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Imagining A Post Growth Future

by Joshua Nelson on 1st February 2010

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I recently attended the NCSE’s New Green Economy Conference in Washington, DC.  Since my travels home I have been trying to let everything from the conference settle, but I wanted to bring up on great part that gave me hope for a post growth society: the Chafee Memorial Lecture given by James Gustave “Gus” Speth, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World.

I commented in a previous post on my blog that Speth’s lecture was inspiring, though long-winded, but this particular portion of his speech gave me goose-bumps. He started by tipping his hat at the previous speaker, Herman Daly, who accepted his (much deserved) Lifetime Achievement Award and then invited the crowd of nearly 1100 conference attendees to take a journey of the imagination… with a great twist in the end!

“As the new decade begins in this world, the President, early in his first term, stands before Congress to deliver his State of the Union address. He says the following:

‘In the next ten years we shall increase our wealth by fifty percent. The profound question is – does this mean that we will be fifty percent richer in a real sense, fifty percent better off, fifty percent happier?

‘The great question is, shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land and our water?

‘Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions… It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans – because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later…’

The program I shall propose to Congress will be the most comprehensive and costly program in this field ever in the nation’s history.

‘The argument is increasingly heard that a fundamental contradiction has arisen between economic growth and the quality of life, so that to have one we must forsake the other. The answer is not to abandon growth, but to redirect it…

‘I propose, that before these problems become insoluble, the nation develop a national growth policy. Our purpose will be to find those means by which Federal, state and local government can influence the course of … growth so as positively to affect the quality of American life.

And Congress acts. To address these challenges, it responds with the toughest environmental legislation in history. And it does so not with partisan rancor and threats of filibusters but by large bipartisan majorities.

In this world that we are imagining, the public is aroused; the media are attentive; the courts are supportive. Citizens are alarmed by the crisis they face. They organize a movement and issue this powerful declaration:

‘We, therefore, resolve to act. We propose a revolution in conduct toward an environment that is rising in revolt against us. Granted that ideas and institutions long established are not easily changed; yet today is the first day of the rest of our life on this planet. We will begin anew.’

Meanwhile, the nation’s leading environmental scholars and practitioners, and even some economists, are asking whether measures such as those in the Congress will be enough, and whether deeper changes are not needed.

GDP and the national income accounts are challenged for their failure to tell us things that really matter, including whether our society is equitable and fair and whether we are gaining or losing environmental quality. A sense of planetary limits is palpable. The country’s growth fetish comes under attack as analysts see the fundamental incompatibility between limitless growth and an increasingly small and limited planet.

Advocacy emerges for moving to an economy that would be ‘non-growing in terms of the size of the human population, the quantity of physical resources in use, and [the] impact on the biological environment.’

Joined with this is a call from many sources for us to break from our consumerist and materialistic ways – to seek simpler lives in harmony with nature and each other. These advocates recognize that, with growth no longer available as a palliative, ‘one problem that must be faced squarely is the redistribution of wealth within and between nations.’

They also recognize the need to create needed employment opportunities by stimulating employment in areas long under-served by the economy and even by moving to shorter workweeks. And none of this seems likely, these writers realize, without a dramatic revitalization of democratic life.

Digging deeper, some opinion leaders, including both ecologists and economists, ask, ‘whether the operational requirements of the private enterprise economic system are compatible with ecological imperatives.’ They conclude that the answer is ‘no.’

Environmental limits will eventually require limits on economic growth, they reason. ‘In a private enterprise system, ‘they conclude, ‘[this] no-growth condition means no further accumulation of capital. If, as seems to be the case, accumulation of capital, through profit, is the basic driving force of this system, it is difficult to see how it can continue to operate under conditions of no growth.’ And thus begins the thought: how does society move beyond the capitalism of the day?

You can see that the world we are imagining is one of high hopes and optimism that the job can and will be done. It is also a world of deep searching for the next steps that will be required once the immediate goals are met. Now, at this point, I suspect there may be a generational divide in the audience. Those of you of my vintage have probably realized that this is not an imaginary world at all. You do not have to imagine this world – you remember it.

