economics growth

Lord Stern on our postgrowth future

A-Blueprint-for-a-Safer-PlanI was looking up a Lord Stern quote the other day for another project, and while flicking through Blueprint for a Safer Planet to find it, I remembered this section. Stern presents a robust defence of green growth, and why it wouldn’t be right to take the degrowth approach to dealing with climate change. But then he says this:

This is not to claim that the world can continue to grow indefinitely. It is not even clear what such a claim would involve; societies, living standards, ways of producing and consuming all change. A picture of indefinite expansion is an implausible story of the future, but two things are key: first, to find a way of increasing living standards (including health, education and freedoms) so that world poverty can be overcome; and second, to discover ways of living that can be sustained over time, particularly in relation to the environment. Strong growth, of the right kind, will be both necessary and feasible for many decades.

The assumption of our economics and politics is of course indefinite expansion – growth that goes on forever. Here we have one of Britain’s most respected economists telling us that’s an ‘implausible story’. Unfortunately he immediately fends off the implications of that remark and goes back to saying why growth is important, and how it will be “both necessary and feasible for many decades.”

I would love to pick Lord Stern’s brain on this, get him to imagine that postgrowth world – what would it look like? How would we know when we’d had enough growth? How would the transition beyond growth happen? But I’m pretty sure that if we had him here to talk to, we wouldn’t be able to draw him out on it, however speculative the conversation. He wouldn’t want to blow his respectability by entertaining the idea of life after growth.

There are a couple of obvious responses to Stern’s hasty dismissal of the postgrowth future he just suggested, but I’ve covered such things elsewhere. The point of reproducing the quote here is that it’s a perfect example of the strange bind that postgrowth economics finds itself in. It is completely common sense, and simultaneously utterly taboo.


  1. Well of course there are two sources of growth. There is using more materials (which logically can’t go on forever but when that point is reached is highly debatable) and then there is being more productive with what we have. That Total Factor Productivity can go on forever, limited only by our ingenuity.

    Much of our growth in wealth in developed countries is from TFP. The Soviet Union’s growth was almost entirely from using more resources and no increase in productivity and we know the results of that.

    Since increases in productivity often come from imaginative leaps they are hard to foresee and so people who like straight line predictions can’t conceive them so those predictions are generally pessimistic.

      1. Depends on what you classify as wealth. If wealth is material wellbeing then I think most would want that to increase. Given our wealth is the result of human ingenuity and increasing knowledge which builds upon that before it it is literally boundless. And since humanity is a restless species I doubt we would be happy to sit in some unchanging world that has been declared (by others) as ‘Enough’.

        1. I have yet to meet a person, postgrowther or otherwise, who thinks we should live in an unchanging world.

          Wellbeing is a broad concept, and material wellbeing is one small part of it. You can definitely have too little, but beyond a certain point increasing material possessions doesn’t make a massive amount of difference. Health, relationships and rewarding work are all more important in how people feel, so if wellbeing is what we ultimately want, it’s entirely legitimate to pursue those as goals in themselves.

          Another philosophical question, and one that we don’t really discuss, is whether it’s possible to infinitely increase wellbeing – material or not. Are we all going to be eventually living in perpetual ecstasy? Seems an odd notion to me, so I don’t think we should be afraid to ask more fundamental questions about progress as expansion.

          1. Health and rewarding work are quite closely linked to wealth and economic growth.

            As to callling an end to growth before we are in perpetual ecstasy. I think such a point is centuries away. So if the question is whether will there eventually be an end point of wellbeing, then it is likely there will be but far beyond the timescales envisioned here. The end of growth will always be 30 years hence. Has been for the last 50 years, it will be for the next 500.

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