20 June 2011

Time to end growth?

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Canada's economic prospects are looking good. In its latest global forecast of economic activity, this year we will have the highest GDP growth in the G7 except for Germany. We are, it appears, doing very well.

Or are we? Growth is the mantra of our business and political leaders and such classical economists as hang out at the IMF, to whom it is the preeminent measure of a country's economic success, if not its overall success. And by growth, they mean growth in the GDP, i.e material growth. What they are measuring in effect is how rapidly we are devouring our planet's resources. If those resources were infinite, that would be fine, but they aren't. In fact, we are using up our planet's resources faster than the planet can replenish them and we are polluting the planet faster than it can absorb the pollution. In short, growth is exhausting the planet. And that means we are exhausting our civilization.

A major contributor to the collapse of civilizations, going all the way back to the first civilizations in Mesopotamia, has been their demand for more from their environment than it could provide. Ultimately, they wrecked their environment and that wrecked their civilization. And we are now doing the same thing, only this time on a global scale. In the past, new civilizations could always spring up somewhere else; this time there is no somewhere else.

So do we really want Canada to be a leader in a process of civilizational suicide? If not, we should contain our applause for our GDP performance and instead insist our business and political leaders end this insane race to the edge of the cliff and start seriously to put an end to material growth. We can, after all, grow in many ways: grow a more equitable and compassionate society, grow in creativity, grow our leisure time and our time for civil participation, and so on. Both history and physics tell us there is no sane alternative.


  1. Bill, I was reading a report at BBC this morning on a new, multi-disciplinary study of the world's oceans that reveals how perilously close we are to destroying that environment and the fairly radical steps needed to avoid a maritime extinction.

    It's pretty obvious that we're in dire need of a leadership overhaul at all levels of society. In political leadership today there is no vision, merely technocrats serving as placeholders for a new generation that will eventually displace them.

    The world can no longer function with 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics. They have lost their utility because they cannot adapt to the changes that have beset the world today. To paraphrase Einstein - you can't solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into the problem.

  2. Growth should be measured in lessening the gap between rich and poor, increasing life span, decreasing homelessness. I agree with you. "Growth" means more! Is more better? always? Isn't there a point at which more becomes greedy and unhealthy?