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The insanity of endless growth

The authors consider the reality that endless economic growth on a finite planet is unsustainable, Haydn
especially if society has exceeded ecological limits. The paper examines various aspects of
society’s endless growth predicament. It reviews the idea that there are ‘limits to growth’; Washington
it then considers the ‘endless growth mantra’ within society. The paper then considers the and Helen
‘decoupling’ strategy and its merits, and argues that it is, at best, a partial solution to the
problem. The key social problem of denial of our predicament is considered, along with the
contribution of anthropocentric modernism as a worldview that aids and abets that denial. About the authors
Finally, the paper outlines some potential solutions to our growth predicament. Haydn is an environmental
scientist, writer and activist

he world is faced with a grave of the ‘green economy’, which it describes as based at the PANGEA
predicament, yet one rarely spoken “a new engine of growth” (our emphasis). The Research Centre, UNSW,
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
of. The United Nations (UN), almost UN Sustainable Development Goals (available
all governments, business, media and at Helen is an environmental
anthropologist at Leiden
both the political ‘left’ and ‘right’ are busy also fail to acknowledge that endless growth
University, Leiden, and The
extolling endless growth. Yet we live on a finite is impossible and its pursuit fundamentally
Hague University of Applied
planet, so clearly endless economic growth unsustainable (Kopnina, 2016b). Science, The Hague, the
is impossible, and its pursuit unsustainable Netherlands.
and unethical – indeed, such destructive Ecological limits
pursuit of the impossible is insane. There This obsession with endless economic Citation

are three main drivers of ‘unsustainability’ growth demonstrates that societies Washington H and Kopnina H
(2018) The insanity of endless
– overpopulation, overconsumption and still do not understand that humanity
growth. The Ecological Citizen
the growth economy (Washington, 2015). has exceeded ecological limits, and 2: 57–63.
We feel it is time to focus on these. These that this is the root cause of the current
points have been made in the past, but for environmental crisis. The book Limits Keywords
quite some time the reasons behind the to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) showed Anthropocentrism;
unsustainability and insanity of endless that human population growth and the ecological economics;
growth have not been explored. We feel concomitant increase in the consumption societal change;
society (and academia) need to be regularly of resources would exceed planetary limits sustainability
reminded of them. around the middle of the 21st century,
The question “On a finite planet, is it possible causing societal collapse. Upon its release,
to keep growing economically forever?” this report was strongly criticized by
is one hardly ever asked in neoclassical traditional economists, who labelled the
economics (Daly, 1991; 2014) or in many other authors ‘prophets of doom’ (Solow, 1973).
academic disciplines (Washington, 2015). However, a recent 40-year review of Limits
Even the World Commission on Environment to Growth has shown that its models are
and Development (1987) report Our Common remarkably accurate (Turner, 2014). To
Future did not ask that question – suggesting summarize key environmental indicators
that ‘sustainable development’ required a of ecological overshoot: Cartoons

gross domestic product growth rate of 5% n The Global Ecological Footprint now The three cartoons
appearing in this article are
(a rate at which the global economy would stands at 1.6 Earths (Global Footprint
reproduced with permission
double its output every 14 years). Network, 2017). of Polyp, their creator (see
More recently, the UN Environment n The Living Planet Index has declined by for more
Programme (2011: 2) has promoted the idea 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF, 2016). cartoons).

