Confronting Our Global Growth Obsession

York, Suzanne | October 17, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Nimo Abdu Kair, 8, takes notes during her class at Oda Aneso Primary School by UNICEF Ethiopia | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Real wealth is counted in healthy people and vibrant ecosystems

This article was originally published via Transition Earth, it can be found here. A longer version of this article was written for the online magazine, ReImagining, published by the Chicago Wisdom Project.


Lately it seems as if the entire world is veering wildly off course. From climate change to species extinctions to rising inequality, many people – not to mention nature – are crying out for a better world.

Despite stark warnings, society blindly stumbles forward with business as usual, in the face of reality urging us to do something different. Humans are altering the planet in such a great way that scientists are considering changing the name of the current geological epoch to be called the Anthropocene.

The main driving force of the Anthropocene is an economic model based on endless growth, which includes an ever-growing source of consumers to buy more (unnecessary) products.

According to physicist and activist Vandana Shiva:

“The dominant model of economic development has in fact become anti-life. When economies are measured only in terms of money flow, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the rich might be rich in monetary terms – but they too are poor in the wider context of what being human means.”

As for the environment, Dr. Shiva goes on to say, “However, economic growth hides the poverty it creates through the destruction of nature, which in turn leads to communities lacking the capacity to provide for themselves.”

The human footprint on the planet is undeniable. Consider the following statistics:Footprint

  • Humans have cleared an area the size of South America to grow crops, and an area the size of Africa to raise livestock;
  • Of the world’s 33 major river deltas, 24 are sinking due to flood-control efforts and other human-caused changes to the river systems;
  • CO2 emissions totaled between 35 and 40 billion tons in 2015;
  • 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion;
  • Extinctions are about 1,000 times more frequent now than in the 60 million years before people came along – the current extinction rate is more on the order of 100 extinctions per million species per year.

What can be done to change course?

Here are three solutions that can help alter our current trajectory, and which challenge the concept of endless growth on a finite planet.

Making Connections

The first idea is making connections amongst diverse sectors such as conservation and health. A development model known as population, health, and environment (PHE) offers a holistic approach for supporting human rights and the rights of ecosystems to flourish. The PHE model goes beyond meeting the needs for contraception, reproductive health and general healthcare. It also incorporates conservation and management of the local environment. There are successful PHE examples in many places around the world, including in East Africa, Philippines and Nepal.

The Components of PHE:

  1. Population: the United Nations’ report World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision predicts world population to reach 8.6 billion by 2030 and 9.8 billion by 2050.
  2. Health: access to healthcare and voluntary family planning services is especially critical for women.  Globally, 214 million women want to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraceptives due to lack of access, information or other barriers. Addressing this need and reducing the rate of maternal and child mortality should be priorities for any country.
  3. Environment: the world is facing incredibly serious natural resource and environmental challenges. Often the best solutions to environmental problems are local and based on traditional knowledge.

PHE projects are most desirable in areas with threatened ecological landscapes and places where population density results in environmental pressures, and where demographic, health and/or poverty indicators are relatively worse than regional/national indicators, and government services are nonexistent or insufficient.

Rethinking Economies

Photo by Suzanne York
Photo by Suzanne York

Another solution for changing the business as usual approach is rethinking how economies are structured. In the words of economist Kenneth Boulding, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Conventional economic wisdom holds that global growth can continue forever, yet the reality of resource constraints is challenging this economic mantra. The world suffers from what author Naomi Klein has dubbed the “expansionist, extractive mindset.”

Implementing new ways of measuring growth that include the well-being of humans and the environment is one way to approach changing the economic growth paradigm. This includes measures such as Genuine Progress Indicator and Gross National Happiness. Another solution is an economic system in balance with people and the planet, such as a steady state economy or true cost economy.

Let’s take a closer look at the idea of a steady state economy. This type of economic system is described as having a stabilized population (birth rates equal death rates) and per capita consumption. The organization Center for a Steady State Economy defines it as an economy with stable or mildly fluctuating size. The term typically refers to a national economy, but it can also be applied to a local, regional, or global economy. An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. To be sustainable, a steady state economy may not exceed ecological limits.

Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, addressed the question of how do we get from our growth-obsessed economic system to a post-growth world economy. He wrote that economist Herman Daly and other steady state economy supporters advise the following policies:

  • a cap-auction-trade (or cap-and-dividend) system for extraction rights for basic natural resources;
  • a shift away from taxing income and toward taxing resource depletion and environmental pollutants;
  • limits on income inequality;
  • more flexible work days; and
  • the adoption of a system of tariffs that allow countries that implement sustainable policies to remain competitive in the global marketplace with countries that don’t.

It’s becoming clear that as conflicts rage around the world and more people struggle in the face of growing inequity and inequality, the answer to improving life isn’t more unsustainable economic growth.

Rights of Nature

Given the pressures of population growth, climate change, finite resources, and a planet already extended beyond its carrying capacity, the need to find sustainable solutions is urgent. Successfully addressing global problems will require a change in our way of looking at the world. One paradigm-shifting concept is recognizing rights of nature. This construct is a good way to bridge the concerns of environmentalists, human rights and women’s rights activists, and those concerned about stabilizing population growth.

Photo by Suzanne York
Photo by Suzanne York

Rights of nature laws eliminate the authority of a property owner to interfere with the functioning of ecosystems and natural communities that depend upon that property for their existence and flourishing. They do not stop all development; rather they stop development and use of property that interferes with the existence and vitality of those ecosystems. Respect for the rights of nature is the foundation for truly sustainable development.

It was once considered radical for slaves to have rights, as well as women. It took many years and a big shift for society to accept rights for people that made up a large percentage of the population. For too long, slaves, people of color, and women were viewed as property of white men. In much the same way, our industrialized and globalized world sees nature as only property.

Rights of nature has been recognized in the state constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador and over 100 communities in the U.S. have enacted some form of rights of nature legislation on the local level. And in New Zealand, a river sacred to the Maori people has been granted legal personhood status.

How do we build the future we want?

Our current way of life is failing people and Earth. We must learn to live within our means and our planetary limits. This calls for rethinking society’s obsession with growth, be it population or economic. It high time that global society recognize resource limits, act together to move past unsustainable levels of economic growth, and respect the rights and well-being of all.


Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth. In August of 2017 Transition Earth published a factsheet outlining The Anthropocene: Humanity’s lasting influence on Earth.


This article was originally published via Transition Earth, it can be found here. A longer version of this article was written for the online magazine, ReImagining, published by the Chicago Wisdom Project


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/global-growth-obsession/

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  • John Weyland

    so, you connect with me, we agree and change our living. then you and I each connect with another … then we and they … …

  • Helen Kopnina

    It seems strategically import to keep pushing the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth at the level of UN’s declaration of human rights. see for example https://www.huffingtonpost.com/pablo-erick-solon-romero-oroza/why-even-a-successful-agr_b_406547.html

  • Andrew Gaines

    Suzanne, your analysis is accurate. However, we need to go
    further – much further! We need to inspire mainstream commitment to the
    necessary transformative changes.

    The question I have undertaken to solve – and which I would
    like your help with – is How do we engage
    the unengaged? – people who do not yet think deeply about economics, the
    environment and humanity’s existential emergency.

    I have set up the Great Transition Initiative (GTI) as a
    platform to support innovative communication. There are millions of groups that
    care about environmental and social well-being. We can align around the
    intention to transition to a life-affirming global culture (rather than
    continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction). Our combined
    networks are huge; they include friends, neighbors and business colleagues as
    well as our online networks.

    So let’s begin communicating through our networks, and inviting
    other people to communicate through their networks as well. This is how we can
    engage the unengaged. Ready-to-use tools, including sample emails, guerrilla marketing
    tactics, presentations and workshops, and Kitchen Table Conversations are
    available through the RESOURCES section of http://www.InspiringTransition.net.

    The Great Transition Initiative is described in more detail
    in my current MIT Climate CoLab contest entry Catalyzing systemic change to solve global warming (https://climatecolab.org/contests/2017/shifting-attitudes-and-behavior/c/proposal/1334090).

    I would appreciate it if you would go online and SUPPORT it.
    More importantly, I would appreciate it if you begin to communicate to your
    networks about the vision of transitioning to a life-affirming global culture; this
    is the proper goal of our time.

    Andrew Gaines

    andrew.gaines@inspiringtransition.net
    http://www.inspiringtransition.net
    Accelerating the Great Transition to a life-sustaining society!

