The End of Growth

The End of Growth January 15, 2013

Here’s a link to an article from The Wall Street Journal titled “A California Drought: Not Enough Children.” It points out California’s declining birth rate and immigration patterns (including state to state immigration, not just people from other countries) as a predictor of future problems. And it quotes Stephen Levy of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, who said “unless the birthrate picks up, we are going to need more immigrants. If neither happens, we are going to have less growth.”

From the mainstream viewpoint, this is a problem. Continuous economic growth requires a continuously growing population, not just to replace retiring workers but also to make the markets bigger for goods and services. Beyond that, it’s a problem for the retiring baby boomers – Social Security benefits are paid for by taxes on current workers. Fewer workers and more retirees mean either taxes go up or retirees get less than they were promised.

We’re on the tail end of experiencing what happens when economic growth slows down – unemployment increases, disrupting lives and plunging millions into poverty. That was mitigated somewhat by the economic stimulus and extended unemployment benefits, but at a cost of increased national debt.

photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Conventional wisdom says we need a continuously growing population to support a continuously growing economy. The problem, of course, is that growth can’t continue forever. Sooner or later we’re going to run out of places to put all the people. We’re going to run out of farmland to grow their food and out of fresh water to keep them alive. And we’re rapidly running out of the fossil fuels that keep the modern economy moving.

We’ve blown by previous estimates of the human carrying capacity of the Earth. That leads the mainstream to assume that “science” and “progress” will always find a way for us to add more and consume more. But we’re already driving many other species to extinction. We’ve already got millions of people crammed into cities that disconnect them from the land. And we’ve already dumped enough carbon into the atmosphere to begin to raise the temperature of the Earth to inhospitable levels (for humans, anyway).

Perpetual growth – of populations and of economies – is not possible.

As the article points out, population growth is solving itself – Western Europe, Japan, and much of the United States show how. As women become more prosperous and as they gain more control over their lives and their bodies, they choose to have fewer children. While cultural differences will influence this trend in Asia and Africa, long term it is reasonable to expect that the human population will slow its growth, level off, then begin to decline.

This means an economic model that assumes continuous growth will become even more unworkable than it already is, a problem that will be exacerbated as fossil fuel supplies continue to decline and as the impact of climate change consumes more and more resources.

Isn’t it time we started reconfiguring our economy and our lives not for growth but for sustainability?

How do we do that? We won’t do it with a top-down command economy. That’s been tried and it was a miserable failure.

Nobody told European, Japanese and American women to stop having so many children. They saw their lives would be better off that way and made the decision themselves.

photo by Tomwsulcer via Wikimedia Commons

What does it take to convince Westerners that our lives would be better off with less stuff? That we’d be happier with smaller houses and cars and fewer electronic gadgets? Fewer malls and more parks? Less commuting and more gardening? Less quantity and more quality?

I suspect it takes a few people trying it, and liking it, and talking about it. Perhaps a loosely gathered group of people who can’t agree on definitions but who mostly agree that the Earth is sacred and that Nature is good. People who honor ancestors who lived happy lives without a ton of toys. People who can see through the glamours of advertising and popular culture. People who are awake.

People who have enough, and the wisdom to recognize it.

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  • Great post. I totally agree.

  • DebraB

    You want to cut out “growth?” That would involve things like doing away with Social Security (multiple future earners required to pay for benefits of each retiree. Because you get out, much more than you put in – on average.)

    Ditto things like retirement healthcare. (I would say it is all a Ponzi scheme, but people – mostly politicians – get ridiculed for saying that.)

    And sustainability? You can take a couple of steps right off the bat. Stop drinking coffee and tea. Stop using flush toilets. (Compost!) Stop driving. After that you can turn off your furnace, refrigerator, microwave,… And there is no place in North America where air conditioning is required even in the middle of summer. (Something to look forward to.)

    You may be happy with less stuff. That doesn’t mean your judgement works for everyone.

    Do you really want to trade in your 9-to-5 job for subsistence farming? “Gardening” isn’t going to get it done. (You need more than a few tomatoes to make it through the cold months in places like Minnesota.) Most people can raise a rabbit or two to try it out. (Let me know how the killing/butchering works out.) If you hate your 9-to-5, well so be it. I would hate farming. (I don’t even like gardening – having done my share of chores in my father’s garden.)

    • John Beckett

      Hi, Debra, thanks for commenting. I rather like my 9 to 5 (actually, 7:30 to 5) job and I have no desire to live in Texas without air conditioning. My hope – and the purpose of this post – is that by making small but critical changes in our lifestyles we can deal with a population that is flat and will soon be declining, we can prevent disruptive climate change (although I think we may already be too late on that one), and we can stretch the remaining fossil fuels out until a combination of sustainable sources and improved efficiency makes them unnecessary.

      Some people I respect think I’m wrong, that our economic overreach is too great and the oil will run out too soon, and that within a couple decades all but the very rich will be living a lifestyle comparable to the 1800s. They might be right – I don’t know.

      But here’s what I do know: population growth can’t continue indefinitely, and it won’t. Our economic growth is built on cheap energy, and that won’t last much longer. Living with less – not the no-tech subsistence lifestyle you described, just less than the typical American lifestyle – will help. Pretending that population and economic growth is the answer to our problems won’t.

  • Brian Michael Shea

    You know, people lived without air conditioning for centuries…….