A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Economic Growth Must End

You don’t have to be a biologist or medical doctor to know what happens if you run out of food or a Mercedes factory trained mechanic to know what happens when your car runs out of gas.  And you don’t need to be an MIT or Chicago trained economist to grasp the personal implications of a slowing and reversal of economic growth – it means just what it sounds like: there will be less; less electricity, less gasoline, less natural gas, less food, less heat in winter, less cooling in summer, less water and less certainty that the water is safe to drink.  And there will be less money, so everything that there is less of will cost more.

None of this means that there will be less need to do work.  Less of everything means that greater effort will be required to obtain what is needed; this would be especially true in the period of adaptation.  More effort to sustain ourselves with essentially less of almost everything is a frightening prospect, but there is no alternative; growth cannot continue forever in a finite space with finite resources.

Here are comments from several of the people who have been most invested in discovering the truth of our situation.  Be clear, none of them are happy about what they have to say; these words are forced from them by the undeniable truths of their studies:
 * * *  
“In the absence of enormous and ever-increasing NNR (Nonrenewable Natural Resources) supplies, the 1.2 billion people who currently enjoy an industrialized way of life will cease to do so; and the billions of people aspiring to an industrialized way of life will fail to realize their goal.” (Christopher Clugston)

“Over the course of your lifetime society will need to solve some basic problems: How to reorganize our financial system so that it can continue to perform its essential functions—reinvesting savings into socially beneficial projects—in the context of an economy that is stable or maybe even shrinking due to declining energy supplies, rather than continually growing.” (Richard Heinberg)

“Many who have looked at the combined challenge of energy and climate change have concluded that our civilization, having completed its exuberant, flamboyant phase, is headed toward a dramatic simplification and re-localization of life and the end of economic growth as we have known it.” (James Gustave Speth)

“If we cannot move at wartime speed to stabilize the climate, we may not be able to avoid runaway food prices. If we cannot accelerate the shift to smaller families and stabilize the world population sooner rather than later, the ranks of the hungry will almost certainly continue to expand.” (Lester R Brown)

“The global challenges in the offing, (…), are further complicated by our failure to communicate effectively about the potentially pernicious results that could be derived from having recklessly grown a soon to become patently unsustainable, colossal global economy, the one which we have artificially designed, conveniently constructed, and relentlessly expanded without enough conscious, intelligent regard for the biophysical requirements of practical reality.” (Steve Salmony)

‘Can the economy grow fast enough in real terms to redeem the massive increase in debt? In a word, no. As Frederick Soddy (1926 Nobel Laureate chemist and underground economist) pointed out long ago, “you cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention, such as the spontaneous increment of debt [compound interest] against the natural law of the spontaneous decrement of wealth [entropy]”.’ (Herman Daly)

“Any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed, into which life on Earth is adapted. Getting back to 350 parts per million will be very, very tough -- the toughest thing human beings have ever done -- but there is no use complaining about it. It's just physics and chemistry. That's what we have to do.” (Bill McKibben)
 * * * 
Not only is continued growth not possible, it is not beneficial even if it were possible.  The incentive structure of a growth economy moves relentlessly toward pressures for end users to use as much as possible, even as there are moderating influences on production processes for efficiency.  Only in the using up, replacing and adding new to “consumables” does the economy grow in size.  The simplest image of this is the correct one, that is, raw material being turned more and more rapidly into trash as it passes through the possession, use and spoilage of the user.  Either the amount used must increase per capita or the numbers of users must increase or both.

Economies that last are not based on this principle, but rather by being incentivised to use as little as possible – to get as much utility from raw material as possible and to replenish raw stocks as a condition of using them.  Such an economy does not grow in the sense that present human economies demand increasing amounts of raw stock in every iteration.

All of evolution has taken place on this second model, yet there has been growth in complexity to the point that a creature evolved the capacity of realization.  At the physiological level a sponge or a jellyfish is essential equivalent to the mammals.  At the broader biological level chimps and humans are almost indistinguishable.  But, at the functional level in the environment each level of complexity has vastly greater powers.  These differences were all come to in a no-growth natural economy.

This means that a human no-growth economy is possible, structured on incentives more like those of natural economies.  Artistic achievement, scientific understanding, personal spiritual relationship with the universe and more could continue.  The pace would be slower, more inline with the replenishment rates of natural systems.  There would be less ‘stuff’, much less stuff.  Dwellings would be constructed for utility.  Life would be much more physically localized even as communication could be, if we don’t so completely trash our present world that little is left, global and remarkably interactive.

There are more and more complex arguments that can be and must be made, but it is a fairly simple thing that must actually happen.  We must begin to use less energy and material, dramatically less.  We must understand that economic growth, even if it continues, is no longer growth at all but the final and fatal parasitism of the living space by our species.  The uncertainties and failures of our economic system are the direct consequence of overgrowth and will not be repaired with “new and innovative financial instruments”, we should have seen that clearly by now.

The militarism of one nation against another and, soon enough, against a hungry and demanding Great Many is the direct consequence of overgrowth; as is environmental destruction and bio-devastation.  Yet, with these realities immediately in front of us, the madness that we can “grow our way” out of a growth created result is still the official “wisdom” or better ‘wise doom.’ 

The State and corporate powers will not lead us out of this dilemma; there is no profit and less power in it.  A critical mass of people must begin to understand and act. There is no other way.


J. A. Lindsay said...

I believe that such assaults are today widespread and have frequently taken place in history (see pre-Elizabethan drams, e.g. the Duchess of Malfi, the Revenger's Tragedy, et cetera.

