Moving Away From the Pro-Growth Economy

Gavenus, Erika | May 2, 2017 | Leave a Comment

The current economic system being utilized and internalized relies on perpetual growth. It has long operated counter to the reality that we are confined to a finite planet with finite resources. Yet, this system continues to be practiced and promoted globally. As the environmental and social repercussions of disbelief in limits become increasingly clear, so does our need for a new economic system —one that is not wedded to growth. Neither growth in the number of consumers nor growth in the amount consumed.

But what would an alternative to the pro-growth economy look like? There are multiple thinkers and organizations taking on exactly this question. However, these efforts can be disparate and focused on their differences rather than their common agreement that an alternative to pro-growth economics is not only possible but required.

With support and guidance from multiple experts, the MAHB has compiled a list of resources and organizations relevant to the discussions of why a new economic system is needed, what might the system look like, and how do we make the necessary transition. The MAHB was particularly interested in how, or if, these resources incorporated human population numbers and growth into their assessments of the economy. The resources identified so far explore how human population growth factors into economic growth, the limits to growth, the disconnect between economic growth and improved human wellbeing, theories in response to the limits, and proposed policies and practices for moving away from our “obsession” with growth.

You are encouraged to explore the full document. This is a working version and your feedback is very welcome. You can either contact Erika with suggested changes, or make suggestions directly to the online version here. If you are interested in accessing any of the resources listed in the Annotated Bibliography, please contact Erika.

Special thanks to Peter Fiekowsky for connecting with the MAHB to push this project forward and for providing financial support for its pursuit.


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/moving-away-progrowth/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Doug Whitmore

    “Why Do We Think We Need Political Parties”? #NoPartiesNeeded >45% of Voters designate as “NON-AFFILIATED”! Nebraska AWAKE & Rising https://draftbernie.org for a People’s Party [not a typical ‘political party’]
    How #WeThePeople Need Political Candidates to Gain Our Vote – The Non-Party Process! https://www.facebook.com/notes/people-like-bernie-sanders-electing-candidates-like-bernie-sanders/how-wethepeople-need-political-candidates-to-gain-our-vote-the-non-party-process/1160904190668827/

  • jim.swanek

    I see no one addressing the issue of urban areas and “the west” being used as “safety valves” for regions of the world where the men still want 7 children.

    • Phil Seymour

      I didn’t realize that the Mormons were such a problem. And all those extra wives, too!
      (“S” for satire)

      • jim.swanek

        .

        Unfortunately, 20 million people every year seeking to immigrate to “the west” in 2099, from the middle east, south and southeast asia, sub-sahel africa, or where-ever, because they are members of families with 7 or more siblings, only 2 of which have the slightest expectation of finding livable-wage jobs in their homelands – is no joke. Sustainability planning in the face of that incalculable threat is the joke,

        .

        • Phil Seymour

          Put down the Kool Aid Jim, we, our U.S. Military Corporation, is responsible for most of the displaced refugees. Only a selfish and Foxified person would want to turn them away. The U.S. is not an Oligarchy, yet.

          • jim.swanek

            .

            Nonsense. WE did not ask men in the middle east, south and southeast asia, and sub-sahel africa to tell their wives they would give birth to 7 children, or be beaten.

            The Kool Aid awaits the inattentive.

            .

          • Phil Seymour

            Jim, you are on the wrong thread. This is about changing the way we approach the future, not making the same mistakes we have in the past.

          • jim.swanek

            .

            I agree. The sustainable way to the future may be through regionalism, where citizens of a geographic region are limited (how?) to the resources of that region. Only the New World Order wants sustainable regions to wither from engorgement by unplanned influx, even of healthy new blood.

            .

          • Phil Seymour

            Just because you are there doesn’t mean you are right in claiming “Mine, mine, me, me” If you can’t look at new ways to accommodate what exists and make changes for a sustainable future, you really need to just get out of the way. Nobody actually owns anything on this planet. We are all just renting for the little time we are alive.
            You really need help Jim.

          • jim.swanek

            .

            Hail Big Brother !

            …and that why you have the President you do.

            The Red Kool – Aide awaits.
            .

          • Phil Seymour

            No, we have the booby prize for president and his followers who think greed and selfishness is a virtue.

  • Peter Fiekowsky

    Thank you for a great piece of research. The bottom line for us is to create language for economics to happily allow for lower populations (which lead to healthy and less-stressed environments). This is an excellent start.