The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 57

The insanity of endless growth

poverty, unemployment, debt repayment,

inflation, balance of payment deficits, the
population explosion, crime, divorce and
drug addiction.” This has not changed
much in the 25 years since Daly wrote those
words, and economic growth is still widely
seen as the panacea for almost all societal
ills. Sometimes commitment to growth
may be promoted in the guise of ‘free
trade’, ‘competitiveness’, ‘productivity’
– or even as ‘sustainable development’
(Victor, 2008). Indeed, from its coining in
Our Common Future to now, ‘sustainable
development’ has had its meaning largely
coopted to mean ‘sustainable growth’ – a
phrase which, we suggest, is an oxymoron
(Washington, 2015). World leaders seek
growth above all else. Neoclassical
n The species extinction rate is at least 1000 economics claimed that the benefits of
times normal (Millennium Ecosystem growth would ‘trickle down’ and alleviate
Assessment, 2005). global poverty, but this has failed (Kopnina
n At least 60% of ecosystem services are and Blewitt, 2015). As Daly (1991) notes,
degrading or being used unsustainably the verb ‘to grow’ has become twisted;
(Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we have forgotten its original meaning: to
2005). spring up and ‘develop to maturity’. That
n Four of nine planetary boundaries have is, in nature, growth gives way to maturity,
now been exceeded as a result of human a steady state. To grow beyond a certain
activity (Steffen et al., 2015). point can be disastrous.
A final aspect of growthism is that it is
In effect, we are bankrupting nature and commonly claimed that “economic growth
consuming the past, present and future of is necessary if we are to have jobs.” Is this

“We are bankrupting our biosphere (Wijkman and Rockström,

2012). On a finite world with expanding
claim correct? There are good grounds to
question whether jobs have historically
nature and consuming
human population and consumption, been linked to growth. Victor (2008) notes
the past, present clearly something has got to give. that the idea only developed 60 years ago,
and future of our Humanity faces a fundamental problem, and for most of human history we managed
biosphere.” for it is totally dependent on the biosphere to provide employment without economic
it is degrading (Washington, 2013). Hence growth. Does growth necessarily bring
society needs to understand and accept employment in any case? For example,
that we are way past sustainable ecological there were more Canadians with incomes
limits. less than the ‘low Income cut-off’ in 2005
than in 1980, despite real Canadian gross
The endless growth mantra domestic product having nearly doubled
Environmental science may tell us that the over that period (Victor, 2008). As Victor
consumer society is on a self-destructive (2008) notes, it is possible to develop
path, but many of us successfully deflect scenarios where full employment prevails,
the evidence by repeating in unison poverty is eliminated, people have
the mantra of perpetual growth (Rees, more leisure, and greenhouse gases are
2008). Yet endless repetition does not drastically reduced, in the context of low
make something true. Daly (1991: 183) – and ultimately no – economic growth. It
pointed out that economic growth is is thus mistaken to assume that economic
unrealistically held to be “the cure for growth is a necessity for full employment.

58 The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 The insanity of endless growth

Indeed, once we have exceeded ecological increased. Victor and Jackson (2015)
limits, growth will make us worse off. We note that while there has been some
have then reached uneconomic growth ‘relative decoupling’, any serious absolute
(Daly, 2014). However, unless there are decoupling is not evident. At best, as Victor
changes in social outlook, our experience (2008) notes, attempts at decoupling slow
of diminished well-being will be blamed down the rate at which things get worse,
on ‘product scarcity’. The orthodox but do not turn them around. Hence, talk
economic and policy response will then be of ‘100% decoupling’ is likely to be merely
to advocate increased growth to remedy wishful thinking that allows business-as-
this. In the real world of ecological limits, usual growth to continue. Indeed, focusing
this will make us even less well off, but
this will in turn lead to advocacy of ‘even
our attention on the idea of decoupling
runs the risk of becoming part of the denial
“Attempts at
decoupling slow
more growth’ (Daly, 1991). This becomes of the unsustainability of endless growth.
a death spiral. Healing our world requires down the rate at
accepting the reality that the economy Denial which things get
cannot grow forever. However, in recent How is it possible for civilizations to worse, but do not
years the concept of decoupling has been be blind towards the grave and rapidly
turn them around.”
put forward to argue that it is possible to approaching threats to their survival,
have continued economic growth without even when the evidence for those threats
producing further environmental damage. is extensive (Brown, 2008)? Humanity
has a key failing – we tend to deny our
Decoupling problems. Humanity denies some things
‘Decoupling’ refers to the idea that an because they force us to ‘confront change’,
economy can continue to increase its output others because they are just too painful, or
of goods and services, without thereby make us afraid. This human incapacity to
increasing pressure on the environment hear bad news makes it hard to solve the
– for example, by shifting to renewable environmental crisis. Of course, another
energy sources, and using efficiencies to source of this denial is ideological, where
reduce the amount of resources and energy the reality of the environmental crisis
consumed. Reducing the use of energy is denied owing to neoliberal hatred of
and materials by society is certainly any regulations that could restrict the
needed, and some claim we can move to activities of business (Oreskes and Conway,
a ‘Factor 5’ strategy and only use 20% of 2010). The result of such denial is that, as
the energy and materials we currently use a society, we continue to act as if there is
(von Wiezsäcker et al., 2009), whilst still no environmental crisis, no matter what
retaining our current quality of life. The the science says (Washington, 2017a).
problem with this approach is that the very Perhaps the key form that denial takes in
concept of decoupling suggests we can the public realm is simply silence – thus
keep on growing forever. As noted above, the silence about the environmental crisis;
the UN advocates the ‘green economy’ yet
also sees this economy as “a new engine
of growth” (United Nations Environment
Programme, 2011: 2); this combination of
‘green’ and ‘growth’ is only made plausible
by invoking the idea that it is possible to
completely decouple economic growth
from environmental impacts.
How successful have we been in
decoupling? Some modest decoupling of
material flows occurred from the mid-
1970s to mid-1990s, but total material
throughput in the global economy still

