Remembering a World Without Growth

In a strangely whip-sawed fashion, New York Times “Economic Scene” reporter Eduardo Porter asks the question

“Could a world order survive without growing?”

Source: Imagining a World Without Growth – The New York Times

At first, one might think that Porter supports the idea of no-growth, including a quote from economist Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist,” and citing numerous government and nongovernmental studies supporting the idea of no-growth or even “negative growth” (aka shrinkage). Oddly left out is the work of Herman Daly and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, home of the most highly developed study of a world economy without growth.

Porter concludes that growth is necessary in this “modern world,” that economic growth has resulted in a more peaceful world over the past 200 years. Unfortunately, Porter ties the case against growth at the feet of climate change, yet proposing that somehow the planet itself is in peril if economic growth does not continue.

 “To deflect climate change, some experts say the economic growth afforded by ample, cheap fossil fuel must stop. But could the planet survive without growing?”

Apparently, this is what happens when physicists write about economics (Porter graduated with a degree in physics from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and has an M.Sc. in quantum fields and fundamental forces from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London).

After cataloging the myriad arguments against continued economic growth in a finite world, Porter turns on his heel and declares:

“Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed. For all the many hundreds of years humanity survived without growth, modern civilization could not. The trade-offs that are the daily stuff of market-based economies simply could not work in a zero-sum world.”

There you have it, the ultimate circular argument: civilization is sustained by market-based economies, which create environmental damage due to resource consumption, habitat loss and species extinction fueled by unlimited economic growth; therefore, “modern civilization” cannot exist in a no-growth economy.

Despite tying the necessity of economic growth to “climate justice” and world poverty, Porter does not make the case that humans cannot live in a no-growth economy, as is amply demonstrated by ten thousand years of human society that did quite well before the advent of capitalism and the necessity of continuous economic growth. Despite the author’s apparent intention, the article bolsters the case to curtail economic growth and ultimately develop a steady state economy.

We don’t have to imagine a world without growth. We just have to remember the one we had.



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