The Insanity of Endless Growth
9 August 2017
By Dr Haydn Washington for Dick Smith Fair Go.
The world is faced with a predicament of grave enormity – yet one rarely spoken of. The United Nations (UN), almost all governments, business, and media and both the political Left and the Right are busy extolling (even praising) ‘endless growth’.
Yet we live on a finite planet, so clearly endless physical growth is impossible, unsustainable and, in fact, insane.
I often give public talks on sustainability and ask the audience: ‘On a finite planet who thinks we can keep growing physically forever?’ Nobody raises their hands. So why then is our economy and society based on what many individually know is impossible? An excellent question – but one hardly ever asked in mainstream economics (Daly, 2014). Even the UN forgets to ask the question – and to answer it.
Limits to Growth
Most people in society don’t seem to understand that humanity has exceeded ecological limits, causing the environmental crisis. The book ‘Limits to Growth’ (Meadows et al, 1972) showed that our population growth and increasing consumption of resources would exceed planetary limits around the middle of the 21st century, causing societal collapse. This report was strongly criticized by traditional economists, who called the authors ‘prophets of doom’ (Solow, 1973). However, a 40-year review of the ‘standard’ model of the ‘Limits to Growth’ has shown that it has been remarkably accurate (Turner and Alexander, 2014). To summarise environmental indicators:
- The Global Ecological Footprint now stands at 1.6 Earths (GFN, 2017);
- The Living Planet Index has declined by 52% since 1970 (WWF, 2014);
- The species extinction rate is at least 1000 times normal (MEA, 2005);
- 60% of ecosystem services are degrading or being used unsustainably (MEA, 2005);
- Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been exceeded as a result of human activity (Steffen et al., 2015).
In effect, we are bankrupting nature and we are consuming the past, present and future of our biosphere (Wijkman and Rockstrom, 2012). On a finite world with expanding population and consumption, clearly something has got to give. So we really do have a problem, for humanity is totally dependent on the biosphere we are degrading (Washington, 2013). Hence society desperately needs to recognize we are way past sustainable ecological limits.
The endless growth mantra
Our best science may tell us that the consumer society is on a self-destructive path, but we successfully deflect the evidence by repeating in unison the mantra of perpetual growth (Rees, 2008). However, repetition of course does not make something ‘true’. Herman Daly (1991) argues that economic growth is unrealistically held to be:
… the cure for poverty, unemployment, debt repayment, inflation, balance of payment deficits, the population explosion, crime, divorce and drug addiction.
Economic growth is thus unrealistically seen as the panacea for everything. Daly (1991) notes that the verb ‘to grow’ has become twisted. We have forgotten its original meaning, where growth gives way to maturity, a steady state. To grow beyond a certain point can be disastrous.
A final aspect of growthism is that it is commonly claimed we: ‘Have to have growth for jobs!’. Is this correct? There are good grounds to question whether jobs have actually historically been linked to growth. Peter Victor (2008) notes that the idea only developed sixty years ago, and for most of human history we managed without growth in terms of employment.
Does growth necessarily bring employment in any case? There were more Canadians with incomes less than the ‘Low Income Cut Off’ in 2005 than in 1980, despite the real Canadian GDP having grown by 99.5% (Victor, 2008). Victor (2008) notes it is possible to develop scenarios where full employment prevails, poverty is eliminated, people have more leisure, and greenhouse gases are drastically reduced, in the context of low – and ultimately no – economic growth. It is thus mistaken to assume that growth and jobs are strongly related.
Once we have exceeded ecological limits, growth will make us worse off. We have then reached uneconomic growth. However, our experience of diminished well-being will be blamed on ‘product scarcity’. The orthodox economic response will then be to advocate increased growth to fix this. In the real world of ecological limits, this will make us even less well off, but this will lead to advocacy of ‘even more growth’ (Daly, 1991). This becomes a death spiral.
Healing our economy requires accepting the reality that the economy cannot grow forever. However, in recent years the term ‘decoupling’ has been used to argue we can grow further.
‘Decoupling’ means we reduce the amount of materials and energy used, and still have a similar quality of life. The UN advocates the ‘green economy’ (UNEP 2011) which speaks of completely decoupling economic growth from impacts, but how successful have we been in reaching it? Victor (2008) notes decoupling slows down the rate at which things get worse, but does not turn them around. Some modest decoupling of material flows occurred from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, but total material throughput still increased. Victor and Jackson (2015) note that while there has been some ‘relative decoupling’, any serious absolute decoupling is not evident. Talk of ‘100% decoupling’ may just be wishful thinking that allows ‘business-as-usual’ growth to continue. Focusing just on decoupling runs the risk of becoming part of the denial concerning the unsustainability of endless growth.
