The Growth Illusion

by stephenpalmersf

Every Western government, and quite a few elsewhere in the world, base their economic policies on the following paradox. The stated goal of their economies is growth every year. Without growth, there is recession, and possibly depression, with all its associated aspects, of which the most feared is unemployment. Politicians (the zombie servants of economics) hammer this point home week after week after week: “We must have growth.” And yet a glaring paradox exists. We live on a finite planet. The population is expanding, and will continue to expand for a few decades yet, but how can a finite planet sustain perpetual economic growth, even if population increase levels off? Such growth is clearly an impossibility.

Capitalist economics assumes – sometimes explicitly, more often as a hidden assumption – that there is no limit to economic growth. Nature, by contrast, operates in the opposite manner – there is always a limit to natural growth. Sometimes, as in the case of an individual, this is genetically programmed, but elsewhere natural growth, for example amongst a population, is constrained by the rest of the ecosystem. All such populations of species are constrained by the circumstances of their environment. They are not entirely free. Such “freedom” in the human world is an illusion caused by an inability to look further than one’s own nose. We are not entirely free, and that lesson could do with being learned by certain nations of the West.

Economic growth must therefore fail at some point in the future. That is an inevitability. The ecosystems of the planet, on which we survive, and which economists never factor into their calculations, will either fail through breakdown, or because they have vanished through diminishing to the point of being gone forever. Capitalist, growth-driven economics assumes that unsustainable resources are in fact sustainable, which leads economists to factor them out of their calculations, or not even notice them, as though they were effectively invisible.

The obsession with economic growth has pushed the natural environment beyond its capacity to function. It is not just James Lovelock who has warned about the foolishness of taking out swathes of the environment so that the planet’s self-regulating processes can’t continue to operate; there are others, such as Richard Douthewaite. Economic growth at the expense of the planet is literally madness, in the sense of denying the reality of what is happening around us in favour of the blinkered, unreasonable fantasies of capitalism.

It will all end in tears.