A recent exchange between Jason Hickel (and here and here) and Dean Baker (and here) on whether humanity can have a viable future and still have ‘economic growth’, nicely highlights the way old concepts and words can trap us in unproductive debate and action.
The way forward is to recognise the need for a fundamental re-framing of the nature and purpose of our societies, and their economies. The terms growth, GDP, capital and capitalism are so ill-defined, confused or inappropriate they only hinder debate.
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?