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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