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Growth, Growth, and Growth? Re-thinking our self-destructive obsession

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Catrina Ollis discusses the need to change the way we think about economic growth if we are to successfully curb climate change and tackle inequality.

Credit: Mario La Pergola. The London Skyline

The word “growth” has been thrown around a lot recently; in fact, this is a word which has been valued above all else for almost a century. Yet, with our growing awareness of what this means for the rest of the planet, the implications of such unfettered growth have become significantly more alarming. A growing economy is the goal of almost every government, as shown by our recent string of prime ministers who seem to talk of nothing else. After all, bigger is always better, right? Well, perhaps it’s time we took a step back and reflected on this ideology of ours – where has it gotten us and what kind of future will exponential growth actually bring?

We will take more and more until there is nothing left, for this is the real cost of our insatiable appetite for growth. Our obsession has created islands of ludicrous wealth amidst a sea of destitution – “golf courses in a planet of slums” as Giorgos Kallis puts it. Not only are there rising levels of inequality, but our growth fetish also comes at the expense of all other life on earth, either through habitat destruction, pollution, or, of course, the rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Somehow, we must change the way that we think about economic success; a “hellishly difficult” task, yet there is no other viable option. If we want to continue living on this earth alongside all its other inhabitants, we must accept the notion of de-growth.

This argument for restructuring our entire economic doctrine is nothing new. It gained a huge amount of momentum during the early environmental movements of the 1970s, yet eventually fell victim to the rise of neoliberalism and consumer culture. This early environmental movement championed ecologism as an ideology, aiming to embody a non-anthropocentric way of life in which humanity was no longer placed on a pedestal above all else. In this way, we could begin to see the value in nature beyond simply what it could provide for us.

Similarly, during this decade, we see publications such as The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and A Blueprint for Survival by Tom Stacey, each of which highlighted the ways in which our exploitation of the earth was leading to the destruction of all living things. As acknowledged by Stacey, the environmental problems we are facing are the warning signs of “a profound incompatibility between deeply rooted beliefs in continuous growth” and the dawning recognition of an earth “limited in its resources and vulnerable to thoughtless mishandling”. One would imagine that since these issues were raised fifty years ago, decisive action would have been taken by now to ensure that our appetite for growth did not fulfil its destructive possibilities. But alas, as we all know, the devastating combination of corporate greed and short-sighted politicians meant that the threat of unrestricted growth was and continues to be wilfully ignored.

A Fridays For Future march in Berlin, 2019. Photo credit: Markus Spiske.

This brings us to the dreaded topic of what our government is doing now. Turbulent as the last few years have been, the necessity of economic growth is one of the few things that has remained unwavering. Of course, at this point, it is impossible not to discuss the actions of Liz Truss, who gave the memorable speech of “growth, growth, and growth” whilst also having the gall to blame an “anti-growth coalition” for the Conservative Party’s inability to deliver during the past twelve years. Among those listed as belonging to this vague and mysterious group include “militant” unions, Extinction Rebellion, anti-fracking protesters, Brexit deniers (!?), and think tanks – or really anyone who could think critically enough to disagree with her earth-wrecking ambitions.

Guardian writer Larry Eliot raised the excellent question of whether we should place all those who value the survival of the planet over lining our own pockets on this list. For example, is national treasure David Attenborough, who has argued against prizing growth at all costs, “on the axis of evil”? This follows the trend of governments creating some indistinct threat to vilify anyone who would stand in the way of economic growth. In the seventies, it was the “lazy and spoilt” student activists or the “drug addicted” hippies. Now, it is our very own de-growth coalition. To add insult to injury, Truss stated that “the anti-growth coalition just doesn’t get it because they don’t face the same challenges as normal working people”, which is an intriguing statement given that her economic plan disproportionately benefited the ultra-rich, not to mention the fact that the Conservative Party’s tenure has seen the highest number of people slip below the poverty line, with an estimated 15.2 million people in poverty over the course of 2022-23.

The government under Rishi Sunak has been slightly less vocal on the matter, but it is clear the priorities remain the same. If he had any intention to tackle the climate catastrophe spiralling towards us as a result of endless growth, he might have attended the COP27 in its entirety, rather than turning up (albeit unwillingly), taking a few pictures, and then jetting off again two days later. Sunak suggested the possibility of “clean growth” which places all our hopes on a technological fix, but is this really feasible?

If we develop relatively clean technology but do not end economic growth, “then sooner or later we will find ourselves with as great a pollution problem as before” as predicted by Stacey fifty years ago. The development of sustainable forms of energy, agriculture, and infrastructure should certainly be increased, but only in as much as they replace their destructive predecessors – mindlessly striving for more and more will simply worsen the effects of pollution and climate change. Additionally, our ability to reduce levels of inequality is limited within the framework of exponential growth. Growth has always been based on exploitation – without a surplus, there is no investment and no growth, but to have a surplus, capitalists or governments must exploit someone, somewhere.

Bushfires rage in Tasmania, Australia, 2021. Photo credit: Matt Palmer.

Perhaps those of us who suggest degrowth might be regarded as painfully naïve. After all, doesn’t growth lead us to a better quality of life? Similarly, why should the West expect less affluent countries to halt their economic growth in the name of environmental protection when rich nations have already benefited, often at the expense of the global South? Of course, the issue of degrowth is a contentious one in a society that believes economic growth is what makes the world go around, and it would be hugely problematic to ask countries that do not have the same luxuries as the global North to forfeit their development.

Nevertheless, in the UK, where we already have more than enough, why must our consuming thought be how to produce more? In regards to the argument that more growth equals a better life, how can this be the case in a society which is suffering from its highest levels of mental illnesses as well as an ever-growing divide between the richest and the poorest, which is larger now than it was at the time of the French revolution? Ultimately, would it not be more naïve to believe that we can go on achieving infinite growth on a finite planet?

Clearly, if our growth obsession is to continue, we will lose a significant amount of life on earth, leading to a breakdown of all ecological systems. We will face shortages of resources and food which will likely result in the rise of ultra-right-wing nationalist governments (a change which is already becoming apparent considering the recent election results in Italy and Sweden) and consequently the risk of international violence. It is therefore of paramount importance that we change the way we think about the economy, and what should be deemed a successful civilization. We must look beyond the idea that more is better. Life should not revolve around buying one thing after another, convincing ourselves each purchase will be life-changing, before discovering another gaping hole in our lives a few days later (we’ve all been there). How can having more make us content when we exist in a society which can only survive through insatiable greed?

Robert Kennedy famously declared that gross domestic product measured everything except that which makes life worthwhile, words which resonate even more strongly today than when he uttered them in 1968. Perhaps instead of GDP, we could measure success on things such as happiness, health, equality, and biodiversity. The sooner we transition towards degrowth, the more chance we have of protecting the remainder of life on earth. We must make our choices and our voices count and collectively demand an end to this self-destructive obsession that is economic growth.

About the Author: Catrina is part of the Green Students Committee and is a final year student studying History and Politics at the University of York. She is particularly passionate about issues concerning biodiversity and the politics of climate change.

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