Monthly Growth Scan

Principal author:
John L. Clark


This article examines other sources that discuss the policy of economic growth, focusing on sources from November, 2010.

I am pleased to present the first in what I plan to be a periodic set of articles that keep an eye on discussions of economic growth in the "mainstream media". You may already be aware that I condemn steady economic growth as fundamentally, gravely destructive. “But wait,” you might understandably ask, “isn't steady economic growth a good thing?” Sadly, no, it is not. (For an excellent primer on the mathematics, physics, and economics of steady growth, I strongly encourage you to attend Professor Albert Bartlett's lecture, Arithmetic, Population and Energy.) Briefly, steady growth is equivalent to exponential growth, and exponential growth rapidly overwhelms the basis for that growth. (If babies continued to grow at the same average rate as in their first two years after being born, they would be larger than the Earth in less than 81 years. That's fairly rapid, right? Also pretty ridiculous. Clearly, biological systems are naturally constrained to only allow for contained bursts of growth.) Economic activity uses material and energy resources, and produces pollution as a side effect (and if you doubt either aspect, consider what was required to provide anything you buy). But our environment is finite: it only has so much material and stored energy to offer, and it only has so much capacity for absorbing pollution. Economic growth, then, uses up these resources and overwhelms the ecosystem extremely quickly; looking at this another way, we see that economic growth is equivalent to systemic exploitation.

A resource that I like to focus on, oil (because it has become an essential ingredient to such a vast array of the physical items that we use, as well as a critical source of transportation fuel for individuals as well as corporations), provides both an excellent example of the speed of growth and a good segue into recent news. Ever since we realized that petroleum could work really well with our increasingly prominent internal combustion engines (around the middle of the 19th century), we have mined and burned oil at steadily (that is, remember, exponentially) growing rates. Earlier in November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its World Energy Outlook 2010 report, which claims that humans reached the highest rate of oil extraction—70 million barrels a day—in 2006, and we will never surpass that number. Thus we have gone from extracting a few hundred barrels a day in the 1850s to 70 million barrels a day in 2006, and over the course of this 150 years of unbridled growth we have extracted and used a total of around 1,100,000 million barrels of oil. And counting. That's fairly rapid, right? Based on that IEA report, we will never again see steady growth in the mining of oil from our planet. That's right, ladies and gentlemen: Peak Oil has come, and gone. This is one example of how steady growth rapidly overwhelms the source of the growth, but general economic growth consumes other resources (any resource of value, really), such as coal, natural gas, fertile ground, trees, fish, clean water, and clean air, in a similarly frightening way.

So who is preaching the importance of economic growth this past month? Well, I certainly haven't read it all, but I'll do what I can. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman regularly emphasizes the importance of economic growth, and this month was no exception. For example, when trying to find hopeful signs that the United States economy isn't as bad off as Ireland's, he points out that at least the systemic exploitation of growth is still proceeding, if not as strongly as he would like:

America’s recovery has been disappointing, especially in terms of jobs — but at least we’ve seen some growth, with real G.D.P. more or less back to its pre-crisis peak, and we can reasonably expect future growth to help bring our deficit under control.

You will note that the growth rhetoric very often uses the language of job creation. But as with all economic growth, we must ask: what fuels the economic growth providing these new jobs, and what happens when we can no longer increase that fuel? We can also look over to Gene Lyons, who also turns to economic growth for salvation from the problems that growth itself created:

The best way to cut the deficit, of course, would be through economic growth.

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist Thomas L. Friedman often supports economists like Krugman, even wrapping his desire for an ever-larger economic engine in an inanely contradictory environmental argument, such as when he says, with a straight face:

Our priorities now are to mitigate the recession that was set in motion under Bush and to put the country on a path to sustainable economic growth.

Astonishingly, he starts off the same article with this metaphor:

If you jump off the top of an 80-story building, for 79 floors you can think you’re flying. It’s the sudden stop at the end that tells you you’re not. It’s striking to me how many leaders and nations are behaving today as though they think they can fly — and ignoring that sudden stop at the end that’s sure to come.

Yes, and this applies to nothing more emphatically than the concept of economic growth, only with economic growth you're hurling towards economic and environmental catastrophe at an exponential rate, instead of a polynomial one! Sorry, Tom, you cannot, in fact, fly.

The same publisher of both Krugman and Friedman, the New York Times, clearly supports the overall mission of bolstering corporate bottom lines through subservience to the false necessity of growth. An important ingredient in the economic growth recipe is someone to actually purchase what the economy churns out: the oft-discussed consumers, who in order to keep up with growth must keep buying more stuff! Instead of humans, we had become slaves, then servants, then peasants, and now consumers; isolated from what we should be, the blueprints of profit label us as cogs in the economic machine. So everyone needs to spend more, from governments on stimulus to domestic consumers on our regular shopping "holidays" to the economically shiny Chinese. The Times is optimistic about the results from "Black Friday" because they show some growth:

Spending on discretionary items rather than bargain-basement discounts seemed to help push the weekend total to a high of $45 billion, up from about $41.2 billion recorded in the last two years.

The Times also published a long homily about the history and future potential for growth in China; the international markets apparently need to rely on one another to ensure that money keeps flowing:

For the rest of the world, the Chinese consumer is one of the best hopes for future economic growth.

It's easy to target Michael Lind, who is a clear disciple of the importance of economic growth simply from his biographical statement on his articles, where we read that he is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation. It is then not surprising that in article after article he subjects us to the mantra of economic growth. In Why we need Big Business and Big Government, he uses fear of the recession to bludgeon us into towing the line on economic growth:

The small-is-beautiful orthodoxy prevents Americans from thinking seriously about job creation and economic growth, in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s.

Interestingly, his core theses on the fundamental goodness of big government and big business lead him to some deeply bizarre historical analysis. It is important to note that the desire for economic growth has had a very strong impact on the direction of history; Lind's instinct to turn to history for support is a good one, but his particular assertions about history stand unsupported.

Thankfully, there are some people who are working diligently to promote alternatives to our growth-based system. For example, I recently discovered the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE).

The mission of CASSE is to advance the steady state economy, with stabilized population and consumption, as a policy goal with widespread public support.

Their position statement is excellent, providing a very concise depiction of the fundamental flaws present in an economic growth policy; I signed it, and I strongly recommend that you read over it, consider it, and sign it as well.

Devotion to economic growth is endemic in our culture. Tom Whipple, writing over at the Falls Church News-Press, captures this deep momentum incisively:

[T]he middle name of our civilization is growth - in jobs, population, economic production, and more importantly personal and public wealth. To imply that the future, both immediate and distant, has anything in store but a return to endless economic growth is the worst kind of heresy. In some circles, the mantra of growth at any costs approaches an intensity unknown outside of religious fanaticism.

Interestingly, this analysis is placed in the context of an article about Peak Oil, which brings us full circle. Hopefully you can easily see how this conclusion about growth is the case in the examples that I included earlier. I intend to keep pounding the drum on this issue, because economic growth is so powerfully disastrous. Please let me know if you encounter discussions of growth in the media, so that I can help others remain aware of the scale of the problem.

This page was first published on 2010-12-01 13:21:00-05:00.

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