The video clip Who Killed Economic Growth? is actually a book trailer, for Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth. I’m aware that the trailer most certainly simplifies the message, but I think it has some shortcomings that should be addressed nevertheless.
Who Killed Economic Growth?
I share the trailer’s general sentiment, but not the details. First of all, I don’t think the two factors growth and technological progress are intimately related, so whatever happens to growth isn’t necessarily directly proportional to what happens to technological progress. Which leaves the door open for better and less destructive energy sources we might be able to develop in the upcoming decades even if economic growth grinds to a halt.
This, in turn, corresponds to my doubts that depleting our resources is at the bottom of what makes growth such an unhealthy endeavor. So what’s really at the bottom of our woes?
First, there is economic growth as such, at least as we understand it. It doesn’t improve quality of life for the rest of us, and never did. Take any sustained period of economic growth from the history books and check who actually prospered. Did life improve, e.g., for the common people, the peasants, who roughly constituted 90% of the population in the Hellenistic kingdoms, during the economic boom after Alexander? Not an iota. It mightily improved the life of the friends and families from the Ptolemaic and Seleucid dynasties, that’s for sure. Certainly, in the modern world we indeed had periods of booming economies that actually benefited a large number of people, but tell me one example where that lasted much more than, say, a decade until stagnation and decline set in, for most of the people. So is there an alternative? Well yes, if you start small. Or rather, if you start small and stay small. Why does each and every business have to “grow” in order to prosper? I think that’s a dangerous meme, a virus of the mind that evolved from an irresistible metaphor. I’ve had the privilege to work with companies whose declared goal was not to grow but to improve in diverse and imaginative ways. It made sense, it worked, and I loved it.
But then, even further down, there’s this other ideology of growth, the most fundamental and most dangerous of all, relentlessly promoted at all costs by institutionalized superstitions all over the globe, and by that of course I mean human reproduction. You have less than two kids? Only one, maybe, or even none? You’re an unpatriotic, godless monster. That’s what we find at the bottom of the problem, what depletes our resources, and what gobbles up the world’s natural habitats like popcorn.
So, I think most of our stories and notions about growth are deeply twisted. We should indeed begin to understand growth as a function of improving quality of life, not as a function of increasing the number of humans and cell phones. Our reliance on fossil fuels certainly greatly compounds and complicates the problem. But it does not constitute it.