Does endless economic growth really lead to “the good life”?
Today’s dominant culture considers endless economic growth as a necessary component of “the good life”, but is this really the case? Firstly, and at the risk of stating the obvious, for economic growth to be providing “the good life”, one must be on the receiving end of the perceived benefits of that economic growth in the first place. Unfortunately, between 1995 and 2021, global economic growth was staggeringly unequally distributed, with the wealthiest 1% capturing 38% of total wealth growth while the bottom 50% captured only 2.3% of overall wealth growth. Despite decades of relentlessly chasing economic growth 85% of people in the world still earn under $30 a day, the poverty line in a typical rich nation. The poorest 50% of the world’s population own just 2% of the world’s wealth (an alarming statistic which is identical in the USA: 50% of the population holds just 2% of the country’s wealth). Economic growth isn’t providing “the good life” for the vast majority of people.
Secondly, even if we could somehow blissfully ignore the plight of most of humanity, the question remains: For those of us in the small minority of people who do appear to benefit from economic growth, does this growth really enable us to live “the good life”? From a psychological point of view, “the good life” (i.e. a meaningful and fulfilling life) is built upon three foundational elements:
- the quality of our relationship with our self – our sense of personal meaning, our self-esteem, our ability to care for our self
- the quality of our relationships with others – our sense of community and belonging, our co-creativity, and our support network
- how we relate to the whole of life – our interdependence with the whole of the living world.
In this article, we look at how being a recipient of economic growth does – or doesn’t – increase our quality of relationships and quality of life, and how degrowth practices might help us reclaim the life perspectives and practices that lead to a fulfilling life.
Our relationship with our self under growthism
The quality of our relationship with our self can be felt in our rooted connection to our own personal meaning and values and can be witnessed in our capacity to consistently act in ways that nourish us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Without a healthy and caring relationship to our self, it’s hard to build a good life. Yet our personal meaning, values and capacity for self-care aren’t automatic producers of economic growth, and can even lead to economic loss (i.e. by taking a break from work because we need time for self-care, or by choosing not to do paid work because we’ve become a parent). In a growth-dependent paradigm, the fact that our relationship to our self isn’t inherently profitable to the system is a problem. Here are some ways the conflict manifests:
If what brings us meaning feels “pointless” or undervalued by the growth-dependent values of the system around us, it can be hard to believe that our personal passions and values matter. Similarly, if we need to spend most of our days doing work that we don’t find personally meaningful or fulfilling, in order to have access to food, shelter and healthcare, we have limited time to invest our energies in activities that do bring us personal joy and meaning. In either configuration, it’s hard to have high self-esteem. We might know deep down in our hearts that what we care about is important, but we’re very likely to keep that meaning hidden and to try to force ourselves to find meaning in something that is socially “approved” by the growth-paradigm. It’s a completely normal reaction to such a conundrum, but it can have serious side effects. Over time, not seeing our values mirrored and esteemed, and not having the time and support to cultivate them, can lead us to various forms and degrees of self-doubt, self-denial and other expressions of disconnection with the very core of who we are (i.e. depression, anxiety or existential depression).
The same applies to how we experience our body and our personality. Satisfaction with how we look and with who we are diminishes our profitability for the economy. In growthism, dissatisfaction with our looks and our personality generates profit as we seek out “solutions” to our self-dissatisfaction. In this sense, an economic growth imperative benefits most from our existence when we are constrained to see ourselves and our meaning as “never enough” or even an outright enemy of “reality” (as defined by the needs of the economy).
To that end, growthism also sets us up to have real physical problems that objectively require solutions. For example, by promoting overconsumption of unhealthy foods and creating artificial time scarcity (which we’ll define in more detail below), not to mention increasing air, soil and water toxicity from unnecessary industrial production, many of us find ourselves with environmentally- and so-called “lifestyle”- related health issues and struggle to adequately take care of our physical health. Ironically, our health problems are actually “good” for economic growth, because they generate consumption and revenue for the health sector, and a need for more innovation to solve the problems growthism has created for and even within us.
