The silver lining offered by a no-growth economy.

October 14, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

Many people with whom I speak are somewhere between scared and terrified about the economic meltdown. They are wondering how it would be possible to get by with less. Their budgets are already at bare bones. It’s long past time to start considering, in detail, how we can deal with an economy that will run dramatically slower than anything most of us have ever experienced.

In his recent article at Harpers Magazine, Fear of fallowing: The specter of a no-growth world, Steven Stoll reminds us of the huge downside of the “growth” economy that we’ve come to know and love, as well as the benefits of living in a no-growth economy.

First of all, here’s a reminder of where our pro-growth, slash, burn, consume-and-discard economy has been leading us:

Groundwater is alarmingly low in regions all over the world, but the most immediate threat to growth is surely petroleum. The world consumption of oil is 84 million barrels a day. American cars alone consume 21 million. Yet even though worldwide production has peaked and prices now hover around $100 per barrel, there is no substitute for oil—nothing stands ready to replace even 10 percent of present consumption. Fossil fuels underwrite our material lives. Long before we deplete all known deposits, their escalating cost could make our highly dispersed, energy-intensive economic geography unworkable. Oil is not simply implicated in everything we call growth. There has never been growth without it.

Consider, too, the world’s fisheries. The planetary marine catch increased from 19 million tons a year in 1950 to 80 million tons by 1990. . . . In 1991 the cod fishery collapsed; . . . Fishermen now catch fewer fish than they did in 1950 . . . .

These statistics don’t lie. We are entering a time when economies will no longer grow like they have in the past. The current mindset of economists and bankers is that the “lack of growth is tantamount to the end of progress.” But is that true? Is there really no other form of progress than the “progress” associated with profligate depletion of limited and precious natural resources? In search of answers, Stoll reviews several recent books, including Bill McKibben’s more recent book, Deep Economy. Here’s what Stoll has determined:

What would it mean to live in a no-growth economy? How might that change the culture of abundance? In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben . . .argues against the troubled union between more and better. . . . Once people have the security of enough food, adequate shelter, access to education, and consumer goods sufficient to allow them to be comfortable and productive, more ceases to be better; it ceases to increase happiness, as Mc Kibben goes to lengths to argue. Surveys over the past six decades have found that Americans’ happiness peaked in the 1950s. It fell five percentage points between 1970 and 1994, even amid the flush times of the Clinton boom. Americans report every imaginable familial and occupational misery regardless of their burgeoning possessions. In the United Kingdom and Japan, economies that expanded powerfully after World War II, satisfaction has remained flat in spite of all the consumer electronics, cable TV stations, first-rate food, and designer clothing now available. The point is not that growth has caused depression and anxiety, writes Mc Kibben, “only that it didn’t alleviate them.”Growth should meet basic needs because these really do create happiness, but beyond that, it fails to deliver.

McKibben quotes the deputy environment minister [of China] admitting that the great economic miracle “will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.” Growth at such an expense is not economic, as Daly puts it, but uneconomic—greater in its negative externalities than in its positive returns.

McKibben sees a silver lining in the demise of the pro-growth economic model, a model that continues to suffocate due to the depleted environment it has created:

Deep Economy is about solutions, and its most pointed solution is community autonomy. . . . Community thinking . . . stresses the internalizing of resources and consequences. Rather than depend on the deforestation of some other place for food, to what extent can a town dedicate its own land for its own needs? What would we do if energy came from our own solar budget, our own forests, our own thermal sinks in our own back yards—not from Nigeria or West Virginia? In a world reeling from the effects of export capitalism, nothing could be more stable than people taking responsibility for their own demands on the biosphere. An economist might counter that no town or county can fulfill all its own needs. True, but each reduction in the number of imported goods—and the distance they travel—makes a community both more autonomous and more accountable. McKibben believes that we can thrive, not just survive, without growth. The view may not be popular, but it is gaining.


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Category: Economy, Energy, Environment, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Bill says:

    I've always wondered why a good economy "had" to be a growth economy. I think it would be better to have a stable and sustainable neutral or slow growth economy. My only standard of growth is by the improvement in EVERYONES standard of living, meaning less suffering and more enjoyment. but, we need to do that sustainably. Good article to post thanks!

  2. Economy, taken to mean all aspects of the communal ability to sustain itself, is not inherently stable. Resource availability rises and falls, population likewise, and the uses to which those resources may be put change in importance over time. A no-growth economy lacks the elasticity to accommodate these variables the way a plus-growth economy does.

    For instance (a simple example, to be sure) if you have a zero growth, stable economy, you will not have any surplus. As long as nothing changes that might be fine, but what if your crops fail one, two, three years running? To feed your people, you'd have to "buy" grain or whatever from a neighbor. What will you buy it with if there is no surplus in your overall economy? And if the crops continue to fail and your workforce begins to diminish due to hunger and disease, then you quickly become a negative growth economy. Climbing out of that hole when nature turns things around can be a Sisyphean challenge.

    The growth rate represents a buffer, which if absent renders your economy vulnerable to a kind of entropic decay.

    That doesn't even begin to take into account innovations which alter the needs-vs-desire cycle of the population.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    James "Gus" Speth has written a new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World (Yale University Press). According to Jeff Goodell at Orion, Speth's book

    is nothing less than a call for an uprising that would reinvent modern capitalism and replace it with, well, a postmodern capitalism that values sustainability over growth, and doing good over making a quick buck. Sound idealistic? It is-but that's part of the book's appeal. Speth goes beyond finger-wagging to indict consumer capitalism itself for the rape and pillage of the natural world. His proximate concern is global warming and the impact it will have on civilized life as we know it . . .

    GS: The fundamental thing that's happened is that our efforts to clean up the environment are being overwhelmed by the sheer increase in the size of the economy. And there's no reason to think that won't continue. So we have to ask, what is it about our society that puts such an extraordinary premium on growth? Is it justified? Why is that growth so destructive? And what do we do about it?

    Capitalism is a growth machine. What it really cares about is earning a profit and reinvesting a large share of that and growing continually. Profits can be enhanced if the companies are not paying for the cost of their environmental destruction-so they fight [paying it] tooth and nail. The companies themselves are now quite huge, quite powerful, quite global, and no longer just the main economic actors in our society. They are the main political actors also.

    And so all of these things combine to produce a type of capitalism that really doesn't care about the environment, and doesn't really care about people much either. What it really cares about is profits and growth, and the rest is more or less incidental. And until we change that system, my conclusion is that it will continue to be fundamentally destructive.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: You've raised a serious concern. No-growth means fewer options at any particular point in time. The problem is that the growth we are now used to is strangling us and ruining the planet (loss of soil, fish, water, oil, toxic messes everywhere–and, of course, what appears to me to be far too many people for this planet, certainly under the assumption that they are each entitled to a western standard of life).

    I would hope that there is a way to have an economic equilibrium that would allow change within the system–it would be a dynamic system, but not grow overall. I know that this sounds like pie-in-the-sky. On the other hand, the dangers caused by overall growth now appear real and dangerous to our way of life.

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