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If growth is the problem, why hasn’t it been stopped?

In article after article, book after book, scientists and environmentalists have exposed the devastating effects of constant economic expansion on the global environment. The drive to produce ever more “stuff” is filling our rivers with poison and our air with climate-changing gases. The oceans are dying, species are dying out at unprecedented rates, water is running short, and soil is eroding much faster than it can be replaced.

But the growth machine pushes on.

It’s not just inertia. Unending material expansion is a deliberate policy promoted by politicians of every political stripe, from social democrats to ultraconservatives. When the leaders of the world’s richest countries, the G20, met in Toronto two years ago, they unanimously agreed that their “highest priority” was to “lay the foundation for strong, sustainable and balanced growth.” They used the word “growth” 29 times in their nine-page final declaration.

Corporate executives, economists, pundits, bureaucrats, and of course politicians … all agree that growth is good and non-growth is bad.

Why, in the face of massive evidence that constant expansion of production and extraction of resources is killing us, do governments and corporations keep shoveling coal for the runaway growth train?

In most environmental writing, one of two explanations is offered – it’s human nature, or it’s a mistake.

The human nature argument is central to mainstream economics. Our species is homo economicus, economic man, defined by John Stuart Mill as “a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.”

So we always want more, and economic growth is just capitalism’s way of meeting that fundamental human desire. Enough is never enough for our species.

That view often leads its proponents to conclude that the only way to slow or reverse the pillaging of Mother Earth is to slow or reverse population growth. More people equals more stuff; fewer people equals less stuff. As Simon Butler and I show in our book Too Many People?, many populationist arguments are no more sophisticated than that.

The other common greenish explanation for the constant promotion of growth is that we have somehow been seduced by a false ideology, a harmful mythology. “The more we examine the role of growth in our society,” writes the Australian environmentalist Clive Hamilton in Growth Fetish, the more our obsession with growth appears to be a fetish – that is, an inanimate object worshipped for its apparent magical properties.”

Similarly, in The Environmental Endgame, environmental science professor Robert Nadeau argues that political leaders and economic planners are under the sway of “a quasi-religious belief system” – so what is needed is a religious conversion. “If political leaders and economic planners realize that the gods they now serve are false and proceed to do what is required to resolve the environmental crisis, we can soon be living in a very different world.” The task is to free humanity from “the fiction that perpetual economic growth is possible and morally desirable.”

These and other writers offer valuable insights into the catastrophic effects of constant growth, but they consistently fail to answer the most important question – why are these mistaken ideas so powerful? Why do politicians and economists cling to growth as a goal and GDP as its measure?

Critiquing the growth paradigm

The British Marxist Gareth Dale offers answers to those questions, and a refutation of the human nature argument, in an important paper published this month in the British journal International Socialism – “The Growth Paradigm: A Critique.”

Dale defines the growth paradigm as “the proposition that economic growth is good, imperative, essentially limitless, and the principal remedy for a litany of social problems.” Although that proposition seems ubiquitous and even natural, he says, the idea that pursuing of profit for its own sake would benefit society at large is in fact “uniquely modern.”

“For millennia no sense of ‘an economy’ as something separate from the totality of social relations existed, nor was there a compulsion to growth. ‘Do we never find in antiquity an inquiry into which form of landed property, etc. is the most productive, creates the greatest wealth?’ asked Marx rhetorically. … The ancients, he wrote elsewhere, ‘never thought of transforming the surplus-product into capital. Or at least only to a very limited extent.’”

Not until the 1500s did the idea that accumulation is natural or desirable take root among the wealthy, and there was no major public defense of that idea until Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Even then, it wasn’t until the first decades of the 20th century that the general belief that material progress is desirable transmuted into “an urgent conviction that promoting growth is a matter of national priority.”

This history undermines the idea that a desire for constant expansion of material wealth is inherent in human nature. Economic man and the growth paradigm are recent inventions that our species managed without for most of our time on earth.

So why is the growth paradigm so tenacious and influential now?

The argument that economic growth is driven by incorrect ideas gets the relationship exactly backwards: the view that constant economic growth is desirable is a product of a growth-driven economic and social system, not its cause. Dale writes:

“The growth paradigm is anchored in social relations. It is intrinsic in a society based on commodity production, for in such a society the drive to accumulate capital is imperative and ubiquitous. It cannot be explained in terms of misdirected views and false priorities alone, and therefore the transformation of humanity’s relationship with its environment requires more than a change of mentality.”

The emergence of the growth paradigm as a coherent ideology in England in the 1700s reflected the colossal shift that was then taking place in peoples’ relationships with each other and with nature. For millennia almost all production had been for use, so there was little need or room for growth as we understand it today. But under capitalism, most production is for exchange: capital exploits labor and nature to produce goods that can be sold for more than the cost of production, in order to accumulate more capital … and the process repeats. The growth paradigm doesn’t cause perpetual growth – it justifies it.

The fact that pro-growth ideology reflects the fundamental nature of capitalism does not, of course, mean that there is no need to expose and combat it. On the contrary, Gareth Dale insists,

“There is a need for ideology critique: to uncover contradictions in the dominant ideology, to lay bare their connections within society’s mode of production and to comprehend their obfuscatory workings. …

“The growth paradigm – the idea that continuous economic growth is society’s central and overriding goal – provides ideological cover for what is the true goal of capitalist production: the self-expansion of capital. Capitalists and their cadre would prefer their interests not to be seen in these terms. ‘As a system of competition,’ Mike Kidron and Elana Gluckstein observe, ‘capitalism depends on the growth of capital; as a class system it depends on obscuring the sources of that growth.’”

This brief introduction cannot do justice to Gareth Dale’s account, which not only deals with the history and roots of the growth paradigm, but offers valuable insights into its implications for left-green strategy in this century. It’s an important contribution to our understanding of capitalism’s growth paradigm, and to our fight against it.

Highly recommended: Gareth Dale, “The Growth Paradigm: A Critique.” International Socialism #134

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