Our obsession with economic growth will destroy us

Jan 30, 2022
Sydney construction
Excessive production and consumption is literally destroying the planet. (Image: Unsplash)

Capitalist societies refuse to recognise there are limits to growth, resulting in inequality and ecological destruction — it will lead to collapse.

Everybody knows economic growth is supremely important. Certainly all our economists, politicians and business leaders are committed to working constantly and tirelessly to crank it up. If it slows, let alone falls a little, there is great trouble: bankruptcies, loss of jobs and falling living standards. And the more the economy grows, the higher our “living standards” rise — right?

Actually, no, and fatally wrong. There is now a global “degrowth” movement gaining strength and trying to get the mainstream to grasp that the primary cause of all our planet’s major troubles is excessive production and consumption. Growth is literally destroying the planet. We are far past the point where the quest to increase the amount of producing, selling and consuming is grossly unsustainable and is generating resource depletion, ecological destruction, grotesque inequality, the deprivation of billions of people in the developing world, resource wars and a declining quality of life even for those in the richest countries.

During the past 50 years, vast literature on “limits to growth” has accumulated and several recent warnings by leading scientists have underlined the alarm over the situation. But there is almost no recognition of this among political leaders, the media or the public.

Long ago I concluded that this society is not capable of solving its big problems. It doesn’t even recognise their cause. As Karl Marx saw, a capitalist society has fatal contradictions built into its foundations that will in time lead to its self-destruction. Even if all this was clearly and widely understood it would be extraordinarily difficult to scrap this economy and create a sensible one, but the situation is not only not understood, leaders and plebs alike would regard a call to abandon growth as absurd.

If all this seems hysterically exaggerated you probably have not come across the ecological footprint statement made every year by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It is now telling us that to provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy takes about 7 hectares of productive land. So if the expected 9.8 billion people globally were to rise to Australia’s present “living standard” by 2050, about 70 billion hectares would be needed. But there are only about 12 billion hectares of productive land on the planet, so if only a quarter of it is left for nature, we Australians right now are using an average of almost 10 times the amount it would be possible for all to use.

And the difficulty in securing resources is increasing all the time. Ore grades are falling, and water, soil and food sources are becoming more problematic.

However, all this is only an indication of the present grossly unsustainable situation. We must add the effect of economic growth. If 9.8 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3 per cent annual economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. But the present amount is grossly unsustainable: the WWF estimates that we would need 1.7 planet Earths to meet the present demand for global resources sustainably. Few people, even “green” ones, have any idea of the magnitude of the problem.

Why bother about everyone rising to our living standards? First, it is obviously not morally acceptable for a few in rich countries to continue hogging most of the world’s resources output, half of which comes from poor countries, while the majority of people must live on far less per capita. Second, the taken-for-granted goal of “development” is for all nations to become rich like us, so whether we like it or not we will have to deal with the feasibility and consequences.

What about technical advances? The massive reviews by Hickel and Kallis (2019), Parrique et al (2019) – 300 studies – and Haberl et al (2020) – 800 studies – conclude emphatically that despite constant efforts to increase efficiency and cut costs, absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth is not occurring and is not likely to be achieved. In fact the trends are getting worse. Despite constant efforts to recycle and improve productivity and efficiency, GDP growth in general is accompanied by growth in resource use.

The fundamental cause of all major global problems is the fact there is far too much production and consumption. This is why resources are being depleted, the environment is being looted and trashed, the poorest billions can’t get a fair share of the world’s resources because the rich are grabbing them, resource wars are necessary and prioritising production for profit is destroying social cohesion, hence the rise of Donald Trump and others like him.

The problems cannot be solved without scrapping capitalism and, even more difficult, scrapping a culture based on individualistic competitive acquisitiveness. Many, including me, now see no possibility of this society solving its big problems via rational processes within its decision-making institutions. It’s not just that the rich will not tolerate the required changes; the main difficulty is that almost no one even recognises what the cause of the predicament is.

For 50 years many people have been telling us there are limits to growth and we are exceeding them. At last there has been the emergence of a global “degrowth” movement with substantial literature, conferences and subgroups. And there are many initiatives struggling to establish alternative social arrangements based on localism, smallness of scale, needs-driven economies, reduced throughput, cooperation, self-sufficiency, and frugal and non-material values. The core understanding here is that a sustainable and just world must be based on far simpler lifestyles and systems. It’s now a race between the spread of these initiatives and the self-destruction of capitalism.

Consider the wisdom of allowing development to be driven by what will make the most money for the few who have most of the capital to invest. It’s no surprise that what gets developed are things that those with more money will want to buy and that several billion people are told to be content with what trickles down while their country’s resources are shipped to rich world supermarkets at negligible benefit to them. Governments that believed it was better to devote national resources to improving the lives of their people were identified as communist and mostly removed long ago – best to allow the market to determine what’s developed and produced and who gets it, ensuring the richest get just about everything because they can pay more.

But evidently none of our politicians or economists or even “lefties” understand any of this. They are all dedicated to “getting the economy going again”, working heroically to crank up growth. Nor is there any interest on the part of the masses working in the factories or wishing they had a job in one. They’re too busy thinking about the kitchen reno and the holiday in Bali and whether their team will make it to the grand final.

Archeologists sifting through the rubble left by the coming global collapse, trying to work out what it is about humans that leads to such things, will realise it was a big mistake to call them Homo sapiens.

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