I am an unabashed New York Times enthusiast. It’s the only news source that I subscribe to, and its reporting is generally excellent. Thus, once a topic close to my heart is picked up by the NY Times, I rejoice because I look forward to a balanced, informed and insightful analysis. Alas, this is not one of those times.
“Imagining a World Without Growth“, by Eduardo Porter, was published to coincide with the COP21 negotiations – a great time to introduce heterodox thinking about sufficiency, alternative economic movements and revisiting our measurement tools and goals. Indeed, Porter starts out with a sweeping overview of the millennia of human existence without considerable economic growth, and contemporary movements arguing to revisit the growth paradigm. He even cites economist Paul Ehrlich citing Kenneth Boulder:
Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.
To me, this quote is so poignant because its underlying argument is unquestionably, rationally, mathematically true. So I expected the next paragraphs to fulfill the title’s promise and provide inventive, innovative solutions for a new era.
Instead, what the reader is presented with is snide, unimaginative ridicule.
Eschewing growth, so Porter argues, can never work because economic development was “indispensable to end slavery. It was a critical precondition for the empowerment of women. Indeed, democracy would not have survived without it. […] the option for everybody to become better off — where one person’s gain needn’t require another’s loss — was critical for the development and spread of the consensual politics that underpin democratic rule. Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation. It fostered an order in which the only mechanism to get ahead was to plunder one’s neighbor. Economic growth opened up a much better alternative: trade.”
Even if you buy all these historical arguments – and many of them can be questioned fundamentally -, it is saddening to see Porter suggest that we will fall back into a Dark Age fueled by greed and violence as soon as growth slows down. Especially since current times have their own share of violence, resource plunder, inequality and the subsequent questioning of democratic rule as is.
Even in the USA, growth has been accompanied with a sharp increase in wealth and income inequality that belies the claim that the tide raises all boats. Worldwide, 80 families control as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people, as Oxfam recently determined. Furthermore, since 2009, the wealth of those 80 richest has doubled in nominal terms — while the wealth of the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population has fallen, as Five Thirty Eight report. If trends continue, Oxfam projects that the richest 1 percent of people will have more wealth than the remaining 99 percent by 2016. In such circumstances, focusing on growth as “the option for everybody to become better off” is callous, if not cruel.
Furthermore, after mentioning “climactic upheaval approaching down the decades” and ecosystem collapse, Porter concludes that “for all the many hundreds of years humanity survived without growth, modern civilization could not” because “the trade-offs that are the daily stuff of market-based economies simply could not work in a zero-sum world.” In which world does he want our modern civilization to live in then when our planet becomes “increasingly inhospitable for humanity”?
His answer to the question of climate change – technological paths “to help the world’s poor, and everybody else, onto a path to progress that doesn’t rely on burning buried carbon” comes in the last sentence and is simply not good enough. Technological development is an optimistic cop-out that economists love to use, often broadly overestimating possible advances. Truth is, the latest UN blueprint to narrowly avoid overheating the planet – that Porter referred to as the solution – suggests that “under the path, the United States decarbonizes its energy supply at an average pace of almost 4 percent a year over the next four decades. That is more than 10 times faster than the Energy Information Administration’s forecast last year. China takes CO2 out of its energy about six times as fast as the E.I.A.’s forecast.” And this only addresses carbon, not the scarcity of water, arable land, or even sand in a world of unfettered growth.
Real solutions and real innovation have to come from other corners, including the dematerialization movement. This is not the time for ridicule. It’s the time for imagination. Here, then, is my version of “Imagining a World Without Growth” – add your own?
It’s the year 2060. After the environmental crises that marked the turn of the millennium brought Earth to the brink of collapse, a far-reaching shift of thinking – almost simultaneous revolutionary events in academic, educational and political goal-setting – redefined the way “development” was measured. Henceforth, preserving, celebrating and enhancing ‘humanity’ in all its inventiveness, diversity and artfulness became the shared goal.
Today’s children are still taught the meaning of Gross Domestic Product and the consumption focus in school, but are puzzled by the notion that personal car ownership, the expanse of one’s wardrobe, or frequent travels to other continents used to symbolize a superior status. During their weekly videochats with peers around the world, they are shown local traditions, animals and landmarks while understanding the cultural context and improving their language skills. Considering that general knowledge, cultural and language skills have become strong indicators of “wealth”, the educational and entertainment sectors are booming. Engineers, too, are in great need in order to improve the intricate urban environments and public transportation systems that have mushroomed since fossil fuels were phased out. Medical research is prospering since pharmaceutical development funding is supervised by the WHO, and becoming a doctor is a popular career path around the world. Farmers and agronomists are continuously improving the agroecological methods with which they are slowly regenerating exhausted soils; also many fish stocks that had nearly collapsed are starting to stabilize and ocean ecosystems, though not as diverse as 60 years ago, are at least still alive.
The ecological challenges of the 21st century at least provided one thing: occupations for the millions of underemployed youth that were starting to get restless and disillusioned at the time of the fateful COP21. Recognizing that bright young minds need a constructive goal to work toward, political and religious leaders got together to design and fund an ambitious global training program – much of it through massive open online courses – that culminated in multicultural and -ethnic task forces which led the transformation of the largest multinational companies toward common-good, sustainable aims. The rebirth of scandal-riddled former car company Volkswagen to the leading provider of solar-powered rapid transit bus systems was a particularly celebrated success. Another ingenious example was to use Coca Cola’s worldwide distribution channels – reaching even the remotest Chadian village – to disseminate locally appropriate seeds and best agricultural practices that allowed for the elimination of undernourishment through strengthening smallholder productivity and self-sufficiency, years ahead of the original Sustainable Development Goals deadline.
Can you see where I am going with this? “Imagining” human-made systems one can be as wildly creative as one dares to be, because they are just that – human-made and subject to human change. Changes may be debatable, they may hurt, but they can be made. Ignoring physical and ecological realities may be easier in the short run, but will lead to crises in the long run – crises that will not leave us time for positive creative solutions, but rather foster “an order in which the only mechanism to get ahead [is] to plunder one’s neighbor”. Hmm… Haven’t we heard that before?