  • Dana Visalli

    Thanks for the good work you put into this compilation Erika. The perspective that holds the most interest for me in terms of our ecological conundrum is the biology of human behavior–the genetically driven (& culturally enhanced) roots of the human hunger for ‘more,’ and for dominance over the ‘other.’ IMHO the tremendous potential for the future lies in the fact that genetically driven behavior does not lead to happiness, fulfillment nor well-being in Homo sapiens–our species is something new, a disaster for the biosphere at present but with potential to integrate. I don’t know if this little study still exists at this web page…..

    http://fatknowledge.blogspot.com/2007/07/happiness-and-energy-usage.html Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    Happiness
    and Energy Usage

    Over at the Oil
    Drum , they look at the relationship between energy usage and
    happiness.
    …..but it effectively decouples well-being from increasing consumption. I am deeply impressed by the lack of well-being and lack of any sense of meaning in the people I encounter in our so-called American Society– it is a dysfunctional system. So we are chewing up the biosphere but we gain nothing but sorrow. I question whether ‘more study’ is needed, it may be a matter of waking up to reality.

    • jim.swanek

      .

      The key would be “de-coupling” the idea of well-being from leaving your children any inheritance capital. People now (and for the last 100 years) want to annually (if possible) generate a small surplus of cash (from growth, by and large) to build (again, by growth) to a capital inheritance for their children.

      .

      • Thanks for your thoughts! Do you think this is changing at all? I find it interesting that this desire for our children to be “better off” for so many seems reserved to an economic standard of “better off” without regard for the natural world that is being left for the same children.

        • jim.swanek

          .

          It’s entirely up to the older generations. When they start telling their 20-something children that they are not going to focus on creating any capital estate larger than they would need to live out their days, leaving no inheritance, that would be a major change.

          Have most of your older friends told their kids that?

          .

    • Thanks for your thoughts and for the link to that article! I found Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth interesting in how it discusses that the direct relationship between wellbeing (or prosperity in Jackson’s case) and increased consumption flattens out, but we have constructed social and economic systems that place such importance on increasing consumption indirect relationship have been created. For example, when community engagement or respect are tied into consumptive behaviors there is a “backdoor” link to wellbeing. Which is all to say, yes both our economic and social systems are dysfunctional. I think there has been a tremendous amount of work done on considering how and why the systems need to change –part of the reason for the document was to bring attention to some of the work– but the question comes back to the bigger ‘HOW’, that is how do the changes come about? How do we wake up to reality?

  • Thanks for the bibliography. I see a lot of Herman Daly and some Elinor Ostrom, but was Kate Raworth’s _Doughnut Economics_ too recent to be included?

    Economics isn’t really my thing – and the more I look into it, the less there seems to be of substance – but unfortunately it seems to be where all the important long-term ethical and political decisions are made nowadays and is couched in technocratic language that I feel excludes us ordinary non-economists. It seems to me, hopefully wrongly, that people like William Nordhaus and Richard Tol can publish their own opinion on things like discount rates, and it is never properly questioned or debated in accessible terms.

    What I would like to question is the existence of ‘the economy’ or ‘the world economy’ as a thing. There are people doing good stuff for other people, some doing not so good stuff, and some of the good stuff transfers matter from A to B in way that cannot continue indefinitely. (Bertrand Russell said there were two types of work, moving matter in relation to the Earth’s surface, and secondly, telling other people to do the first type of work.) So some of these activities are included at one rate in GDP or GWP, some are included at another rate, and some, whatever their effects, are not included at all. And yet economists apply basic calculus to some of these imaginary ‘quantities’ as if they were physical real. I know economics is more diverse that the narrow disciplines we see through the media, but the monolithic nature of GDP, not talking about how people spend their lives, whether they enjoy their work and how it affects the ecology, is too widely accepted.

    Raworth (I believe – I haven’t read the book yet!) starts by asking us to look outside the flows of capital to the physical environment, and says the task of economics is about negotiating a way to provide for human needs without exceeding any planetary boundary. So pricing resource use and waste products is an obvious refinement to the current system – are these ‘ecological tariffs’, as mentioned by other authors in the bibliography, enough? Raworth has been praised by George Monbiot, who earlier said he was looking for a sustainable alternative to neoliberalism and Keynesianism.

    I did find it interesting that the pre-neoliberal Austrian School (Henry Hazlitt at least) didn’t seem to have any commitment to growth, and denigrated it together with most Keynesian ideas. I’ve heard more than once that growth was part of the ‘postwar consensus’: since there was lack of political will to deal with inequality, working-class living standards could be raised by greater economic activity. Here in the UK we had Harold Wilson arguing that a certain rate of growth was necessary to avoid the unemployment that would happen as a result of automation and economies of scale – his ‘white heat of technology’ speech. And I think the threat of higher unemployment is still the main political obstacle to challenging growth – the worry that without 2% GDP increase or whatever, inequality will grow. Hence, directly addressing inequality through measures like a Universal Basic Income would relive that pressure for growth, and provide the security to act more in accordance with moral values while still constrained by ‘real’ prices of material goods. Generally, promoting the green economy as a provider of employment and long-term wealth is likely to be more acceptable than a message of challenging growth – but of course there is the danger that, while ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ (UK proposal) advances technology and temporarily addresses inequality, it doesn’t necessarily limit global ecological destruction.

    But, as someone of a more scientific disposition, all the above seems really vague, probably because it’s economics. How do we proceed from here? What’s the first achievable step, and where does it get us?

