Who Will Get This Economy Going? No One

by Dave Gardner

“We’ve got to get this economy going again!” Unless your cave lacks wifi, cable or satellite, you’ve heard this once or twice in the last four seconds.

Job creation and economic growth dominate the November election in the U.S. — perhaps more than any election in history. Campaign ads for local, state and national candidates all promise jobs. The presidential election this year has become a referendum on who can breathe new life into our economy.

News Flash: Neither presidential candidate will succeed.

What if our unexamined assumptions about the need and possibility of perpetual economic growth are wrong? What if robust economic growth is our civilization’s way of driving off a cliff? What if the planet is incapable of supporting continued increase in global economic throughput?

We’ll excuse almost anything if it happens in the name of jobs. At last count the U.S. Congress had passed 247 anti-environmental measures in its current term. The Republican Party wants to throw environmental regulations overboard because they throttle back the unfettered growth we must have. Across the aisle, many who normally exhibit a stronger environmental ethic are joining the massacre, so strong is the mandate to grow the economy and create jobs. Few, if any, are apologizing for sacrificing environmental protection on the altar of economic growth.

Our Democratic president, who four years ago promised to stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, is now approving drilling in the Arctic, promoting hydraulic fracturing, and bragging about his support for fossil fuel exploration in national debates. Climate change has not even been on the table this election year.

Social critic Noam Chomsky observes: “The two major parties both propose that the colossal machine of everyday life in America can not only run indefinitely, but continue expanding, and include ever more member people who trade ever more schwag. All that is required, they say, is twiddling the settings of the machine, to get it back to running smoothly as it did in the good old days before the mystifying crash of 2008. They disagree slightly on which dials to twiddle.”

Politicians are ignoring the cascade of environmental crises, all tied to the huge scale of the human enterprise (population and economy) on the planet:

  • Climate disruption;
  • Species extinctions;
  • Depletion of soil fertility;
  • Collapsing fisheries;
  • Air and water toxification;
  • Fresh water supply crises;
  • Deforestation and desertification.

No question many people are struggling and feeling true pain from this “great recession.” Everyone needs meaningful work, a roof overhead, and a chicken in the pot. Yet throwing our natural world under the bus in an attempt to restore the robust economic growth we knew during the last century is not an intelligent way to secure these things. We ought not burn down the house to keep warm. We must leave for the next generation a world worth inheriting.

What is the business case for destroying the planet?
–Ray Anderson, founder and chair of Interface, Inc.

It’s time to examine the unexamined assumptions, time to re-evaluate our goals, our metrics, and our definitions of success — including what we mean by “progress” and the “American Dream.” They don’t have to mean more stuff. We’ve reached a point where our quest for MORE is detracting from the quality of our lives. It’s time to acknowledge that quality is more important than quantity.

The definition of the American Dream got hijacked.

In my film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, calls our society’s infatuation with economic growth a “fetish.” He has many allies in suggesting that GDP growth is a poor measure of life satisfaction. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly tells us growth has become “uneconomic,” meaning its costs outweigh its benefits.

In an empty world, it was a safe bet that growth was making us richer, but we no longer live in an empty world. We live in a full world.
–Herman Daly, Former World Bank Economist

The evidence is compelling enough to convert smart people who spent much of their professional lives in pursuit of growth. Commentaries are appearing in major financial and global affairs publications questioning the possibility of perpetual growth. Financial gurus — Jeremy Grantham, Paul B. Farrell, Jeff Rubin, and John Fullerton, to name a few — are warning us we are hitting the wall of resource scarcity.

We are experiencing The End of Growth, as energy expert Richard Heinberg describes in his thought-provoking book. It’s a brutal truth we must face. We have hit peak oil, peak food, peak biodiversity and peak water. We had a good run, but the party’s over. The days of 3% annual GDP growth and ever-increasing material wealth are behind us. Stimulus packages, tax cuts, deficit spending, austerity — it doesn’t matter what we try, we cannot repeal the laws of physics.

Yet the political climate demands that our representatives and candidates avoid telling us the truth. We don’t want to hear the truth. Recent history tells us we can have it all; that is all we’ve known for the past 300 years. Ronald Reagan swept into office telling us we could and would have more.

There are no limits to growth, because there are no limits of human intelligence, imaginations, and wonder.
–Ronald Reagan

Chomsky offers: “Reality knows we have entered a long-term compressive economic contraction; that there is no way we can persist in the current living arrangement; and that the necessary outcome to avoid immense human suffering can be described as the downscaling and re-localizing of everything we do.”

