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The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Growth

the one and twenty

the one and twenty

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.

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16 Responses

  1. To hear this, one would think the world’s entire economic history ended in 1800, and living standards haven’t increased since.

  2. @Alon Levy, would other important factors, especially science, count as “growth” in that implied picture? And does living standards equal quality of life? I don’t deny that the industrial revolution had its fair share toward improving living standards, and that it is here where the resource question has its greatest impact. But again, focusing on the industrial revolution’s agenda of “driving growth,” it also inflicted incredible harm on whole populations, habitats, and indeed quality of life, with England as a fine example. And it did so for a long time. In many parts of the word, actually, it’s still at it.

  3. Yes… to a good approximation, these are part of industrialization and urbanization. The knowledge alone is not enough. People knew how to prevent smallpox in the late 1700s; they only acquired the ability to engage in mass immunization around 1900, and only got around to actually doing it in the 1960s. What drives up quality of life here is not exactly science, but more precisely technology, and that you can’t get in an agrarian society.

    What you say about industrialization hurting whole populations was truer in 1950 than it is today, when something like five-sixths of the world’s population lives in regions that are multiple times richer than any country was in 1800.

  4. a) growth and technological progress are intimately related, though not synonymous: without a cascade of technological innovation, growth of any sort–be it population or economic or what have you–quickly runs into hard limits.

    b) the relentlessly pro-population growth ideologues mentioned at the close have some rhetorical weight, but on a practical level they might as well not exist: there is no educated, industrial nation that is experiencing anything like the Malthusian population boom of which they are nutritionally and medically capable of. The population growth is happening in the world’s extensive and rapidly growing slums.

  5. @Here siarch a) Nobody ever said growth and technological progress are unrelated factors. Yes, they are related. You assert that they’re intimately related. Okay. b) This perspective is very close to a truism on the one hand, but hasn’t really brought us anywhere on the other. We should check our assumptions from time to time against actual relevance, even if we have no reasons to doubt that they hold true in principle.

  6. The first-world societies of today aren’t really less equal than they were in 1800, are they? I mean, I’m sure some are, but many are much more equal; there’s no trend there.

    The sort of growth in social democracies, and even communist states, isn’t really different from that of capitalist states. The distribution of wealth is different, but economic growth works exactly the same way. That’s why you have periods of stagnation, for example Germany and Italy post-1990 or the US since 2000. But I sincerely doubt German incomes are really down to 1955 levels; German living standards don’t look anything like what they were in 1955, and, more to the point, the US, which has actually had slightly less economic growth since 2000, is only down to the income level of the late 1990s.

    The principle about population growth has actually done a lot of good. In the 1990s and 2000s, future population projections kept being revised downward, as more countries industrialized. A society with high female literacy and even rudimentary access to birth control and family planning is not going to have high birth rates. There are small fundamentalist subcultures that have high birth rates, but the overall ideology in developed countries idolizes middle-class families with 2 children.

  7. @Alon Levy, I fully agree. I decoupled technology and growth early on in my post, not as independent factors, but away from direct mutual dependence. The industrial revolution’s economic growth was a decisive factor for the distribution of science and technology indeed. But again, a question: does growth equal distribution? Again, I doubt it. I think one could even make a case that economic growth as we commonly understand it indeed advances distribution on the one hand, but impedes equal distribution on the other. What if we built a computer model of the industrial revolution and toned down classical growth factors like hyper-competitive markets? What impact would that have on resource depletion and the distribution of science and technology?

    There has been quite some talk in the past few years about the so-called “Share Economy,” and I was especially impressed by a presentation Umair Haque gave at a conference back in 2009. But none of the propositions underlying this Share Economy have been rigorously tested so far, and such a model, or a similar model, would not only increase our knowledge but be of immediate practical use.

    Finally, and admittedly rather anecdotal than evidential: people in Germany, where I currently live, are back in the 1950s indeed, and they didn’t need a DeLorean for that. Wages have been found to have fallen off to 1955 levels, and there were even one or two instances recently where people actually starved to death. In Germany in the 21st century! And the USA also has its share of soup kitchens, companies like Ikea move their production sites over there for a reason, and the Robert Reichs of this world are listened to always too late.

  8. @J. Martin I freely admit I didn’t lay my argument out as thoroughly as a peer-reviewed publication might prefer, but in my defense: this is G+. And the evidence behind your assertion is where, precisely…?

    If what you’re arguing against is a directly proportional link between the two, then we’re substantially in agreement. My point is that they are fairly tightly coupled—which is quite relevant if what you would like to do is slow growth while maintaining technological progress.

  9. What exactly do we mean by “progress” here? Roundup-ready cotton? Youtube? Larger bulldozers to denude thriving deserts so that we can put in solar thermal to power the closet lightbulbs we can’t be bothered to turn off?

