The Growth Delusion

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Issue 289
March/April 2015
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The Growth Delusion
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Cover: The Red Bench by Mina Braun www.minabraun.com

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Jonathon Porritt applauds a history of how warnings about our finite planet have been systematically sidelined. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet by Kerryn Higgs. MIT Press, 2014. ISBN: 9780262027731

If the construct of ‘political economy’ still means anything these days, Collision Course by Kerryn Higgs falls squarely in the middle of it. So much so, that it’s actually two books merged into one: the first looking at the history of the ‘limits to growth’ debate, and where it fits in contemporary economics; the second unearthing the political reasons why the sheer infeasibility of continuous exponential growth on a finite planet has been almost totally ignored over the last 30 years – and why sustainable development is therefore a far less powerful ‘big idea’ than it should be.

Most people today have no idea just how lively the debate about economic growth was back in the 1970s – richly stimulated by publications like The Limits to Growth and The Ecologist magazine’s ‘Blueprint for Survival’. Higgs clinically reveals how the ‘anti-limits’ lobby gradually won the day through a combination of misrepresentation, ridicule and straightforward deceit. By the mid-1980s, that debate had gone underground, and despite the astonishing fact that almost all academic studies carried out on the ‘limits to growth’ models since then have shown just how well those 1970s projections have stood the test of time, that’s pretty much where it remains.

How can this be? Over and above the irreconcilable differences between the vast majority of economists (who see the human economy as the primary system, and the natural world as a sub-system – in terms of resources, sinks for our pollution, and so on), and physical scientists (who see it exactly the other – and correct – way around), Higgs gives us two main reasons why we’re still on a collision course in the absence of any intelligent debate about physical limits.

The first, I suspect, may well shock readers. We’re all very familiar these days with the narrative about climate denial and the way in which an immensely powerful cabal of the super-rich and neoliberal fundamentalists has very successfully undermined the science of climate change. This is a battle that has been waged both through quasi-academic think tanks and through the outlets of dominant media conglomerates. (As an Australian, Higgs gives us a particularly spicy account of how this has corrupted the entire political system in her own country.)

But Higgs deepens this familiar analysis by demonstrating how exactly the same malign forces have been at work (from the mid-1970s onwards) to disparage the ‘limits to growth’ thesis, to undermine the case for effective environmental regulation, and to create the institutional and political mechanisms to prioritise globalisation, free trade and economic growth through personal consumption as the only route to prosperity.

Her research is impeccable, and the links she makes, between this ideological crusade, the astonishing power of the advertising industry (with nearly 100 years of experience in manipulation and propaganda), and the self-interest of big corporations, may well surprise business leaders as well as environmental campaigners.

But there’s no way this ideological crusade could have achieved such a comprehensive victory were it not for the fact that the Left has been just as enthusiastic as anyone on the Right about what is seen as the non-negotiable primacy of economic growth. Their motives have, of course, been very different, in that economic growth has been seen as the only way in which chronic poverty in the developing and emerging economies can be addressed. But the tragic consequences of that 50-year-old consensus are now as plain as the continuing poverty on the face of the Earth: absent an equally powerful consensus about redistribution, the consensus on the primacy of economic growth has simply trashed the planet and enriched the very few, whilst leaving the vast majority of the poor in much the same kind of precarious and degrading circumstances as they were in 50 years ago.

Higgs is quite clear in her analysis of the impact of those 50 years of growth. With the partial exception of China, the wealth generated during the neoliberal era has overwhelmingly gone to those who were already rich, most of it to the top decile, with only 10% going to people in the poorest half of the world’s population. Despite a world pie that has grown eight to ten times larger than in 1950, the slices available to the world’s poorest people have certainly not; immense inequality persists within and between nations. Even if a higher percentage of people are better off – which may be the case – the gross numbers of people in difficulty (with incomes of less than $2 a day) have been similar for the last three decades.

If anyone on the Left ever read books like this (which they tend not to do for fear of physical reality encroaching on their growthist illusions), they would surely begin to question their continuing and somewhat pathetic pact with the Faustian devil of business-as-usual economic growth.

This is an excellent book, full of historical depth and analytical insights. Higgs acknowledges in her concluding chapter:

My object has been to illuminate the reasons for the ideological dominance of growth, and to foster an awareness of the actual realities – human and ecological – that contradict its confident discourse. It remains for others to invent pathways to solutions for these difficult problems.

Indeed. But first we have to understand how we allowed ourselves to drift into such a chronic state of political and economic paralysis.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future. www.forumforthefuture.org His latest book, The World We Made, is published by Phaidon.

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