The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 59

The insanity of endless growth

the silence about the fact that the world point that totally transforms systems
is overpopulated; the deafening silence […] In a single individual it can happen in
about the impossibility of endless growth a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the
(Washington, 2015). mind, a new way of seeing.
In the past, denial of ecological limits
was common in neoclassical economists. It has only been possible for our societies
However, such denial of reality is not just a to maintain a belief in the desirability of
thing of the past. An Ecomodernist Manifesto pursuing endless growth, because of the
(available at dominant anthropocentric worldview of
“It has only was written in 2015 by eighteen professionals, modernism (Curry, 2011), which sees the
been possible for ten of whom are academics. The manifesto world as no more than a resource for human
our societies to claims: use (Crist, 2012). To put this another way,
maintain a belief in the obsession with endless growth has
the desirability of Despite frequent assertions starting in the been the offspring of the anthropocentric
1970s of fundamental “limits to growth”, ‘human chauvinism’ and ‘speciesism’ that
pursuing endless
there is still remarkably little evidence that has dominated Western society for at least
growth, because human population and economic expansion the last 200 years.
of the dominant will outstrip the capacity to grow food or In contrast, an ecocentric worldview finds
anthropocentric procure critical material resources in the intrinsic value in nature (Washington et al.,
foreseeable future […] To the degree to 2017). It holds, as Daly (1991: 248) notes, that
worldview of
which there are fixed physical boundaries “there is something fundamentally wrong
modernism.” to human consumption, they are so in treating the Earth as if it were a business
theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant. in liquidation.” Society thus needs to return
to ecocentrism and adopt an Earth ethic
Such a dismissal of ecological limits (and (Rolston, 2012) and undertake the ‘Great
the rapidly worsening environmental crisis) Work’ of repairing the Earth (Berry, 1999) to
indicates many in academia are still in enter the ‘Ecozoic’ (Swimme and Berry, 1992).
denial of the insanity and unsustainability Changing to a worldview of ecocentrism is
of endless economic growth. thus the key step on the path to a sustainable
future (Washington et al., 2017).
versus ecocentrism Solutions
Many things change (and solutions become A major problem with tackling the
easier) if we change our worldview and environmental crisis is the distraction
ethics. As Donella Meadows (1997: 84) notes: caused by partial solutions. For example,
we acknowledge the need for the
People who manage to intervene in systems maximum possible ‘decoupling’ as part
at the level of a paradigm hit a leverage of a circular or green economy, one that
massively reduces society’s use of energy
and materials (Kopnina and Blewitt,
2015). However, such savings should not
be seen as ‘a new engine of growth’, nor
will such savings be long-term solutions
if we fail to address overpopulation and
overconsumption. The plain truth is that
partial solutions are only of value if they
are part of a comprehensive move to
abandon endless economic growth. We
suggest the following solution frameworks
(Washington, 2015):
n accept ecological reality and roll back

