Does Post Growth = No Growth?
Does ‘post growth’ mean ‘no growth’?
Post growth is about developing human potential, wellbeing and happiness within, and in relation to, a physically finite earth. It’s about putting life and everything needed to maintain it at the center of economic and social activity, instead of the never-ending accumulation of money, and the pursuit of growth of all kinds without regard for the consequences.
In many societies, we’ve been growing things that are no longer improving our happiness or sense of wellbeing, and can benefit from turning our energies to ‘better’ instead of ‘more’.
In a post growth world, many things would continue to grow: clean energy infrastructure, community gardens, green buildings, free time, happiness, creativity, innovative approaches to challenges. The Ecological Footprints of those whose impacts are below what is necessary to meet their needs can still grow, while staying within sustainable limits.
Post growth is also about our collective security. Because the earth has biological limits, it is both physically impossible and an unacceptable risk for humanity as a whole to pursue growth indefinitely. For our own security and safety, we need to move beyond the widely accepted belief that we can continue to grow our economies, our populations and our consumption of material resources forever.
At some point, humanity needs to work out how to run its societies so that they deliver quality of life for all, without depending on growth.
Post growth is about new economic frameworks – the dominant change in a post-growth world is not merely reduced materialism, but a social contract/business structure around the goals of economic activity as a reflection of shared social aims.
Does Slow or No Growth = Economic Collapse?
If we slow growth won’t our economy collapse, and won’t that mean a lot of people will lose their jobs?
Post Growth is about how all people can live life well, without being dependent on economic growth. That includes having meaningful work and being able to provide for oneself and one’s family.
In a post growth society, people can and will still have work – people will still need goods and services. We will still have trade, small business, entrepreneurship. But what would work look like in a society that doesn’t depend on growth to prosper? For example, what if the purpose of businesses is to address social needs – what if we had a not-for-profit economy?
Growth is measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product), an indicator that adds up the total monetary value of a nation’s production. GDP was developed in 1934 to keep track of economic activity so that the devastating events of the 1929 stock market crash could be averted in the future. However the events of the last few years have shown there is no inherent stability or security in a growth-based system, with many people losing jobs, homes, retirement savings, and less or unable to afford health care or basic foods.
The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was the latest in a long line of examples that show why we need to develop a considered plan to move away from the boom and bust cycles built into a growth model. We are ‘stuck on the bus’ – we’ve created a system that depends on more and more growth to avoid an economic downturn and creating hardship for people. And if financial collapse is horrendous, it will be nothing compared to ecological collapse.
Right now, growth is harming people and planet, yet right now, a slowing of growth in an economy that needs growth, is creating harm to people and planet. We must find ways forward out of this double bind.
How Can We Support Our Elders Without Growth?
How do we provide for the pensions and health care of ageing populations if we don’t grow and have enough young people to support them?
For the first time in history, large numbers of people in many countries are living to an old age. While this is an incredible achievement, it also means we now have a situation that humanity has never before faced on this scale, where many more people may need high dependency care, or find themselves in any one of a number of situations where their family cannot look after them.
It is a legitimate concern for both citizens and political leaders to want to ensure a society can look after elders, particularly where populations are ageing.
In essence, this question is about how society will pay for the care of large groups of ageing people. However this concern about ‘growing the tax base’ to support older people assumes two things – that older people will be a burden, and that the only way the needs of older people can be met is through growing the tax base. How true are these assumptions?
Can people better secure their own wellbeing through preventative health and improved lifestyles so that they remain well and keep their independence longer as they enter the older decades of their lives?
Could we change how we live? For most of human history, we’ve had extended families in all cultures, and it has only been since the second World War that the idea of the ‘nuclear’ family has come into vogue. In countries where the nuclear family has been considered ‘the norm’ since the mid 20th century, we may need to think about other possible opportunities for housing (such as co-housing), that could make life better and easier for all age groups.
In addition, this ‘grow the young to support the old’ mindset creates what some call a demographic ‘ponzi’ scheme – that to support the older population, the younger cohort (age group) must be bigger in number than older people. In time, this group will also age, requiring an even larger younger cohort, who in turn then require a larger youth cohort to support them.
If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face.
– Alex Steffen, ‘Peak Population and Generation X’
The sooner we turn our attention to the bigger question – how can we meet the needs of our elders without depending on growth – the sooner the population wave will ‘crest’.
How Does Growth Relate to Population and Consumption?
Isn’t the problem consumption?/Isn’t the problem population?
Often, people see the impacts of ‘growth’ as one or the other of these things:
It’s not growth in population that’s the problem, it’s growth consumption – if the rich countries consumed less, it wouldn’t matter how many people there were.
