Our World without Economic Growth

Last March, Tim Jackson put forward the idea of prosperity without growth in a report published by the United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission and followed up with a book of the same name released last November.  The book is a best seller (ranked 1,729 on Amazon) and in it he argues convincingly that we can still prosper without adhering to the encoded mantra of expansion and growth that permeates modern market economies.

More recently, in January 2010, Andrew Simms and Victoria Johnson at the new economics foundation (nef) published a more emphatic message in their report entitled Growth isn’t possible. They argue that we should abandon the notion of growth altogether. The premise is that we need a new economic model “that allows the human population as a whole to thrive without having to rely on ultimately impossible endless increases in consumption”.

In influential forums — like the G8 or G20, for instance — while it is acceptable and even desirable to use the word ‘sustainability’ in communiqués, it is most certainly taboo to equate ‘no economic growth’ to a social good. However, such heresy nonetheless finds traction (if only in book sales), even when our world is suffering from the ills of economic recession.

When addressing our environmental ills, the closest we ever seem to get is ‘decoupling’. This idea has been around for decades and essentially suggests that we can break the links between economic growth and nasty side effects like pollution (e.g., carbon dioxide). Decoupling is done by producing things more efficiently — using less (and preferably renewable) energy, or using technology to capture the pollution.  However, Jackson says that this relative decoupling is only possible to a certain level. He believes absolute decoupling is a myth — simply the acceptable face of sustainability that leaves our complex social and economic systems unchanged.

Stuff, Stuff, and More Stuff

Generally, we humans don’t really like complexity or understanding how things work too much. For many of us, it is a bit of a shock to be confronted by some of the realities. You can find a good illustration of this in The Story of Stuff, which does a nice (albeit heavily politicised) job of illustrating the linkages within the modern economy: from where we get our resources, to their production, consumption and disposal.

You either love or truly hate this story. Some of the more inquisitive may want to look more deeply into “stuff”, but I suspect many will convulsively reject it as heresy. After all, growth is good and without wealth there is no progress and what you don’t know, doesn’t hurt you.

At the same time, there are several important and accepted norms that dictate how the economy works and the role that consumption plays. For example, companies’ first obligations are to shareholders, governments plan their spending based on the assumption of growth, and investors expect interest on their monies lent. Our role as consumers is to fuel that growth (preferably borrowing money in the process).

It is therefore entirely understandable that governments, businesses and consumers have little choice but to be obedient followers of the Growth God: otherwise uncertainty would prevail, revenues would fall and social stability would be threatened.

At a personal level, all this talk of growth focuses on the consumer cycle. Most of us like new things and the feeling of satisfaction (sometimes fleeting) that these things provide. And a large part of our modern society is optimized to meet these consumption habits with ever more innovative products delivered with ever increasing efficiency, even to the point of not having to leave the comfort of your home.

Ironically, it is this increasing efficiency — coupled with advancing technology and connected trade systems — that often breaks the link between the consumer and the consequences of their manufactured goods and results in social vulnerability when growth slows. Individually, we are often unwittingly runners on this treadmill.

Fortunately, it is the buzz of this consumer exercise that helps us deal with the stress it creates. Governments are hopelessly addicted and try frantically to get us back on the treadmill like the overbearing trainer whose job is on the line if you don’t perform. Far from this latest financial and economic crisis being a time of reflection, the main priority is to get growing again.

Yet, as American author Edward Abbey once wrote, “growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”. Reforming an economic system that mandates growth on a finite planet requires drastic changes in how we do business. Therefore, in order to avoid the pain of environmental chemotherapy, many are developing alternative therapies.

Better, Not Bigger

The notion that our progress (and happiness) equates to our consumption became very strongly embedded in economic policy not least because we can measure consumption, and although we know it’s imperfect at some level, it works. There is however, a whole array of proposals aimed at redressing this.

For example, the Redefining Progress approach is based on broadening our conception of affluence beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the Genuine Progress Indicator. The ‘capability approach’, articulated by India’s Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and others, has provided the basis for the Human Development Index and mainstream acceptance of wider measures of welfare.