60 The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 The insanity of endless growth

n adopt an ecocentric worldview (inspired Western society (globalized around the

by a sense of wonder at life), where we world) is a ‘consumer culture’ that has
abandon the false anthropocentric been deliberately constructed since 1950;
dream of ‘mastery of nature’. and what was deliberately constructed
can also be deconstructed (Assadourian,
These are the overarching changes in our 2013). Thirdly, the growth economy is “The steady-state
mindset that we must make. Within them still espoused by the UN and almost all economy deals
are the practical strategies, including: national governments. However, a rational with all three key
n controlling population growth through (and ethical) solution has been espoused
drivers of ecological
education, family planning and non- by ecological economist Herman Daly
unsustainability, plus
coercive, humane strategies (Engelman, since the 1970s: the steady-state economy
2016); (Daly, 1991; Daly, 2014). A steady-state a key driver of social
n rolling back the deliberately constructed economy features a sustainable population unsustainability:
consumer ethic (Assadourian, 2013) and size for the carrying capacity of its region, inequality of
concurrently adopting a ‘cradle to cradle’ low resource use and a distribution of
approach (Kopnina and Blewitt, 2015); wealth which is fair and equitable on an
n moving past growthism to a steady-state intergenerational basis (Daly, 2014).
economy (Daly, 2014); The transition path to a steady-state
n solving climate change urgently, focusing economy will be made up of many small
on mitigation; ‘positive steps’ that society can take
n adopting of ‘appropriate’ technology, (Washington, 2017b). The steady-state
especially 100% renewables within two economy deals with all three key drivers
to three decades, concurrently with of ecological unsustainability, plus a key
major drives for energy efficiency and driver of social unsustainability: inequality
conservation; of income. The scale of income inequality
n reducing poverty and inequality, while as a problem can be understood from the
simultaneously supporting the Nature fact that the wealthiest 10% of the world’s
Needs Half vision (Kopnina, 2016a); population now owns approximately
n educating effectively for sustainability 85% of the world’s wealth (Credit Suisse,
based on ecological reality and 2016). The ‘cradle to cradle’ approach (and
ecocentrism; the related circular economy) arguably
n creating the political will for change. offer the most hope to cut resource use
(Kopnina and Blewitt, 2015). However, we
Change is urgently needed, and is certainly feel that ways forward can only be found if
feasible. The key to this is breaking the silence the steady-state economy and the circular
of denial, by talking about the problems. economy (within the former) are adhered
This may sound wishy-washy, but in fact to in strict terms and practice. That means
meaningful dialogue on the impossibility of that they must not be subverted to become
endless growth is an essential step. Academia partial solutions used to encourage further
can (and should) lead the way on this. growth.
Solving the key cause of the problem – the As remarked above, to enable these
idea we can have endless economic growth changes, what is needed is a major
on a finite planet – means tackling the three paradigm shift from anthropocentric
key drivers of unsustainability (Washington, modernism to ecocentrism (Washington
2015): overpopulation, overconsumption and et al., 2017). We acknowledge that the
growth-focused economic policy. scale of our predicament is huge, but
However, this also means tackling some maintain that solutions are possible if we
of the biggest taboos in society. First, overcome the denial that currently blocks
many in society still consider discussion them. Now, accepting the reality of our
of limiting the human population a predicament can be depressing. Hence the
taboo, but we cannot afford to have this need to discuss statements such as: “It is
remain an ‘undiscussable’. Secondly, too late.” The danger of such statements

The Ecological Citizen Vol 2 No 1 2018 61

The insanity of endless growth

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