Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Not fooling the growth enthusiasts

If you want to be scoffed at, ridiculed, try telling business people or politicians that economic growth can bring industrial civilization to an end. They will not always take the time to be polite or rational in their rejection of this proposition. They understand that their way of life and their hopes for the immediate future depend on growth--more people each year, more jobs, more products, more money. They understand that capitalism cannot run backward for long. A few years of economic contraction cause hardship. If everybody expected permanent economic contraction almost all capitalist economic activity would collapse promptly and catastrophically. None of our current economic institutions work unless people can lend or invest their money with a reasonable expectation that it might someday increase as a result.

Those who understand that economic growth will end anyway, and that an uncontrolled involuntary end may well bring industrial civilization to an end, sometimes try to prolong polite interaction with their audience by saying that economic growth in "services" can continue. "Only" the growth of mass throughput and energy use have to stop voluntarily and start contracting. This happy idea, unfortunately, makes no sense. Growth of service requires growth of facilities to provide the service. At the very least, new services require new employees, new office space and computers, new restaurants and stoves, tables and chairs, light, heat, indoor temperature control, transportation, housing, and vacations for the employees. Growth, even in these things, requires energy and mass, and must come to an end. Refusing to end that growth voluntarily will be just as disastrous as refusing to end the growth of, say, automobile manufacturing. In any event, how would growth be confined to services? Only by intrusive regulation of all economic activity and the destruction of dreams of wealth. Does anyone seriously think that the growth enthusiasts don't see that instantly?

There is an even more delusional attempt to finesse the opposition to stopping growth. In this fairy tale, the capitalist growth imperative is to be appeased by allowing growth, but only growth of information services, like entertainment, education, and insurance. So, how many movies can you watch in a week?

Sometimes people point to years in which energy and manufacturing become a progressively smaller proportion of the GDP. This so called dematerialization of the economy is supposed to indicate that the economy may converge to sustainability. Unfortunately, the proportional "dematerialization" seems only to occur as total energy and mass throughput increase.

These proposals fool no one except the proposers and their friends. Either growth has to end or it doesn't. Since acknowledging that growth has to end in my lifetime means acknowledging that I'll never get rich and will instead get poorer, or that I won't get elected, or that my children will be poor, I'm likely to continue participating in growth and blinding myself to approaching disaster. I'm very likely to see through any suggestion that ending growth doesn't mean that growth has to end. I'm likely to see such suggestions as transparent attempts to manipulate me by empty word play.

Economic growth will soon end forever. People don't want to hear this proposition. It seems inconsistent with the insouciance around us. It seems inconsistent with obvious technical progress. Status, learning, and authority ridicule it. Nonetheless, it is true. Only by engaging that truth can we mitigate what must happen.