It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.
Economic growth is simply a metric that reflects the accumulation of wealth over time, usually based on universalized US dollars. Economists define economic growth in three parts: (a) growth in labor, which refers to an increase in the number of people working; (b) growth in capital, which refers to increases in the availability of things that can be used by labor in the process of producing goods (like food) and services (like surgery); and (c) increasing productivity, which can be thought of as improvements in the efficiency with which we turn labor and capital into goods and services.
We can use the three components of economic growth to better understand what it means to be “anti-growth.”
Anti-Labor Growth, The Neo-Malthusians
One sort of objection to growth sits squarely in the tradition of Thomas Malthus and is focused on global population. Neo-Malthusians most recently rose to prominence and influence in the 1960s and 1970s, with Paul Ehrlich the most famous US advocate for population control. Today the neo-Malthusian moment seems to have waned, likely due in part to the fact that UN population projections now foresee the end of population growth later this century, followed by a decline in some scenarios. Even so, the Neo-Malthusian movement has its adherents. As Alan Weisman wrote in a book released last year (see In Review): “From the instant we’re born, even the humblest among us compounds the world’s mounting problems.” Neo-Malthusians see anti-growth as limits on population.
Anti-Capital Growth, The Peak Earthers
Another branch of anti-growth thinking focuses not on the number of people, but rather their consumption of resources. The Peak Earthers, as I call them, present their views through a suite of concepts, such as ecological footprints, planetary boundaries, and natural capital. Such concepts reflect valid concerns, but it turns out that, with respect to limits on continued economic growth, humans have had a tendency to break through physical limits through gains in efficiency and substitution. A good example is “peak oil,” which seems ever on the horizon yet keeps retreating as we tap new petroleum sources. Peak Earthers see anti-growth, rather than efficiency gains and substitution, as a solution to resource constraints.
Anti-Productivity Growth, The Luddites
The term “Luddite” refers to an industrial protest movement of the early 1800s, and derives from Ned Ludd, one of the lead protestors. “Luddite” is commonly used to mean anti-technology, a reference to the fact that the original Luddites destroyed industrial machines – but that’s a misreading of history. What the Luddites were protesting was the effect of productivity gains resulting from the introduction of machines into factories as a consequence of the industrial revolution. Today, we see Luddite concerns in other sectors. For instance, in December 2013, The Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “Eight Ways Robots Stole Our Jobs in 2013.” Luddites see anti-growth as a way to stop the effects of technology on the economy.
When we break down the idea of anti-growth into its component parts, we very quickly see that “anti-growth” is not a particularly coherent concept. For instance, those favoring what is often called “sustainable growth” – such as using renewable energy technologies, rather than using fossil fuels, to power growing material wealth – would not fit any of the three categories presented above. Sustainable growth clearly is not anti-growth.
In the near future, economic growth and its consequences for the planet will be dominated by today’s poor countries. The OECD estimates that between 2013 and 2030 82 percent of economic growth will occur in what are today considered to be the “poor” parts of the world, with just 18 percent of growth occurring in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and a few other wealthy countries. Similarly, in January BP released its 2014 “Energy Outlook to 2035,” which projects that 95 percent of growth in energy consumption worldwide to 2035 will occur in poorer countries.
Some try to sugar-coat their anti-growth arguments by focusing their attention on the rich world. But with most of the world’s expected growth to occur in the poor parts of the world, such arguments are simply mathematical non sequiturs. The reality is that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries. The fact that very few, if any, anti-growth activists are openly demanding that poor countries remain poor tells us how powerful a force growth is in today’s global politics.
Ultimately, debates over growth tend to mask more fundamental debates about ideologies, values, and what kind of world we wish to see in the future. Breaking concerns about growth into its component parts helps to focus such debates on questions that can be addressed empirically, and those which cannot. So when you encounter an anti-growth advocate, ask him or her, which kind are you, Neo-Malthusian, Peak Earther, or Luddite?
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Earth Island Journal, www.earthislandjournal.org.
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