Infinite growth: humanity’s deadliest addiction
For decades economists and politicians across the world have been using GDP growth as the primary means of measuring economic success. The faster an economy grows, the more goods and services it produces and consumes compared to the previous year, the better an economy is doing.
As we make our way into the 21st century; as we mature in our understanding of economics, society, and the planet on which we live, it is time to move away from this damaging metric of success, before it does untold damage to our modern civilisation.
The scale of this task may seem difficult. Developed economies have enjoyed exponential economic growth, year on year since the industrial revolution more than two-hundred years ago. It has become an expectation of modern life, normal and common-sense. But in truth, we were never going to enjoy everlasting exponential growth on a finite planet.
Over the last two-hundred years the human population has gone from one to seven billion, and the average person is consuming nearly sixty times as many resources as their ancestors. Where once our impact on the environment was minimal, now our impact can be catastrophic. For instance, the WWF put out a report last year called the Living World Report, tracking some of the impacts of humanity on the environment in the last forty years. According to their numbers, since 1970, the number of land vertebrates on earth has fallen by one third, saltwater vertebrates have fallen by one third, and freshwater vertebrates have fallen by 80%. The impact of humanity on our planet has even led to a movement in geology to relabel this period of geological history as the ‘Anthropocene’ (‘Anthropo’ being the greek word for human, which would signify that humans are the dominant force acting on the earth today).
Growing recognition of our impact on the planet can be seen with the emergence of the global environmental movement in the 1960’s. The movement has since expanded to become an official aim of most world governments and major international organisations. At least in rhetoric, environmentalism has become a norm in modern society, with climate change becoming the issue that gets the most focus in the mainstream, and international conferences held to put on a show of taking the issue seriously.
In terms of genuinely understanding the issue, and making the changes necessary to deal with them, efforts thus far have been lacklustre. The ecological scientists Will Steffen and Johan Rockström are generally credited with creating what is known as the ‘Planetary Boundary framework’. They identified seven key threats to the earth’s ecosystem; Climate Change, Ozone depletion, Ocean Acidification, Species Extinction, Land-System change, Freshwater use, and overuse of Nitrogen and Phosphorus. Of these seven threats, climate change was ranked in third place, behind the rapid extinction of non-human species, and the overuse of Nitrogen and Phosphorus. Overuse of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in particular has very received very little attention from the media, with the leaching of nitrogen and phosphorus into water supplies threatening to turn large areas of sea and freshwater into dead zones incapable of supporting complex life. Though climate change gets most of the media attention, action is still weak, with the commitments made by governments thus far unlikely to keep us below the generally accepted ‘safe’ target of two degrees warming.
Our ecosystem is clearly then under significant strain. With the human population expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050, and more and more people moving into the affluent middle-classes, predictions abound of the potential for humanity to overshoot, leading to catastrophic collapse, mass poverty and starvation. In light of this threat, we must jettison the idea of exponentially increasing consumption for everyone, and move to a new vision of progress.
Kate Raworth, in her recent book; ‘Doughnut Economics’ makes an attempt to do just this. In it, she combines the model of ecological limits laid out by Steffen and Rockström with a range of development goals, adopted from the UN Sustainable Development. These include access to clean water, food, healthcare, education, an opportunity for a good job, peace and a fair justice system, a political voice, social equity, gender equality, good housing, energy and access to social and communication networks. The doughnut model articulates a new aim for economics in the 21st century; to simultaneously reduce our impact on the environment down to sustainable levels, while providing every human the opportunity to truly flourish. The ideal human society is to be found inside the doughnut shape, between the potential shortfalls and overshoots;
Beyond providing everyone with the opportunity for a good life, we can take advantage of advances in science and technology, without increasing our consumption, by reducing the length of the working week. With rapid automation of labour possible in the next few decades we could all be enjoying much more leisure time.
Humans are a malleable species; human-nature is flexible and social. We can adapt to live with whatever cultural norms are needed of us. But change can be slow, and we have limited time in which to overcome the vested interests that prevent the emergence of a new culture. We will need pioneers; individuals, communities and nations willing to push the boundaries of normality, and take the risky first steps towards a new global culture.
For the pioneering nations, trying to shift to a low-growth or steady state economy, the competitive nature of global capitalism will prove a barrier. With low-growth, opportunities for making private profits will be much lower. With the shift to a low-growth economy, the culture of some businesses will change, but others will follow profits, abandoning sustainable nations in favour of those that still allow them to over-exploit the planet. Pioneering nations will need to explore new alternatives to securing finance, drawing on modern monetary theory, public banking, and cooperative enterprise
The challenge is great, but it can not be avoided, and handled well, we can build a better world.