135: Why We Want a World Without Growth (transcript)

February 13, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

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People seem to have a hard time imagining a world without growth, specifically economic growth or population growth. There’s also personal growth but I’m talking about materially measurable growth so population growth and economic growth. People seem to believe that economic growth is necessary. I’ve looked and I have not found any reasonable proof. If you know of any, please let me know. People say you need inflation to keep motivating people but I haven’t found any foundation for it besides what looks like unfounded idealism. On the contrary, I found societies that have lived for tens to hundreds of thousands of years stably which would seem to disprove that you need growth. Nobody thinks that over 1000 people were stuck on an island that had resources to sustain 1000 people indefinitely imagining a time without satellites or a modern ability to find any group of that size anywhere. So imagine that these people were stuck there. I think anybody expects that if the thousand people were stuck in a place that could sustain a thousand people that those people could figure out how to sustain themselves using those resources. Actually, in such a situation everybody sees that growth beyond a thousand people would be a problem. If you can only sustain a thousand, you go to fifteen hundred. That’s going to be a big problem. Certainly, there have been groups of larger and smaller sizes that have survived in isolation for various durations.

The hundreds of thousands of the cultures that I described were in southern Africa. They didn’t live in isolation but they illustrate that any economic theory that says that you have to grow would have predicted wrong. That’s one of the great things about physics. My background is in physics. If a theory predicts something that nature contradicts, we accept it. Actually, we celebrate that nature is right and the theory is wrong no matter how much we like the theory. Economists and journalists don’t seem to let go of their theories no matter how many times nature disproves them. As it happens, despite their hundreds of thousands of years of stability growth in the rest of the world is impinging on southern Africa and undermining those cultures.

So cultures that were stable for a thousand times longer than say Post-Industrial revolution Europe are being undermined by growth based systems. We are destabilizing them. Such results of instability impinging on stability don’t have to be inevitable. We can stop choosing goals and beliefs that yield cultural, social and environmental destruction. Not to mention unhappiness, addiction and disparity in favor of the ones that promote enjoying what we have and taking responsibility for how our actions affect others and our environment. We know that systems based on enjoying what we have and taking responsibility for how our actions affect others can work. And that idealism driving growth-based models predicts wrong. Those that believe these ideals as far as I can tell are unfounded. They ground themselves in believes that without inflation to devalue money people won’t have a reason to produce or they’ll leech off each other. Based on beliefs about human nature that are blatantly self-serving, untested and fanciful guesswork. If you see it otherwise and can show me where I’m wrong, please let me know. I’ve been looking and have not been able to find it.

Some believe that if we don’t move forward, we can only move backward with some unfounded belief that we will return to the Stone Age. False dichotomies like that we can only move forward or backward or the sign of people not understanding nuance and subtlety. In this case people’s intrinsic motivations that differ from just wanting more that are based on irrationality that poorly models the human motivational and emotional system. Meanwhile people talk about getting off this planet, maybe a colony on the Moon or Mars. They generally suggest those places, the Moon or Mars, as starting points to colonize the galaxy, something big like that. Somehow these trips in the spaceship don’t count for them. Getting to Mars may take under a year but reaching another star would take generations. No economic or population growth would be possible on the ship in those times. New berths given finite resources would require waiting for someone else to die. That a population can’t grow is no mystery when it’s a spaceship. Nor would the people on spaceship feel they needed to grow. People would cooperate because they know each other and the limits of the spaceship. Earth is no less finite. It may be bigger than a typical spaceship that we imagine but it’s still finite. Somehow people believe that growth on the planet can go on forever. If we can live stably, on a ship we can live stably. If people can solve how to live in that context, then we can solve how to live in this context. At least in principle why not try.

On a related note, have you ever considered what the carrying capacity of the earth is? I don’t mean what the number is but what the concept is. It’s the maximum number of people that can live on the planet indefinitely. Right now we’re using non-renewable fossil fuels which by definition we can’t use indefinitely. So I am not sure if we’re over or under the carrying capacity now. The science to me say that we’re over. But let’s re-examine the concept. Say everyone on the planet was living comfortably, only living on renewables, not causing more extinctions or decertifying the land or overfishing and so on. If everybody’s comfortable, you could increase the population so you could add more people. Life might get less comfortable for some but that comfort meant that there was some slack which we could use to put more people on the planet. As long as you can keep increasing the population and people keep living, we’re below the carrying capacity. We reached the carrying capacity when adding one more person would cause the death of someone already living. In other words, the carrying capacity is where everyone is at a point of misery just barely worth living. Earth at its carrying capacity is something we want to avoid. We want to live well below that number. At the carrying capacity any unforeseen problem would cause deaths, possibly many all around the world that could become in the form of a storm or an earthquake or something like that.

