We Can’t Grow On

John de Graaf is a co-author of the recently reissued bestseller Affluenza, as well as What’s the Economy For Anyway? He is a member of the Earth Island Institute board of directors.

Is economic growth sustainable? Is it desirable? First, let’s define our terms. I’m speaking of material growth, more products for more people. Non-material “development” – including improvements in health, education, and leisure time – may well be sustainable and desirable. But further material growth, especially in rich countries, is much harder to justify.

The twentieth-century environmentalist David Brower pointed out that, since World War II, population and economic growth have resulted in greater material consumption than in all previous human history. In that period – one one-hundredth of a second if we compress the age of Earth into a single week – we have reduced our fisheries, fossil fuels, and soils by half while causing the extinction of countless species and dangerously changing the climate.

photo of a stock ticker wallphoto Luis Villa del Campo

Consider what it means that we did this in the blink of the geological eye. There are those who believe what we’ve been doing for that last hundredth of a second can go on indefinitely. Those people are, Brower observed, considered reasonable and intelligent human beings. Indeed, they run our governments and industries. But they are stark raving mad. It may be hard to convince our leaders to turn away from growth, but not as hard as changing the laws of physics.

Simply put: We can’t grow on like this.

The Global Footprint Network finds that we already use far more resources and produce more waste than is sustainable, if by “sustainable” we mean replicable for any meaningful amount of time. Were every country to suddenly adopt the US lifestyle, we’d need four more planets.

Technical improvements can reduce the impact of each additional unit of growth. But such “decoupling” is partial. Total resource use and throughput continue to rise via the so-called “Jevons Paradox” – e.g., we get better gas mileage, but we then drive more, or use our savings to fly more, using more total energy. As the ecological economist Tim Jackson puts it: “Resource efficiency is going in the wrong direction. Even relative decoupling isn’t happening.”

Meanwhile, we seek new but more dangerous means to propel continued growth: fracking, tar sands mining, and costly, potentially catastrophic nuclear technologies. Even solar and wind technologies require increased strip-mining of copper, threatening wild areas like Bristol Bay. The potential consequences of environmental crises increase with more complex and vulnerable technologies. These technological “breakthroughs” are assumed to be evidence against limits to growth, when they are but temporary stopgaps.

Democrats and Republicans alike believe growth is essential and desirable. Yet the record is mixed, at best. Economic growth increases happiness when countries are poor, but these benefits level off as they grow beyond a modest level of comfort. The United States is the best example of this. Per capita income has tripled since the 1950s, but happiness levels have been flat or falling, according to yearly surveys conducted by Gallup.

Impoverished countries still need to grow; modest growth in the past five years, for example, increased happiness in Angola by 25 percent, according to the UN’s 2013 World Happiness Report. But they must grow carefully, not as new consumer societies permeated by market values. And greater growth in rich countries is not only unsustainable but counterproductive. In the United States, doctors call stress from overwork “the new tobacco” while depression and loneliness are soaring.

Italian economist Stefano Bartolini suggests that rapid economic growth is more a symptom of social decay than dynamism. The drive to grow leads to longer working hours and loss of natural habitat. Social connection is lost to overwork, but sold back to us as consumer products we presume will make us happy. We alleviate our loss of nature by flights to gorgeous tropical beaches. All these defensive expenditures result in greater growth, exacerbating resource depletion and climate change.

We are told we must grow to provide employment and “lift all boats.” Yet the past 35 years of growth have done neither; growth has been siphoned into the pockets of the already wealthy, creating a Grand Canyon between rich and poor in the US as well as globally. Eighty-five billionaires now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the planet’s population. Growth-driven economic policies have led to elimination of jobs through outsourcing and automation, trends that show no sign of abating. Faith in a bigger pie as the great equalizer only delays fair wealth redistribution.

Yet if we don’t grow, how can we prevent unemployment as productivity increases? Marx, Keynes and other great economists were clear about this: We should share the jobs and work less. That is still the way forward. Trading productivity for leisure instead of stuff will allow us to reduce unemployment, while giving everyone time for social connection and recreation. Limits on working hours would give us time to restore neighborhoods, grow some of our own food, de-stress, and engage in our own favorite artistic, athletic, and cultural activities.

Fifty years ago, in his “Great Society” speech, Lyndon Johnson warned that the values and beauty of our nation were being “buried by unbridled growth.” A Great Society, he said, would judge itself not by the quantity of its goods, but the quality of its goals. At a time when we are rich in stuff and poor in leisure and joy, when we are stretching the limits of our health and the limits of the planet, economic growth is a labor of Sisyphus.

Environmentalists should turn a deaf ear to the siren song of growth. The good life lies beyond, and we can have it if we choose.

For an opposing view, read what Roger Pielke, Jr. has to say.

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