Written By Community Solutions fellow Samuel Alexander
Originally posted on simplicitycollective.com
The 1972 publication of Limits to Growth sparked a controversy that has yet to subside. This book argued that if population, resource use, and pollution kept increasing on our finite planet, eventually economies would face environmental ‘limits to growth’ – with potentially dire consequences. Although evidence is mounting in support of this position (Turner, 2014; Steffan et al, 2015), any suggestion that nations might have to give up economic growth, or even embrace a ‘degrowth’ process of planned economic contraction, is typically met with fierce resistance, especially by mainstream economists. In response to such arguments, most economists tend to insist that technological innovation, better design, and market mechanisms will mean that economies can and should continue growing indefinitely.
Those counter-arguments have shaped the cultural understanding of this debate, meaning that the ‘limits to growth’ perspective is widely and casually dismissed as flawed. Most people, including most politicians, still believe that sustained economic growth, in terms of GDP, is necessary for societal progress, and that such growth is consistent with environmental sustainability. For example, questioning economic growth never entered the key discussions at the Paris Climate Summit in December 2015, which implies that mainstream political and economic discourse still deems continuous GDP growth not just consistent with a safe climate, but a precondition for it.
The main political implication of the growth paradigm is that governments shape policies and institutions with the aim of promoting economic growth, giving society a pro-growth structure. This is supported by consumerist cultures that seek and indeed expect ever-rising material living standards. On the flip side, any policies and institutions that would inhibit economic growth are presumptively rejected or not even given a serious hearing.
This paper provides a summary case for why there are, in fact, limits to growth, and outlines a range of bold policy interventions that would be required to produce a stable and flourishing post-growth economy. The analysis draws on and attempts to develop a rich array of thinking from literatures including ecological economics, eco-socialism, degrowth, and sustainable consumption. For decades a huge amount has been written in critique of growth economics, but the literature on what a post-growth economy would look like, or how to get there, is far less developed. This is inhibiting the movement for change. I acknowledge that most people do not recognise the need for a post-growth economy and therefore would reject my policy proposals as unacceptable. But as the limits to growth tighten their grip on economies in coming years and decades, I believe the debate will inevitably evolve, and the question will not be whether a post-growth economy is required, but rather how to create one – by design rather than disaster.