’s money, or at least the love of it. But money’s not the problem, although I used to think it was.
No, the core problem is economic growth.
Economic growth has been pretty good for all of human history up until now – so its easy to understand why so few people have cottoned onto the fact that it no longer benefits us, and is in fact is fiercely detrimental.
Economic growth is the increase in the production and consumption of goods and services.
For all of human history, there’s always been lots of space, lots of natural resources, and lots of hungry and deprived people who could do with more goods and services. The latter is still true today, but that’s another issue that we’ll come back to later.
But now the world is full. Full of us, all 7 billion of us, and full of our stuff. Our cities, our roads, our rubbish, our factories, our cars, our Barbies, our Ipads, our disposable razors, and all the rest. We’ve ‘gone forth and multiplied’ so successfully, and created so many goods and services, that we’re using up too much of the planet, and it’s struggling to cope, whilst other species die out every day. The life-support systems of our planet are under strain and the rivers, oceans and skies are being clogged up with toxins.
And while we’re doing all this – all in the name of economic growth – the economists’ holy grail is failing to deliver real social value. Since the 1950s, surveys on life satisfaction and wellbeing in the Western world have flatlined, while public trust in governments has nose dived. Crime, divorce, teenage pregnancy, addictions, anorexia and obesity are still high in America and Western Europe. Obscene poverty in Africa, South America and Asia continues, and the magical trickle-down effect that justifies Wall Street does pretty much nothing, because the interest function of money means wealth is given to the people who already have the most of it.
Economic growth, on the global scale, isn’t helping us anymore, in fact, it’s causing a lot of serious problems.
Who was it that said, ”growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of a cancer cell”?
Whoever it was, I like the phrase. It sums up the common sense wisdom that more is only better if you don’t have enough. Once you have enough, more will quickly become worse. I truly believe that’s the situation we’re in at the moment.
Luckily, there could be a solution, and that solution is the concept of postgrowth. That basically means an economic model where enough of everything is the goal, and the market and society at large works to keep things in balance, in a dynamic equilibrium. I’ve touched on this when I waxed lyrical about the book Enough is Enough and I’ve mentioned it lots in recent posts, but I want to delve deeper into this new and exciting concept. I’m currently reading a book called Supply Shock which could shed some more light on it.
For now, please look at the website of the Postgrowth Institute, a really cool think tank that commits itself to educating people about the concept and promoting it as a solution to the more-more-more-obsessed madness we call free market capitalism.