Thursday, November 29, 2012

The growth fetish

At least some people are starting to see that an economy of continuous debt accumulation only works if you have continuous growth.  And continuous growth in a system with (at least some) finite constraints is not workable.  In history there has typically been a falling back, or sometimes a collapse to bring the everyone back to earth.  The advent of the industrial revolution at least for a time delayed that inevitability.  Collapses in a modern sense have usually been of a relative nature.  Not a collapse back to zero in absolute terms, but a temporary cessation of growth.

Growth: the false god
Flashman, Macrobusiness, 9 October 2012 (hat tip: NC)

From the self-development books of Oprah and Tony Robbins to the world records in the Olympic Games, the act of standing still, or of tomorrow not being better than yesterday, is the ultimate sin. From computer processing speeds, to pixels on phone cameras to waistlines queuing for the food buffet, everything must be faster, better or bigger. Achievement and victory, inculcated since school – themselves ranked against each other for parental selection – are the ultimate virtues...
Yet economics beyond growth is exactly what we need if some kind of equilibrium is to be restored in the domestic and global economy. Forgetting for the moment Malthusian arguments about resource scarcity, or indeed the science of climate change, for the insidious political economy of a highly unequal world to subside and for the backbone of democracy – a middle class where most are in the middle – to reassert, we essentially need a no-growth environment.
But how can such an agenda be pursued? If capitalism is inherently not the answer then is socialism? Probably not. Marx fetishised growth as much as the market, just with different methods. China’s Great Leap Forward and Stalin’s Five Year Plans, after all, were blatant growth-pursuing exercises that would make Wall Street blush. Is deep ecology the answer? Not if you don’t wish to wear a hairshirt. Reducing our standard of living to the level of people Bono sings about is never going to be popular. Ditto for primitivism, survivalism and fundamentalist religion as well.

What is interesting is that he notes that most modern economic philosophies on the right and left require growth to make their theories work with the possible exception of left wing anarchists, and right wing isolationists would fit in the hairshirt category.

What is unfortunate is that the only real solution he comes up with is more technological hand waving.  Nanotechnology to the rescue!

We can hope.


Degringolade said...

I have been trying hard to envision a static society.

If capitalism stays at the core, it will be one ruthless, Darwinian MFer.

Hard to say, if we do switch away from the growth paradigm, there will have to be a lot of changes at a very fundamental level to make the process somewhat fair.

Ponzi was rich rich up to the end

russell1200 said...

In a zero growth society I could se a type of free market society, but "capitalism" is a sociatal investment strategy. Its heyday started pretty much at the start of the commercial-agricultural-early industrial revolution. Without that periods growth it is hard to see how you make it work as a universal system.

The process will likely not be fair. The typical problem (based on Cliodynamics) is competition for dwindling resources by the elite. In modern times it is often the university students that spark the first conflageration. But it is the elites in general that create the big battles. The poor, outside of a few bread riotes, seem to mostly just starve.

John D. Wheeler said...

Part of the conundrum is that "growth and development" have been lumped together. As Wendell Berry noted, in The Gift of Good Land I believe, before tractors, every improvement in farm machinery was an increase in efficiency. After tractors were introduced machines just produced more by using more power.

We can go back to a kind of economy where development occurs which doesn't require an increase in resources consumed. And development can be linked to whatever values we choose. But it does take an active choice to persue a different future, not to futuilely clutch to a hopeless past.

russell1200 said...

John: Not a bad point, but on a scary note, Berry was very very wrong. The big agricultural revolution that helped ignite the industrial revolution came from the use of coal for heating purposes. It freed up marginal land to be used for the stronger horses (versus oxen) and created the market for coal that eventually lead to the steam engine.

Natural gas used to make fertilizer was only a few years behind the tractor (1915?).

Crop rotation, steel plows, and better harness go back to the Middle Ages. I guess the improved use of wind power for sailing, and the eventual expansion of the canal systems to allow the long distance movement of food crops would have to count.

But in any case, increased energy inputs were a lot more important going way back than Mr. Berry would have us believe.