Economic growth

Economic Growth

Political reality must be grounded in physical reality
or it’s completely useless. — John Schellnhuber

Economic growth has given many of us our current standard of living as well as our quality of life. But most of us fail to understand that we can have an increasingly better standard of living while, at the same time, depleting the very resources that provide us with that standard of living. This is what we are doing.

Economic growth is an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It is facilitated by increasing population and increasing per-capita consumption. Because we can’t make the goods from nothing, economic growth can also be defined as an increase in throughput or flow of natural resources from ecosystems through the economy and back to the environment as waste. But, ecosystems are not infinite. And no amount of human ingenuity will make them so (see Limits to Growth).

A goal of continuous economic growth may have seemed reasonable when the Earth was relatively empty of people but things have changed. There are now over 7 billion humans on the planet, each demanding various amounts of the Earth’s finite resources. As a result, nearly half of tropical and temperate rain forests are gone, an area larger than Canada suffers some desertification, we’re withdrawing over half the accessible freshwater, we’ve increased atmospheric CO2 by one-third, we’re fixing Nitrogen at the same rate nature fixes it resulting in over 500 dead zones in the ocean, 75% of marine fisheries are at capacity or are being over-fished, scores of persistent toxic chemicals are now in each of us (Canadians were tested for 88 harmful chemicals and on average 44 were found in each person1), and biodiversity loss is now between 100- and 1000-times the normal rate.2 This cannot continue for ever.

The Problem

Economic growth:

  • removes the structural elements of ecosystems continuously. Economic growth is a direct cause of biodiversity loss because the raw materials involved in the manufacture of the goods—which also support the services — come directly from the structure of ecosystems. But all the organisms that make up the planet’s biodiversity facilitate ecosystem functioning and the provision of ecosystem services, services such as nutrient recycling, CO2 sequestering, ozone for UV protection, buffering from floods and storms, clean air and water on a global scale, all of which support life on the planet. Thus, there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation3.
  • depletes non-renewable resources.
  • displaces healthy ecosystems and services.
  • degrades remaining healthy ecosystems with waste. For example, economic growth is directly linked to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 2000 that are causing an acceleration of climate change.

The Solution

The solution to this problem is quite simple: move from the unsustainable, growth economy we currently have that is devastating our global ecosystems and driving climate change, to a sustainable, steady state economy. Simple but difficult to implement. Still, our two choices are to be 1) sustainable or 2) unsustainable. What choice makes the most sense for the ‘wise ape’?

1 (Accessed 23 April 2011)
2 Speth, J.G. 2008. The bridge at the edge of the world.
3 Czech, B. 2000. Economic growth as the limiting factor for wildlife conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin 28(1):4-14.

Web sites, books, & articles

Center for the advancement of the steady state economy. Excellent site with resources to help understand the implications of our growth economy and how a steady state economy would work. CASSE’s works to advance the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support.

Czech, Brian. 2013. Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. New Society, Gabriola Island, Canada. Debunks the widely accepted myths held by politicians, economists, and Wall Street that limitless economic expansion is the Holy Grail, and that there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.

Czech, Brian. 2000. Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train: Errant Economists, Shameful Spenders, and a Plan to Stop Them All. University of California Press, Berkeley, California. While economic growth was a good thing for much of American history, somewhere along the way it turned bad, depleting resources, polluting the environment, and threatening posterity. Yet growth remains a top priority of the public and polity. In this revolutionary manifesto, Czech knocks economic growth off the pedestal of American ideology.

Czech, B. 2000. Economic growth as the limiting factor for wildlife conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin 28(1):4-14. An important paper on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation.

Daly, Herman. 1997. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. Discusses the major environmental debate surrounding “sustainable development.” Argues that the idea of sustainable development—which has become a catchword of environmentalism and international finance—is being used in ways that are vacuous, certainly wrong, and probably dangerous. The necessary solutions turn out to be much more radical than one might suppose.

Dietz, Rob and Dan O’Neill. 2013. Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, California. We’re overusing the earth’s finite resources, and yet excessive consumption is failing to improve our lives. Enough is enough lays out a visionary but realistic alternative to the perpetual pursuit of economic growth—an economy where the goal is enough, not more. A synopsis of a conference on Enough is enough can be found here.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Island Press, Washington, DC. Sets out a theory of the growth, crisis, and renewal of societies. Today’s converging energy, environmental, and political-economic stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order. Explains what we can do now to keep such a breakdown from being catastrophic.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas, 2011. “Economies Can’t Just Keep on Growing.” Foreign Policy, January/February 2011.

Jackson, Tim. 2009. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan, London, U.K. Is more economic growth the solution? Will it deliver prosperity and well-being for a global population projected to reach nine billion? This book makes a compelling case against continued economic growth in developed nations. A copy of the original report to the UK Sustainable Development Commission that the book is based upon can be found here.

Rees, W. 2002-2003. Is humanity fatally successful? Journal of Business and Public Administration 30-31:67-100.

Speth, James Gustave. 2008. The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. Here is one measure of the environmental problem: if we continue to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. This book is a severe indictment of the economic and political system we call modern capitalism. It contends that our vital task is now to change the operating instructions for today’s destructive world economy before it is too late. The book is about how to do that. A podcast of an interview with the author can be found here.

Victor, Peter. 2008. Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster. Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, U.K. This book presents three arguments on why rich countries should turn away from economic growth as the primary policy objective and pursue more specific objectives that enhance well-being.


Who Killed Economic Growth?—Richard Heinberg

An economic reality check—Tim Jackson

Author, Dan O’Neill, discusses the main ideas in the book, Enough Is Enough.

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