World population growth is in the 1-2% per year range. GDP growth is typically 2-3%; US economists consider about 3% the ideal.

Most of what is decent about modern life depends on growth. From biology, we might expect a nasty, Darwinian competition for resources. In Richard Dawkins’s words,

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Growth allows us to escape or postpone this state of misery. We can hope for the time of plenty to last, for the growth of available resources to outpace the growth of the population. Even in physics, an expanding set of possibilities is the most direct way to drive systems away from equilibrium and make space for interesting kinds of order to form.

The degree of secularism we have, the success of science, and the degree of breathing space for irreligion we enjoy, has a lot to do with growth in modern economies.

Economic growth as a paramount value is deeply embedded in secular politics, left or right wing.

And yet, imagine what an annual 2% growth rate would mean, whether due to population increase or increased resource use to a stable population becoming wealthier. Make some ridiculously optimistic assumptions: follow mainstream economists in assuming that human ingenuity, technology, resource substitutions etc. will overcome all problems of scarcity. Translate all this into a 2% growth rate for the sheer physical volume needed by humans. Pack all this into a sphere.

It takes only about 5000 years for the radius of this sphere to expand faster than the speed of light. (It’s a simple calculation.)

Continual exponential growth is insane.

This is a secular insanity. Economists don’t appeal to supernatural faith. They might express an Enlightenment faith in human abilities to overcome all limits, but that’s a secular leap of faith.

Yet growth is vital, especially for secularists. In the short term, in a small scale economy, it could even make sense. But now, human civilization—due to technological advances secularists justly celebrate—already has a planetary scale. We are a force of nature.

Our religions are not helping. They might not be capable of helping. But I wonder if our secular ideologies are, if anything, even more committed to growth. Religions might be accused of ignoring problems of scale due to their supernatural focus and archaic moral vision. Enlightenment secularism might be accused of fueling the problem, even if inadvertently. Secularism, certainly, seems more dependent on growth than religion.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University