  10. Independently-targeting EMP-capable satellites for taking out larger thriving-desert-denuding bulldozers?

  11. I sometimes ponder whether it’s a coincidence that “growth” has several meanings, among them “tumor.”

  12. @Here siarch :-) Let’s call it a proposition: that growth and technological progress are not as tightly coupled as we think they are, and that it would be possible to advance technological progress without everything growing to hell. And I proposed that we test this proposition. Or, try and look at it like this: it seems to be the case that we can achieve the fastest pace of technological progress during worldwide wars. Is that desirable? No one in their right mind would think it is. Now, if abandoning our time-honored concepts of economic growth would indeed slow down technological progress to a certain degree, we can ask the same question: at the end of the day, would that necessarily be a bad thing? Would, or could, it be worse than that incredible mess we find ourselves in? Basically, that’s the question that’s on the table.

  13. What you say is mainstream in Europe is not high-birthrate fundamentalism; it’s standard racism. Those concerns lead to harassment of people of the wrong skin color, and sometimes to hysterical attempts to boost favored-race birth rates; but since the people running the witchhunts tend to be of the same type to heap difficulties on working mothers, all they do is make even fewer women want to have children. Since even the biggest Neanderthals in the SVP, FN, PVV, and Tea Party aren’t putting banning female literacy on the table, rest assured nothing they do will make Western birth rates go above replacement. Worse people are in charge in Japan and South Korea, and all they’ve done is turn population growth negative; when the topic of immigration is broached, Japanese politicians say that “there are worse things than a national dying out” (I can look for a link, but I read this 5 years ago, probably in a comment thread on Pharyngula, and there’s no way to find this needle in that haystack). The ideology in question is not one of population growth, but of purity. Often those people are uncomfortable with growth, which is too messy, makes people want to live in big cities rather than Mayberries, and changes social mores.

  14. @Alon Levy, I almost scrolled my index finger off to find that report again I watched, and everybody was talking about last week, apropos these income level numbers for Germany I mentioned. It may have been deleted from YouTube. I’ll keep looking. But income levels and living standards of the more affluent part of the German population on the one side, and everybody else on the other, are drifting apart at an accelerating pace that you can literally watch. It’s frightening. And there we are again: distribution vs. growth. Corporate profits grow, but that doesn’t benefit the general populace at all. Also, the “small fundamentalist subcultures” aren’t so small in many European countries, and certainly not in Germany. And they’re getting larger. Periodically, the headlines of the less savory newspapers around here scream in your face that Germany will become »überfremdet«—i. e., numerically and culturally overwhelmed by foreigners. And with shifting populations everywhere, this problem isn’t going to go away soon. England’s a case in point again. It looks as if population growth might be back on the table soon, even here.

    And yes, we certainly have more equality, and more equal distribution than we had in 1800. But I really think we should use the sharpest analytical tools at our disposal to try and find out how all the factors we mentioned relate to each other, what good “growth” has done for us, how long it did that, under which circumstances, and supported by what factors (science, technology, and such), and how it impacted these factors in turn. Not anyone is convinced that economic growth has become unsustainable by now. President Obama certainly doesn’t think so. But let’s assume he and everyone to his right actually thought that we’ve hit a wall. Would that be enough? Would it be enough to argue for a fundamentally new economy, focused on quality of life instead of living standards, on the basis of depleted resources alone? That was my original argument, more or less. What if fusion power became viable in 2020, or some other advanced technology, supplying us with unlimited energy from there to eternity? Should we let “growth” then rise again as the best tool in our arsenal? I think we should not only be much more critical of growth than we already are, but we should be so while we can.

  15. Yes, all what you say about racism and ideology is true, except your insult against Neanderthals. But one of your presuppositions is a little bit too convenient for my taste, and another presupposition you conveniently commenced unraveling yourself. Both relate to education. What makes you so sure the religious right will happily roll back women’s reproductive rights into the Paleolithic, including access to contraceptives, and then happily stop there? And what makes you so sure that our current education levels are built for eternity? Around where I live, this is a huge problem. Education budgets barely keep up with minimum requirements, and education levels themselves have been steadily going south. They’re so far down already that the usual suspects cry out for “elite” schools and colleges on a regular basis. So there are large parts of the population for whom not only living standards go down, but also their general level of education. (Training, yes—there’s lots of training around, and huge tankertrucks full of money for it, and guess where that comes from, whom it goes to, and who profits from that.) Based on your own description, this is exactly not an environment conducive to keeping birth rates low forever. Plus, shifting populations that have already a very high birth rate aggravate the problem on all fronts. Finally, I wouldn’t want to sit around and wait for our cruel judge’s final word on this: much of our cherished lore about birth rate vectors are very, very recent—so recent they’re like yesterday on a historical scale.

  16. What makes me sure is, for one, the utter failure of Ceausescu’s scheme to increase birthrates. He banned abortion and contraception, required criminal investigations of all miscarriages, and regarded with suspicion any woman who didn’t get pregnant for a long while. Birthrates in Romania spiked temporarily and quickly went back to the original level; the only everlasting legacy was that maternal mortality doubled. For another example, consider the rapidly dropping and already not too high birthrates in many growing countries with fundamentalist views of women’s rights, such as Iran and Chile.