  • Noel Wauchope

    Some ways in which GROWTH WOULD BE GOOD.

    There could be growth in information, in education. Ideas communicated sent on, shared – that https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e454d9c718a76fda8dac9e076b846f710eed0f7114d232f0e359bb8ee6826def.gif is growth that adds nothing to our energy use, material resources use, carbon footprint.
    Growth in literature, theatre performances, spread by various means, but live is best. Cultural stuff shared means growth in civil society – without damage to the planet.

    • MAHB_SC

      @Noel Wauchope thank you for adding your thoughts and making the point that “growth” can be beneficial. The document focuses on economic growth according to the unfortunately narrow definition that is typically considered —namely, increase in GDP. Some of the articles and books note that human wellbeing is tied to our ability to contribute to society, which for many of us has become our jobs. Jackson calls for strengthening sectors in which it is harder to increase economic efficiency in (so more people can remain employed and contributing, without necessarily increasing the amount of output). Most of these sectors relate to providing services more than material products.

  • Garry Rogers

    Thank you for this valuable annotated bibliography. Continual growth is a flawed philosophy that must be brought into the public conscious. (You’re the best!)

  • Andrea Jo

    So glad this topic is getting interest and actual scholarship. If you’d like a medical/health perspective as it relates to the environment and global economic justice let me know, I’ve been compiling info for a few years for a book or phd but haven’t found anyone interested yet!

    • @disqus_vTNmyLQpYM:disqus that would be a wonderful perspective to add. You can either make suggestions through the google doc linked to above, or contact me directly at erika@mahbonline.org. I am looking forward to learning more about the medical/health resources you have compiled. Thank you for the work you have been doing and your willingness to share.

  • Dan Costello

    I will examine the document once established that MAHB is actually looking for a dialogue and not just to ram totalitarian concepts upon innocent and largely powerless consumers. This topic is often mishandled by what appears to be little more than overly compartmentalized academics, of the heavily leftist persuasion, who have a deep-seated hatred for: individualism, constitutional democracy, Christianity and western civilization. I would examine these so called experts very closely for their potential socialist, facist and or islamofacist backgrounds which often appear to shadow such top down demands. Attacking the middle classes of western society, particularly Christian males will only result in a further and future swing to the right wing. How extreme this right wing becomes depends upon how cruel and/or unjust anyone purporting to utilize totalitarian methods is at present, as currently seen in Canada with the Trudeau government and its treasonous cabinet. Thanks to the heavy handed disruption of oil sands resources, Saudis, who have one of the worst women’s rights records on the planet, continue to oversupply the Canadian market. As a result, the populist surge in Canada is unprecedented and historical and only an indicator or what carbon tax/cash grab policies will do to any administration.

    • Dear Dan. I hope you don’t mind my saying that you seem to have a very polarised view of the world. There are always more than two positions on any given topic. Probably also more factors in current political and resource-related events than in your narrative.

      I’m a white male non-academic from a Christian tradition who prefers local culture and would class myself as strongly anti-authoritarian, but that makes no difference to the fact that accelerating resource usage on a finite planet cannot continue indefinitely. To me, governments and big business seem to be the principal obstacles to sustainability.

      It sounds like you are opposed to a carbon tax. That is a valid political position. The facts are that if CO₂ emissions and methane do not begin to decline within the next ten years, we are likely to see temperature rises of the order of 4 °C by 2100 and this is likely to have very bad effects on the biosphere including habitat loss and mass extinction as well as on human food supply and welfare. I’d like to be reasonably confident that we’re able to avoid that eventuality.

      A ‘left-wing’ intervention to prevent this might be mass government investment in BECCS and renewables and nuclear and strong energy efficiency and land use regulations. A ‘right-wing’ solution might be to price greenhouse emissions or fossil fuels, shift the tax burden away from income or economic activity in general towards discouraging damaging activities, allowing individuals and markets to decide he best way to reduce impacts. I’d like a dialogue about these and other options because my main concern is simpply to avoid wiping out large areas of the natural world and human cultures with them.

      Looking forward to any response.

    • Thank you both for your thoughts. @DanCostello, I encourage you to take a look at the document. It is largely focused on macro-economic theories and models, looking at ways for the system to change recognizing that current systems do leave limited options for consumers. I tried to cover a mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches –the degrowth movement might be of interest– and if you know of other bottom-up activities please consider adding a note to the document. @mahb-6f16f5fc2cf3c8c09e020596e15da2e9:disqus I encountered a lot of diverging opinions on whether curtailing resource usage can effectively happen within the systems we have now –using taxes, subsidies, etc.– or if the changes have to occur outside of the system and eventually change the system itself. I found Brown & Tillerman (eds) do a good job presenting some of this in the book Ecological Economics for the Anthropocene. For specific ways to do so with tools already available, Victor’s modeling work might be of interest as it includes greenhouse gas projections under different scenarios.