Why the dream of a world without growth is a utopia

27. September 2023

Can there be a world without growth?

It is becoming increasingly common to read and hear narratives that link economic growth directly to environmental destruction and CO2 emissions, thereby implying causality. Even entrepreneurs publicly dream of a world without growth or speak of a dawning time “Beyond Growth”.

Clearly, we need to think about how we as humanity can live in better harmony with our planet and other species. We need ideas on how we can achieve a global transformation towards an electric world for mobility, industrial production, and logistics.

There is no doubt that it is absolutely essential that we question mindless consumption, starting with ourselves, rather than calling for regulation and a logic of prohibition for all.

But is the underlying evil really growth? Economic growth?

Certainly not.

What is value?

Value is what we humans, as social and networked subjects, attribute to an object or an entity such as a company. It is an expected value that either reflects the production costs or, in the case of a certain scarcity, simply the price that someone else paid shortly before. Value is fictitious in education because it always results from a communication process.

If we want to conserve an earned income, a wage at the end of the month, or an advance payment from a customer for a product, then we trust that there are stores of value that conserve the value and spit it out again after days, months or years without it having become less. This applies to the amount of money that appears on the bank statement or banknote, but also to the purchasing power that we expect. Even if states promise through their means of payment that a euro will last beyond the next year, this is not enough for a bank or person to give us approximately the same purchasing power again after a certain period of time. For this to happen, others must have invested the money and paid interest.

This means that the basis of our expectation that the value has not fallen by 90% is an expectation of growth that someone else has converted into an investment with interest payments. Even the person who takes their savings to the bank is relying on the fact that others have created something with their money. 

If nothing new is created, improved, or optimized, then no one has the strength to pay a certain value for something and we lose our values.

If nobody wants to buy my share that I bought yesterday, then it loses value precisely because there are no more buyers. While the value of old cars or Rolex watches can only increase due to a shortage, companies and shares can increase in value because tomorrow they will produce more for less money.

And that is exactly what growth is.

So, anyone who dreams of a world without growth is questioning the stability of value and any form of professional economic activity in an absolutely fundamental way. This calls into question the only functioning and most efficient form of resource allocation on this planet to date –  our democratic, grounded capitalist market economy. As a reminder: Previous experiments with other forms of economy, such as communism, have failed.

Shouldn’t we give it a try without growth?

That’s how it is with utopias – it sounds somehow tempting to dare to experiment, in this case with “less growth”. The reason we allow ourselves to entertain this idea for even a second is because we are doing so well. We take things for granted that are not self-evident: stability of value and peace.

Without mindset efficiency in the allocation of resources, the direct consequences are distribution struggles, unrest, and often war. This has been demonstrated by many experiments with various forms of rule over the last 5,000 years, well before industrialization.

The Roman Empire functioned for as long as the system could be supplied with a supply (growth) of values (gold) and cheap labor (slaves) through territorial expansion. Alexander the Great, Emperor Charles, and the system of the French kings only worked through expansionist policies and war. Since 1945, we have been able to reduce this form of distribution warfare to economic warfare on a global level, but we are currently seeing a demonstration in Europe of what distribution warfare actually feels like, right on our doorstep.

If states do not offer their populations any prospects for the future, then they either go under, or have to use violence to create a supposed future for themselves. If the economy is run inefficiently for a few years, then there will be corruption, violence, or civil unrest.

If the majority of people, i.e. each and every one of us do not have the prospect of greater prosperity in a country, then we emigrate or take to the streets. Ultimately, it is all of us who expect our state to organize and facilitate growth.  Thus it is simply nonsense to dream of a country without growth.

What if…

What if we in Germany all put on our rose-tinted spectacles and said that we could do it with less growth. It’s a bit like us going it alone with nuclear power plants, with the whole world laughing at our stupidity.

There are many hungry and destitute people on this planet who want to do better for themselves and their children than their own condition allows.

This endeavor of striving to achieve more than others is enough to bring about economic growth. It was the same for our parents’ generation after the war. Too much insecurity OR wanting to have a better future is enough for economic growth to occur if you establish a reasonably efficient system like our much-maligned capitalism.

However, the logic of distribution also means that if we no longer want to make an effort and perform well, we will soon find ourselves fighting over distribution. This cannot be remedied with laws and a state that distributes money.

And if we now briefly recall how the foundations of our society have been laid over the last 200 years (through technology and raw materials obtained by the exploitation of other countries) then it borders on mockery, or at least the most embarrassing ignorance, if we dream or even talk about a world without growth. It simply stands for absolute ignorance of elementary economic and historical contexts.

Non-growth in our country, while maintaining our prosperity, can only be achieved by exploiting or oppressing others. This is what the French do, for example, when they force their old colonies into the euro (Franc CFA) and agree commodity contracts with them at prices over 30% below market prices.

The hope of earlier retirement and more free time with a lower dedication, fewer working hours per week, and less time in service is an absolute utopia. At least, as long as there is still a large group of people, one or more countries, who want a better future with more security and greater prosperity for themselves and their children.

This group will then generate growth for their markets. Increases in value will also be possible there. With the same logic, no growth or shrinkage will automatically lead to a loss of our values. Retirement provision via real estate or shares will then no longer work. And this logic would then gradually, but surely, lead us into immense distribution struggles, which would sooner or later be settled with violence.

More reality – what we should be talking about

What we actually want to say when we question growth is: Does it always have to be more consumption? We forget that this is not an issue at state level, but a very personal one for each individual household. One which we have to think about on our own.

Under no circumstances should we ask the state to ban consumption. It is absurd to cry out to “Father State” to ban air travel, the purchase of cars, meat consumption, or skiing vacations. We have to accept that there are different ways of life, all of which are justified. Without question, we should look to the left and right and not simply leave a huge pile of garbage behind for future generations. But you can’t do that by canceling a Hawaiian vacation or switching to public transport.

It is more important to support positive things, new technologies and social projects with our own energy than to demand that others do without.

Alarm bells should ring for all of us when we and our immediate social environment feel so full and content that we would prefer to get through life without any further effort or risk. If a large part of our society is preoccupied with these thoughts, then we are roughly at the tipping point of the Roman Empire just before its collapse.

Instead, we should be thinking about what strategies and measures we can use to live in better harmony with the planet’s resources. Instead of abolishing growth, we should work on developing and using future-oriented technologies. Now is the time for an active willingness to change, to adapt cherished but bad behaviors. And by that I don’t mean growth, but quite the opposite – our comfort. Actively shaping and participating in social groups and communities can inspire us to encourage risk-taking that actively supports new ideas.

To break it down simply: What we can expect and demand from the state is a strategy and vision again, at last. A strategy that positions us within the association of states, which we can and may represent both internally and in the world. And a vision that we can work towards. At the same time, we need more responsibility for our environment and ourselves. Growth is just as much a part of maintaining value and prosperity as the will to perform.

Source: https://unsplash.com/de/fotos/7e2pe9wjL9M
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