Rethinking Growth

growth definitionOur culture is centered on a myth of economic growth: if we stop growing, that means we’re failing. Under conventional wisdom, growth is not only considered "good," it is seen as the most effective means to lift millions of people out of poverty and to ensure prosperity and opportunity for all. And in many places and for many people, it has been extraordinarily successful in achieving this goal.

But as we approach a global population of 7 billion and a world GDP of $70 trillion, we must increasingly consider the implications of this continuous quest for growth, not just for Earth's finite resources and fragile ecosystems but for societal well-being. Increasingly, economic growth has become an end in itself rather than a means to societal betterment.

Yet how do we move beyond growth when our economic system and culture take for granted the idea that perpetual growth is not only necessary, but something to celebrate?

The Illogic of Perpetual Growth

Nothing makes the absurdity of perpetual growth clearer than the short video “The Impossible Hamster.” If we’re not careful, we risk the possibilities of environmental and climatic disruption and future economic contraction, as the resources and ecosystem services that we take for granted are increasingly strained under the pressure of 7 billion people. The best way for us to reduce the threats of these system changes is to start an intentional effort to move beyond growth, and to reduce the throughput of our highly consumptive economies.

Prosperity Without Growth

In recent years, a bevy of economists have written books on what a steady-state or non-growing economy would look like. Tim Jackson, for example, wrote an excellent report (and later a book) called Prosperity Without Growth, which summarizes a prosperous non-growing economy. Watch Tim describe his vision below.

Creating a Plenitude Economy

One thing that would change with the "end of growth" would be an intentional reorienting of productivity gains away from stimulating more consumption (and thus growth) and toward the reduction of working hours. If we had been doing this since the 1970s, the average American worker would only have to work a 20-hour week. That would mean more free time for friends, family, leisure, and hobbies.

In her 2010 book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, economist and best-selling author Juliet Schor provides a vision of what this post-growth society could look like: people will work fewer hours in the formal sector, and more of the elements of life that have been monetized in recent years (childcare, elderly care, etc.) will return to the family or community. And more people will pursue hobbies that reduce the overall size of the consumer economy—hobbies like backyard gardening, raising chickens, repairing one’s own goods, and so on.

Watch this short video that helps paint Juliet’s vision of a Plenitude society.

New Measures of Progress

Many economists and politicians are increasingly aware that Gross Domestic Product, which measures the economic throughput of a country, is an inadequate indicator of societal well-being. One of the most fundamental flaws of GDP is that it doesn't separate the goods and bads of economic activity, meaning that things like car accidents, fast food sales, and oil spill cleanups are all considered "positive" contributions to economic growth.

Compelling alternatives to GDP are being developed that help paint a more accurate picture of social and environmental progress, including the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), the UN’s Human Development Index, the OECD's Better Life Index, the Happy Planet Index, the Ecological Footprint, and ICLEI's STAR Community Index. But for these measures to supplant GDP, it will be necessary to advocate for their adoption and use.

Maryland GPIThe good news is that some governments are beginning to recognize the need to go beyond GDP. Perhaps the most publicized effort is Bhutan's push to measure "gross national happiness," using an index that includes conventional variables such as health, education, and household income but also unconventional variables like citizens' ecological knowledge, working versus sleeping hours, and "frequency of feeling calmness." A similar index, known as The Happiness Initiative, is being used in some communities in the United States.

In the U.S., the states of Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio, Utah, and Vermont have all calculated their Genuine Progress Indicators and are beginning to integrate this data into state assessments. Although the gap between economic versus social and environmental indicators continues to widen (see graph of Maryland's GPI to right), awareness of this trend is stimulating greater state and local action to address the discrepancy.

Some economists are further advancing the dialogue about growth by advocating actively for “degrowth,” which essentially means shrinking those sectors of the economy that aren’t beneficial while developing community capacity and the "plenitude" economy. Learn more about degrowth on the Degrowthpedia.

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