We need a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr., a true leader with the integrity and courage to tell us the truth, and the charisma to inspire us to follow. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • The pie isn’t getting bigger, and over 7 billion of us want a slice.
  • We do not get to be materially richer next year than we are this year.
  • Our children don’t get to have more money and more stuff than we had.
  • That’s okay, because money and stuff are not what really matter in life.

Not one of the candidates on the ballot for U.S. President is telling us this. The most hopeful sign in the political landscape is a write-in campaign for two steady-state economics candidates, Rob Dietz (editor of the Daly News) and Bill Ryerson (CEO of The Population Institute and President of Population Media Center). The centerpiece of their platform is to transition the U.S. to a steady-state economy. Of course, this ticket is a few hundred million dollars shy of being a contender. And it’s a cold political reality that today no candidate can win election on a platform that respects the laws of physics on a finite planet.

Regardless of whom we elect as the next U.S. President, in four years we’ll still be in the great recession. The only difference between the two major candidates is how much damage we’ll have wreaked on the environment in our futile efforts to restore growth, and how much the rich will profit while we waste precious time.

We can live sustainably, practicing the intergenerational golden rule, and — in so doing — live good and happy lives. But this requires us to recognize growth is no longer delivering the goods, and it can’t continue anyway. It requires that we seek not a growing economy, but a healthy economy — one that is not liquidating the planet’s resources. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can enter the next phase of true human progress.

Dave Gardner’s documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, includes interviews with Brian Czech, Herman Daly, and Peter Victor. The film is being rereleased this week in a special edition. The “Final Cut” is a lean 54 minutes and includes new bonus features, some previously unseen. For more information, visit www.growthbusters.org.

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7 replies
  1. Will Peters
    Will Peters says:

    Perpetual growth for the top echelon of fraudsters within politics and finance aided by their winner takes all propagators in the media

    Perpetual stagnation for the ….soylent green majority

    There has been no real income growth for the poorest who were allowed the illusion of prosperity based on credit secured on the back of rising property prices

  2. Markus
    Markus says:


    Excellent article. Those kind of realistic reflections make me always think of: “How would somebody landing today on planet earth see this”? He would think of humanity as a bunch of retards, because it is so so incredibly difficult not to recognize this “inconvenient truth”. Yet we want to fool ourselves!

  3. Lee Van Ham
    Lee Van Ham says:

    Thanks, Dave, for including the quote from the late Ray Anderson. Glad that more and more new businesses are getting it. Encouraged too by the lengthening list of economists signing on to the Econ4 statement on jobs — pretty much requiring businesses that work within Earth magnificent, abundant order and limits. I don’t think we can get to a steady state economy without businesses like this. In the writing I’m doing at leevanham.com I contrast the Multi Earth paradigm and economy with the One Earth paradigm and economy. Hoping I can get book one of a trilogy about this published shortly. That we have only one Earth is so obvious that it’s a little embarrassing to make a point of it were it not for the trillions invested on living as if resources of many planets are available to us. And why, when it’s so obviously, are so many of us living within the Multi Earth ways even when we write and act against them? That’s what I’m pursuing. Thanks for your contribution. Hope to see Growthbusters.

  4. Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner says:

    Markus, I’m in agreement; it’s mind-boggling how we can behave so irrationally. Thanks for the note, Lee. I look forward to your book(s).

    Of course, yesterday President Obama was reelected. I find myself wanting to have hope. I think we can be hopeful for both our near-term and long-term future if our society can figure out what our goals should be. Putting people back to work is important, but it’s even more important they have a healthy planet on which to work. It’s time for real, significant change. No more fiddling at the margins. We need to turn our world upside down and reinvent ourselves. Could Obama do this? Perhaps. Will his advisors and the people who funded his campaign allow it? Heck, will the American public allow it? We’ll see.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of GrowthBusters

  5. hwf
    hwf says:

    Great piece, though, Dave Gardner! 30+ years ago, I thought the American nightmare was like heating by burning the furniture at Versailles or the paintings at the Louvre. Kurt Cobb recently used a similar metaphor, http://resilience.webvanta.com/stories/2012-11-04/burning-picassos-for-heat-why-we-need-to-electrify-transportation. But as you say, it really is a case of “burn[ing] the house down” for metaphorical heat. And yes, “money and stuff are not what really matter in life.” As Greg Brown sings “We have no knowledge and therefore have stuff, but stuff without knowledge is never enough. It just won’t get you there.” (Two Little Feet from Further In (1996); hear it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzFZ5_iEmCs.)


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