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The insanity of endless growth

The authors consider the reality that endless economic growth on a finite planet is unsustainable, Haydn
especially if society has exceeded ecological limits. The paper examines various aspects of
society’s endless growth predicament. It reviews the idea that there are ‘limits to growth’; Washington
it then considers the ‘endless growth mantra’ within society. The paper then considers the and Helen
‘decoupling’ strategy and its merits, and argues that it is, at best, a partial solution to the
problem. The key social problem of denial of our predicament is considered, along with the
contribution of anthropocentric modernism as a worldview that aids and abets that denial. About the authors
Finally, the paper outlines some potential solutions to our growth predicament. Haydn is an environmental
scientist, writer and activist

he world is faced with a grave of the ‘green economy’, which it describes as based at the PANGEA
predicament, yet one rarely spoken “a new engine of growth” (our emphasis). The Research Centre, UNSW,
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
of. The United Nations (UN), almost UN Sustainable Development Goals (available
all governments, business, media and at http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/) Helen is an environmental
anthropologist at Leiden
both the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ are busy also fail to acknowledge that endless growth
University, Leiden, and The
extolling endless growth. Yet we live on a finite is impossible and its pursuit fundamentally
Hague University of Applied
planet, so clearly endless economic growth unsustainable (Kopnina, 2016b). Science, The Hague, the
is impossible, and its pursuit unsustainable Netherlands.
and unethical – indeed, such destructive Ecological limits
pursuit of the impossible is insane. There This obsession with endless economic Citation

are three main drivers of ‘unsustainability’ growth demonstrates that societies Washington H and Kopnina H
(2018) The insanity of endless
– overpopulation, overconsumption and still do not understand that humanity
growth. The Ecological Citizen
the growth economy (Washington, 2015). has exceeded ecological limits, and 2: 57–63.
We feel it is time to focus on these. These that this is the root cause of the current
points have been made in the past, but for environmental crisis. The book Limits Keywords
quite some time the reasons behind the to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) showed Anthropocentrism;
unsustainability and insanity of endless that human population growth and the ecological economics;
growth have not been explored. We feel concomitant increase in the consumption societal change;
society (and academia) need to be regularly of resources would exceed planetary limits sustainability
reminded of them. around the middle of the 21st century,
The question “On a finite planet, is it possible causing societal collapse. Upon its release,
to keep growing economically forever?” this report was strongly criticized by
is one hardly ever asked in neoclassical traditional economists, who labelled the
economics (Daly, 1991; 2014) or in many other authors ‘prophets of doom’ (Solow, 1973).
academic disciplines (Washington, 2015). However, a recent 40-year review of Limits
Even the World Commission on Environment to Growth has shown that its models are
and Development (1987) report Our Common remarkably accurate (Turner, 2014). To
Future did not ask that question – suggesting summarize key environmental indicators
that ‘sustainable development’ required a of ecological overshoot: Cartoons

gross domestic product growth rate of 5% n The Global Ecological Footprint now The three cartoons
appearing in this article are
(a rate at which the global economy would stands at 1.6 Earths (Global Footprint
reproduced with permission
double its output every 14 years). Network, 2017). of Polyp, their creator (see
More recently, the UN Environment n The Living Planet Index has declined by http://polyp.org.uk/ for more
Programme (2011: 2) has promoted the idea 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF, 2016). cartoons).

The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 57

unemployment. 2015). As Victor consumer society is on a self-destructive (2008) notes. but many of us successfully deflect scenarios where full employment prevails. and for most of human history we managed biosphere. 2015). but this has failed (Kopnina n At least 60% of ecosystem services are and Blewitt. 2015). ‘productivity’ – or even as ‘sustainable development’ (Victor. the evidence by repeating in unison poverty is eliminated. debt repayment. been linked to growth. we suggest. 2012). we are bankrupting nature and commonly claimed that “economic growth consuming the past. 2008). World leaders seek growth above all else.” for it is totally dependent on the biosphere to provide employment without economic it is degrading (Washington. To grow beyond a certain activity (Steffen et al. inflation. that the idea only developed 60 years ago. ‘sustainable development’ has had its meaning largely coopted to mean ‘sustainable growth’ – a phrase which. A final aspect of growthism is that it is In effect. it is possible to develop path.net poverty.. ‘competitiveness’. spring up and ‘develop to maturity’. in nature. is an oxymoron (Washington. and economic growth is still widely seen as the panacea for almost all societal ills. Victor (2008) notes the past. global poverty. the population explosion. Hence growth. 2005). degrading or being used unsustainably the verb ‘to grow’ has become twisted. we have forgotten its original meaning: to 2005). crime. and future of our Humanity faces a fundamental problem. more leisure.” This has not changed much in the 25 years since Daly wrote those words. On a finite world with expanding claim correct? There are good grounds to question whether jobs have historically nature and consuming human population and consumption. Does growth necessarily bring society needs to understand and accept employment in any case? For example. Indeed. Sometimes commitment to growth may be promoted in the guise of ‘free trade’. (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. now been exceeded as a result of human a steady state. less than the ‘low Income cut-off’ in 2005 than in 1980.” Is this “We are bankrupting our biosphere (Wijkman and Rockström. Neoclassical n The species extinction rate is at least 1000 economics claimed that the benefits of times normal (Millennium Ecosystem growth would ‘trickle down’ and alleviate Assessment. point can be disastrous. growth gives way to maturity. Yet endless repetition does not drastically reduced. balance of payment deficits. Daly (1991: 183) – and ultimately no – economic growth. despite real Canadian gross The endless growth mantra domestic product having nearly doubled Environmental science may tell us that the over that period (Victor. 58 The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 .ecologicalcitizen. As Daly (1991) notes. It pointed out that economic growth is is thus mistaken to assume that economic unrealistically held to be “the cure for growth is a necessity for full employment. in the context of low make something true. divorce and drug addiction. present clearly something has got to give. present and future of is necessary if we are to have jobs. 2013). 2008). that we are way past sustainable ecological there were more Canadians with incomes limits. That n Four of nine planetary boundaries have is. from its coining in Our Common Future to now.The insanity of endless growth www. and greenhouse gases are 2008). people have the mantra of perpetual growth (Rees.

