An end to economic growth?

By Richard Waters

We are addicted to economic growth. It is an addiction working on the minds and the behaviours of people across the world. Even this article, the laptop on which it was written and the website on which it will be published, are products of, and contribute to, GDP. Despite such pervasiveness, the catastrophic environmental consequences of this addiction are rarely addressed.

Let’s start at a geological scale. For the majority of the past 12500 years we have lived in an epoch, the Holocene, characterised by a relatively stable climate. We now know that humans are having a transformational impact on global climates and ecosystems. The world is accelerating towards hot house conditions; glaciers have lost ice for the past consecutive 40 years and 20 of the hottest years ever recorded have been in the past 22 years.

Humans are having a transformational impact on global climates

The link is now made between extreme weather events and anthropogenic climate change. When outlets show pictures of wildfires in California, desertification in Mali or Brazil, or deadly flooding in Bangladesh, it is no longer controversial for them to explicitly identify these as direct consequences of humanity’s impact on the environment. But it is very uncommon for any second link to be made back to the growth of GDP as the main driver of this crisis.

Growth in GDP necessarily means environmental transformation. The earth provides the resources for, and acts as a sink for, the growth fuelling the capitalist economy. Certainly, this may be a bleak picture.

We need to transform political discourse on growth as a solution

But once we actually understand growth, we can see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Certainly, it is a very different light from the one that technology promised at the end of the 20th century, a vague detachment between the acceleration of growth and consumption. A glance back across the span of anatomically modern humans, roughly the last 200,000 years, highlights one striking thing in regard to growth. Its measurement and the addiction to it are relatively recent.

Whilst the era of growth that has led to this crisis has also provided the technologies that could address it, we cannot only put our faith in technical solutions. As a species, we need to transform political discourse away from the idea of growth as a solution to all our problems. It is very fair to ask what else. For the answer, we must look to degrowth.

Growth will end, the finite nature of the planet will ensure that

This is the idea that we cannot continue to extract infinitely from the resources that are fundamentally finite. Not only are these resources finite, but so too is the ability of the Earth to act as a sink for the effects of this consumption.

Growth will end. The finite nature of the planet will ensure that. We have a stark choice. We can put the brakes on global growth through coherent, pro-people policies. The alternative is a sudden, catastrophic and uncontrolled end to the growth upon which the current economy depends. The effects of which would be disastrous – both socially and environmentally.

We demand a radical approach that challenges our preconceptions

It is a crisis. But a time of crisis is a time to demand a radical approach that challenges one of the most accepted and apparently innate norms within our society. We have shifted to this worship of GDP growth that we now take for granted, and we can shift away.

Photograph by Ian Burt via Flickr

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