It’s not growth in consumption that’s the problem, it’s growth in population – if people had less children and there weren’t as many people, we could all consume as much as we wanted.
Human impact on the earth is a product of the number of people multiplied by how much each person consumes. This is a physical and mathematical fact. Impact is not an ‘either-or’ question of how many people there are (population) vs how much each person uses (consumption) – it’s both: population AND consumption.
Geographic area of nations scaled according to Ecological Footprint, or consumption demand for renewable resources
Image from Worldmapper © Copyright SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)
Right now, the mostly smaller populations of the industrialized countries consume more per head than the often larger populations in developing countries.
On the eve of India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi was asked whether he thought the country could follow the British model of industrial development. His response retains a powerful resonance in a world that has to redefine its relation to the earth’s ecology: “It took Britain half the resources of this planet to achieve its prosperity. How many planets will India require for development?”
One could say that if the wealthier nations wish to consume at the level they do, then it is the wealthy nations that are ‘overpopulated’! So yes, consumption is one factor, and also that we have come to equate ‘prosperity’ with growth in consumption.
However if we accept conservative estimates that we are already living beyond our ecological means, and that – depending on how we meet our needs – many billions of people may need to increase their consumption to be lifted out of material poverty, then we cannot focus on one part of the equation and ignore the other. The absolute numbers of people matter as well as consumption levels, especially as it takes a long time for demographic changes to take effect.
Image from Worldmapper © Copyright SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)
Given that overall numbers of people matter, population is certainly a part of the growth issue. However, many people are reluctant to raise the issue of population as it relates to higher birth rates in developing nations because they do not want to seem to be paternalistic, and because historically there have been a range of abhorrent practices carried out in the name of ‘birth control’, such as forced sterilizations. The discomfort may also be because speaking about it would raise the uncomfortable corresponding argument that developing nations consume a lot less than people in the developed nations.
There is a range of economic, physical and cultural factors that determine family size. In developing nations, women may not be able to afford, or physically be able to access, family planning services. There may also be social and cultural barriers to the use of contraceptives. In countries with high child mortality rates, or in countries with no social safety net where the family is the only social security net, it may make sense to have a larger family.
Contemporary population initiatives support, and are influenced by, many other social and human rights campaigns, including the rights of women and ending poverty. Women who have an education, economic opportunity, the ability to manage their fertility, and who feel secure that their offspring will survive, tend to choose smaller families.
One of the greatest challenges today is the population explosion. Unless we are able to tackle this issue effectively we will be confronted with the problem of the natural resources being inadequate for all the human beings on this earth.
The Dalai Lama (Statement by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the new Millennium January 1, 2001)
Far from violating human rights, addressing population and empowering women could in fact be the biggest step we could take towards securing human rights.
In industrialized countries, the approach to population might mean reviewing the levels and mix of immigration, and removing any incentives to have children beyond the replacement rate of two children per family – this doesn’t mean people can’t have more than two children, just that they won’t be rewarded for having more than two.
We must create a social and cultural environment where people feel safe to discuss population and reproduction issues without being accused of, OR resorting to, racism, xenophobia and personal attacks. Reproduction choices, in any country, must never be coercive at the level of the individual, and we also need to create a culture where personal choices about decisions not to procreate, or to adopt can be accepted without judgment.
We need to address both population and consumption in all countries, as many non-industrialized countries also have groups who are part of the consumer class, and industrialized countries also have a range of population issues in relation to local carrying capacity (eg. water availability, loss of arable land to urban sprawl) and what governments are incentivizing through policy.
Even though population is a factor, it is also consumption. And even though consumption is a factor, it is also population. Mathematics, physics and biology means that it will always matter how many people there are, AND that it will always matter how much each person consumes, because each is one of a two part equation that determines the ‘ecological load’ on the planet.
How Does Post Growth Relate to Immigration?
Isn’t talking about population anti-immigrant and racist? If we reduce immigration rates, what about asylum seekers/refugees?
Post growth is about rethinking what’s needed to live a good life anywhere around the globe, and is grounded in a social justice perspective, meaning everyone should have the opportunity to experience wellbeing.
The reasons for migration need to be considered in order to think realistically about how people can live the good life without being forced to migrate in search of it. People are fleeing their home country because of conflict, political, religious, ethnic or any other kind of personal discrimination or persecution. Increasingly, this will also include people who are ‘environmental refugees’, who have no choice but to leave areas of chronic drought, water and food shortages.
Many humanitarian immigrants flee from countries because of ongoing conflicts associated with securing natural resources necessary to create cheap consumer goods and services that growth-focussed populations demand. Other countries are still feeling the effects of colonial/post-colonial restructuring, another activity of resource acquisition by external powers to ‘feed a growing economy.’ We all have a responsibility to address the root causes of people being forced to flee their homes. Since this is in part created by the pursuit of growth, addressing growth must necessarily be taken seriously as both a sustainability and human rights issue.
