The Biggest Challenge – The Growth Paradigm and its Roots in Society

On May 21st – 23rd, 150 participants and speakers met in Jena, Germany, for the international conference “Good Life Beyond Growth”. The following essay is a result and reflection of what happened. For a more systematic presentation of the degrowth-paradigm, please find Daniel Buschmann’s introduction here.

Briefly, humanity has overshot the limits of what is physically and biologically sustainable. That overshoot WILL lead to the collapse of the planetary environmentÕs ability to support not only our species but much of the rest of the biosphere if we do not act rapidly and effectively to reduce our footprint. These conclusions provide reasons for both optimism and alarm: optimism because humanity has demonstrated its capacity to act appropriately in one specific instance; and alarm because thirty years have been largely wasted since the consequences of our failing to act were detailed. There is still time but the need to act quickly and effectively is urgent. The authors demonstrate that the most critical areas needing immediate attention are: population; wasteful, inefficient growth; and pollution. They show how attention to all three simultaneously can result in returning the human footprint on the environment to manageable, sustainable size, while sharply reducing the disparity between human well-being and fostering a generous quality-of-life worldwide. Absent this, the prospects are grim indeed. The book is divided into three sections, the first outlining in principle the authorsåÕ systems analytical approach to understanding the planet's ecology. Their presentation is clear and comprehensible with an abundance of charts and figures that make visualizing the concepts easy. They successfully avoid the pitfalls of many technical presentations by using familiar analogies and largely avoiding professional jargon. As a result readers come away with insights not just into global interconnectedness of inputs, outputs, accumulation and feedback but also the significance of such dynamics in local, even personal, situations. The second section deals with the authorsåÕ updated and revised modeling program, World3, which they utilize to test the plausible effects of changes in human political, economic and social behavior on the environment. Their discussion of World3 focuse

The world of the 21st century faces many-a-challenge, from traditional political issues like marriage – and gender equality to increases in migration flows and the connected humanitarian catastrophes all the while new technologies pose challenges to individuals and systems alike on a daily basis and political power-play by regional powers like China and the Russian Federation seems to be en vogue once more.

All of the above issues though are dwarfed by the immense roadblock to prosperity that is the growth paradigm.

At the core of that paradigm is nothing less than human nature – wanting more, wanting more than … we had yesterday, than the neighbour has, more to hand down to our children when the time has come. The general ego world dichotomy, where we differentiate between us (good!) and the rest (less so) due to the simple fact of not being able to perceive others as we perceive our physical and conscious self, takes an implicit centre-stage when talking and thinking about overcoming / transcending materially driven understandings of growth. Dagmar Comtesse from Frankfurt University described this under the labels “Comparison as a cognitive Urform” and “Economic growth as Social Pathology” and used Rousseau’s concept of self-love, ‘amour propre’ to showcase the difference between a healthy adaptability and change of perspective and the ‘inflamed’ amour propre as the unhealthy longing for more. Here, it may be useful to reiterate the generally beneficial nature of the impetus to growth as an item towards the constant betterment of oneself and one’s surroundings, as one of the main pillars to human development. This however can not distract from the general limits to that growth when acting in a confined environment where an equilibrium with other actors is to be developed over time.

One of the cornerstones to any understanding of limitations to the growth paradigm is the acknowledgement of a finite, closed system of operation, in the end: of a zero sum game with limited resources. As a consequence, any growth by one actor will adversely affect its environment. At the same time, there seems to be an effect of saturation that progresses to slow down an economy’s growth as it develops leading towards its eventual consolidation. Whether or not this consolidation will end up being stagnation or an actual decrease of economic size is still guesswork at this point, simply due to a lack of historic perspective on the phenomenon as only few economies have entered this stage of saturation. It is in these, predominantly central European, countries where the first round of larger-scale discussions on the sense and non-sense of a pursuit of growth for the sake of growth will (have to) be had.

In this context of finite space and resources the traditional disconnect between modern day life and its economic backbone from our natural development needs to be questioned at a fundamental level; where a sense of connectedness with our original, natural environment needs to be reactivated to a degree that leads from the general knowledge of the existence and function of trees to mindfulness, action and reflection when choosing to bring along enough bags to carry when going out for groceries to pick but the most mundane of examples.

To be able to enact this shift and a change so deeply affecting human behaviour, what is necessary is what Serge Latouche calls ‘la decolonisation d’esprit’, the decolonization of the mind from economic growth. Crucial to this endeavour will it be to redefine growth from its current predominantly quantitative, economic understanding to a more qualitative, immaterial one. In this context it seems as well necessary to promote and foster a move from solely individual interpretation of ownership to one that is based on access rather than legal ownership, going from focussing on having a car (or three) at all costs to having a car available when needed.

