Growth for Growth’s Sake

Our political culture is beset with the idea of economic growth. It is both an ideology and a policy. Indeed, our newly minted Prime Minister is willing to ‘do unpopular things’ to pursue economic growth. So far, these ‘unpopular things’ seem to include crashing the economy, but I digress.

Growth appears to be a unifying force in political culture, with Labour also releasing a plan for economic growth. Economic growth is the baked beans of political culture, we all agree it’s great and anyone who doesn’t is inherently suspicious. However, economic growth is utterly unsustainable long term, and our tireless pursuit of it is one of the key drivers of the climate crisis.

Economic growth refers to the increasing size of the economy. What does a larger economy mean? A larger economy broadly means there is more goods and services produced within the economy, often meaning more money also. Advocates of growth argue this allows for increased wages, more products and services and generally more prosperity. Growth is the “rising tide that lifts all ships”. Its often explained through pie (go with me here for a moment). The bigger the pie, the bigger each person’s slice. Each slice in this example is people’s individual wealth, the increasing slice of the pie means people can spend more to improve their life, thus growing their slice – and the whole pie – more. 

However, infinite economic growth is actually a disastrous prospect for our future. This is a big claim, which seemly goes against all conventional economic and political wisdom. However, I would argue it’s easy to prove this point by asking a simple question: How is infinite growth possible using earth’s finite resources? Or put into pie terminology: how can we keep making the pie bigger when we don’t have infinite pastry? (It’s not a perfect comparison, sue me).

Short answer: it’s not.

Slightly longer answer: it’s not because… to achieve economic growth, we must produce more goods and services – goods like smartphones, cars, water bottles etc – and we must produce more of these year on year to grow the economic pie. This is clearly utterly unsustainable as the world does not have an infinite supply of resources. ‘The World Counts’ is a website which sources data about the earth’s resource use. Using this data, they have developed a clock titled “Number of Planet Earths we need to sustain the growing population”. As of writing this article, the number is over 1.8, meaning we need to almost double our planet’s resources to provide for our growing population. Ah, we clearly have a problem.

Yet growth is so fundamental to our societal structure, with many of our institutions dependent on increased funding due to increased demand and increased consumption. Indeed, a recession – a shrinking economy – is a major catastrophe in our current political and economic climate. 

We need to fundamentally change the structure of our economy, an economic revolution. Our economy needs to be able to grow and recess naturally, year on year in order to not starve our planets resources. We must fundamentally reorient our economy and the economy of the planet around sustainable resource management.

Before I go any further, a note on the term ‘sustainability’. This term is used everywhere, by corporations, governments, and individuals to show they’re “reducing their impact on the climate”. This is a textbook example of greenwashing. ‘Sustainability’ has no solid definition in law, it is a term anyone can use freely to claim something is better for the planet without having to actually do anything. I could claim I’m sustainably killing all the bees, and I would face no legal ramifications. Sustainability has to start to mean something, especially as we must begin to shift our economy away from sheer resource demanding consumerism.

This is a large challenge, and there are no easy solutions. Yet it is not hopeless, numerous prominent intellectuals and economists are advocating solutions from the political to the cultural. These include modern academics such as Oxford Economist Kate Raworth and author George Monbiot as well as more classical theorists like Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. 

What is evident though is that as a society and political culture, we must move away from the dogmatic pursuit of economic growth. It is an outdated method for economic advancement, which is leading to the destruction of our planet. Either we choose to reinvent our economy to better conserve resources and the planet, or we will run out of these resources. 

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