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The word growth, which generally refers to the development process in living things, is also the name of a political and economic ideology that makes continual expansion in the production of goods and services and ever greater material consumption the dominant aim for human society. Though typically associated with capitalism, the quest for economic growth became a universal faith embraced by nationalists, socialists, and communists alike, making it, in the words of historian J.R. McNeill, “easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.”

Over the past two centuries, the growth of the human enterprise has been explosive and utterly unprecedented, increasing ten times faster than the increase in human numbers. Modern industrial civilization brought a new, revolutionary process of self-sustained, more or less automatic growth propelled, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, “by perpetual technological revolution and social transformation.” But what fundamentally allowed humans recently to break free of the constraints that governed previous societies was the geological legacy of fossil fuels and a new tool, the steam engine, which first unlocked the power to remake the Earth and produce great economic wealth.

Despite now inescapable evidence that the global economy is exceeding the Earth’s physical limits, establishment leaders still assume the growth can and will continue indefinitely. Advocates view growth not as a problem but rather as a panacea that can solve almost all that ails modern societies from unhappiness, poverty, and unemployment to the disruption of Earth’s life support systems. Moreover, growth appears to be necessary, though the question is still debated, for the stability of the current system, because it creates new jobs to replace those eliminated through continuous improvements in manufacturing methods and technology. If growth falters, workers lose jobs, triggering a downward recessionary spiral driven by reduced spending, collapsing consumer confidence, and even less demand. The reverse positive feedback drives a growing economy toward even more growth.

The gross world product which stood at $65 trillion in 2008, could, according to economic forecasts, reach $275 trillion by mid-century. With such a growth rate, it will be difficult if not impossible, according to an analysis by leading climate scientists, to keep heat-trapping carbon dioxide levels low enough to avoid dangerous climate change. Climate experts, therefore, judge it likely the world will face a 4 degrees C warming by 2100 and physical changes so extreme that our civilization may find it difficult, if not impossible, to adapt. Yet in mainstream efforts to find a credible strategy to prevent greenhouse gas emissions from rising to catastrophic levels, policy analysts never question continuing growth. The prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs has made the claim that better technologies will “square the circle of economic growth with sustainability” [1] but there is no credible scenario yet that can justify this belief.

In current circumstances with the existing economic system, growth has become a conundrum which confronts us with two bad choices: continue with business as usual and risk our civilization or halt growth and risk social and economic chaos and collapse.

See also


Author: Dianne Dumanoski