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No Economic Growth: The New Normal

I’d like to thank New York Times’ senior economics correspondent Neil Irwin for acknowledging a few days ago that:

We’re in a Low-Growth World. How Did We Get Here?

Yes, we are in a low-growth world. That’s because we are in a post-growth world! Unfortunately, I don’t think Irwin gets that, as he went on to characterize history-making slow growth rates as a problem to be solved, and he concluded:

“What we do know is that if something doesn’t change from the recent trend, the 21st century will be a gloomy one.”

I take exception to his approach, because it ignores the fact there are limits to growth, and the fact that continued growth in economic throughput beyond sustainable levels will result in a gloomy world. Inherent short term problems aside, slow GDP growth is a step in the right direction if your goal is to leave future generations a planet worth inheriting.

In this piece in the New York Times’ Upshot department, Irwin did share some important observations:

“This slow growth is not some new phenomenon, but rather the way it has been for 15 years and counting.”

Not surprising to me, since I am painfully aware that the level of human activity on the Earth went into overshoot about 40 years ago. You can only stretch the rubber band so far.

“81 percent of the United States population is in an income bracket with flat or declining income over the last decade.”

Irwin fails to acknowledge this is the new normal. It was pretty foolish for us to expect we could increase income in perpetuity.

“An entire way of thinking about the future — that children will inevitably live in a much richer country than their parents — is thrown into question the longer this lasts.”

Yep. That’s the post-growth world. I really like these two sentences. No, it’s not comforting news, but it’s the closest Irwin comes to acknowledging that slow (and eventually “NO”) growth is the new normal. This truth is what we need to embrace, if we are to find our way to sustainable equilibrium on this one planet we have.

While Irwin earns a spot here on our Wall of Shame for failing to recognize that further economic growth would create more problems than it solves, several readers offered comments worthy of the Wall of Fame:

Brian Stewart, of Middletown, CT, wrote:
“…endless growth on a finite planet is impossible. Regular people understand this intuitively. Everyone understands diminishing returns. No one expects airlines to be able to replace their personnel repeatedly. Except perhaps orthodox economists.”

Greenpa, of MN, wrote:
“Ask an ecologist – any ecologist. What is happening to Homo sapiens is exactly what happens to ALL – as in ALL – organisms. When a species suddenly finds a new way to expand its population; it explodes into the new realm – until it hits the wall. No more space to expand; no more “new resources” to use. The species either subsides into a non-explosive growth pattern – or goes extinct. We’ve been exploding for several centuries – the “New World” became available for stripping; the advent of fossil fuel use provided immense abilities; agriculture; medicine – non of these make the wall go away.”

Craig Greenman of New Hampshire wrote:
“To paraphrase a story from that great (fake) news source, The Onion: Lower economic growth may be bad if you’re a human, but it may be good if you’re the environment, which has been warmed too quickly by all the growth. Ultimately, then, lower economic growth may also be better for us humans, since we rely on the sustainability of our environment to live well…. Maybe a flat-lining of growth, mixed with a saner and more just distribution of income and wealth, would be good for us all. I don’t need to be richer than my parents; I just need to do well enough; and it would be nice for the world not to become simply richer, but better.”


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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

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