I’m an advocate of postgrowth economics – the new way of running the economy that will replace the growth ethic, one way or another. Postgrowth economics is a rather nondescript name, but that’s because we’re not entirely sure what it looks like yet. It’s gone by various other names in the past, such as the Steady State Economy, or the Stationary State, but both of those terms imply inaction, and a postgrowth economy wouldn’t be static. There would still be change, innovation and progress. There might, whisper it, even be economic growth.
The reason is that there’s nothing wrong with economic growth in itself. The problem is all the side-effects that come with it, the waste and the resource depletion. Economic growth could merrily continue if the following conditions could all be met:
The economy creates zero waste
We live in a throwaway society, but as ecologists like to say, there is no ‘away’. Everything has to go somewhere, usually into landfill. Even if we created half as much waste as we do now, we’d still run out of space eventually. So to grow indefinitely, the economy would have to create no waste at all.
All energy is renewable
The economy is currently dependent on fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are all finite resources, which means our present mode of development can’t continue. For ongoing growth, you would need a source of energy that can go on forever. That means solar power, basically, with wind and hydro on the side. Or nuclear fusion, if that proves to be possible.
Global population is stable
If the world’s population continues to grow indefinitely, infinite growth will be impossible, because more people means more resources, more land for growing food, more water and so on. If you try to reduce consumption while boosting the number of consumers, you’re running to stand still. So ongoing growth needs a stable population.
Use of materials reaches a plateau
Plenty of raw materials are non-renewable, and many of them are vital to industrial processes. The world’s reserves of copper or gold are finite, so an infinitely growing economy would need to learn to do without new metals, relying on what could be recycled every year as old appliances and machines reached the end of their lives.
Renewable resources are harvested at replacement rate
We use plenty of renewable natural resources, and all of these would need to be capped at a sustainable level. That includes using underground fresh water no faster than it tops itself up, cutting tress or catching fish at the same rate that they can refresh the stocks.
Land is used sustainably
There’s obviously a finite amount of land on the planet, so land use would have to be monitored to maintain a balance between farmland and built-up areas. Current farming practices degrade the topsoil and contribute to erosion, so all farming would need to be entirely sustainable.
CO2 levels remain below 350ppm
The economy might be growing, but CO2 emission can’t – at least, not if you expect the planet to remain habitable for most of the human population.
If you could meet all of these conditions, there’s no reason why economic growth couldn’t continue. It’s just that so far, nobody has shown that you can grow an economy without increasing its energy use and carbon emissions. Population growth is a popular shortcut to economic growth, and plenty of countries have tried to encourage citizens to have children. Many overdeveloped countries have already reached the boundaries of what their own land can provide, and are leasing large tracts in other countries. Some developed countries may have broken the link between growth and resource consumption, but we’re not sure yet. Otherwise, it’s a pretty tall order.
Given that it’s difficult to pursue economic growth on a finite planet, perhaps the more important question is this: what do we need growth for in the first place? Does it deliver what we want it to? And can we do without it? Because if we can answer those questions to our satisfaction, all the sustainability concerns get a whole lot easier.