Business people I would think should get this point more than anybody else. Think of operating a factory. If you operate a factory at peak efficiency – everything depends on everything else deliveries come just in time. When a part comes off a one machine it’s ready to be used on the next and so forth. Everything depends on everything else. Any problem anywhere in such a situation though shuts the whole thing down. No business operates at peak efficiency because doing so is brittle and unstable. Instead you keep extra inventory so that if a machine that produces apart breaks you use up the inventory of that part while you fix that machine. If that machine usually takes a day to fix, you keep roughly a day of its part in inventory. Without that inventory when that machine broke every machine that depended on its part would have to stop. Shipments would keep coming in but with no place to put them since at peak efficiency there’s no spare space trucks would backup outside the factory. You can see the problems multiplying with machines and people unable to act.

I don’t think people get this point. Factories and planets operate best well below their peak of theoretical efficiency. How much below depends on the details. The greater the uncertainty, the farther below peak efficiency you can safely operate. There’s a maximum global happiness well above zero population and well below the carrying capacity. I don’t know exactly what it is but when we’re there there’s plenty for everyone and the population doesn’t keep growing. Adding more people starts making everyone more miserable. Or alternatively you can sacrifice sustainability to keep everybody happy. I think that’ll be a very interesting place to live where we are well below the carrying capacity of the planet and keeping the population steady.

Let’s consider our world today. I increasingly see what looks like beautiful green fields for kids to play that are actually plastic, not grass. We’ve created increasingly grass-like plastic but it’s still plastic. It’s not living. We’re replacing the environment our species developed in with plastic that as far as I know hurts life, not helps it. It just looks healthy. Recently when I picked up my vegetables from my pick-up location for my farm share, my CSA, the building is a high-school church and soup kitchen depending on the time of day. And at this particular time, the high-school kids were running laps in the basement cafeteria. The room as far as I could tell had no windows. A low ceiling, no basketball nets. The tables are still in the middle of the room. Kids need play to mature. This wasn’t remotely free play. This is kids running around in a dingy room and this is a private school in Manhattan with access to material resources but some resources money can’t buy. I can’t say for sure but I suspect that past generations would call our world hellish, lacking life, supporting rats and roaches more than any other species. As our growth-based cultures have expanded we’ve hit bottleneck after bottleneck and result each with varying levels of success.

Many of us are happy today and longevity is high but there’s a lot of inequality and lot of misery. Wars have killed a lot of people in living memory. Non-renewable resources, clean air, clean land and clean water are decreasing. Sea levels are rising. In other words, problems that only matter on a global scale where we reached limits to growth have never been issues before but they are now. These economic models that predict growth will solve problems only work on a conditions that no longer exist. Conditions like that we can assume that if we throw something away that it’s gone forever or that if we need more resources like fish or land, we can find them. While we weren’t looking at their side effects, we didn’t notice that these systems were creating new problems.

I like imagining fantasy worlds where people behave how I want them to but I don’t set federal policy based on my fantasies. Sadly, bankers and politicians do. Ignoring the side effects arising from the differences between their fantasies and what actually happens. Ignoring the side effects arising from the differences between their fantasies and what happens. I recommend we stop basing our economies and behavior on blatantly wrong fantastical ideals that drive us to overpopulate the planet that any thoughtful businessperson would stop if he or she saw the world as a factory or any other asset. We can change by voting and we can change our behavior. Buying less. Enjoying what you have. Consuming less. Having fewer kids. Supporting policies that support steady state economies and population sizes. We can create systems where populations and economies remain stable, not growing. Economies are a matter of distributing resources which we can do on smaller scales. Even if we aren’t sure we can we know that our current systems don’t work. I recommend looking up steady state economics and limits to growth. I’m not talking about anything new here.

People have been working on this for a long time and people see that these things can work and people see that the way that we’re doing things now does not work. If you like a physicist’s perspective, I highly recommend Tom Murphy’s Do the Math blog. I recently interviewed him for the podcast so soon you can hear him here. In any case, I’ll put the link on the podcast page. Also, if you want to see how people and cultures advance that has developed personally without growth that is economic or population growth, I recommend the Low-tech Magazine page. Also, one of my favorite sites. I’ll put their links on the page. In any case, I wanted to share that human societies and human cultures can sustain themselves stably without growth. Whereas if you require growth, especially a percentage growth every year which is to say exponential growth that is not sustainable. It’s high time that we changed our beliefs and the systems that these beliefs drive to be more sustainable, to live in concert with the world that we live on.

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