Prosperity without growth

Prosperity without growthFurther to the discussion I had with Kiashu in the previous post, I thought a recent post from the Oil Drum would be appropriate to continue our discussion on why it seems we have to consume always more and if there are alternatives.

A British organization wonders in it’s latest report if we can achieve prosperity without growth. This is an important question as economic growth is seen as the ultimate goal of our modern societies.

This paper is worth reading as it clearly shows the limits of our current thinking based on infinite growth in a finite world. My guess is that we will have to stop linear thinking and start circular.

Indeed, we manufacture stuff that we use and then throw away when we don’t use them anymore. Reducing and recycling would go a long way towards sustainability. As an example, 900 kilograms of paper can be created with a ton of used paper.

Likewise, efficiency would be a major improvement of our societies. Why should we have more and more stuff ? Can we get back on focusing in being rather than having ? These are questions that have been in my mind for months…

But without further ado, here is how this report begins:

Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth. For the last five decades the pursuit of growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world. The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100…

… In short, this report challenges the assumption of continued economic expansion in rich countries and asks: is it possible to achieve prosperity without growth?

It notes in its summary facts that are worth spreading:

Growth has delivered its beneits, at best, unequally. A fifth of  the world’s population earns  just 2% of global  income.  Inequality  is  higher  in  the  OECD nations  than  it was  20  years  ago.  And while  the rich  got  richer,  middle-class  incomes  in  Western countries were  stagnant  in  real  terms  long before the  recession.

Far  from  raising  the  living  standard for those who most needed it, growth let much of the world’s population down. Wealth trickled up to the lucky few.

Fairness  (or  the  lack of  it)  is  just one of  several reasons  to  question  the  conventional  formula  for achieving prosperity. As he economy expands, so do the  resource  implications  associated  with  it.  These impacts are already unsustainable. In the last quarter of a century the global economy has doubled, while an  estimated  60%  of  the world’s  ecosystems  have been degraded.

Global  carbon emissions have  risen by 40% since 1990 (the Kyoto Protocol  ‘base year’). Signiicant scarcity in key resources – such as oil – may be less than a decade away.

A world  in which  things  simply go on as usual is  already  inconceivable.  But what  about  a world in which nine billion people all aspire  to  the  level of affluence achieved in the OECD nations?

Such an economy would  need  to  be  15  times  the  size  of this one by 2050 and 40 times bigger by the end of the century. What does such an economy look like? What does it run on? Does it really offer a credible vision for a shared and lasting prosperity?

These indeed are interesting questions that we will have to answer quickly if we want to avoid collapse. Let us not suffer the fate of previous societies.

To learn out more, please download now the full report (pdf. 3 Mo ; 136 pages)

2 thoughts on “Prosperity without growth”

  1. We have to decide what we mean by “affluence” and “growth”. My garden grows all the time – but parts of it die, and are returned to help the growth of new things. If well-cared for, my garden will produce more in ten years than it does today. It’s had growth. It can do this because of two things: the Law of Return (that which came from the Earth must be returned to it) and because it imports energy – sunlight.

    Eventually it reaches a limit of how much it’ll produce, but that’s surprisingly high. Of course, this does not mean the total money I make from the garden has gone up, and that’s what we usually mean by “growth”.

    So we can have quite a lot of growth without depleting or poisoning the Earth’s resources. We simply need to work with natural processes rather than against them. Which means the Law of Return, and the only energy input being from the sun.

    Now, as to “affluence”, there are different kinds. Some use a lot of resources, some don’t. Commonly we confuse affluence with wasteful affluence.

    Imagine a man called Jim on $80,000 living in far out suburbs spending two hours a day in traffic in his SUV, working overtime at a job he hates but can’t quit because of the large mortgage, eating burgers from the drivethru and sending out for pizza every day, when he comes home flopping down in front of his plasma screen tv and letting it all wash over him as the airconditioning hums. He is overweight, often sick, tired and miserable. This man is affluent and using a lot of physical and energy resources.

    His cousin Bobbi living in a small apartment in the city with lots of energy efficient appliances and buying in renewable energy, also earning $80,000 but renting and saving some of her money so if she gets tired of her job she can quit and be without work a few months, walking twenty minutes to and from work each day, each dinner made at home from fresh fruit and vegetables, leftovers for lunch, on Tuesday she goes to a sports club and throws a ball around, on Thursday she goes to the sauna and spa and has a massage, on Friday she goes to the theatre, on Saturday to the pub for some live music, on Sunday she has a long bicycle ride with her friends… This woman is affluent and using not many physical and energy resources.

    Why do we confuse “affluence” and “wasteful affluence”? I talk about this in conspicuous giving, conspicuous waste. Essentially we show our status by how we spend our wealth. In earlier times, people showed their wealth by giving it away: “I’m so rich, I can give lots.” Nowadays we do it with waste. “I’m so rich, I can waste.”

    Thus, many more people aspire to something like Jim’s lifestyle than to Bobbi’s. Bobbi’s affluence or something like it could I think be had by all people in the world, even 10 billion of us; Jim’s affluence had by just 1 billion people is destroying the Earth.

    This desire for wasteful affluence also ties into the alienation modern work causes in people, but that’s a discussion for another day; see Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society, etc.

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