Growth Can’t Continue Forever, So What’s Next?


Perhaps our many wonderful scientific advancements and ever-more sophisticated civilization have blinded us to certain realities. We have enjoyed the benefits of cheap energy for the past few hundred years, first with coal and then with the addition of petroleum, and our population, scientific knowledge, and standards of living have expanded greatly. Eventually, however, the easiest to obtain of our fuel sources will begin to run out, and the cost of production will inevitably rise to the point where we won’t be able to afford to use it as we did before. We have become so accustomed to our situation that we take growth for granted, and it seems the entire business world takes it as a given that success and profitability are possible only through growth. Since growth can’t continue forever, what will replace it? Are we smart enough to avoid a precipitous decline and the pain that suggests, and find a new paradigm that permits more controllable change and is sustainable in the long term?

First we must recognize the disparity between our current basic assumptions and the realities before us. Here is a very savvy quote I found at www.growthbusters.com:

“The first commandment of economics is: Grow. Grow forever. Companies get bigger. National economies need to swell by a certain percent each year. People should want more, make more, earn more, spend more – ever more.

The first commandment of the Earth is: enough. Just so much and no more. Just so much soil. Just so much water. Just so much sunshine. Everything born of the Earth grows to its appropriate size and then stops. The planet does not get bigger, it gets better. Its creatures learn, mature, diversify, evolve, create amazing beauty and novelty and complexity, but live within absolute limits.

Now, when there’s an inconsistency between human economics and the laws of planet Earth, which do you think is going to win?”

– Donella Meadows
founder of the Sustainability Institute and lead author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits

The economic paradigm must change. Obviously, we need to reduce our population and replace the mantra of “Growth” with something more reasonable, or at least redefine it in more sustainable terms. As population declines (hopefully because we intended it to) I expect a shift in business patterns. The construction industry, for example, will shift from new construction to renovation and replacement, and reclamation of facilities that are no longer needed. The definition of business success in general will change to reflect improved efficiency, quality, market share, and most importantly innovation rather than raw market expansion due to increased population and the trappings thereof. The need for increased efficiency in everything we do and use will drive the creation of new products and services, and our lifestyles will change, hopefully for the better. The very meaning of the term “growth” will change over time, or at least the sense that there are no limits to it.

Change is the only constant, and the basis for growth is changing. Given that our current growth is based on cheap energy sources which are starting to become more expensive as supplies inevitably become scarce, and as population pushes the limits of our resources and environment, we must face the high probability that we are headed into a period of decline. How we handle this is in large part up to us, the other part belonging environmental factors over which we have little or no control, and to which we must adjust. As our situation changes we need to redefine our understanding of growth in a way that moves us towards a sustainable world situation.

Smart businesses will help change the growth paradigm. While the short term-focused business world is unlikely to lead the way to a new paradigm for growth, the changing environment of higher fuel prices, for instance, may motivate some corporations in positive ways. Japanese corporations, for example, have long been known to maintain ten and twenty years plans, in contrast with American businesses, many of whom don’t even have a five year plan. The act of planning for the long term involves forecasting the future, and the obvious transition to ever high prices for fossil fuels or the inevitable reduction in the global birthrate, for example, must be taken into account. These obvious motivations for a change in the growth paradigm will hopefully cause changes in the ways the most successful corporations behave that will positively affect our prospects in the future.

This isn’t the first time at which humanity has reached such a point, and won’t be the last. Humanity will grow and decline at greater and lesser rates through future history, and when the environment isn’t challenging us, we will be challenging ourselves as we are now. At some point, possibly in 30 to 100 years, we may see a return of cheap energy due to new technologies. Those are distant times, however, and we have issues we have to deal with today and in next couple of decades. Changing our growth patterns will be a key factor in managing our situation for the best possible result, and changing the way we think about growth will be an important step.

It is unlikely anyone can come up with the best new conception of growth by themselves. Usually such a concept must evolve through a lot of thinking, discussion, and application over time. As we move forward the paradigm shifts, and if we have the right concerns and concepts in mind we can move it in a positive direction through daily actions. One of those actions is to spur our government representatives to understand our concerns and construct policy that limits destructive forms of growth and favors those that soften what appears to be inevitable decline.  This can be done by providing incentives and concrete support for innovation, conservation, and education. We need to directly ask our government officials to plan and act to manage growth in ways that ensure the best possible future. Please write or call your representatives today and often, demand long term planning and initiatives that decrease incentives for destructive growth and increase those for a new and sustainable growth paradigm.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Interesting and Informative Reading:
Urban Growth, http://www.growthbusters.com (note – there are many excellent and informative links here)
A Catechism of Growth Fallacies, Herman Daly, Steady-State Economics, Ch. 5, excerpted at dieoff.org

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2 responses to “Growth Can’t Continue Forever, So What’s Next?

  1. Thanks for raising this issue, Tim. Having over 4 years of research and thought invested in the subject of growth, I’d like to offer my two cents. Growth is limited by more than just energy. As the Dana Meadows quote suggests, all our natural resources are limited. Don’t just think peak oil. Think peak water and peak food. We cannot continue to grow our communities, either in population or in concrete and asphalt. We cannot continue to grow our economies, as that requires increasing throughput which consumes finite natural resources and emits destructive byproducts.

    The only growth that can be sustained is growth in knowledge, happiness, relationships, leisure, peace, enlightenment, love and justice. The good news is these are types of growth that really matter. The current system, focusing on growth in wealth, is no longer working so well. It’s not providing the happiness or the prosperity we seek. That’s good news, too, as that means that getting unhooked from that growth paradigm won’t be as painful as some might fear. It will free us to seek real happiness and achieve true prosperity.

    Dave Gardner
    Producer/Director
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
    http://www.growthbusters.com

  2. Thank you for your comment, Dave. You said it better than I could have, and you are absolutely right. Best regards – Tim

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