How is it possible for civilisations to be blind towards the grave approaching threats to their survival, even when the evidence is extensive (Brown, 2008)?
Humanity has a key failing – we tend to deny our problems. We proceed often in a cultural trance of denial, where people and societies block awareness of issues too painful to comprehend. This human incapacity to hear bad news makes it hard to solve the environmental crisis. As a society, we continue to act as if there is no environmental crisis, no matter what the science says (Washington, 2017). Humanity denies some things as they force us to ‘confront change’, others because they are just too painful, or make us afraid.
Sometimes we can’t see a solution, so problems appear unsolvable (Washington and Cook, 2011). Sociologist Zerubavel (2006) explains the most public form of denial is ‘silence’, where some things are not spoken of. Take the silence about the environmental crisis, the silence about the fact that the world is overpopulated, the deafening silence about the impossibility of endless growth (Washington, 2015). The basis for much denial is ideological, where science and the environmental crisis are denied due a conservative ideological hatred of regulation affecting the free market (Oreskes and Conway, 2010).
Anthropocentrism – a pro-growth worldview
Solutions become easier if we change our worldview and ethics. Endless growth has been possible due to the overwhelming anthropocentric (human-centred) worldview of modernism (Curry, 2011), which sees the world as being essentially just a resource for human use (Crist, 2012). Anthropocentrism sees individual humans as more valuable than all other organisms. In contrast ‘ecocentrism’ finds intrinsic value in all of nature (Washington et al, 2017). Endless growth has been the ethical brainchild of anthropocentric ‘speciesism’, a toxic worldview (Curry, 2011) that has dominated Western society for two centuries. Daly (1991) concludes: It is widely believed by persons of diverse religions that there is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.
We face a supremely difficult predicament. Society has become hooked on endless growth, but this has well and truly failed, as shown by every environmental indicator. Change is not easy but it is possible – but only by accepting the nature and scale of our predicament. Solving the key cause of the problem – the idea we can grow physically forever on a finite planet – means tackling the three key drivers (Washington, 2015) of unsustainability: overpopulation; overconsumption; and the growth economy. I suggest these key solution frameworks (see Washington, 2015):
- Accept ecological reality and roll back denial;
- Change our worldview to ecocentrism, and abandon the false dream of ‘Mastery of Nature’;
- Control population growth through education, family planning and non-coercive, humane strategies (Engelman, 2016);
- Roll back the deliberately-constructed consumer ethic (Assadourian, 2013);
- Move past growthism to a steady state economy (Daly, 2014);
- Solve climate change urgently, focusing on mitigation;
- Apply appropriate technology, especially 100% renewables within 2-3 decades, along with major energy efficiency and conservation (Diesendorf, 2014);
- Reduce poverty and inequality (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010), while simultaneously supporting the ‘Nature Needs Half’ vision (Kopnina, 2016);
- Establish comprehensive education for sustainability based on ecological reality and ecocentrism;
- Create the political will for change – Act!
We have been locked into an insane growth fantasy for two centuries, but the past does not mandate the future. It is time now to grow up. We need to acknowledge the scale of the problem, abandon denial, and move towards a major shift in worldview. This is a big task, but also an exciting, positive challenge – one nobody should deny.
Dr. Haydn Washington an Adjunct Lecturer with the PANGEA Research Centre, Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UNSW, Australia. He has a forty year history as an environmental scientist, writer and activist. He has a degree in ecology, a Masters of Science in eco-toxicology (heavy metal pollution), a Dip. Ed., and a Ph.D. ‘The Wilderness Knot’ in Social Ecology (2007). Haydn was worked in CSIRO, as Director of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, as an environmental consultant, and as a Director of Sustainability in Local Government. He is the Co-Director of the NSW Chapter of the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy. Haydn has written books on environmental issues, the most recent being ‘Demystifying Sustainability’ (2015) and as lead editor of ‘A Future Beyond Growth’ (2016) and the 2017 book ‘Positive Steps to a Steady State Economy’. Haydn is also keenly interested in geodiversity, especially the pagoda rock formations of the western Blue Mountains.
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