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It may seem that those who oppose endless growth are standing in the way of progress, denying centuries of advance. In fact, the idea of perpetual growth is quite  new idea. Many economists over the years have believed in an ‘enough’ point, when the economy be as big as it needed to be to provide a decent quality of life for everyone.

Adam Smith wrote about a hypothetical economy that had “acquired its full complement of riches” in his Wealth of Nations, arguably the most important economics book ever written.

John Stuart Mill, one of the fathers of modern economics, certainly believed there would come a point when we’d have enough. “The increase of wealth is not boundless,” he wrote in 1848. “At the end of what they term the progressive state lies the stationary state, that all progress in wealth is but a postponement of this, and that each step in advance is an approach to it.”

John Maynard Keynes, the economic genius who led the world out of the Great Depression, looked forward to the day when the business of subsistence would be resolved. Once we had enough we’d be able to get back to the real business of living, working out how humankind could “use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

By the 1950s, economists were turning to the very problem Keynes had predicted – what to do with our wealth, how to ‘live well’ with the luxury and the leisure time we had bought for ourselves. Most notable is John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, which ridiculed the idea of perpetual growth: “To furnish a barren room is one thing” he wrote. “To continue to crowd in furniture until the foundation buckles is quite another. To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and fail to proceed hence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”

Right into the 60s, theorists were talking about how society would work when we didn’t have to work any more. This vision of the future from a 1966 Time Magazine imagines a world where “society will seem idle, by present standards. According to one estimate, only 10% of the population will be working… there just won’t be enough work to go around.”

For some reason, that utopia never materialised. The economy kept growing, and the tone began to change. In 1967 E J Mishan published The Costs of Economic Growth, lamenting the side-effects of “the age of universal plenty”, including pollution, traffic noise, a loss of individuality, the throwaway society, and “a sense of spiritual despair scarcely concealed by the frantic pace of life.” He felt that the emphasis was too much on growth, where it ought to be on the allocation of existing wealth, and he adamantly rejected the view that we have no choice but to grow. Only if the rich countries “sought to convert themselves into an arsenal to provision the hungry areas of Africa and Asia”, could a case be made for “retaining economic growth as the chief goal of economic policy.”

By the 1970s, the tone was changing. E J Mishan had spotted that he was already living in an age of abundance. Further growth was not just unnecessary, but dangerous, and even impossible. In 1972 the Limits to Growth study predicted that growth could not continue beyond another 100 years – the resources would be gone, the environment degraded. The growth model would lead us not to a promised land, but over a cliff. “The most probable result will be a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” they warned. Coupled with concerns about rising population levels, and culminating in the oil crisis at the end of the decade, de-growth economics was re-born as a warning.

Many of the thinkers from the 1970s movement continue to be influential. E F Schumacher is perhaps the best known, giving us Small is Beautiful, and appropriate technology. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed permaculture. Matching economics with the emerging environmentalism, Herman Daly, Robert Costanza, Kenneth Boulding and others gave us ecological economics. Unfortunately, these voices were sidelined during the long and aggressive growth-drives of the Reagan and Thatcher years. It is only recently, with the added weight of climate change, that these ideas are returning to the mainstream.

That brings us to today, and a new wave of writers and thinkers raising the difficult questions of the growth paradox. Galbraith is back in print. Mishan isn’t just yet. The Transition Towns movement is experimenting with simpler, decentralised economics. Johnathon Porritt laid down the challenge with his book Capitalism as if the world matters. The Sustainable Development Commission, which Porritt headed up until very recently, published Prosperity Without Growth last year. For the government’s own sustainability watchdog to bring up growth must have been a bit of a shock, and author Tim Jackson admits that policy makers “react almost viscerally just to the title of the book.”

Nevertheless, there is momentum gathering. Last week the head of the Financial Services Authority, Lord Turner, made this statement on the radio: “I am not in the group of people who say we can’t have any growth, but I am also convinced that if you spend your time thinking that the most important objective of public policy is to get growth up by 1.9% or 2% or even better 2.1%, then we’re pursuing a sort of false God… All the evidence shows that beyond the sort of standard of living that Britain has now acheived, extra growth does not automatically translate into human welfare and happiness.”

That was last week, this website launches this week, and all future notable events will be covered on the news page.

As historian Ronald Wright has observed, even the notion of progress itself is quite novel. Human beings can and have lived without the idea that every year must be better than the last in every possible way. That may actually be a dangerous way to live. “Progress has an internal logic to it that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe” says Wright. That logic is leading us inevitably into the final chapters of the economic growth story. In the coming years it will end, either by a gentle winding down and a transition into a steady state, or by collapsing into debt and environmental ruin. Let’s make it the former, because we do still have a choice.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. tom sherman permalink
    March 17, 2010 12:27 am

    e j mishan is my favorite economist. in 1974 i published a letter to my local paper advocating adepression for environmental reasons & i still do

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