Might As Well Face It, We’re Addicted to Growth

by Dave Gardner

Recently I ventured to Toronto to interview Peter Victor, author of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, for my GrowthBusters documentary. Victor has done some impressive modeling to show wealthy nations can reduce their pace of economic growth toward a steady state without a lot of pain. Of course those unfamiliar with limits to growth might asky why we should do that. Victor writes (and many agree) that rich nations need to give up economic growth so poor nations have room to grow on this finite planet. I’ll be the first to say that is only fair.

But I have to wonder, do we really want to recommend economic growth as a policy goal for any nation? The success of modern nations in our quest for unending economic growth is largely responsible for the ecological crises we face. We’ve taken a detour off the path to true happiness and fulfillment; why encourage others to follow? If we work to enable populations to have “their fair share” of economic growth, aren’t we just like a drug-pusher? “Come on. Give it a try. It’ll blow your mind. Everyone’s doing it!” It seems Peter Victor (and many others) would have us use less of the drug so we can distribute it more widely and get others hooked.

Maybe “economic growth” isn’t the right goal for the nations who aren’t already addicted. Certainly their people are entitled to have a good life – to have needs met and live happy, fulfilled lives. And conventional wisdom is that economic growth lifts people out of poverty. In my view, there are just two problems with hanging your hat on that concept. First, there is a growing body of evidence that economic growth does not correlate strongly with better lives. Second, we’ve now proven economic growth is not a sound long-term strategy. We in the richer world are struggling mightily to get unhooked from our dependence on economic growth, which, as ecological economist Herman Daly likes to remind us, has become “uneconomic.” So, can we do the rest of the world a favor and not entice them to become fellow addicts, setting them up to go down a difficult and destructive path?

I’m not denying that increasing income, up to a point, does have an impact on happiness. And I’m not denying the current arrangement between haves and have-nots is inequitable. It is a sad truth that the rich world has already commandeered the lion’s share of Earth’s resources. The developing world is too late to the party and can’t join the dance. But it turns out the dance we’ve been tripping out to is not the answer. So I’m suggesting we recommend a dance that is not the dance of death, a dance that will bring real fulfillment and happiness, not the hedonic treadmill and empty illusion of prosperity from increasing material consumption.

Even if developing nations temporarily require some components of economic growth to reduce hunger, disease and poverty, let’s not brand it “economic growth.” Let’s at least change the vocabulary. Let’s more narrowly define what we recommend to them. Rather than the open-ended term, “growth,” let’s opt for “sufficiency.” Otherwise we’ll greatly increase the population of growth addicts struggling to get into a recovery program.

Dave Gardner is currently finishing up the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and is a founding member of Growthbusters, a global network inspiring and equipping people everywhere to make the wellbeing of people and the planet our most urgent priority, without relying on growth to make it happen. For more information on the movement or the film, visit www.growthbusters.org.

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6 replies
  1. Michael Dawson
    Michael Dawson says:

    This is all a hideous mash of circumlocution and excessive abstraction. Capitalism drives growth, and does so not on behalf of nations or entire national populations, but on behalf of its shareholders, who are a wealthy minority in any and all societies.

    People aren’t idiots. They are not going to tricked like this.

    As for what the first world owes the third, how about reparations and reconstruction?

    There are many different forms of economic growth, not all of which are disastrous. Nobody could ever see that, though, after surrendering to misplaced mush like this.

  2. Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner says:

    If anyone can translate Mr. Dawson’s comment into English, I would be happy to respond. I think he is taking exception to my ideas, or perhaps my writing style, or maybe my logic. Hard for me to tell.

    I would agree with him that reparations are owed. I would disagree that we ought to seek out non-destructive forms of economic growth. They are surprisingly hard to find on a world with 7 billion humans. We need to get over our love affair with economic growth and move on to a focus on sufficiency and fulfillment. Economic growth has no business being an end goal for anyone, anywhere. Let’s identify what our true goals are, and talk more about them and get behind policies that can achieve them sustainably.

  3. Piyush
    Piyush says:

    Very good article. This religious dogma of growth has largely gone unquestioned and now we are at a point where it should be obvious to anyone that allows only a little bit of neo-cortex to preside over the limbic brain that economic growth which is mostly consumption and population growth on a finite planet is clearly the cause of and continues to feed positively into the escalation of the massive problems we face today and in the not so far future. Many so called “poor” countries have had people living happily in peaceful coexistence with and within limits of nature before industrial civilization takes away their sanity. Even today there are happy people living in villages growing their own food sustainably and having lot of leisure time without electricity, someone who is most likely unhappy then comes in the name of doing good and brain-washes them with words like “backward” and starts to make them feel miserable and lowly and then drag them into the growth addiction path. It is almost criminal to do this. On the contrary, these places are precisely the ones from which we can learn from so we have a chance when our party is over (because it has been going so long that we don’ even know how we are going to feed our bellies after it is over). By wising up ourselves, we will send a strong signal to the developing countries who are trying to ape the developed world and will quickly bring the whole world on a path to true sustainability. Our true strength lies in taking the reality signals coming to us and responding accordingly, even if this means questioning and if necessary, relinquising all that we have considered glorious and sacroscant so far to find our true happiness and prosperity. Our stories now should end as “and they lived sustainably ever after”.

  4. Brian Czech
    Brian Czech says:

    Dave, I think the King of Thailand would appreciate your article, having touted the Sufficiency Economy so successfully that it was constitutionalized as a national goal in 2006. While not a magic bullet, it was a hopeful precedent in many respects…

  5. Michael A. Lewis
    Michael A. Lewis says:

    I prefer to avoid the addiction, when speaking of social actions. “We” are not addicted to growth. I live in a society based on capitalism, which is predicated on unlimited growth in markets and cheap labor. This doesn’t mean that I am “addicted ” to growth. It means the social system I live in is based on growth.

    The difference is I can’t do anything about a national addiction. But I can change the society I live in by being the example of the change I wish to see in the world. I live my life so as to avoid contributing to the justification for economic growth. By my example I demonstrate to others that another satisfying way of life is possible, without all the trappings of a growth-based economic system.

    Demonstrating a viable and preferable alternative is far more effective than preaching from the pulpit.


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