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Why do so many people believe in the fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet?

How do you feel about the economy these days? How about the environment? Do you think we’re sitting in a better spot than we were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago? It’s hard to find folks who are satisfied with either economic or environmental conditions. In the first place, the way we run the economy is producing appalling results. We have a mix of financial fiascos, unacceptable unemployment, and a dismal disparity between the haves and the have-nots. And if you’re not soiling yourself (or at least somewhat concerned) about what’s happening on land, sea and air, then you’re not paying much attention to the omnipresent signs of environmental breakdown.

Each day it becomes more apparent that we are on a misguided mission. Pursuit of perpetual economic growth is not a winning proposition for a lasting prosperity. Building a bigger economy can make sense in some circumstances, but always aiming to build a bigger economy means taking an ever-bigger chunk out of the earth’s ecosystems and the life-support services they provide. Why, then, do so many people believe in the fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet? Is it because we can’t come up with a better idea? Is it because the rich and powerful have trapped the rest of us in their web of conspiracy? Is it because people are hopelessly greedy and materialistic?

At various times and places we might answer these questions affirmatively, but we can more commonly answer, “No, no, and no.” Putting aside conspiracy theories for the moment, there are three honest (but bogus) reasons why we pursue economic growth past the point of effectiveness and reason.

Bogus Reason #1: We think we have to have economic growth to create jobs.

People, and especially politicians, want jobs. We’ve used the blunt tool of economic growth to create jobs for decades, but do we really need economic growth to have good jobs? It’s true that there are typically more job openings in a growing economy, but there are other, less costly ways to make sure jobs are available. Growth, however, gives corporate elites an easy out. They can point to economic growth as the job creator while doing what they want without considering the impacts of their decisions on jobs.

If jobs are really the priority, then we wouldn’t replace people with machinery. And we wouldn’t eliminate service jobs to shift more and more burden onto people to serve themselves. My friend Chris works as a gas station attendant and provides a valuable service pumping gas for customers. He wouldn’t have a job, however, if he lived elsewhere. He happens to live in Oregon where the law says that only professional attendants can pump gas. In most states, gas station attendants have been replaced by customer labor and credit card readers. This sort of substitution has become commonplace in the name of efficiency — policy makers find it easier (or at least they’ve found it easier in the past) to avoid considering jobs explicitly. Just grow the economy and let Chris find a job elsewhere — that’s just the way it goes if his job is eliminated and the customer is forced to pick up the slack.

The truth is that we can have good jobs without producing and consuming evermore stuff. For starters, we can institute policies to make job-sharing an attainable reality. Many people would gladly trade some salary for more time. We can also stop the process of eliminating jobs through outsourcing and machinery-for-people swaps. Of course stopping this process would require a change in corporate incentives…

Bogus Reason #2: Screwy corporate incentives require growth.

Shareholder corporations are severely flawed. In my household, let’s say my overriding goal is to maximize my earnings. What would I do? I would take the highest paying job I could get. I certainly wouldn’t be involved in public policy or a not-for-profit enterprise. I wouldn’t spend much time with my wife or daughter — that would be time away from my career, and it could eat into my earnings (cue the Cat’s in the Cradle). If the goal is so single-focused, the results aren’t surprising. Profit maximization, whether it occurs in my household or in a corporation, produces perverse outcomes.

We know this about shareholder corporations. We know there are better ways to set up productive enterprises that have more worthy goals, but we don’t make the change. The reason is that we are addicted to two things corporations do well. First, we’re addicted to consumer novelty. We’ve gotta have the latest and greatest. People chase after I-phones, I-pods, I-pads, and plenty of other I-wants. Second, we’re addicted to receiving unearned income from investments in stocks or mutual funds. People who can afford it are invested in corporations. Their personal wealth is tied to the ability of corporations to grow. We’ve become accustomed to the idea of passive investment — we put extra money into an account and do absolutely nothing but watch the size of the account get bigger. Are we really entitled to get something for nothing?

Bogus Reason #3: We refuse to pay attention to the downsides of economic growth.

Few people are studying ecology and understanding how economic growth is degrading environmental resources. In fact, a whopping 21% percent of college students are business majors. And as Dr. Seuss noted in his classic book, The Lorax, “Business is business, and business must grow!” While we continue to tempt fate by disrupting and dismantling natural systems that we only partially understand, our attention is locked on the results of reality TV shows, Tiger Woods’s sex life, Jennifer Anniston’s and Justin Bieber’s haircuts, fairytale weddings of figurehead monarchs, and other matters of critical importance.

While we’re failing to pay attention, those who benefit most from growth — the corporate elites — will keep on doing what they do, and they’ll keep on selling it to the rest of us. If we don’t start asking, “why?” real soon, our kids will one day be asking “How did we let this happen?”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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