Self-relating in a degrowth framework
In contrast to the above dilemmas, degrowth releases us from the need to find meaning and income from activities that are in competition with healthy self-relating and self-care. For example, key degrowth policies include a government-led jobs guarantee with the potential to include caring roles (caring for nature, children, the elderly etc), a minimum basic income at a socially inclusive rate for those who are unable to do, or choose not to do, paid work, and reduced working hours to a three or four-day work week, giving people more time to do what they find intrinsically meaningful and consistent with their physical and mental health. Degrowth policies also aim to ensure that everyone has access to universal healthcare, education, high quality public transport and social housing, taking pressure off people to earn money in a job they do not find meaningful just to survive. For those readers who balk at the idea of people not working to earn their living, it’s worth remembering that the history of work is hardly consistent with how we define it today. Indeed, the notion that we should “earn our right to be alive” is a relatively recent construct. We can recommend Jason Hickel’s book The Divide for a deeper dive into this question.
As our economies re-localise in a degrowth model, a greater need for skilled and artisanal work emerges. These kinds of jobs are known to often create a state of flow – a sense of contentment which is defined by an optimal balance between skill and challenge, where we are so actively engaged in the task at hand that we are no longer conscious of time. No longer will we be trapped in “bullshit jobs” simply because we have no other option for our physical survival.
In a degrowth work paradigm, being constantly “busy” is not seen as a badge of honour nor as a proof of our value, as it is in the growth-dependent model. Rest and rejuvenation are highly valued, freeing us from growthism’s mission impossible of making every aspect of our relationships with our self profitable to someone, somewhere. Degrowth allows us to contemplate life outside of the dominant cultural paradigm, encouraging us to be content with who we are, what we look like, and what we value, and giving us the contextual safety to live in a manner that is sustainable for us. In this way, the “good life” arises from being our genuine self, acting on what we care about and what contributes to our health and well-being, rather than from trying to be someone else in order to become profitable to, and thus acceptable to, the system.
Our relationships with others in a growth-dependent framework
Fulfillment in our relationships with others is based in a sense of community and belonging, co-creativity, and having a strong support network. Again, none of this necessarily creates economic growth, and in a growth-dependent paradigm, that is a problem. The growth paradigm reacts by structurally redefining our relationships to require more economically profitable activity in order to be “satisfying”. And one builds on the other: if our sense of relationship with our self has become tied to eternal growth, it makes it easier for us to fall into the structural disconnectedness of growthism’s definition of externally meaningful relationships. Physician Gabor Maté’s new book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture painfully illustrates how the structural disconnectedness of life under Capitalism has constrained us to contexts that decrease our capacity to meet our basic human and relational needs.
Underlying all of this is the issue of the “social commons” – the common spaces and resources that would allow us as individuals to prioritise a life of community, personal and relational health and sustainability. As the commons have been systematically privatised over the last century by industry and private land ownership, we have been forced to prioritise earning in order to buy back our part of “the commons” (i.e. access to land, water, roads, and so on). This privatisation of the commons has created what is called “artificial scarcity” – a term which may sound paradoxical, as growthism seems to offer options in abundance. However, growthism’s options are centred on profit and consumerism rather than on sharing nature’s abundance and prioritising relationships. An outcome of this “artificial scarcity” is real “time scarcity”. Often the growth-based system makes it harder to spend time with those we cherish, because we’re all too busy working to keep our own privatised part of the commons.
And then there’s the issue of competition: limiting the available common resources forces us into competition with each other. When it looks like others have more than us, we often feel the need to have as much as they do, and this can give rise to envy and a feeling of needing to “keep up with the Joneses”. In this sense, we may prioritise earning not only for subsistence, but also for social status. For growthism, that is a good thing. The system requires us to feel as though we always need more and more material things in a never-ending cycle (without which the system would collapse), but the chronic comparisons, envy and competition that are inherent to such a system erode the quality and sustainability of our personal relationships.
