25 July 2013

The need for a global no-growth agreement

Trade agreements are all the rage among nations these days. And that might not be a bad thing if they were principally about trade rather than about empowering corporations at the expense of workers and governments.

In any case, what the world really needs is not global trade agreements but a global no-growth agreement. Sensibly, we cannot continue to use up ever more resources when the planet contains only a finite amount. We can substitute new resources for old ones, or use resources more efficiently, but the trend since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has been a relentless march of ever increasing demands on the Earth.
Another form of unrestrained growth
And then there is the other side of resource depletion: pollution. Using resources creates waste, and just as we are using up the Earth's resources faster than it can replenish them, we are creating waste faster than it can absorb it. We are, for instance, creating so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses we are causing the very planet to warm up. Climate scientists warn us that we have only a very few decades to halt this nonsense or the warming will be irreversible, and it is doubtful global civilization can survive global warming if it runs out of control. We must, therefore, come to terms globally about how to end growth.

Ending it will, as they say, require a new economic paradigm. We are, under our current economic regime, caught in a growth trap. For the last 250 years or so, advancing technology has made production ever more efficient, allowing for more production with less labour.  But less labour means fewer people working and the unemployed cannot buy much. Increase unemployment and the economy slows, tipping into recession or even depression. This is to be avoided at all costs. The inevitable answer is to produce more products, or create new ones, thereby creating jobs. In short, the answer is growth. To end growth, we must escape this trap. We must stop consuming ever larger amounts of stuff.

Various possibilities present themselves. For example, we could work less, accepting lower incomes--buying less stuff, but compensating ourselves with more time for family, community and pleasure.

In his book Alternatives to Growth: Efficiency Shifting, Conrad Schmidt offers the intriguing idea of reducing overall labour efficiency by creating jobs that are more labour-intensive. For example, if teachers average 30 students to a class, reduce class size to 25 or 20, or whatever the optimum teaching size is, and hire more teachers.

We might also make work more interesting at the expense of making it less efficient. When Henry Ford increased efficiency in his factories by setting up assembly lines where each worker installed one part over and over and over again, replacing groups of mechanics that made a whole car, he turned skilled workers into robots. More efficient it certainly was, but much less humane. It is time to put job satisfaction over job efficiency. Ending quantity growth, i.e. GDP growth, does not mean ending quality growth.

In the West, we have long passed the point where we create enough wealth to allow every person a comfortable living. We have to allow the undeveloped world some catch-up, but we are now well-positioned to tame growth.

There are solutions out there. What is not out there is serious political discussion of the issue. Meanwhile we race on toward the plundering of our Earth, sucking it dry of resources and defiling it with our waste. The clock is ticking on global civilization.


  1. Hi, Bill. I'm just grinding my way through Herman Daly's "Beyond Growth" and Thomas Prugh's anthology "Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival." Both make the case for 'steady state' or 'full earth' economics. Daly begins Beyond Growth with an examination of the fallacies of neo-classical economics in which contradictions and logical inconsistencies are disingenuously labelled "externalities" and simply by-passed by theory.

    Daly argues that the economy can surely exist only as a subset, i.e. within the boundaries, of the environment. He then shows how classical economics does not refute this but does refuse to recognize it.

    In recent decades developed-world nations seem to have targeted 3% GDP growth as ideal. To achieve this goal over a 50-year adult lifespan would require the economy to grow 4.4 times. Make that two, 50-year lifespans and you grow the economy 19.2 times. Three lifespans, 150-years zooms growth to over 84 times and at four lifespans, 200 years, you will have grown your economy more than 369 times what it was at the beginning. At a more modest 2% you still get 2.69X, 7.24X, 19X and 52X times respectively. The point is that is insane growth on a planet with a finite environment. Forget non-renewable resources, there are not nearly enough renewables to support that sort of growth.

    We're already perilously beyond the boundaries of sustainability. The global footprint network (footprintnetwork.org) calculates "overshoot" - the day each year on which mankind consumes a full year's supplies of renewable resources. About six years ago that day fell in late October. Now it is arriving in early September. For the growing balance of each year we get by only through "eating our seed corn." This is manifest in our collapsing global fisheries, desertification (exhausting once arable farmland and transforming it into sterile desert), the emptying of aquifers worldwide and deforestation among other signs.

    It wasn't until roughly 1814 that mankind's population first reached the one billion mark. Today, just two centuries later, we're at 7 plus billion and headed to 9 of more. What's often overlooked in that alarming statistic is how much our per capita consumption footprint has grown over that same interval which means we can multiply that seven fold overall population increase by a factor of at least two and possibly three.

    Now compound that population growth with per capita consumption growth by the impacts of climate change both current and what is projected for the balance of this century.

    We can't live this way and we won't, not for much longer. It is no wonder that, responding to these self-inflicted pressures, our governments are turning more authoritarian and corporatist. Instead of hoping for something better, more benevolent, we need to realize that governments are showing us how they intend to respond and we're on the losing end.