This is the first post of a three part series on the existential problem of degrowth in a world that still believes in perpetual economic growth. This post looks at why the capitalist model of perpetual growth is unable to accept the concept of degrowth. Part 2 discusses why degrowth is inevitable, but unlikely to be adopted voluntarily due to the many forces arrayed against it, not least of which is humanity’s innate resistance to change. Part 3 considers how involuntary degrowth might unfold over the rest of this century, and what kind of civilization it is likely to leave us with once fossil fuels are gone.
An analogy: ants on a log
Imagine a colony of ants living in a tree branch. Imagine the branch breaks off and falls into the river flowing beneath it. It takes the ants awhile to realize their branch is now a log floating down the river, but when they do, they start making plans to save themselves.
“Head for the left bank!” shouts one. “No, head for the right bank!” shouts another. But then a Scientist Ant points out that they aren’t really in control of the log’s path, it’s the river’s current that’s determining where the log goes. And scientific measurements are confirming something else: the current is picking up speed! The Scientist Ant, of course, is ignored.
Then, up ahead, the ants see why the current is speeding up: The Scientist Ant does a study and announces, “we are heading toward a waterfall!” Because the ants still believe they control the course of the log, we hear many little ant voices shouting “go left!, “go right!”. But by this point, the ants actually have no control over the direction or speed of the log. Not in this fast current, not this close to the waterfall. The Scientist Ant reports that it’s now too late to build little oars to paddle the log out of danger. The log is caught in the current, so over the waterfall it goes.
We’re the ants. The log is our civilization. Our damaged environment is the current. Global warming is the waterfall. Like the ants, we have less control than we think we do. Like the ants, we’re going over the waterfall. Like the ants, some of us will survive the fall, but many will not.
Why can’t we get our act together? A primer on mental models
I briefly discussed the importance of mental models in a previous post. I noted there that mental models are cognitive maps we use to navigate and make sense of the world around us. They simultaneously simplify complex reality and create an impression (sometimes accurate, sometimes not) of understanding it. For complex phenomena like climate change or resource depletion, several mental models are currently battling it out in the marketplace of ideas, providing different narratives about the meaning of these developments, the causal factors driving them, the outcomes they are likely to produce, and the actions we should (or shouldn’t) take in response to them.
What social scientists have learned about mental models is that they are quite sticky. Once we embrace a mental model, especially one that is shared by others we respect or admire, it becomes very hard to displace. When our mental models are contradicted by “inconvenient facts”, we tend to defend the model and deny the facts (source). This tendency provides many benefits, like strengthening group bonds and bolstering self-esteem. But it also has a fatal flaw: it makes it very hard, if not impossible, to recognize and reject a model that is no longer a useful picture of reality.
Unlike battles over empirical questions (e.g., when will the oil run out?), arguments over mental models are more like religious debates (e.g., which is better, Christianity or Buddhism?). If a model is flexible enough (read: vague enough), it can “explain” any fact that appears to contradict it. This is why flawed mental models are so hard to abandon.
As a general rule, deeply-held mental models are only abandoned when the pain they inflict finally outweighs the psychological comfort they provide.
I believe the fundamental reason humanity has failed to respond adequately to the existential threats of climate change and resource depletion is actually pretty simple: facing these threats requires abandoning a mental model that (1) has produced unimaginable prosperity (for some if not all of us) over the last 200 years and (2) is embraced by the world’s elites with a nearly religious fervor. That model is economic growth fueled by an unlimited supply of cheap and dense energy.
The mental model surrounding our commitment to economic growth
At the heart of the flawed mental model that I believe is responsible for our collective failure to address climate change and resource depletion is an apparently unshakeable conviction that any future for human civilization must include the continuation of economic growth. According to this belief, growth is the engine of the current world order and, without it, the system will collapse and human progress will end.
This model has several core principles embedded in it. Here are just a few of them:
- Economic growth has allowed us to expand our human population to eight billion, a clear sign of success.
- Capitalism is the best and most equitable way to drive economic growth. It balances market forces of supply and demand and allocates resources in the most efficient, and therefore just, manner possible.
- Economic growth within a capitalist framework is best measured by increases in Gross Domestic Product or GDP.
- Economic growth is necessary to meet constantly increasing consumer demand for goods and services. Growth fuels demand, demand requires growth.
- Economic growth produces human happiness, more growth produces more happiness.