At the same time, the growth paradigm paradoxically promotes consumption as the source of community itself: we’re told that if we earn enough money to buy the right clothes, house, furniture, cars, trips and gadgets, and go to the right bars, restaurants and places of entertainment, we will find love, belonging and meaning. This, again, plays back into our relationship to ourselves: without all these extras, growthism tempts us to believe we’re not worthy of love in the first place. But even the ultra-rich who benefit most from privatisation of the commons, and who have virtually no limits on what they can consume to bolster their “lovability”, can find it especially difficult to create loving and trusting relationships because of their wealth. As Shaun Chamberlin states so eloquently, “… all that money really allows you to do is become dependent on people you don’t know instead of being dependent on people you do know”.
Relationships with others in a degrowth framework
The “radical abundance” of degrowth offers a way out of this trap by re-expanding the commons and redistributing wealth so that people have access to the things they need to live well without needing to prioritise and compete for higher levels of income. This in turn resolves the “artificial time scarcity” caused by growthism. As Jason Hickel describes,
“with more free time people would be able to have fun, enjoy conviviality with loved ones, cooperate with neighbours, care for friends and relatives, cook healthy food, exercise and enjoy nature, thus rendering unnecessary the patterns of consumption that are driven by time scarcity”.
Two terms are often used in degrowth literature to describe relationships in a degrowth society: conviviality and reciprocity. Both terms describe a kind of embodied present in which our relationships with others are based on real living, mutual aid, a sense of place and community care, and joy and collective meaning. These kinds of relationships, which can only emerge in the context of the relative abundance afforded by living sustainably, give us so much more than relationships based on time lack, superficiality, forced consumption and competition. We need a system which allows us to truly invest in our relationships, and degrowth offers us a path to such a system.
Our relationship to the whole of life under growthism
Not only are we dependent on our human community, we are interdependent with the whole of the living world, and our quality of life is directly tied to how we relate to the greater context which sustains us. Sadly, the view of the entirety of existence as potential profit has seeped into the very fabric of our psyche and distorted how we relate to everything that is bigger than us. As discussed above, the so-called “natural world” which we rely on for life has been commoditized, and a long-term result of that commoditization is that many of us struggle to even feel a connection to the natural world at all, outside of its possible use for creating growth. There is a phenomenon in environmental psychology called Shifting Baseline Syndrome or Environmental Generational Amnesia, which shows how we come to see the loss of the natural world as “normal” over generations. Growthism takes advantage of this trick of the mind by presenting our current and future world of disappearing nature as even desirable or “cool” – for example, that prioritizing the development of virtual reality and space colonization over caring for and restoring Earth are natural outcomes and healthy measures of “progress” (and reprioritizing Earth would be correspondingly uncool and unnatural). This has resulted in a societal shift away from prioritizing learning about and spending time in nature. At this point, people, especially children, increasingly have little to no idea where their food comes from and some are even developing what is called biophobia, a fear of nature.
And then there’s the moral burden those of us in overdeveloped nations live with. Whether we like to think about it or not, we are to some degree or another aware that we are rapidly destroying the earth and its inhabitants, including most of the human population (the nearly 7 billion in ‘developing nations’). Within this general destruction is the insidious neocolonialism we continue to perpetuate on the peoples of subjugated nations through climate colonialism and continued imperialist extractivist practices. Even more locally, we are also aware that we are in the long-term destroying the ecosystems of our own bioregion which sustain us and our neighbours, community, family and which are the potential future home of our children and their descendants. We are overconsuming, polluting our atmosphere and soils, and increasing the risks and severity of man-made natural disasters and epidemics. This is a huge emotional, mental and physical burden, one which has obvious effects on our relationship to our self and our relationship to others. Many of us understandably feel the need to dissociate from the reality of this through addiction, fight or flight, and other ways of numbing; and yet dissociating from the problem doesn’t resolve it long-term, not even for ourselves.
