That economic growth is good, and recessions, times of no growth, are bad are iron laws of western economics. At the same time, we know that our economic activity is driving a climate catastrophe and that we are using resources at a rate that would require six Earths if the rest of the world attained the standard of living we have in the US. Over and over again, we have heard that you can’t have unlimited growth on a finite planet. We have a classic dilemma here—damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Economics, in any form, is an abstract system created by humans to control the distribution of resources. In our system, which is predominantly Capitalism, all new wealth is created by expanding our resource base, whether materials or skills.
When a bank makes a loan, it is paid back with interest. That interest is the source of almost all new wealth. The person or business that takes out the loan expects that they will make a profit by extracting materials or providing a service that others will pay for. It’s kind of like musical chairs, except that the loan recipient understands that their ability to pay back the loan requires that they create an extra chair, that is, expand the economy. Easily done if you are extracting resources as we have been taking those at no cost forever.
After thousands of years of taking resources with little or no thought, we have finally arrived at a point where we can clearly see the bottom of the cookie jar. If our population grew no more and everybody was satisfied with their material wealth, we might be able to work with that. However, we know that neither of those assumptions is even remotely valid. It is also a strictly anthropocentric view since there is all the other life on this planet that needs resources as well.
There is one exception to this argument thus far. The power of the sun is, for the next several billion years, an inexhaustible resource. We also know that while no matter can be created, neither can it be destroyed, so all those material resources we have used thus far could be reused if we could recover them. The problem is that most of those resources have been so widely dispersed and/or combined with other materials that they are extremely difficult to recover. Note the difficulty we have with the materials we are trying to recycle now, and that doesn’t even take into account that the growth economy will require more and more.
We can continue with the model we have now where eventually a lucky few live in comfort while the great majority live in abject poverty, or we can try to create an economic system that uses resources sustainably to see to the needs of all. There is a term for this system: degrowth economics.
The term “degrowth” comes from words in French and Italian that refer to a river returning to its normal size after a flood. Degrowth economics “advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being over corporate profits, over-production, and excess consumption.” How we measure wellbeing makes all the difference. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that we use to assess our economy now is increased when profits are made, including when you have a major illness that bankrupts your family, when a hurricane has wiped out a town, or when you have been sued—all these add to the GDP.
Now you may be envisioning a dystopia that erases your freedom and rations all resources. You are not wrong to imagine such a world because it could go that way. In fact, without taking decisive steps to design our future, I fear we will definitely end up in such a world.
Degrowth as it is envisioned is closest to the subsistence lifestyle that most of the third world has developed and enjoyed if they are beyond the reach of or flying under the radar of dictators and industrial exploiters. It is an economy of sufficiency rather than excess, of local community autonomy, a self-determined life in dignity for all.
That last paragraph is loaded with ideological dog whistles, so let me be more specific. Subsistence doesn’t mean poverty and hunger. It does mean sufficient wealth in forms other than money that provide food security, shelter, and strong communities. Remember, this is the way most people lived and thrived for thousands of years and still do where they haven’t been coopted by the global economy. Some will read that paragraph and think Stalin or Mao. Communism depended on strong central control. What I’m talking about is local control and a loose federation of localities and regions, just like nature.
We can and should keep suitable technologies that don’t require new resources. We do that by requiring manufacturers to design products that will last a long time, be made from parts that are interchangeable among all manufactured items, that are easily repaired, and that will be accepted by the manufacturers at the end of their life for renewal, all new parts being remade from the old materials. This is a great opportunity for budding creative engineers.