Some are advocating economic changes that address the key problems affecting the world’s resources and climate systems. Jackson believes that, as many have long warned, we must recognise that exponential growth interacts with resources so that we may begin to adjust our economic activity in the face of scarcity and constraint. (This notion seems to be experiencing a revival, see our recent Survivalism back in vogue).

“Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible.”

Tim Jackson

“Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings — within the ecological limits of a finite planet,” states Jackson in the report. “The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.”

So, beyond concepts of green growth or sustainable growth there is also that of ‘no growth’. The latter is distinguished by the fact that it does not equate ‘development’ with economic expansion. The so-called steady state economy would look very different than our current system. We may share jobs, which would mean less income but, if we must still believe that time is money, increasing our time capital would afford us the luxury of doing the things that money can’t, or would no longer be needed to, buy.

The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy has summarised a number of policies from leading thinkers in this area.

Changing Attitudes

How does such a thing happen? Will everyone come on board? The reality is that changing any system is always hard because we are not rewarded for doing things differently or because we receive perverse incentives not to change (i.e., fossil fuels still heavily subsidized).

Some of the ideas laid out in the above-mentioned publications may initially sound awfully undesirable. But are they really? Or is it just because they don’t fit with how we currently define prosperity?

“As long as you are using that word ‘consumer’, you will be degrading the quality of the public discussion as we go into the very difficult future that we face.” — James Howard Kunstler

The tricky part is getting individuals to think about changing. The provocative author and new urbanist James Howard Kunstler puts it simply: people need to stop thinking of themselves as consumers. He argues that consumers do not have obligations, responsibilities or duties to their fellow human beings.

“As long as you are using that word ‘consumer’, you will be degrading the quality of the public discussion as we go into the very difficult future that we face.”

So while today we cannot deny that we are part of a mass consumer culture, it is a culture that to which we should begin waving goodbye. Perhaps luckily, mass consumerism is still a relatively new phenomenon; it is essentially a leftover of post-war excess productive capacity allied to ingenious marketing that plays a crucial role in stimulating various desires and dissatisfactions and keeps the consumer ball rolling. The culture-jamming magazine Adbusters considers advertising to be akin to intellectual pollution and aims to reform current perceptions of advertising in modern society, often using subversive counter advertisements.

Maybe what we really need is more space and time to reflect on these issues. Interestingly, Clay Shirky coined the term cognitive surplus to describe the little free time that our structured working lives allow. He explains how this time is currently filled largely by watching television (and shopping). Some of his figures are astounding: 200 billion hours of TV are watched in the US each year and 100 million hours/weekend are spent just watching adverts.

This vast cognigitve surplus could be better employed, he argues, by using our time creatively rather than consumptively. The creative awakening enabled by the internet is transforming some of us from consumers to producers and sharers of music, video, knowledge and so on.

It is early days, and we still don’t fully comprehend the way the internet is altering our social and economic norms and it will certainly be employed on both sides of the consumption debate.

But, if we can change the way we use media, then why not also the way we consume material things?

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Our World Without Economic Growth by Christopher Doll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Author

Christopher Doll is a Research Fellow at United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. His research interest focuses on using spatially explicit datasets to support policymaking for sustainable development with application in areas of urbanisation and biodiversity. He has previously held positions at Columbia University in New York and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. Born and educated in the UK, Christopher holds a PhD in Remote Sensing from University College London.

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  • BrendanBarrett

    Christopher,
    I always enjoy your articles. Thought I would share this video from Tim Jackson explaining the notion of prosperity without growth.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKdh5R5psYA&feature=player_embedded

    Brendan

  • http://twitter.com/ClimateHealth WorldHealthOrg

    thanks for a stimulating article, perhaps you could emphasise the link between sustainability and impact on health

  • glamfish

    I think it is strange that no one of the so called ‘specialists’ are talking about a world totally without money. Ask the question: What do we really need money for? and see what kind of answers you come up with. Of course, in today’s SYSTEM, you can find a host of reasons. But if you look beyond this system, what can you come up with? Look at nature. There’s no money in nature. All of nature’s processes function in total perfection without money.

