Tag Archives: growth critique

Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy

In his splendidly provocative Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich (1973) describes the pursuit of growth as a general affliction of industrial society. He writes that “While evidence shows that more of the same leads to utter defeat, nothing less than more and more seems worthwhile in a society infected by the growth mania” (p.8). His conclusion is that

society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. (p.10)

The analysis of the ‘growth mania’ is taken further by Herman Daly (1974) in “Steady-State Economics versus Growthmania” (pdf here). Daly decries the growth orthodoxy, the desire for “growth forever and the more the better,” calling it “a rigorous exercise in wishful thinking” (p.154).

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Evidence based politics

The Spirit Level may be the most significant book I have read in 10 years.

Many people, myself included, hold to the ideological belief that social justice is a prerequisite for a truly democratic, peaceful, sustainable society. What Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provide in The Spirit Level is the evidence to back up the belief.

When we look at the wealthiest nations, despite the inordinate wealth we find many health and social problems. While it is clear that the prevalence of these problems is hugely variable from one country to another, the evidence shows quite clearly that it is not the level of income in the different countries that is correlated with health and social problems.

Wilkinson and Pickett show – with detailed consideration of a mass of data covering 23 wealthy countries, ie those with a national income above US$25,000 per capita – that the prevalence of health and social problems is greater in countries with higher income inequality.

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Degrowth: Putting the economy back in its place

In France, where the concept originated and where it has had considerable impact, it is decroissance; in English it is degrowth, and in any language it is a significant symbolic challenge to the “tyranny of growth.”

Degrowth activists in France have formed a political party, and publish a monthly magazine; sadly for English speakers such as myself, this French language material remains largely inaccessible. Fortunately, a very useful summary of the politics of degrowth has been provided by Valerie Fournier in a paper currently available here.

Here I’ll pick up on some of the points that caught my attention.

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How to manage without growth

Human progress seems to have been boiled down, in the minds of many, to a single notion – economic growth. All human advancement is, it seems, captured in this one variable; politicians and business commentators hold their breath as they receive the latest GDP statistics and our destiny is revealed in a number. Today, growth is the “the supreme, overriding objective of policy” for every government (except one, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan).

It might come as a surprise to learn that governments have not always had this growth obsession. In fact, economic growth only came into the policy picture 50 or 60 years ago, initially as a means to guarantee full employment in a post-war economy and avoid the horrors of the Great Depression. It quickly became the dominant policy goal in its own right. As the OECD makes clear, going for growth is now a basic assumption of economic policy and, outside the realms of green/ecological economics, it goes entirely unquestioned.

The recognition that growth has not always been the be all and end all of human endeavour is the beginning of an understanding of the damage that the obsessive pursuit of growth wreaks. We can challenge the growth imperative, unravel the assumptions behind it, and comprehend the environmental and human consequences of pursuing it with pathological desire. And with that understanding in place we can ask – is there an alternative to growth? It may be killing the planet but can we live without it?

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Escaping the growth imperative

A friend recently expressed to me one of the essential conundrums of contemporary  capitalist society: “I can see growth can’t continue, [because of the environmental impacts] but I can’t see how we can stop it without the whole system falling over like a stack of cards.”

One good answer can be found in the recent report of the U.K Sustainability Commission, titled Prosperity Without Growth.  But I thought I might also give a much shorter answer that comes at it from a slightly different angle, in the hope my friend and others might find it helpful.

Let’s look at why economies grow, and why capitalism (as we know it) depends on growth, because then we will quickly discover our answer as to how – in principle – we might create a no/low growth economy that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t produce social disaster.

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Accelerating over the edge of the cliff

Climate & Capitalism have posted a  Sunday Herald story on a report due out tomorrow. The report is by the environmental advisors to the U.K governments and appears to pull no punches – a taste:

The economic system is broken, and attempts by governments to fix it by kick-starting growth and consumerism are “delusional” and “pathological”

UPDATE: The full report, a summary, and background papers are available here. The full report is quite sizeable, so you might want to start with the summary – it is good stuff. A few  quotes as a summary of  the summary follow:

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The economy as an environmentally and socially destructive treadmill

To make progress on sustainability, greens, environmentalists, conservationists, nature lovers, and outdoor recreationists must recognise that simply espousing and advocating sustainable development is not nearly enough to bring it about in any meaningful way.

It is necessary to understand the logic of the existing economic system, its political and social institutions, and what drives this system relentlessly to exploit, degrade and ultimately destroy the natural world. Only with this understanding are we are fully empowered to challenge it head-on, in order to make sustainability its primary goal.

Allan Schnaiberg, in association with Kenneth GouldDavid Pellow and others, has developed a theory that attempts to provide the required insight and understanding. This theory names the economic system the treadmill of production. Calling on the distinctly negative image of a treadmill – like the prison treadmill that broke Oscar Wilde – makes it clear that, by this analysis, something is fundamentally wrong with the way our economy functions.

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