It is the actual world of the early 1970s. That is really what President Nixon said to the Congress in 1970.

Congress really did declare that air pollution standards must protect public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety and without regard to the economic costs. The revolutionary Clean Water Act really did seek no discharge of pollutants, with the goals of restoring the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters and making our waters fishable and swimmable for all by the mid-1980s.

Many scientists, economists and activists supported the longer term thinking about growth and consumerism that I just mentioned, and they recognized the ties to social equity issues. They saw the challenge all this posed to our system of political economy. I have quoted John Holden, Paul and Anne Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, opinion leaders in this era, but there were many others, including Kenneth Boulding who famously noted, ‘Anyone who thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.‘”

Today the problems faced in the 1970s are even more paramount, pressing our society into a “triple crunch,” as the new economics foundation calls it. We’ve set out to do it before, we can do it again. We can pick up where we left off in the 1970s, using the last 40 years of growth and consumption as a lesson of what went wrong.

This post was written by

avatar Joshua's life goal is leave this world better than when he came in – similar to the campsite rule. He started writing about sustainable economics with his blog Steady State Revolution, acted as Washington Chapter Director for the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) for a few years and is a co-founder of the Post Growth Institute. An avid reader, cyclist and hobbyist mead maker, Joshua lives Seattle, WA USA with his wife and son.

Joshua has written 22 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Joshua

{ 9 comments }

avatar Stacey Derbinshire February 1, 2010 at 13:00

You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it to be refreshing and very informative. I wish there were more blogs like it. Anyway, I felt it was about time I posted, I

avatar Joshua February 2, 2010 at 08:21

Stacey,

Thanks for the compliment and the comment! (looks like we lost you mid-stream?) Hope we can all bring some good perspective to the conversation, glad you’re joining us for the ride!

Cheers,
Joshua

avatar Dave Gardner February 1, 2010 at 17:31

Very nicely stated. I am sorry I missed the conference. I’ll be recommending this post to my readers! Was Daly a gifted speaker?

Dave Gardner
Producing the documentary
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
http://www.growthbusters.com

avatar Joshua February 1, 2010 at 18:47

Yes, Daly did a great job with his speech. He commented jovially that it was a little dismaying to be receiving a lifetime achievement award, as if his work was finished! 🙂 He covered the usual bases, too, about the conflict between the natural world and economic growth.

Bummer you didn’t make it to the conference, Dave, but you’re still contributing a lot with the film-making! How’s the documentary coming?

Cheers,
Joshua

avatar Jim February 1, 2010 at 22:35

Thanks for writing this blog, and thanks for writing up this speech.

I’m glad for the trend of people tweeting and blogging conferences, and thus enabling us who can’t make them to at least get a sense of what went on.

avatar Joshua February 2, 2010 at 08:23

Jim,

I hope I can write more about the many things that went on at the conference soon. My brain is still deflating a bit from all the information!

Cheers,
Joshua

avatar C.A.Wittke February 4, 2010 at 07:21

Thank you for this post; I could not agree more, growth does need a new definition severely based on sustainability which in return must be permanently fine tuned. If this meant to find the long and winding road back to “paradise”, fine, that road could be the reward, the growth.

avatar VLS March 1, 2010 at 22:58

What do they mean by a post growth society?

avatar Joshua March 2, 2010 at 07:38

VLS,

A post growth society is a civilization that is no longer devoting it’s resources, time, energy to increasing the physical size of the economy. This means that instead of chasing growth for the sake of growth, we will focus on living better lives – not bigger ones. A post growth society exists within ecological limits, uses many metrics of progress other than just the size of the economy (GDP). It would be a society interested in development, improving health and well-being, and focusing on the needs of the people.

Does that answer your question? It is a broad answer, but the point of this blog is to develop that vision – both broadly and specifically.

Cheers,
Joshua

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