Looking at the level and degree of discussion on limits of growth / degrowth today, a key question to be answered in the future will be that of disentangling the connection between the economic growth paradigm and the latest incarnation of capitalism. Whether or not that is actually possible, moving today’s economic mindset to one where this kind of growth is understood as an option, not a need, and where personal gains are reflected upon personal needs and that of the overall system seems to be a necessary precursor to creating a healthy equilibrium within the system of actors and to an equilibrium with the natural world we are so dependent on to live and breathe.

Mind you, with all this talk about needed limits and limitations to the economy, this means by no means the oft-perceived end of progress or endless stability of the same: economic change and progress will remain the anchors of any society’s prosperity, competition and competitiveness still have key roles to play in the potential economies of tomorrow. Companies will still rise and fall, technological progress still happen and jobs will still be created, just in a framework that is more stable in its general size.


During the Jena conference, Tim Jackson and Andrew Sawyer covered this in their respective talks. As starting points for the discussion of future, Tim Jackson referred back to three different kinds of income, earned (through labour), extracted (due to age, disability) as well as unearned and extracted income. Similarly, Andrew Sawyer spoke of the case of investments, both as wealth creation (what is being put into the system) and wealth extraction (what is taken out). In both cases, income and investments, the extraction resources is seen as an undue enrichment due to faults in – and the nature of – the system.  This then leads to the question of morality, the need for a moral economy and consciousness there-of in which resources are earned – and taken in ways and amounts that don’t upset the equilibrium of the system.

In this context, moral hiccups that are (financial) institutions aiming to further the wealth of the lucky few that can afford it by exploiting weaknesses of the system – and thus extract unearned resources – just because it is possible, are in dire need for a change of direction. The encouragement and enabling of such exploitation of weaknesses can only be seen as morally bleak as it goes against any thought towards an equilibrium in the larger scheme of things, amongst one’s fellows, with the system as such and the environment as a whole.

From a global perspective though, it cannot be the ‘be all to end all’ solution to ostracize growth as such, just because a comparatively low number of ‘western’ states have reached economic saturation on the backs of exploiting other parts of the world for centuries. It may be most feasible to understand the fundamental problems of the growth paradigm as one part of the discussion on how to incorporate limited natural resources and a natural environment that might change to disastrous effects for all in a way that is both economically and environmentally responsible. In this context, it is obvious that different rules and scales must apply to economic and political actors that are at different stages of their respective developments; the same rules cannot apply to i.e. European countries like the United Kingdom or Germany and China or India without taking into consideration the centuries-long advantage European, ‘western’ countries have had to foster the economic development. Be it a cap-and trade kind of model of licenses for carbon emissions, quotas or yet to be found solutions of the political dimension of running economies – and countries in a sustainable, environmentally viable way.

All in all, the fundamental and at its worst: fundamentally damaging issue of the growth paradigm in its 21st century incarnation is its deep roots in everyday life and thinking that scale all too well from the individual level to group- , political, national and regional levels; from wanting to have a bigger flat, faster car to expanding ones’ company and the reach of the countries’ political ideas, ‘enough’ is hard to reach and even harder to maintain. While it is certainly both true that money cannot buy happiness/contentment, but at the same time not having any won’t make you a happier person, it seems most pertinent to enable people to reach a material ‘enough’ that allows for a life with neither economic struggle nor extravaganza.

Let’s not kid ourselfes though, the world we are living in is far from perfect, any system of governance has its built-in faults and exploidable weaknesses that will be taken advantage of by ill-spirited and opportunistic actors and individuals; equality is still far away from being reached in any but the most basic way (and not even that, really); those with stakes in the ‘growth business’ will be more than motivated to defend their business-model against any and all progressive thinkers to put it mildly – and who knows the moral decisions and sacrifices that will need to be made because of the damages already done?

In traditional and modern science fiction, the 21st century is usually described as either the century where it all went wrong, or humanity finally got its act together, usually through some miracle plot device. We need to find that plot device, and soon, before we loose even more people and create even more suffering through our reckless misuse of the natural system that enabled us. With all this in mind, the degrowth paradigm may not have all the answers just yet, but in the very least, it seems to be asking the right questions.

We are over-due to have good and public discussions about what it is, this ‘good life’ we are all pursuing, each in our specific ways – and how we can align this pursuit with keeping the environment we so desperately need.

– Moritz Borchardt, 29/05/2015

Picture credits:

Simon Cunningham via LendingMemo under a CC-BY 2.0 Creative Commons license (cover picture)

Christian Guthier under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons license

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