In a perpetually-growing economy, what will limit the number of cars in the world?

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Posted Jun 6 2017 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org
Just some of the huge number of cars in the world

I come back to the subject of economic growth reasonably regularly, or to be more specific, the concept of perpetual, constant, infinite growth. And I’ll keep doing it until this absurd idea is consigned to the same historical category as phlogiston or a geocentric universe.

So the question this time is: what will limit the number of cars produced in a perpetually-growing economy? And a follow up question: if the answer is ‘nothing’, how many cars will there be in the world when we become extinct?

The average purchasing power of an individual in the West has increased 20-fold in the last 100 years, and that’s down to economic growth. The global economy is more than 20 times bigger than it was 100 years ago, in terms of overall, real, inflation-adjusted purchasing power (the true measure of the size of an economy).

Most Westerners now fly on holiday or for city breaks, have a car or three on the drive, regularly buy new clothes and smartphones, have an enormous amount of food and drink available, flown from all over the world, burn enormous amounts of electricity in a cement house full of electrical goods and plastic, have credit card and mortgage debts, spend a lot of time in supermarkets, shopping centres and traffic jams, and can still afford the drugs and therapy required to operate in a system like that.

All that is made possible by economic growth. But is it worth it? Might there be some negative effects of a permanent-growth system? No? Oh, OK then, let’s move on. (Yes, I’m having a conversation with an imaginary proponent of perpetual economic growth in my head. Humour me.)

If you have 15 minutes, this guy nails what I’m trying to say. He told me that he memorised this talk word-for-word, by the way.

 

But seriously, aren’t there some environmental problems though?

What? Oh, I see. They’re nothing to worry about really, as permanent growth will generate more money to solve the problems caused by permanent growth.

That makes sense. I think.

Oh, hang on, no it doesn’t.

No but really, aren’t we looking at some serious environmental problems?

Actually, I don’t like to call them ‘environmental problems’, because it sounds a bit like environmental health – something that a plumber and a painter and decorator could sort out. I’d prefer to call them ecological problems, because the damage we’re causing is to the extremely thin film of ecology on the planet. And we’re 100% dependent on it for our existence, let alone our prosperity.

We’re losing species rapidly, as well as sheer numbers of wild plants and animals, and soil. Who’s saying so? Ecologists – the people who know most about ecology. If you want to argue that they’re wrong, then you’re saying that you think you know more about ecology than they do. If that’s the case, become an ecologist, and get your work reviewed by your peers. Then maybe I’ll have that argument with you. But if you become an ecologist, then you’ll know, so it won’t be necessary.

Anthropologist Jason Hickel explains it well in this podcast too, if you’ve got half an hour. Put the kettle on, have a cuppa and listen to it. It says everything you need to know about the insanity of chasing eternal growth.

 

So anyway, is there a limit to the number of cars that will get produced? Will there be anything to say: no, you can’t have another Ferrari. You’ve got enough already’?  [Jay Kay of Jamiroquai has 30+ ‘super cars’. I heard him say in an interview that it was sustainable because he could only drive one at a time.]

So how do we say, in a constantly-growing capitalist economy, ‘no, you can’t have another car’? Imagine the conversation with the car manufacturer. ‘Yes, I know you’ve got the money, but we don’t want it. There’s a limit to the number of cars you can have – imposed by………. no wait, you can. There’s nothing to stop anyone having as many cars as they like in a constantly-growing economy.’

I’m not talking (in this post at least) about the fantasy of a constantly-growing service economy, with no connection to (and where wages aren’t spent) in the material world, because in a bigger economy, there will be more cars, unless there is a mechanism to stop people buying more cars. And that’s what I’m not seeing.

And I don’t want to have the daft discussion about people’s desires being satisfied. Jay Kay, along with all professional footballers (all of whom have a nice little car collection, than you very much), show that that’s not the case. And the advertising industry exists to make absolutely sure that it won’t be the case.

This is worth understanding too – an explanation of exponential growth by the now sadly deceased professor Al Bartlett. You’ll need an hour and 15 minutes to spare, but it’s worth it.

 

Clearly there’s a limit to the number of cars in the world, just as there is with any material product, whether it’s cars, phones, socks or knitting needles. We can’t have a world a mile deep in knitting needles. That’s an absurd example, because it’s way past the limit. But if you understand that it’s past the limit, you have to acknowledge the existence of a limit.

Can you honestly not see the connection between unlimited numbers of cars (or anything else) and ecological destruction, and therefore our demise, or that in a constantly-growing economy there is no way to impose limits? If you can’t, then you’re not going to be part of the solution to the problem of ecological destruction.

I’m having conversations with people who don’t need this explained to them, because that’s where the solution is going to come from. If you don’t see it, then until you do, you’re not going to be part of this conversation, unfortunately. And we can’t even start to address the damage that humans are causing to ecology unless we address the root of the problem – our cancerous, constantly-growing economy.