Opinion: Sooner or later, we have to stop economic growth — and we’ll be better for it

Both the U.S. economy and the global economy have expanded dramatically in the past century, as have life expectancies and material progress. Economists raised in this period of plenty assume that growth is good, necessary even, and should continue forever and ever without end, amen. Growth delivers jobs, returns on investment and higher tax revenues. What’s not to like? We’ve gotten so accustomed to growth that governments, corporations and banks now depend on it. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re collectively addicted to growth. The trouble is, a bigger economy uses more stuff than a smaller one, and we happen to live on a finite planet. So, an end to growth is inevitable. Ending growth is also desirable if we want to leave some stuff (minerals, forests, biodiversity and stable climate) for our kids and their kids. Further, if growth is meant to have anything to do with increasing quality of life, there is plenty of evidence to suggest it has passed the point of diminishing returns: Even though the U.S. economy is 5.5 times bigger now than it was in 1960 (in terms of real GDP), America is losing ground on its happiness index. So how do we stop growth without making life miserable — and maybe even making it better? To start with, there are two strategies that many people already agree on. We should substitute good consumption for bad, for example using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. And we should use stuff more efficiently — making products that last longer and then repairing and recycling them instead of tossing them in a landfill. The reason these strategies are uncontroversial is that they reduce growth’s environmental damage without impinging on growth itself. But renewable energy technology still requires materials (aluminum, glass, silicon and copper for solar panels; concrete, steel, copper and neodymium for wind turbines). And efficiency has limits. For example, we can reduce the time required to send a message to nearly zero, but from then on improvements are infinitesimal. In other words, substitution and efficiency are good, but they’re not sufficient. Even if we somehow arrive at … Continue reading Opinion: Sooner or later, we have to stop economic growth — and we’ll be better for it