This declaration may sound like common sense, but in EcoMind I call it a “thought trap” and suggest how we might break free. Here’s a taste of my logic.
Acclaimed environmentalists have long decried economic growth as a root of the environmental crisis. Ecological economics trailblazer Herman Daly, author of Beyond Growth, has told us we must leave behind the “growth economy,” and environmental guru Richard Heinberg titled his 2010 book The End of Growth.
While I deeply share these luminaries’ vision, the no-growth frame troubles me.
The Problem with the No-Growth Frame
Stopping growth? Hmm.
Growth sounds pretty good to my ears, especially when I consider the alternatives: shrink, shrivel, decline, decrease, die. Plus, in an era of endless layoffs, the idea of “no growth” can sound downright scary.
But the downsides of the no-growth frame run much deeper, I fear, than its lack of sex appeal. For one, it blesses what our economy currently does with a term that to most people feels positive. (Don’t we all want our babies, our friendships, our gardens…and our wisdom to grow?) So the term itself can blind us from seeing that our economy is actually producing more waste and destruction than growth.
Think of it: From 55 percent to as much 87 percent of all energy in the U.S. is wasted. (Not too surprising when we realize that the hundreds of millions of incandescent light bulbs used in the U.S. each year deliver in light as little as 5 percent of the energy they use.)
And, even as groundwater depletion threatens the long-term viability of farming in our grain belt, thousands of gallons of water — enough for me to bathe daily for months — go into producing just one pound of beef.
Shifting the Focus from Economic Quantity to Economic Quality
So, if what we’ve been calling “growth” is largely waste and destruction, why not call it what it is? A system that in fact stymies growth and even quickens the diminution or death of so many dimensions of life — human and ecological health, natural beauty, community, and happiness.
A related downside of the growth-is-the-problem diagnosis is that it doesn’t stir our curiosity. Because it encourages us to define our problem in quantities—there’s just too much—the growth diagnosis makes the answer appear simple: Produce less. So we’re not encouraged to ask the “why” question: Why are we creating economies characterized by such waste and destruction?
Yet, that’s precisely the debate we need to engage in passionately.
Shifting The Goals of the Market Economy
My own shorthand answer is that we’ve fallen for the peculiar notion that a market economy can create a healthy society if driven by a single rule: highest return to existing wealth — to those who own the capital.
Markets are great, true, but if governed mainly by this one rule, wealth inexorably accrues to wealth in a giant game of Monopoly that’s unable to register hidden costs — what economists call externalities. The result is that in the US, for example, the real cost of producing and using coal adds up to almost a third of a trillion dollars a year.
And simultaneously, tightly held wealth — what Citigroup researchers call a “plutonomy” — so distorts public decision making that citizens end up underwriting the waste and destruction hurting us, as we’ve done with billions of tax dollars given annually in aid to the fossil fuel industry.
So, let’s drop the distracting growth vs. no-growth paradigm and declare that what we really want are flourishing, thriving, life-enhancing societies. Through this lens, we start to see examples emerging the world over.
A Different Kind of “Economic Growth”
Denmark has cut its carbon emissions by 21 percent since 1980, even as its GDP has grown by two-thirds. In part its success flows from the country’s focus on aligning energy production with thriving ecology and community. Denmark’s become a world leader in wind energy, some of it produced by local cooperatives enhancing community bonds. In 2010, the conservative government put forth a plan to release Denmark from fossil fuel dependence by 2050.
Or travel to the large, southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh: Called the “pesticide capital of the world,” it’s among states hit hardest by despairing farmers committing suicide. But in 2004 a big change got underway — a bottom up, women-led, transition to ecological farming that has quickly spread to over 8,000 villages covering almost 3 million acres.
And what triggered this extraordinary shift toward a very different kind of agricultural growth?
Farmers got fed up with mounting illness and health care costs from pesticide exposure and diets impoverished by monoculture. They tired of the burden of paying for commercial seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and other costs of cultivation that typically ate up two-thirds of a farmer’s income.
So today, through what many there call a “nonpesticide movement,” farmers are both learning and sharing knowledge about multi-cropping, water harvesting, preparation of natural pest controls (using 108 local plant species), the art of composting and the value of trees to good farming. And, the saving and sharing of seeds is beginning to replace dependency on costly commercial seeds.
Participating farmer profits have soared. “In fact some of the farmer groups reported up to 100 percent higher profits through CMSA [community managed sustainable agriculture] than the previous methods,” noted a recent World Bank blog. With one hectare a family can now earn a net income as high as 2,500 to 4,000 USD, while a typical landless worker in India still makes one dollar a day.
In two dramatically different places on earth, we see a flourishing that does indeed involve economic expansion. Even many who use the no-growth frame would embrace such examples. So let’s join in efforts like these to align economic rules with nature’s laws so that all “growth” enhances life.