Where the reasons for migration are related to a lack of economic opportunity, creating a world in which these opportunities are available to people in their own country will mean less people will need to leave their home to seek opportunities elsewhere. Industrialized nations have a moral and humanitarian responsibility to ensure that conditions in source countries enable people’s needs to be met and to ensure that the wellbeing of some global citizens is not facilitated by the exploitation of others.
Additionally, skilled immigration may be creating a skills shortage (or ‘brain drain’) in the home country where those skills may be urgently needed. So-called ‘skills shortages’ in any country that has a pool of unemployed people begs the question of whether workforce planning has been effective. Competition for work or housing is arguably a bigger source of a backlash towards immigrants than a discussion about how to create conditions in both the originating and receiving countries that are humane, that meet people’s needs, and that responds to the ability of each country’s differing biological and physical capacity to accommodate people.
Post growth is about striving for a world in which ecologically sustainable footprints and the meeting of human livelihoods co-exist allowing even greater liberties with migration.
How is Human-Induced Climate Disruption Related to Growth?
Climate change occurs naturally, however the observed rise in global temperature throughout the 20th century is widely considered to be the result of various human-induced changes to the land surface (altering the surface albedo), biosphere (altering carbon and nitrogen balances) and atmosphere (through emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and CH4). These human-induced changes are fundamentally tied to economic and population growth. Since the Industrial revolution, these forms of growth have increased total consumption, which in turn has increased the energy needed for growing and mining raw materials, manufacturing, transport, and waste disposal.
Economies seeking to grow their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) face a contradiction between the ‘eat more’ message of economic growth – increasing the numbers of people and the resources they need and want – and the ‘eat less’ message of use less energy, materials and water and create less waste. This contradiction might explain the consistent lack of action around reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as the contradiction in social pressures drags people in opposite directions.
We cannot effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless we move beyond growth. Completely decoupling a growing economy from greenhouse gas emissions is not feasible. Ultimately, there is no way of reducing materialism and associated embodied energy fast enough in a debt-based economy that demands economic growth.
Nuclear energy resources are finite, and are less abundant than is popularly believed. Even truly sustainable energy sources such as solar, wind and bioenergy are limited, because the fraction of the Sun’s energy that is available for us to harvest is finite. This represents the upper limit to a future sustainable energy supply.
Exponential growth in greenhouse gas emissions is unsustainable in the long term, irrespective of climate change. Thus eventually, we need to move to a system in which we are no longer increasing greenhouse emissions, and preferably reducing them.
Overall, the industrialized nations have had an historical advantage from burning humanity’s fossil fuel stores. These stores will not last forever and research is emerging to suggest that their decline may be closer than we have realised.
Developing technologies to move beyond fossil fuels forms one half of the required transition; the other half is the cultural and economic recognition that in a post-fossil fuel world (dependent primarily on the sun for energy), energy consumption will not be able to grow. Industrialised nations must now show leadership to not only transition from fossil fuel based economies themselves, but to assist other nations in making the transition.
What About ‘Green’ Growth?
Why do we have to abandon growth? Can’t we have ‘green’ growth?
It all sounds plausible, except for one thing: ‘green growth’ is still ‘growth’. There are still physical limits to growth, no matter what kind it is.
‘Green growth’ is not the same as ‘post growth’, because it maintains we can continue with our business as usual growth trajectory, provided we make it ‘greener’.
Although practices such as improving energy and resource efficiency, purchasing ‘greener’ products, and mitigating the worst aspects of the growth model such as pollution are all worthwhile and essential endeavours, they are ultimately insufficient if overall growth negate these gains.
In fact, history has demonstrated that advances in energy/resource efficiency often lead to greater overall consumption, not less.
‘Green growth’ treats sustainability as a technical project rather than a social and cultural transformation, and defuses the urgency for that transformation by suggesting that green ‘tweaks’ or technical approaches can bring about the scale of change needed.
What’s Growth Got To Do With Any Of The World’s Problems?
With all the things that are wrong in the world – like poverty, climate change, homelessness, violence, mental health – why are you worried about growth?
Post Growth suggests that ‘The Growth Story’ has become the story that underlies all our other ‘stories’, that it is a major factor in a number of social, economic, quality of life and environmental problems.
The problem is unemployment; only growth can create the jobs. Schools and hospitals are underfunded; the answer is faster growth. We can’t afford to protect the environment; the solution is more growth. Poverty is entrenched; growth will rescue the poor. Income distribution is unequal; the answer is more growth.
