I’ve written plenty about my scepticism of GDP growth and our need for a more holistic economics. Unfortunately, there isn’t a sustainable alternative ready to go. (For those of you thinking it, that includes communism too – communism has been just as obsessed with maximising production as the capitalism.) There are some ideas however.
I tend to write about ‘post growth’ economics as a catch-all, a general term for whatever comes next, but there are several different ideas or streams of thought under the postgrowth umbrella. Here are four of them.
Steady State Economy
The best known alternative to growth economics is the ‘steady state’ school of thought, with Herman Daly as its chief architect. The defining characteristic of a steady state economy is that it is on a level, where the amount of material consumption stays the same. It is the material inputs that are capped here, rather than economic activity per se, so there is still room for innovation within the economy. It exists in a state of ‘dynamic equilibrium’ rather than being somehow frozen in time.
The steady state economy is an old idea, and it predates our current understanding of sustainability. Economists such as Adam Smith imagined a future economy that had finally met everyone’s needs. As traditionally conceived, the steady state is the natural end state of a successful economy. For more, see the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE).
A slightly more radical approach, popularised by Serge Latouche and other (mainly European) theorists, is that of degrowth. Rather than guiding the economy onto a growth plateau, Degrowth proponents argue that if we overconsume at present, the economy needs to be dramatically downsized. Currently that’s disastrous, so degrowth is all about planning and managing contraction, designing an economy that can be scaled down in a controlled way.
Degrowth fits together rather nicely with the steady state economy, and more recent explorations of the steady state idea incorporate a degree of ‘degrowth’ too. You could see the steady state as the end goal, and degrowth as the path to it. For more on this, see degrowth.org or DeMagazine.
The Circular Economy
The Circular Economy is an idea being explored by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which advocates a revolution in the design of our industry. Almost all industry works on the basis of taking resources, making something, and selling it to be used and thrown away at the end of its lifecycle. In a circular economy, design would form a loop, so that all waste was accounted for and put to good use – ‘cradle to cradle’ rather than ‘cradle to grave’. Our designed objects would have multiple life cycles, our resources used and reused. We’d have a different relationship to our things in such an economy. We’d be more concerned with access to stuff than owning it outright, and there would be more leasing and sharing.
The Circular Economy isn’t particularly critical of growth, and proponents of it might be concerned to find themselves on my list. Nonetheless, if the steady state is the destination and degrowth is the road, the circular economy is the way industry will travel. See the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for more.
The sufficiency economy
An alternative vision for a sustainable economy is the ‘sufficiency economy’, which aims for ‘enough, for everyone, forever’. The focus here is on sustainably providing a decent standard of living for everyone. If everyone has what they need, whether or not there’s further growth is irrelevant. Qualitative improvement, through leisure, art or sport, would be the eventual aim rather than quantitative growth. Championed by the Simplicity Institute, the sufficiency economy implies a much simpler and more localised way of life.
It also suggests that there will be no orderly transition from our current system to something more sustainable. The sufficiency economy is something that will emerge from what remains of it when it collapses, although we can start building pockets of resilience now. See the Simplicity Institute for more.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need to pick and choose between these general schools of thought. I personally think that we need to degrow towards a steady state economy, and that the circular economy is one of the ways to do that. The sufficiency economy is a genuine alternative and may turn out to be a more realistic scenario if our record on global cooperation is anything to go by.
For now, it remains an emerging debate and I’ll continue to write under the general term ‘Postgrowth’.