how to make infinite growth possible

I’m an advocate of postgrowth economics – the new way of running the economy that will replace the growth ethic, one way or another. Postgrowth economics is a rather nondescript name, but that’s because we’re not entirely sure what it looks like yet. It’s gone by various other names in the past, such as the Steady State Economy, or the Stationary State, but both of those terms imply inaction, and a postgrowth economy wouldn’t be static. There would still be change, innovation and progress. There might, whisper it, even be economic growth.

The reason is that there’s nothing wrong with economic growth in itself. The problem is all the side-effects that come with it, the waste and the resource depletion. Economic growth could merrily continue if the following conditions could all be met:

The economy creates zero waste
We live in a throwaway society, but as ecologists like to say, there is no ‘away’. Everything has to go somewhere, usually into landfill. Even if we created half as much waste as we do now, we’d still run out of space eventually. So to grow indefinitely, the economy would have to create no waste at all.

All energy is renewable
The economy is currently dependent on fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are all finite resources, which means our present mode of development can’t continue. For ongoing growth, you would need a source of energy that can go on forever. That means solar power, basically, with wind and hydro on the side. Or nuclear fusion, if that proves to be possible.

Global population is stable
If the world’s population continues to grow indefinitely, infinite growth will be impossible, because more people means more resources, more land for growing food, more water and so on. If you try to reduce consumption while boosting the number of consumers, you’re running to stand still. So ongoing growth needs a stable population.

Use of materials reaches a plateau
Plenty of raw materials are non-renewable, and many of them are vital to industrial processes. The world’s reserves of copper or gold are finite, so an infinitely growing economy would need to learn to do without new metals, relying on what could be recycled every year as old appliances and machines reached the end of their lives.

Renewable resources are harvested at replacement rate
We use plenty of renewable natural resources, and all of these would need to be capped at a sustainable level. That includes using underground fresh water no faster than it tops itself up, cutting tress or catching fish at the same rate that they can refresh the stocks.

Land is used sustainably
There’s obviously a finite amount of land on the planet, so land use would have to be monitored to maintain a balance between farmland and built-up areas. Current farming practices degrade the topsoil and contribute to erosion, so all farming would need to be entirely sustainable.

CO2 levels remain below 350ppm
The economy might be growing, but CO2 emission can’t – at least, not if you expect the planet to remain habitable for most of the human population.

If you could meet all of these conditions, there’s no reason why economic growth couldn’t continue. It’s just that so far, nobody has shown that you can grow an economy without increasing its energy use and carbon emissions. Population growth is a popular shortcut to economic growth, and plenty of countries have tried to encourage citizens to have children. Many overdeveloped countries have already reached the boundaries of what their own land can provide, and are leasing large tracts in other countries. Some developed countries may have broken the link between growth and resource consumption, but we’re not sure yet. Otherwise, it’s a pretty tall order.

Given that it’s difficult to pursue economic growth on a finite planet, perhaps the more important question is this: what do we need growth for in the first place? Does it deliver what we want it to? And can we do without it? Because if we can answer those questions to our satisfaction, all the sustainability concerns get a whole lot easier.

16 Comments on “how to make infinite growth possible”

  1. dichasium September 24, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    Three cheers Jeremy for going to the heart of the matter. I suggest that we want growth for comfort, luxury, ease, entertainment, security and health. We want power in an effort to secure these. They do not remove our fear of insecurity and vulnerability, which is why we seek it all. Answering and agreeing on the said questions is one step, but the biggest is how to stop us from chasing the illusion that we can do without, and to redirect our priorities to those that we cannot.

  2. Neil September 25, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    Good one Jeremy. We have put a short chapter on economics in our book. It was obvious when researching this that no one has a clue how to run a modern economy w/o oil. Its never been tried before.

  3. Dave Gardner September 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    I suppose this is an interesting thought exercise, and maybe it is a worthwhile step on the way to admitting what we continue to resist acknowledging: perpetual economic growth is physically not possible. It is highly likely that we will NEVER figure out how to meet the criteria above. Almost a certainty. The best part of this post is the question: “What do we need growth for in the first place?” We are so hung up on growth, even post-growth advocates have a hard time completely ditching this love affair. Let’s say we found a way for economic growth to meet the criteria. To what end? What do we gain by having more economic throughput year over year? In this make-believe world we’d be counting something that doesn’t matter (in today’s world it matters; we’re counting how fast we are destroying our planet).

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    • Jeremy September 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

      Exactly Dave, this is a thought exercise and you’re never going to get all those things to line up. Besides, many of them (population, waste) are drivers of growth, so it you stop them you reduce your economic activity.

      Personally, I believe ongoing economic growth is both impossible and unnecessary, and I’m kind of toying with different ways of saying it.

      • growthbuster September 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

        Figured as much, Jeremy. Guessing perhaps it may be useful in debating pro-growth fanatics!

      • dichasium September 25, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

        Jeremy, We’d never get them to line up unless we all looked properly at what you rightly suggest may be the more important three part question which you posed and the end. That’s about facing our own nature. We don’t.

  4. Rav Casley Gera September 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    Jeremy, me again. This is an excellent post, thanks.

    But harking back to my previous comment, I’m not sure about this: “Nobody has shown that you can grow an economy without increasing its energy use and carbon emissions.” Hasn’t the UK itself achieved this since 1990?

    • Jeremy September 25, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

      If you accept the government’s reports at face value, yes. What they don’t show is the embedded CO2 in imports. If you include the carbon we’ve offshored to China by outsourcing our manufacturing, the picture isn’t so rosy. I think if you want to decarbonise with any integrity, you need to take care of all the CO2 your economy is responsible for, not just the stuff that happens within your own borders.

  5. Heather September 27, 2012 at 9:47 pm #

    Reblogged this on The Climate Action Adventures of Heather Bauer and commented:
    I’ve not taken much time to blog about “post growth” lately… but this article is worth a read. I like how it is framed as a list of conditions for how to achieve infinite growth (what we are oriented to right now as a society… silly us). It is a can do list, rather than don’t do rant. Of course, the question remains… can we really do these things? Does the “anything is possible” mantra apply here?

  6. David Oldroyd October 1, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    Your list overlooks the issue of the distribution of wealth and the increasing gap between rich and poor within and between nations, that many see as a major barrier to achieving sustainablility.
    The current on-line conference (23 Sept to 24 Oct 2012) of the World Economic Association on the missing elements in the sustainable development dialogue contains several really challenging papers outside the box of classical growth economics. See: http://sustainabilityconference2012.worldeconomicsassociation.org/
    See especially the papers from Sanders and from Martinez-Iglesias & Garcia.

    • Jeremy October 1, 2012 at 10:04 am #

      That’s true, growth has often been used to excuse inequality, often very deliberately (see China). If you stop growing and your country remains unequal, people know they’re not going to get their long-promised share after all and you get social unrest.

      I nearly included inequality in the list, and interest-bearing debt too, but I decided to leave them out because all the other ones were hard and obvious physical limits. They’re equally important, but less quantifiable – so thank you for mentioning it and I will check out the WEA papers you recommend.

      • Nelson Suarez December 11, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

        We do not any more material growth. What we are here for is to achieve spiritual growth.

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