  • Jason G. Brent

    Every problem faced by humanity was caused or exacerbated by the ever growing human population. No action taken by humanity will prevent the collapse of civilization in the very near future until and unless population growth ceases. No, that is incorrect. Population must be substantially reduced for humanity to survive. No one on the face of the earth has attempted to determine the chance that voluntary population will fail to stop population growth or to reduce the level of the current population. Therefore, those that refuse to consider coercive population control and gamble the survival of humanity on voluntary population control without knowing the chance that voluntary control will fail are total and utter fools. No that is not correct. They are arrogant egotistical maniacs who believe they are God on earth and have the right to gamble the survival of humanity on their stupidity. If the chance that voluntary population control will not cause population growth to cease in time to prevent the collapse of civilization is greater than 10%, the failure to consider, analyze, debate, evaluate, and consider coercive population control and to compare in every respect both coercive and voluntary control is an act of mass murder. Jason G. Brent jbrent6179@aol.com

    • Margit Alm

      I agree with everything you say but have to add that looking at the table we also have to do something to curtail consumption. Australia is a run-away culprit. Yet my personal eco footprint is like China’s, namely two worlds. Many others will do as I do. So who are the high-level consumers? We need a financial penalty system for those who are wasteful and use the funds to ‘cure’ the planet, as we simultaneously make every effort to downsize the population until we reach what is seen as sustainable.

      • jaosn G. Brent

        There are two problems with controlling consumption. Reducing consumption in the USA and other industrialized nations will only have a very minimum affect on the 7 plus billion people presently on the planet and almost no affect on the 11.2 billion billion who are predicted to exist on the planet in 2100. Hypothetically, reducing USA consumption by 50% will not raise the standard of living of 11.2 billion who will be on the planet in 2100 by more than one or two percentage points.
        I have a house that has 1,000 square feet. To reduce consumption how big a house should Bill Gates have? I drive a Food Focus. What car should Warren Buffet drive? I take a one week vacation at a one star hotel. Can the owner of Walmart take a one week vacation on a 40 foot long boat? How about a 45 foot boat? The point is very simple–to control consumption you would need to control every minute of every life on the planet by a super authority with unlimited power. Jason G. Brent jbrent6179@aol.

        • Margit Alm

          I am not suggesting that reducing consumption would lessen the need for population control. Population control is the No. 1 topic for me, but some of the opulent lifestyles practised by those who can afford it, without any consideration for the environment, are distasteful to say the least.

    • Arnold Byron

      I agree with Mr. Brent. We are past due to begin taking affirmative, positive action to reduce the population. There is a way that will work. It will require the help and guidance from all of the governments of the world and it must be done in a nonviolent, non-eugenic, safe and humane way. The word non-eugenic refers to reducing the population at the same ratio at the same time everywhere in the world. What I have outlined will seem to be impossible to do. It will certainly be hard to do, but, it can be done if everyone wants it done and agrees to do it. It will require a sales effort by everyone to make it happen.

      Population control is the answer. This is how it can be done. The mathematics for population control is: for reduction, two people will raise one child to adulthood and end their commitment after raising one child; for maintenance, two people will raise two children to adulthood and end their commitment after raising two children. The formula that will be followed is given in the next sentences. For reduction, when two people have given birth to one child the male will allow himself to have a vasectomy. The female will legally bind herself to not getting pregnant a second time, and if she should become pregnant a second time that she will carry the pregnancy to term and give the child up for adoption by two people who will raise the child to adulthood and end their commitment after raising that one child. When humanity is in a phase of population maintenance the same rules would apply, but for two children instead of one. At this time adoptions are secretive. In the future, under these rules, adoptive parents will become extended family.

      The scenario I have given you is so different from what humanity has enjoyed as the population has risen from just a few to over seven billion people. It has been easy, living without restrictions. The future will become hard because we are up against a wall and have to take on a completely new paradigm as we engage a new set of population issues. I have laid out my ideas in a book entitled, Of Population and Pollution. In chapter 12 of my book I have laid out my ideas for a temporary world government, established by the nations of the world. This temporary government will have been given the authority and resources needed to remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses; to reduce the population; and to dismantle everything nuclear. Chapter 12 of my book, entitled A Plan for the Nations, is available to you at this link https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/ByronA_Chapter12ForDistribution_10Aug2017.pdf