In recent years ‘growth’ has become shorthand for progress, with politicians quick to promise growth and jobs. Policies are vetted and those that are ‘bad for growth’ are swiftly off the table.
But growth is an abstract term – like ‘activity’ or ‘movement’. It cannot be inherently a good or bad thing, and therefore it ought to be impossible to be blindly for it or against it. As E F Schumacher said in Small is Beautiful, “In a sense, everybody believes in growth, and rightly so, because growth is an essential feature of life” said E F Schumacher. “The whole point, however, is to give to the idea of growth a qualitative determination; for there are always many things that ought to be growing and many things that ought to be diminishing.”
Rather than box people into being for or against growth, a more fruitful question is to ask what is growing? And is that the kind of growth we need?
In his latest paper, Samuel Alexander mentions four possible definitions of growth:
- An increase in the resource/energy requirements of an economy (quantitative growth);
- An increase in the productivity per unit of resource/energy (qualitative growth);
- An increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP growth);
- An increase in wellbeing or happiness (wellbeing growth).
These are not synonymous. As Alexander points out, “one form of growth may or may not lead to other forms of growth. Some forms of growth may have limits, others may not.”
We can all agree that growth in wellbeing is a good thing. There’s no degrowth movement calling for people to be less happy and fulfilled. A postgrowth or steady state economy could take growth in that department as a good measure of progress.
The other definitions are trickier. Endless quantitative growth is logically impossible on a finite planet. You cannot dig more sand than there is sand to dig. Much of the work on the steady state economy is about materials throughput rather than GDP. The circular economy, which is moving rapidly into mainstream business thinking, is also concerned with reducing quantitative and improving qualitative growth.
That qualitative growth, number two on the list above, can take various forms. Some of them can grow substantially, others not. You can never achieve 100% efficiency, for example, so there’s a physical limit to some forms of productivity increase.
So GDP is the only form of growth that can even theoretically continue – and that depends on it not being linked to the other forms of growth. As things currently stand, GDP growth tends to drive growth in energy and materials too, so the mainstream approach assumes decoupling: breaking the link between economic growth and growth in materials and energy. In reality, there is currently no feasible way to decouple fast enough and far enough to avoid ecological collapse. The maths just doesn’t work.
The debate over limits to growth and decoupling will no doubt rage on. For Alexander, and I agree with him, it’s important to get on with developing postgrowth ideas for when they’re needed. “I believe the debate will inevitably evolve,” he writes, “and the question will not be whether a post-growth economy is required, but rather how to create one – by design rather than disaster.” For more on that, check out the full paper, Policies for a Post Growth Economy.