    It seems like we are totally blinded by the thought that “money = prosperity”. And without money and economic growth, we will have terrible lives. Not so. Money and the monetary system could be called the root causes of most of the worlds problems. About 65% of all jobs are only there because of the system itself. Bankers, sales people, insurance agencies and so on does not add anything to this world, only to the monetary system itself. Not to speak of what money brings of corruption, pollution and poverty.

    A world without money can be difficult to imagine, I know. But think about it. Why do you do the things you do anyway? Because of monetary return? Or because of the joy and results you see from doing it? Personally, it is definitely the latter. Yes, I might have ‘bread and butter jobs’ to keep me alive, and those I do for the money. But the stuff that really interests me (like film, photography and music) I can do without any pay, like writing this comment.

    So, if we could live well, eat well, travel well, clothe us well and do whatever we like, couldn’t we do without money? As a matter of fact, I could do almost everything I do in my life today, and not get money for it. Not get any monetary return whatsoever. I would also find great joy in doing things that improve the lives of people anywhere in the world. Without money, with goods distributed equally and with knowledge about growing one’s own food, we could have a totally different world.

    There is a proposed society that can be like this. It is not perfect, and it is not finished. We all have to come with suggestion to this new way of life and thinking, but this is what we have to do. Today’s system, The Monetary System, is an outdated system. It is weighing us down and putting an unbearable burden on the shoulders of the world. Just look at the insane amount of debt in this world as of today. I think what half the world owes the other half is about 53 trillion dollars. That’s 53 with 21 zeros after it. It’s insane. And this figure doesn’t include household debt. Why it has become like this one can ask.

    Imagine a world without money where the world’s resources is considered the common heritage of Humanity, and is developed to the best for everyone on this planet. This sound’s like utopia, but there are many people who are daring to think in this direction. Take a look at http://www.thevenusproject.com/ and http://www.thezeitgeistmovement.com. And Google ‘permaculture’ too while you’re at it. We can grow our own food, much more efficient and clean than with today’s fossil fuel dependent agriculture. Without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And make no mistake about it: Without food, no world.

    Thank you.

    • john smith

      i don’t have enough time to give an adequate answer yet, but please – don’t think money as being the problem – it’s not. The problem is the state. The solution is anarchy. I know, sounds crazy. watch this for a brief intro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zpmqy9tC4uI and also watch some of this guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOBD6v8g1F4 – the free market CAN be a good thing for humans and planets – but it needs sound money – not the fiat crap we are being forced to use. Sound money is simply the way a free market quantifies the value of things – like voting, so that resources are not misallocated and so that people can plan businesses and create things of value to others.
      thanks.
      jr

  • Darek

    Every link in this article is an exciting day spent learning on the internet. This is a very useful overview of the argument for a new economy, how to mainstream these ideas into policy???

  • Nancy Peters

    This is an excellent summary of the current thinking about how to transform our world from one where growth is good. Thank you Christopher. There is a wave of thinking about new economic models, including new and even no monetary systems, being lead by Soros at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. With Google about to launch waves which the Institute has been testing and Four Years. Go. will shortly adopt we can look forward to a tipping point very soon I am sure.

    • http://www.ourworld.unu.edu/ Carol S

      Thanks very much Nancy. I just saw your post on our Facebook Wall and
      am currently looking at the Institute’s site, which is very
      interesting. It seems we have common goals, so perhaps we should find
      ways to collaborate!

  • john smith

    if anyone can propose a better system for efficiently allocating scarce resources and producing necessary goods/services than the free market, please let me know. I totally agree with the article though, that we really need to change our entire paradigm – which had been largely molded into pathological growth mandate insanity by the banks and their dollar ponzi scheme which requires more debt each year, thus more economic growth. We don’t need that crap … I have much more to say but have to go consume some dinner. bye.