Often, these assaults originate within the family, usually initiated by a parent and perpetually sustained by a wider and wider circl of relative, friends, acquaintanees, associates and further detractors against the victim. The weapons used can vary from harassment to ostracism. The perfect weapon is surely ostracism, the weapon of the weak. Early assaults often leave the mark of Cain on the brow of thes victim, increasing the likelihood of futher abuse. Countries such as Australia have held synposia on ostracism.
The assaults also limit health and wellbeing, as well as economic success and rewarding interpersonal relationships. There are few, if any remedies for them, either in law or life.
J.A. Lindsay

Michael Dawson said...

I think J.A. is replying to the post below.

Meanwhile, here's my thing about calling for no more growth: I think it's a necessary but insufficient point.

The green activist world is chock-a-block now with such calls, but they never mention the c-word: capitalism. Instead, they muse about "our culture" and the pre-suppositions of academic economists. As if we can avoid conflict with the powers that be, and sweet-talk our way to a decent future.

In my opinion, we do not have time for a purely tune-in, turn-on, drop-out strategy, even granting that one is even conceivably possible in this TV-mediated capitalist dictatorship.

If we don't acknowledge that capitalists are far and away the main force behind growth, we will lose this race, or never even start it, IMHO.

BTW, yesterday, I saw a very hip looking chap leaving a Starbucks for his car holding two beverages in paper cups with plastic lids. On his head? A cap with a cute whale logo saying "Live Simply."

To my eye, that speaks volumes about the limits of waiting for the great drop-out.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for articulating the problem with the world so succinctly – and so correctly. Growth in perpetuity is not only not possible it is fully destructive in nature. In the U.S., there are 50 million more registered motor vehicles than there are licensed drivers. That sentence alone says so much about what we have become.

Think about it. If everyone with a driver’s license in the U.S. got behind the wheel of a registered vehicle we could give every man woman and child in Canada and Australia their own car just with our surplus.

Sadly, no government or any collection of corporations will ever proactively change our current path because the very few who currently reap the super-sized benefits would have to give a small piece of it up. And that will never happen. Instead, it is far more likely that the big ugly greed machine will break before it gets fixed. Certainly, this is more painful. But human nature will almost certainly prevent us from doing the right thing before it breaks.

So if breaking is what it takes, I say bring it on. Let the bloody Dow go to zero. We will survive. In fact, we will be better off.

Tom Osenton
Author of
The Death of Demand (Financial Times Prentice Hall)

James Keye said...


As usual I agree with you comment. I would only add that Chock-a-block challenges to growth are necessary for such a stubborn concept to be eroded, even in the slightest. And that the Capitalist faith is even more difficult since the greatest number of people don’t even know what it is. This is not going to be a short or pleasant struggle – a bit like the starry eyed boys of the southern plantations going to off to whip the Yankees in a couple of months. I hope that my reference to the “losing side” is not prophetic!


I fear that you are right that only a precipitous economic collapse will get people’s attention, and a hundred years ago the utilitarian calculus might have favored one. I think that today we have to struggle to avoid such a collapse, if possible. The consequences of going on as we are will be disastrous, but the consequences of 7 billion people, many thousands of nuclear weapons, 500 or so nuclear power plants, many thousands of chemical plants, etc., all undergoing their own forms of “melt down” or final solution would make the great Permian extinction look like life as usual. I can imagine people trying to eat every last insect and chewing the bark from trees; burning the forests and dieing on the beaches by the hundreds of thousands from drinking salt water.

Certainly the heat needs to go up fast enough that we notice we are being cooked, but going to an immediate boil doesn’t solve the problem. The next 30 years will, most likely, be determinative. Ours will be a very narrow window of opportunity in any case.

Tom Osenton said...

I agree completely. Our window is narrow, is closing fast, and its urgency severe. Yet I struggle to imagine what a proactive change-movement looks like. An enormous news hole poisons us hourly with the lie that the Dow is the economy and the economy the Dow. Like innovation itself, the solution is more likely to come from outside of the machine that has constructed what already exists. As Machiavelli wrote "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

It can be done - it must be done. But how it is done completely escapes me.

Michael Dawson said...

Tom, I am very impressed with your Death of Demand book, which I just ordered from Amazon and plan to quote from extensively in my own book on cars-first transportation.

Do you have any new writings on the topic of commodity/demand saturation?


James Keye said...


There is assuredly no way to generate or predict the great movement(s) that will come into existence in response to the increasingly fretful conditions of regular life. However, it is possible to set in place the ideas that might guide movements as they seek direction for their energies. A metaphor is that of a flood; one can rarely create one, but can set in place the channels and barriers that might serve as guide once one is in motion. The metaphor points out that the guidance does require some level of coherence. I see some evidence of that coherence.

Some great movements are forming, Middle East, Greece, Britain, Madison, but the ideational base is still fragmented; is still sorting out the solid from the self-serving. There is no way to predict or control the flood, only to try to work, with those others building in preparation, for coherent structures that might effectively give meaning and order to the explosive power of mass movement. It is a bit like putting a stick of dynamite under a pack of playing cards and hoping for a complex house of cards to be constructed, but you just have to do what is possible.

A flood is also a proper metaphor for the dilemma; do we live with the corruption in place or do we allow to wipe the landscape clean, the bad and the good? Your answer and mine is that the flood is past due, but the Great Many, in this country, are not there yet. When they will be and how they will act is beyond our control and knowing.

With those things said, I still maintain that, if it is possible, the full force of a failed economy must be avoided if possible. The very biophysical integrity of the planet’s surface could/would be severely damaged by a precipitous collapse.

Tom Osenton said...

I have just ordered The Consumer Trap through your web site and look forward to reading it.

I published "Boomer Destiny" in 2009 and it explores the current crisis through the prism of Strauss & Howe's thesis about generational personalities and a repeating 80 year cycle we have been experiencing since the founding of the Republic.

If you send me an email I'll happily send you a copy.