Endless growth on a finite planet is impossible. Yet endless growth of the economy is the reflexive goal of almost every government in the world. This defines the existential crisis into which humanity is blundering.
Yet even many people who are alert to the problem struggle to prescribe a remedy, or even to give the remedy a name. Various terms float around, like no growth, steady state, degrowth or postgrowth. There are two fundamental problems with these terms: they don’t define what they are talking about and they just keep the focus on growth.
George Lakoff wrote the book called Don’t Think of an Elephant. What did you just do? You thought of an elephant. Don’t think about growth. Oh. You just did. If I want you to think about flowers, I need to talk about flowers. Let’s stop and smell the flowers. Ah, that’s better.
Growth of what, exactly? Steady state what? Well, when the political mainstream says ‘growth of the economy’, it really means ‘growth of the Gross Domestic Product’, the GDP. GDP is the sum of all activities involving money, adjusted to avoid double counting. But what about good activities that don’t involve money, like staying home and loving baby? And is everything involving money, everything that is bought and sold, a good thing?
A factory that sells $3 million worth of chemicals and creates pollution that we spend $1 million trying to clean up adds $4 million to the GDP. Yes, that’s crazy. It is not accounting. It is as if a shopkeeper enters all his transactions in the credit column of the ledger, adds them up and declares a record Gross Shop Product.
Proper accounting requires a balance sheet. You put income on one side, costs on the other, add each up and take the difference. Then you find out if you have a profit or a loss. People have created proper balance sheets for national economies. The better ones do it for economic, social and environmental factors, yielding the so-called triple bottom line.
Some of these sensible measures suggest all the growth of the past few decades may not have made us any better off. We are more and more frenetically active but we feel worse off. Why don’t we stop, catch our breath, and think about the purpose of our activity? What is ‘the economy’ for?
I think the purpose of an economy is to improve our quality of life. What is quality of life? It is what we decide it to be. What is the purpose of your life? You see, this approach brings us into important and deeply personal territory.
Social researchers who probe a little below ‘current affairs’ tend to find that most people want a loving family, a supportive community, some time to follow their passions and the financial means to achieve those things. This is very different from the goal of our present system, which is to make more and more stuff to be bought and sold.
So by thinking about our purpose we have shifted the emphasis from quantity, more and more stuff, to quality, the satisfaction or fulfillment we get from our lives. (I dislike the term happiness as a goal, it is superficial and unbalanced.)
Now here is some good news. We can reduce the quantities of stuff we take from the Earth, and dump back on the Earth, without reducing our quality of life. In fact we can probably dramatically reduce the quantities of stuff through recycling, serious recycling.
William McDonough and Michael Braungart talk about designing things to be Cradle to Cradle, which is the title of their book. They mean things should be designed so that at the end of their useful life the materials they are made from can be recovered and reborn in a new product. If this sounds idealistic, it is not. There are already many examples of industrial processes being restructured to recycle much or most of the material used.
The living world recycles all material. It lives off energy income, from the sun. It avoids making persistent toxins.
We can, indeed we must restructure our industry, our agriculture, our whole society to abide by the same principles. This is being done in agriculture under names like regenerative agriculture and permaculture, and it can be as productive as industrial agriculture. But it restores the soil instead of degrading it. We need to restore the Earth instead of degrading it.
I’ve been talking about rich countries, which account for most of the over-use of Earth’s resources. Even as we learn to cut back the rich world’s wasteful ways, we need still to be bringing poor people up to a level at which they also can have reasonable quality of life. If we have greater clarity of concept and purpose we are likely to be much more successful at rebalancing the present obscene inequality of wealth. The high human population is a challenge, but it will be far more manageable if the rich stop squandering the planet’s riches.
So what about growth? With GDP out of the way and sensible goals defined, it is clear what we need to do. We need to shrink the quantities of materials we extract, use once and dump. But we can continue indefinitely to increase the quality of our lives as we do so.
The living world has been living in this way for about four billion years now, and it shows no signs of reaching any limit to its ingenuity, diversity and miraculous beauty.