Relating to the whole of life in a degrowth framework
Degrowth allows us a way out of this disconnection, amnesia and moral burden, as degrowth is focused on reconnecting us to the earth, its ecosystems and its inhabitants, and on righting our wrongs – giving back space and resources to the natural world, including the majority of humanity, allowing ecosystems to recover, and giving us limits that allow us to live in healthy reciprocity with the world. Degrowth is anticolonial and antiracist, refusing to allow us to continue to worsen the moral injustices that we in wealthy nations have (often unwittingly) unleashed. It forces us to reconnect with the larger world around us, to drop our “growthism glasses” and look around at where we live; it forces us to stop being entertained by growth fantasies long enough to get the clarity to see, experience and come to value the living world and our fellow beings in it. It requires us to take the time to know, understand and cultivate a meaningful connection to the natural world and our fellow beings, human and non-human alike. It requires, in other words, a kind of active biophilia, a love for nature. In this sense, degrowth facilitates our relationship to the whole. It is a kind of restorative justice which allows us to continue on, make amends, and rebuild our fundamental relationship to the whole which growthism has deeply damaged.
Real satisfiers vs. pseudo-satisfiers
Economist Manfred Max-Neef looked at human needs through a community developmental lens, naming nine fundamental needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom (notice that wealth and wealth accumulation are not on the list!). Crucially, he differentiated between types of “need satisfiers”: some satisfiers (like healthy self-esteem or healthy community) really meet our needs, but many others (like wealth that goes beyond meeting our fundamental needs) are actually “violators”, “pseudo satisfiers”, and “inhibiting satisfiers”. They claim to be satisfying our fundamental needs but are actually making it more difficult for us to do so, for example by oversatisfying one need at the cost of another.
Growthism is full of these kinds of false “satisfiers”, while degrowth is based on cultivating real satisfiers, and even “synergistic satisfiers”, which satisfy a given fundamental need while simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other fundamental needs. As an easy example, taking our streets back from cars gives us space to play and garden, improves air quality and encourages us to walk and be more active, in turn improving health, while also giving us spaces in which we can spend quality time with neighbours and connect with nature.
The small minority of us who do see an increase in wealth from economic growth need to seriously consider whether that increase is really satisfying our human needs, at all levels of relating. There are real costs to eternal growth, and while growthist ideology tends to treat those costs as mere externalities to be ignored or as a worthwhile trade-off, the erosion of our capacity to meet our most fundamental human needs certainly cannot be accepted as a negligible or distant loss or a reasonable trade-off.
A cultural revolution to unlock a systems revolution
As we come to see more and more of the shadow side of growthism, it is time for us to look carefully at the values we hold dear – those values that determine how we spend our time, what we prioritise and what we deem to be important. We need to cast a critical eye over the notion of “progress” because any progress that systemically contributes to the degradation of the living world and the quality of the relationships which form the foundations of our well-being is surely too narrowly defined to begin with. We must reconnect with nature, our community and our personal meaning and values, and recognise that while our economy is a human construct of relative youth and is, by definition, malleable, the laws of physics and the foundations of our mental and physical health are not. The relationships that form our well-being must take priority over upholding an economic system that undermines those very relationships.
We must be brave and courageous in reclaiming the right to exist and relate in ways that nourish us but do not grow the economy. We have to believe that we are worth it, and that the countless other people and inhabitants that share our world with us are worth it too. We need a systems revolution, and for that to happen we need a cultural revolution. We need a new culture of care, one that no longer idolises consumerism, perfection, busyness, and billionaires – fake satisfiers – but rather idolises the things that not only make life “good”, but also make life possible – real satisfiers – the soil, clean water and air, healthy oceans, the myriad of life on earth without which we cannot survive, and quality relationships with ourselves and with others. The path to a good life is not what we own, or the places we travel, or what we individually achieve. It is living in harmony with ourselves, with the planet and all of its inhabitants, in finding joy in nature’s wonders and in our connection to ourselves and others. Our greatest hope is that, in re-evaluating our values in this way, together we can find our path to an even better life, starting a cultural revolution that unlocks the systems revolution we desperately need.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
Teaser photo credit: By Killerscene – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16282218