Currently, there is an ideological divide concerning “growth”. Some are all for it and want more of it. At most, they talk about “sustainable” growth because at some level they are aware that not all growth is good and so it is necessary to distinguish good growth from growth that is not so good. On the other side, people advocate “post growth” or “degrowth” or “decroissance” in order to finally get away from the growth path.
How do I stand regarding this debate?
I’ll put it like this: the debate has nothing to do with growth. We have to clarify what we are talking about.
What is growth?
Growth in the literal meaning of the term, such as the growth of an organism or of a human being, occurs in cycles that include death. No tree grows to the sky. At some point it falls, gets struck by lightning or gets devoured by fire or beetles. The remains decay and become part of the soil that brings forth new life. We come from the earth and we become dust. Growth is part of this cycle, it issues forth until it passes away and makes place for new life. Growth is something good, without it there would be no life and no development, no evolution. We need growth, and a post growth society is not possible.
The so-called economic growth, that is measured by means of gross national product and similar measures of revenue or output, is not growth. That is because everything is expected to increase for ever, and increase is not seen in the context of life cycles. When in the year 2020, as a result of the Covid epidemic, “only” a little more (!) air travel happened worldwide than during the not particularly crisis-ridden year 2003, that was seen as a catastrophe for air travel.1 All kinds of economic interests depend on everything becoming ever more. This is the reason why more “efficiency” never actually reduces the demand for resources. For example, more efficient motors are installed in ever larger cars, which consume more gasoline than older models.
There is a German word for uncontrolled growth, “wucherung”. There is unfortunately no exact equivalent to this word in English. “Rank growth” gets close. The word is related to another German word, “wucher” which refers to excessive interest rates, or usury. Interest or usury is based on the expectation that an amount of money will continue increasing exponentially without regard to natural and thereby limited growth processes. It is simply expected to proliferate with no rhyme or reason.
“Wucherung” also refers to an overgrown garden, in which everything that spreads is allowed to grow. This can make sense on the way toward a natural ecosystem, but not in a garden that is expected to provide food, relaxation or joy for humans. In a garden it is important to evaluate what should grow and what should not, and when growth should cease. In the economic and political spheres we also need to evaluate what should increase or decrease or come to an end. We cannot avoid such value judgments if we are to avoid the rule of might over right. Conventional definitions of economic “growth” avoid such value judgments and are therefore not truthful.
The term “economic growth” also conceals the fact that what is measured is not actually growth, but rather turnover, that is, how much money is spent. In other words, a measure of effort. How many people are hired at what cost, how many natural resources are mined from the earth with how much technological investment? The more effort is made, the more “growth” there is.
As an example: somebody who travels to work by foot or bicycle only requires minimal resources (the wear and tear on shoes or the bike), promotes their health by moving their body, does not contribute to traffic jams, causes no air pollution, and even saves money (and thus working time) in comparison to somebody who travels by car. If the locality in question is reasonably pleasant, the travel to work is pleasurable and thus adds to quality of life. It costs practically nothing and does not create costs for others. Therefore, this kind of travel does not add to “economic growth”. However, it adds to the quality of life not only of that individual person, but of many people.
Books can be filled with similar examples.
While measures of effort or cost or turnover are useful, they only make sense if placed in relation to the outcome that has been achieved or that is expected. Did you spend a lot or a little money when you went out to eat recently? This question only makes sense if you also think about whether you liked the food and whether you enjoyed the outing.
Another analogy: a measure of effort resembles the revolutions per minute measured by an rpm counter in a car. This should always remain in a middle range, so that you can move at reasonable speed but don’t destroy the motor. However, the rpm counter will never tell us whether we have reached our destination or are even getting close. That we can only tell by looking around us where we are, or by studying a map or a GPS.
We do not need a better measure of the effort that we invest, but rather better maps and GPS systems to help us find our way. These must help us in a highly complex and difficult terrain. Thus, a single number like the GNP is not sufficient.
We need good measures of whether the needs of the people of a country are being satisfied, and relate these measures to measures of the resources that are being consumed.
How well the needs of a person are satisfied – that is, the level of their satisfaction – a person ultimately can only say about her or himself. So, we can not measure satisfaction by reference to statistics about the production of consumption goods, or how many people have earned a degree etc. We simply have to ask people directly how satisfied they are regarding various aspects of their lives. There are highly developed, reliable and representative survey methods for this purpose. These are far more balanced than any quantification of money flows, because the latter resembles a vote where rich people get to vote many more times than the poor.
The effort dedicated to satisfying human needs can best be measured with respect to the natural and human resources that are being used. Resource use can be measured with respect to the annual use (flow) as well as the quantity and quality of resources that are still available (the resource stocks). It is especially important to make sure that renewable resources are used within their regenerative capacity and that nonrenewable resources are preserved for future generations.
So, what is my position regarding growth?
Growth is necessary – but we should seriously talk about what should increase and what should decrease or pass away. We need to talk about where we want to go and how we can get there. For that, we need good maps and GPS-devices, but we should keep the rpm (the effort) in a moderate range and not confuse it with growth!
In future contributions I plan to write about which kinds of growth we need or do not need.
1 Data source: International Energy Agency, World air passenger traffic evolution, 1980-2020, last updated 4 Dec. 2020, https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/world-air-passenger-traffic-evolution-1980-2020. Original source: International Civil Aviation Organization.