any serious absolute (Daly. Hence. or of goods and services. a ‘Factor 5’ strategy and only use 20% of 2010). This becomes of the unsustainability of endless growth. whilst still no environmental crisis.net The insanity of endless growth Indeed. on ‘product scarcity’. attempts at decoupling slow of diminished well-being will be blamed down the rate at which things get worse. 2011: 2).www. focusing this will make us even less well off. However. As noted above. but do not years the concept of decoupling has been be blind towards the grave and rapidly turn them around. 2017a). The the science says (Washington. and some claim we can move to activities of business (Oreskes and Conway. as the energy and materials we currently use a society. without thereby make us afraid. problem with this approach is that the very Perhaps the key form that denial takes in concept of decoupling suggests we can the public realm is simply silence – thus keep on growing forever. another energy sources. as Victor changes in social outlook. The orthodox but do not turn them around. by shifting to renewable environmental crisis. We note that while there has been some have then reached uneconomic growth ‘relative decoupling’. usual growth to continue.” put forward to argue that it is possible to approaching threats to their survival. unless there are decoupling is not evident.ecologicalcitizen. is extensive (Brown. Of course. we continue to act as if there is (von Wiezsäcker et al. the UN advocates the ‘green economy’ yet also sees this economy as “a new engine of growth” (United Nations Environment Programme. in recent How is it possible for civilizations to worse. 2014). this combination of ‘green’ and ‘growth’ is only made plausible by invoking the idea that it is possible to completely decouple economic growth from environmental impacts. talk economic and policy response will then be of ‘100% decoupling’ is likely to be merely to advocate increased growth to remedy wishful thinking that allows business-as- this. have continued economic growth without even when the evidence for those threats producing further environmental damage. The result of such denial is that.. where reduce the amount of resources and energy the reality of the environmental crisis consumed. 1991). Indeed. but total material throughput in the global economy still The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 59 . Victor and Jackson (2015) limits. no matter what retaining our current quality of life. At best. Humanity denies some things ‘Decoupling’ refers to the idea that an because they force us to ‘confront change’. Healing our world requires down the rate at accepting the reality that the economy Denial which things get cannot grow forever. 2008)? Humanity has a key failing – we tend to deny our Decoupling problems. In the real world of ecological limits. once we have exceeded ecological increased. but this will in turn lead to advocacy of ‘even our attention on the idea of decoupling runs the risk of becoming part of the denial “Attempts at decoupling slow more growth’ (Daly. This human incapacity to increasing pressure on the environment hear bad news makes it hard to solve the – for example. the silence about the environmental crisis. our experience (2008) notes. 2009). growth will make us worse off. Reducing the use of energy is denied owing to neoliberal hatred of and materials by society is certainly any regulations that could restrict the needed. economy can continue to increase its output others because they are just too painful. However. and using efficiencies to source of this denial is ideological. a death spiral. How successful have we been in decoupling? Some modest decoupling of material flows occurred from the mid- 1970s to mid-1990s.

