The impossibility of perpetual economic growth in four easy steps
Step 1: perpetual material growth in the economy is impossible on a finite planet.
If you agree with this (and it really isn’t too controversial), go to step 2.
If you disagree, then think of material things that people buy (cars, toothpicks, fridges, second homes, anything), then post a comment below explaining how we can have more of them every year, forever. If you’re going to use words like ‘recycling’ or ‘miniaturisation’, think it through carefully first.
Step 2: economic growth always leads to greater spending power.
If you agree with this, go to step 3.
If you disagree, post a comment below explaining how it doesn’t, bearing in mind that devaluation of the currency isn’t economic growth, and won’t increase spending power.
Step 3: increases in spending power can’t be ring-fenced so that they’re not spent on material things, and therefore will always result in material growth.
If you agree, go to step 4.
If you disagree, post a comment below explaining how they can. Think of anything material, and explain how (in a world where advertising is constantly persuading us to consume) people with extra spending power can be prevented from consuming more of it / them, bearing in mind that a) quotas and bans will only work if they prevent economic growth, and b) economic growth always leads to greater spending power, regardless of price.
Step 4: if economic growth always increases spending power, which always results in material growth, which isn’t possible forever on a finite planet, then perpetual economic growth isn’t possible on a finite planet.
If you agree, congratulations – you’re not insane (or an economist).
If you disagree, post a comment below explaining why, bearing in mind that step 4 is just a logical summary of the other three points.
One further question. Perpetual economic growth isn’t possible on a finite planet, so when should we stop? When the global ecological footprint of humanity is:
a) below one planet?
b) above one planet?
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Paul Jennings October 26th, 2015
If you calculate GDP in such a way as to include crimes and catastrophes, then it is quite possible right up to the moment at which the last economist expires and falls lifeless across his keyboard.
It might be pointed out that ecological disaster is actually quite good for GDP.
Some glass-half-empty hippie environmentalist might see the breaching of Britain’s sea defences and massive ensuing flooding and death as a problem, but to your GDP calculator it’s a marvellous boon. Every flood, fire and tornado grows the economy; every degree of warming boosts the air conditioning industry; the melting of glaciers and the Arctic opens up marvellous potential for mining, drilling, trade and tourism.
Don’t you realise, Dave, that the deaths of billions of people are only tragic if you don’t work in disaster relief, the body-bag industry, or armaments?
As long ago as when Clive Ponting wrote ‘A Green History of the World’ we should all have realised that taking economic growth forward to the point of the destruction of our species (and many many others besides) is absolutely possible. We are the Easter Islanders felling the last tree to move the last, the biggest of the moai, because whilst someone might whisper that we cannot go on propitiating the gods indefinitely on our finite island, they’re not in charge and no-one’s listening.
2Dave Darby October 26th, 2015
There are enough of us to do it. and not only are there enough, they’re the most capable people I know. We don’t have to make anybody listen – we’re not preaching. The people who already get it can co-ordinate to build something better. But they have to co-ordinate. An unco-ordinated network is no match for a hierarchy, especially one that controls media, finance, housing, energy, food and the military. We have to organise. I don’t care who starts to co-ordinate, but we have to do it.
In an ideal world, no-one would be making money from someone else’s work, either through employing people, or owning land or shares. If we built a system like that, I don’t think people would oppose it, and I think we can persuade them to use it.
3Martin April 5th, 2023
Our global footprint will reach 2 planet-Earth equivalents by the decade's end.