The Fallacy of Growth: Redefining Prosperity

Blogger prize submission: Redefining Prosperity: The Fallacy of GrowthThe following post was a finalist submission for the 2012 Rio Blogger Prize. The Fallacy of Growth concept remains as valid now as they were over a decade ago.


“We confabulate; we make stories up about how it is that. ‘Oh, everything is just fine, and our consumer-driven society is just OK; and of course the fact that we are emptying the seas, the fact that we are causing wide-spread climate change, you know the fact that we do have global hunger is just an anomaly, and we will be able to correct it if only we get back on track.’”

-Raj Patel
Fellow, Institute for Food and Development Policy

Victims of Our Own Success: The Fallacy of Endless Growth

For nearly two centuries, fossil fuels have provided us with heretofore inconceivable comfort and abundance. Most people, at least in the developed world, enjoy a level of material prosperity and resources not possible without access to this vast store of cheap energy. But as the years and decades pass, we begin to see the true cost.

Our carbon-based energy economy has been so profitable (at least for some) that we are now held in its grip, hypnotized into believing it will go on forever. It has distorted our definition of prosperity by placing “growth” centrally on the altar of human intent and interaction with the natural world. To challenge the efficacy of infinite economic growth is suspect, even heretical.

The pursuit of continuous economic growth has become a deeply ingrained cultural belief and societal goal in most modern capitalist economies. It is seen as a measure of progress, prosperity, and success. Questioning this fundamental tenet is viewed as challenging the very foundations of the existing economic system and way of life.

But we arrive at the 21st century at a crossroads, and we must fight the delusion in which we are trapped if we hope to a path toward sustainability.

Exponential Growth: the Achilles Heel of a Finite World

As Physicist Professor Al Bartlet warns, failing to understand the exponential function is humanity’s Achilles heel. The exponential growth in our numbers combined with our ability to extract energy and resources with ever greater efficiency is at once unsustainable and the accepted foundation of economic theory.

More people mean more consumers equals growing markets and jobs to pay for consumption to support growing markets – plenty for all, and then even more, in an accelerating, unending cycle.

Human ingenuity and innovation notwithstanding, we live within a finite system. Be it climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, mineral depletion or collapsing fisheries, we cannot continually “grow” our way out from the challenges we now face.  At the core of any solution for creating a sustainable society is choosing a path based on a new definition of prosperity.

The Growth Fallacy – Speaking the Unspeakable

Limits to Growth” first brought the idea into public discussion in the early 1970s, and it was squarely rebuked by the “experts” of the day. Half a century later those limits are only more manifest.

“Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with,” says Richard Heinberg in his book The End of Growth. Accepting the fallacy of growth is a disquieting notion because it threatens all we have ever known.

“The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding economic paradise has come unraveled,” writes Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity Without Growth. “Perhaps it worked better when economics were smaller, and the world was less populated. But if it was ever fully fit for purpose, it certainly isn’t now.”

“Climate change, ecological degradation and the spectre of resource scarcity compound the problems of failing financial markets and economic recession. Short-term fixes to prop up a bankrupt system aren’t good enough,” Jackson continues. “Something more is needed. An essential starting point is to set out a coherent notion of prosperity that doesn’t rely on default assumptions about consumption growth.”

Heinberg and Jackson are among a host of thought leaders challenging our devotion to the fallacy of growth and pointing us toward a new path. Documentary filmmaker David Gardner is another such voice, as well as a self-described “growthbuster.”

Becoming a GrowthBuster

In the film GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth Gardner exposes the fallacy of growth for a general audience likely uncomfortable with the idea but also with a growing sense that business as usual is a dead-end street for themselves, their families, and their communities. Increasingly ill-at-ease with a consumer society that demands of them to be just that – consumers; when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, or so it seems.

GrowthBusters examines the beliefs and behaviors that may have worked in an earlier age but are now pernicious barriers to a sustainable civilization, cultural norms enshrined by the “Great Acceleration” of the last half of the 20th century.

Gardner combines his own experience as a citizen of a growth-obsessed American town with observations and insight from an array of experts, scientists, and economists.

“We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for.” Says Stanford professor and biologist Paul Ehrlich in the film, “either in our genetic evolution or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.”

Instead of focusing on what we must “give up” as we move away from an infinite growth-based society, it clarifies what we’ve given up in our tenacious embrace of it and the choices we have going forward.

Life After Growth

“Beyond the provision of nutrition and shelter, prosperity consists in our ability to participate in the life of society,” writes Jackson Prosperity Without Growth, “in our sense of shared meaning and purpose and in our capacity to dream. We’ve become accustomed to pursuing these goals through material means. Freeing ourselves from that constraint is the basis for change.”

Surely, for those with a full pantry, the latest iPhone, and a big-screen TV, it can be morally suspect to suggest to others to abandon the pursuit of material wealth. Positive change will not come through exhortation. Yet many feel trapped within their own material abundance. Beyond a certain point, it no longer serves human prosperity and fulfillment.

“We are not purely greedy selfish individuals; that’s what free marketeers assume that we are,” says Institute for Food and Development Policy fellow Raj Patel in GrowthBusters. “That’s what we are encouraged to be in consumer society. But we are not, we are much, much more beautiful, we are much bigger, we are much … we are much more capable of sharing…

The tools with which we have been raised to help us understand looking at the way the world works and how our future might be delivered to us, well those tools are broken. But it’s OK because there are loads of solutions around us in which we, we might manage the world differently and more sustainably…”

Three Principal Ideas to Help Us Get Started

Adapt to a Steady-State Economic Model

A global transition movement is growing and connecting individuals and communities in learning and adapting to a post-growth, post-carbon world. Networks like these help chart a path toward greater resilience and adaptation to a reworked economy aligned within material limits and focused on human flourishing beyond a consumer-based society.

Stabilize Human Population

Scientific estimates population the Earth can sustainably support ranges from under 1 billion to 5 billion, depending on how much we curb our consumer lifestyles in the developed world. We must stabilize and then slowly reduce the human population within Earth’s carrying capacity and provide women, especially in developing countries, education and access to health care and birth control.

End our Dependence on Fossil Fuel

Climate change is unavoidable. Climate change is here and now. But to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption, we must quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. Accomplishing the task requires redesigning our citiesagriculture, transportation, and energy generation.

It’s Okay To Be a Growthbuster

“It’s not an easy thing to change the inertia of a civilization, but it has to be done…”

What drives our endeavors and sustains our economies will not be tomorrow what they are today. But we have a choice. As Gardner says in his film, we can either turn away from the cliff or keep the pedal to the metal and “go down fighting.”

It is possible to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives within a bountiful – if limited – world. It will not be easy; in fact, it is likely the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. And there is a price to pay for the damage we’ve already exacted on the Earth. But it can be done if we accept the challenge for what it is.

“There’s a shift going on, and this is a shift from believing that we have a resources problem to really understanding that we have a cultural problem and that we need to evolve our culture.”

Twenty years after the first global Earth Summit we stand squarely at a crossroads. We cannot be blamed for the road that got us here, but we are responsible for each future step we take.  Many, like Gardner and his film Growthbusters, are pointing the way down a path to a sustainable future, helping us see that it’s okay to be a growthbuster.

Main graphic courtesy of pali_nalu, Flickr

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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