because of the (available at http://www. such denial of reality is not just a to maintain a belief in the desirability of thing of the past. 1999) to indicates many in academia are still in enter the ‘Ecozoic’ (Swimme and Berry. It has only been possible for our societies However.ecomodernism. The plain truth is that partial solutions are only of value if they are part of a comprehensive move to abandon endless economic growth. because human population and economic expansion the last 200 years. 60 The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 .” to human consumption. we acknowledge the need for the People who manage to intervene in systems maximum possible ‘decoupling’ as part at the level of a paradigm hit a leverage of a circular or green economy. the deafening silence […] In a single individual it can happen in about the impossibility of endless growth a millisecond. one that massively reduces society’s use of energy and materials (Kopnina and Blewitt. which sees the been possible for ten of whom are academics. In the past. foreseeable future […] To the degree to 2017). an ecocentric worldview finds anthropocentric procure critical material resources in the intrinsic value in nature (Washington et al.” Society thus needs to return to ecocentrism and adopt an Earth ethic Such a dismissal of ecological limits (and (Rolston. they are so in treating the Earth as if it were a business theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant.ecologicalcitizen. Anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism Solutions Many things change (and solutions become A major problem with tackling the easier) if we change our worldview and environmental crisis is the distraction ethics. The manifesto world as no more than a resource for human our societies to claims: use (Crist. All it takes is a click in the (Washington. denial of ecological limits was common in neoclassical economists. However. mind. To put this another way. ‘human chauvinism’ and ‘speciesism’ that pursuing endless there is still remarkably little evidence that has dominated Western society for at least growth.net the silence about the fact that the world point that totally transforms systems is overpopulated. 2011). denial of the insanity and unsustainability Changing to a worldview of ecocentrism is of endless economic growth. that worldview of which there are fixed physical boundaries “there is something fundamentally wrong modernism. maintain a belief in the obsession with endless growth has the desirability of Despite frequent assertions starting in the been the offspring of the anthropocentric 1970s of fundamental “limits to growth”. 1992). 2015). 2012) and undertake the ‘Great the rapidly worsening environmental crisis) Work’ of repairing the Earth (Berry. For example. such savings should not be seen as ‘a new engine of growth’.org/) dominant anthropocentric worldview of “It has only was written in 2015 by eighteen professionals. 2015): n accept ecological reality and roll back denial. 2012). 2015). 2017). An Ecomodernist Manifesto pursuing endless growth. a new way of seeing. as Daly (1991: 248) notes. thus the key step on the path to a sustainable future (Washington et al. We suggest the following solution frameworks (Washington. nor will such savings be long-term solutions if we fail to address overpopulation and overconsumption. modernism (Curry. of the dominant will outstrip the capacity to grow food or In contrast. As Donella Meadows (1997: 84) notes: caused by partial solutions. It holds..The insanity of endless growth www. in liquidation..

However. accepting the reality of our of limiting the human population a predicament can be depressing. 2015). including: national governments. The steady-state especially 100% renewables within two economy deals with all three key drivers to three decades. 1991. economy (within the former) are adhered This may sound wishy-washy. (Daly. 2014).” approach (Kopnina and Blewitt. That means meaningful dialogue on the impossibility of that they must not be subverted to become endless growth is an essential step. scale of our predicament is huge. 2014). concurrently with of ecological unsustainability. of income. wealth which is fair and equitable on an n moving past growthism to a steady-state intergenerational basis (Daly.” The danger of such statements The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 61 . 2014).. growth. too late.net The insanity of endless growth n adopt an ecocentric worldview (inspired Western society (globalized around the by a sense of wonder at life). Secondly. a rational with all three key n controlling population growth through (and ethical) solution has been espoused drivers of ecological education. The transition path to a steady-state n solving climate change urgently. plus coercive. to enable these idea we can have endless economic growth changes. and what was deliberately constructed can also be deconstructed (Assadourian. Now. by ecological economist Herman Daly unsustainability. offer the most hope to cut resource use (Kopnina and Blewitt. inequality of concurrently adopting a ‘cradle to cradle’ low resource use and a distribution of income. (Washington. where we world) is a ‘consumer culture’ that has abandon the false anthropocentric been deliberately constructed since 1950. Daly. overcome the denial that currently blocks many in society still consider discussion them. we Change is urgently needed. 2016a). ‘positive steps’ that society can take n adopting of ‘appropriate’ technology. The key to this is breaking the silence the steady-state economy and the circular of denial. Thirdly. 2017). since the 1970s: the steady-state economy 2016). Hence the taboo. the related circular economy) arguably n creating the political will for change.www. These are the overarching changes in our 2013). economy (Daly. while as a problem can be understood from the simultaneously supporting the Nature fact that the wealthiest 10% of the world’s Needs Half vision (Kopnina. and is certainly feel that ways forward can only be found if feasible. 2013) and size for the carrying capacity of its region. The ‘cradle to cradle’ approach (and ecocentrism. Solving the key cause of the problem – the As remarked above. humane strategies (Engelman. A steady-state a key driver of social n rolling back the deliberately constructed economy features a sustainable population unsustainability: consumer ethic (Assadourian. Within them still espoused by the UN and almost all economy deals are the practical strategies. but we cannot afford to have this need to discuss statements such as: “It is remain an ‘undiscussable’. what is needed is a major on a finite planet – means tackling the three paradigm shift from anthropocentric key drivers of unsustainability (Washington. dream of ‘mastery of nature’. However. plus a key major drives for energy efficiency and driver of social unsustainability: inequality conservation. First. population now owns approximately n educating effectively for sustainability 85% of the world’s wealth (Credit Suisse. this also means tackling some maintain that solutions are possible if we of the biggest taboos in society. modernism to ecocentrism (Washington 2015): overpopulation. overconsumption and et al. focusing economy will be made up of many small on mitigation. The scale of income inequality n reducing poverty and inequality. by talking about the problems. family planning and non. We acknowledge that the growth-focused economic policy. but However.ecologicalcitizen. based on ecological reality and 2016). 2017b). Academia partial solutions used to encourage further can (and should) lead the way on this. the growth economy is “The steady-state mindset that we must make. 2015). but in fact to in strict terms and practice.

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