If the answer to the problem is always more growth then who dares ask the question: what if the problems are caused by economic growth?
– Clive Hamilton, ‘Economic growth and social decline: How our measures of prosperity are taking us down the wrong path’
In a society where the primary economic and political target is growth, our priorities will be oriented to serve what contributes to growth – that is, what can be measured in monetary terms.
Growth depends on having a consumer society, and in this kind of society, exchange will tend towards privatised consumption, where everything becomes a monetary transaction. We now find ourselves having to pay for things that used to occur as a transaction of trust and friendship.
At the national level, growth (expressed as GDP) doesn’t tell us about the nation’s suicide statistics, who didn’t get enough to eat, the number of households who had their homes repossessed, or how many people volunteered their time this week on the news in between the sport and weather. We see the price of gold and the exchange rate and what the stock market is doing today. This tells us nothing about people’s quality of life.
At the global level, we cannot truly tackle climate change if we persist with growth. We are not going to be able to end extreme poverty and sustain seven billion people on a western industrial lifestyle by pursing more growth on a planet that is already stressed – we’re now ‘big’ enough to alter the earth’s climate, use up the last remaining reserves of easily accessible fossil fuels on which our civilisation depends, we’re in the middle of a mass extinction on a scale unprecedented since the dinosaurs were wiped out, and billions of our fellow human beings exist in abject poverty.
Solving our problems through ever more growth hasn’t worked. It’s time to question the story, and tackle the cause, not the symptoms.
Why Does Growth Matter When The Rate of Growth is Minimal?
How can growth be a problem if our economy is only growing by 2 per cent a year? What’s the big deal?
When it comes to understanding how compound interest works with our savings, we get it. But ‘compound interest’ is just another term for ‘exponential growth’.
This principle works exactly the same way with growth in population and consumption – it might only be 2% or 7% growth, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s 2% or 7% growth, compounded year after year.
Exponential Growth explained, if you prefer science
Albert Bartlett’s excellent presentation on why ‘The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”:
‘2 million views for an old codger giving a lecture about arithmetic? What’s going on? You’ll just have to watch to see what’s so damn amazing about what he (Albert Bartlett) has to say.’
…if you prefer stories
There is a fable, attributed to both Persia and India, in which a courtier presented the king with a beautiful, hand-made chessboard. The king asked what the courtier would like in return for his gift. The courtier made a surprising request:
“I would like a grain of rice for the first square on the chessboard, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third, and so on for all sixty-four squares,” he said.
The king agreed, but it became apparent that the courtier had been cleverer than he seemed. The doubling of the grains of rice for each subsequent square accelerated alarmingly.
By the 21st square, over one million grains were needed.
By the 41st square, more than a million million (ie. a trillion) grains were needed.
And there was not enough rice in the world to fill the remaining squares.
To fulfil the courtier’s request for the entire chessboard, he would need to have been given 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice, weighing 461,168,602,000 metric tons, which would be a heap of rice larger than Mount Everest.
Reference: Chessboard Problem, Wikipedia
It is both a physical impossibility and a dangerous risk to humanity to have exponential growth in a finite world.
Those who claim otherwise have gone to war against mathematics, physics and biology!
Why Stop Growing?
We’ve all benefited from growth – why do we need to stop growing?
It’s true that some of us have benefited from growth, however it has been at the (often unseen) expense of others.
In an economic system that depends on growth, pursuing more growth is entirely rational. In a growth-dependent system, slow or no-growth spells social disaster – and no rational individual wants that.
But there is a bigger question that goes unasked: is an economic system that depends on growth itself rational?
Is growth still a rational choice when too much growth results in a decline in quality of life?
Is it rational when everyone pays for the costs of growth, but not everyone benefits?
Is it rational if it undermines the earth’s systems that provide us with nature’s goods and services that allow us to survive, and sustain our economies?
Growth is measured by the amount a country produces (Gross Domestic Product, or GDP). Governments use this indicator as the measuring-stick for determining the state of a nation’s economy, which has somehow come to equate with the well-being of a nation’s people.
GDP is an indicator that adds up the total monetary value of economic activity, but does not distinguish between the worth of that activity. Every car accident, felled forest, oil spill, heart attack and break-in is counted as ‘growth’ because it results in greater production and exchange of services.
Although some people have prospered from growth, there are many people who haven’t seen the benefits. A political economy that responds to money tends to exclude those who do not have access to money or work.
The earth is a finite system of nutrients, resources, minerals and energy. Human impact must fit within these limits, and preferably leave some ‘breathing room’ for ourselves and other species. For the world as a whole, the growth model is no longer safe – we are already in overshoot.
It’s time we set our sights on organising society around a greater purpose than the pursuit of growth.
Image from 123rf.com