- Supply scarcity does occur, but it triggers self-correcting responses: investments to find additional supplies and inventions to create substitutes for depleted resources. (source)
- This system is a perpetual motion machine that can and will continue to produce positive outcomes indefinitely.
I am not going to debate the empirical accuracy of these principles here. All are demonstrably false, as others have cogently shown (source, source), including here on Medium (source, source, source). The question I am interested in is not why they’re false, but why the world’s elites appear to be doubling down on them when they are known to be false. I believe this is because of the inherent nature of deeply-embedded mental models. In this case, the mental model underlying the faith in economic growth is not only embedded in decades (centuries?) of economic thought, it is also enshrined in the practices, legal frameworks, and institutions that power the global economic system today.
This is why an often-repeated quote rings as true today as it ever has:
“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” (source, p. 1)
Adherence to the gospel of economic growth permeates many of the most popular climate change mitigation and adaptation scenarios in circulation today. Indeed, although the IPCC started issuing climate change reports in 2000, it was not until 2022 — and then only after numerous calls by climate scientists (source, source, source) — that a self-described Low Energy Demand (LED) scenario was added to the portfolio of models (source, Table 1.1, p. 174).
Why do we cling so desperately to the idea that civilization cannot survive without economic growth?
There are most likely two reasons why the world’s political and economic elites cannot acknowledge that we have entered an era in which economic growth must inevitably come to an end with the depletion of fossil fuels.
First, our political leaders can’t give up on the idea of growth because, without growth, the only way they can respond to climate change and resource depletion is by radically decreasing human resource consumption, primarily in the global North. This is seen as politically unfeasible and career suicide for any politician who might suggest it.¹ So no political leader, with the possible exception of the Secretary-General of the UN (who is not the leader of a sovereign nation), is willing to talk about it.
One consequence of this reticence among our political leadership is that the general public knows much less about resource depletion than it does about climate change. This is likely to leave the world’s population dangerously unprepared for understanding the shortages and scarcities that are already beginning to appear, as climate change disrupts food production, manufacturing, and distribution channels around the world (source).
The second reason our political and economic leaders can’t give up on the idea of economic growth is because, without growth, capitalism has no solution to the problem of persistent economic inequality, both within and between nations. Defenders of capitalism like to point out that “economic growth has lifted billions of people out of poverty” (source). This assertion may be technically correct (although there is strong evidence it is not), but it masks a deeper fact: the rate at which growth has contributed to reducing poverty at the bottom of the income ladder is minuscule compared to the rate at which growth has concentrated income and wealth among the world’s most wealthy. According to one recent report on global inequality:
“Some countries have reduced the numbers of people living in extreme poverty. But economic gaps have continued to grow as the very richest amass unprecedented levels of wealth. Among industrial nations, the United States is by far the most top-heavy, with much greater shares of national wealth and income going to the richest 1 percent than any other country.”
Increasing inequality is a feature, not a bug, of modern capitalism (source). As French economist Thomas Piketty has shown, because return on capital historically grows faster than return on labor, capitalist accumulation inevitably increases the gap between rich and poor. As long as the whole system continues to produce growth, the needs of those at the bottom can presumably be met without sacrificing any of the wealth of those at the top. But without growth, the economic pie becomes fixed and any gains at the bottom must come out of the shares of those at the top, most likely through much-feared and highly-resisted wealth taxes. Or so it is believed by our political and economic elites, which gives them a compelling second reason to reject imagining a world without growth. As one commentator has put it:
“economists and policymakers often regard growth as a substitute for equality: it is politically easier to grow total income and expect that enough will trickle down to improve the lives of ordinary people than it is to distribute existing income more fairly, as this requires an attack on the interests of the dominant class.” (source, p. 57)
Capitalism is not a system for maximizing abundance or human wellbeing, it is a system for maximizing capital accumulation. This leads to a kind of abundance, but only for some, the small minority of capitalists at the top of the global economy. Ultimately, these people are so deeply invested — both financially and cognitively — in the system that nurtures them that they seem unable to even imagine a world in which it no longer operates.
So, why do we cling so desperately to the idea that civilization cannot survive without economic growth? The short answer is: because capitalism cannot survive without economic growth, capitalists cannot survive without capitalism, and the modern neoliberal order cannot survive without capitalists. QED, civilization — as we know it today — cannot survive without economic growth. Ironically, that’s something pretty much everyone can agree on.
- I’m reminded of another often-repeated quote, this one from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” (source)
Image generated by DALL-E2, “ants on a log, floating toward a waterfall”