Tag Archives: futurism

Prosperity Without Growth?

When you take a very-long-term view of the future of civilization, the one option that seems most unlikely is that we can continue the patterns of the last few centuries: an ever-increasing population consuming ever-more stuff, using ever-more natural resources to produce it, and leaving ever-more waste products for the planet to absorb.

Futurists embarrass themselves when they predict precisely when and how that pattern will break, but still, it defies my imagination to picture how this could all continue indefinitely down the millennia. Eventually — whether by wise planning, cataclysm, alien conquest, or the return of Jesus — the exponential growth is going to stop.*

What will that look like? If you stipulate those steady-state conditions — stable population, stable resource use, and each generation leaving the planet’s natural environment more-or-less the way they found it — what kind of society can you construct? Can you come up with one that has a place for people more-or-less like us? Or does the whole concept involve making over the human character completely? Could the people in such a no-growth society feel prosperous? Or is prosperity-without-growth a contradiction?

A number of fairly smart, reasonable people have been asking those questions for a while now, and they’re starting to come up with some visions — sketchy ones, to be sure, but sketched-out well enough that the rest of us should start paying attention. One such vision is in Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill.

Disclaimers. Growth has gotten to be such a religion that no-growth smacks of heresy. Like most heresies, it has been caricatured by the faithful to such a degree that any discussion has to start with a few denials.

Two examples of non-growing economies leap to mind: growth-oriented economies that are failing to grow (as the American economy has failed since the housing bubble burst), and aboriginal hunter-gatherer economies. The first example is characterized by despair, lack of opportunity,  and increasing poverty; the second, by discomfort, lack of technology, and vulnerability to disease and famine. Aboriginal societies may live in harmony with Nature, but they also live at the mercy of Nature. One thing you can say for the global economy is that Iowa can have a drought without Iowans starving to death.

Neither example is what the no-growth visionaries are proposing. A society without growth could continue to have antibiotics and the internet — and could even continue innovating, as long as the innovations-as-a-whole didn’t increase the consumption of resources or the production of waste.

A growth-oriented economy that doesn’t grow is the worst of both worlds. It consumes resources unsustainably, and yet fails to provide opportunity and hope. If that were the goal, it could easily be achieved: Just instruct the Fed to keep interest rates high enough to choke off new investment.

The challenge, though, is quite different: To envision a steady-state relationship between Nature and a stable population of humans, while providing those humans the opportunity to lead satisfying lives.

Outline. The book is in three parts. The first discusses the overall idea of “enough”. The second breaks this down into specific areas: How could we achieve a stable population? How could a non-growing economy deal with poverty? What would banking and investment look like? And the third discusses strategies for changing the culture and the political system.

Problem-solving attitude. Because it covers so many topics and is intended to further an open-ended discussion, the book really can’t be condensed. Its strength is in its details, not in a sound bite that gets elaborated over 200 pages.

But the other important aspect of the book is the attitude it projects: It takes the problem of planetary depletion seriously and approaches it with a problem-solving attitude. So it is not a jeremiad, or a prophesy of doom, or a denial that anything really needs to change — three categories that take in most of the debate on these topics. It’s easy to find reasons why a stable economy can’t happen, but comparatively rare to find people who accept that it must happen eventually, and then bring a problem-solving attitude to the question of how.

A number of factors evolved with the idea of economic growth, and they will have to change or be replaced to achieve stability: a money-creating banking system, measuring the economy by GDP, and corporations devoted to constant growth are just a few of the ones discussed in more detail. An example of the kind of change a stable economy would need: Much of what is done today by profit-seeking corporations could be done by consumer-owned co-ops focused on providing service rather than producing an ever-increasing profit for investors.**

The poor held hostage. To me, the most significant argument against a stable economy says, “Morally, how can we rein in economic growth when so many people still don’t have enough?” My problem with that question: I have lost faith that the capitalist economy will ever provide enough for everybody, now matter how high global GDP gets. Over the last few decades, the top 1% has gotten better and better at capturing economic growth for themselves. From the point of view of a CEO seeking higher profits for his corporation, a better life for the poor is an inefficiency to be avoided. Across-the-board wage increases are a capitalist nightmare, not a fulfillment of the capitalist system.

In the Dietz/O’Neill view, we need to turn this kind of thinking around: Rather than continuing to grow the economy in hopes that some of the new consumables will filter down to the poor, we need to solve the problem of inequality so that we can achieve a stable economy. Poverty is a political problem, not an economic problem. Growing the economy without changing the politics won’t solve it.

Rather than putting the entire burden of proof on the no-growth vision, I think we also have to stop accepting a “someday” vision of ending poverty through growth. Anyone who makes the anti-poverty argument for growth needs to explain exactly how growth is going to help the poor, and offer a projection of how much more growth it will take to eradicate poverty before we can stabilize the economy’s toll on the planet.

Trustworthy governance. Again and again, I was struck by how the Dietz/O’Neill vision requires that we work together as a species. The easiest way to envision that unity is via some Hunger-Games-style tyranny, which no one (least of all Dietz and O’Neill) wants. But even the most free and democratic vision of a stable economy depends on establishing some trustworthy global institutions.

For example, a global cap-and-trade system to stabilize the CO2 in the atmosphere would work only if people can’t cheat anywhere in the world, if the tradable CO2 certificates can’t be counterfeited, and if you can’t “earn” them by creating bogus carbon-offset projects — trees that are never actually planted, etc.

Similarly, population could be stabilized through incentives and voluntary cooperation rather than one-child mandates and forced sterilizations. But someone would have to monitor all that and adjust the incentives accordingly, and the rest of us would have to trust the fairness of that monitoring agency.

This is the part I worry about most: If you have money and power and you want to derail the vision of a stable future, all you really have to do is create distrust. What could be easier?

Not a lone voice. Another striking thing about Enough is Enough is the extent to which it builds on the work of many others. For example, the view of money, debt, and banking will be familiar to Sift readers from David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years and Warren Mosler’s Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.

I’m sure many people will look on this as cranks quoting other cranks, but I don’t. I’m starting to see a unifying view develop.

Virtual consumption. Futurists have to be wary of a technology-will-save-us argument, which is always too easy and is often a mirage. But I think Dietz and O’Neill miss one important way that technology can contribute to a sustainable future: virtualization. We’re already seeing some of it: My book collection is gradually turning into patterns of electrical charges rather than shelves of paper.

Dietz and O’Neill point out (appropriately) that such changes are meaningless if they just make paper cheaper and allow somebody else to consume more of it. But recent sci-fi (starting with Snow Crash and continuing into more recent works like The Quantum Thief or Ready Player One) points to the greater possibilities.

You can think of consumption as serving four purposes: survival, comfort, entertainment, and competition for status. It is easy to imagine “enough” when we talk about survival and comfort, and maybe even entertainment. But the really open-ended consumption happens when we compete for status. I can imagine wanting a boat for entertainment, but the only reason to want a 400-foot yacht is to out-do the guys who can only afford 300-foot yachts. (As far back as the Roman sumptuary laws, the essence of the moral argument to limit consumption is that some people are starving so that others can raise their status.)

Survival and comfort require real-world resources. (You can’t eat pixels.) But if the culture evolved so that we got most of our entertainment inside virtual worlds and competed for status there, then a sustainable economy would be much easier to achieve.

* Space travel is sometimes presented as a far-future solution. While I can imagine a Noah’s-Ark-style spaceship seeding another planet with humans, I can’t imagine inter-stellar travel ever being so cheap that emigration has a significant impact on Earth’s population. (At least that’s not a future I’m willing to count on.) So Earth’s remaining citizens would still have to come to terms with the planet’s limitations.

Think about the colonization of the New World. Except for a few temporary situations (like the Irish Potato Famine), Europe’s population continued going up, even as it sent more and more people to America. Europe today is more crowded than ever.

** This got me thinking. Back when cable TV was being established, we all took for granted the model of a privately financed network made economically feasible by granting a monopoly. But the New-Deal-era model of the rural electric co-ops also would have worked: government-guaranteed loans to establish consumer-owned co-ops. If we’d done that, every year you’d get to vote on the leadership and policy of your cable system.