Is the quest for perpetual economic growth the witch-burning of our times, and could this be the year we start to challenge it?

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Posted Jan 1 2017 by Dave Darby of
Is the quest for perpetual economic growth the witch-burning of our times?

Johannes Kepler was one of the major figures in the 17th century Scientific Revolution. In his day, people were grappling with the question of whether the earth was the centre of the universe, as the Church said it was, or whether it was just another planet, revolving around the Sun, as Copernicus had said it was. The heliocentric model (with the Sun at the centre) eventually overcame the geocentric model (with the Earth at the centre), but at the time, the geocentric model was a) unthinkingly accepted by almost everybody; b) seen as ‘common sense’; c) taught by all mainstream educational establishments; and d) difficult to criticise (if you valued your career, and maybe your life).

Kepler’s greatest contribution to astronomy was to explain the abnormalities in the movements of the planets, showing that their motion was elliptical, rather than circular. Kepler was a true giant in the history of human thought. He was consulted by Galileo, and worked with Tycho Brahe. Without Kepler, Newton could not have produced his Principia Mathematica.

Kepler’s mother was a herbalist and a healer, who nursed him through childhood smallpox, and who took him, aged six, to a hill top to view the great comet of 1577. She sounds like a caring, independent woman, and (probably because of this), in 1617, she was accused of being a witch. The accusation was based on hearsay, that she had poisoned someone with an ‘evil brew’, but nevertheless, her trial lasted fourteen months, during which time she was imprisoned and given graphic verbal descriptions of the tortures that awaited her if convicted. She must have been in constant terror, and Kepler gave up his studies to defend her.


Johannes Kepler

She was eventually acquitted, but Kepler must have despaired at the irrationality of his fellow humans. When we look back at the wicked stupidity of the witch-trials, which resulted in tens of thousands of innocent women being executed with no evidence of any wrongdoing apart from confessions extracted through torture or unusual birthmarks, we marvel at the absurdity of the trials and the gullibility or malevolence of those who took part in them. But at least we can look back. Something is happening today that is equally absurd, but much worse, in that if unchecked, it will kill not just innocent old women, but all of us. That something is the quest for perpetual economic growth.

Witch-burning reinforced the greatest power in the land at the time – that of the Church. The quest for perpetual growth reinforces the greatest power in the land in our time – that of money. Because of this, it is a) unthinkingly accepted by almost everybody; b) seen as ‘common sense’; c) taught by all mainstream educational establishments; d) difficult to criticise, if you value your career (fortunately, criticising the quest for perpetual economic growth nowadays is unlikely to get you killed as readily as criticising the geocentric model back in the day).

There is an ecological crash coming that we may not survive as a species. Whether you believe that or not depends on whether you believe that peer review is the best way to provide evidence. Peer review is often criticised, but no better alternative is ever put forward, because there isn’t one. Anecdotes, revelation and ancient texts were the basis of the ‘evidence’ provided in witch trials, and they certainly won’t cut it now.

We’re already past the material limits to the size of the human economy that the planet can support, so we need to shrink and then stabilise the material human economy (roads, cars, ships, urban areas, consumer goods, plastics, pesticides, plantations, airports etc.) if we are to stop the slide towards extinction.

Some people think that:

a) technology will solve the problems that growth causes;

or that:

b) we can continue to grow the economy in ways that allow the material economy to remain the same size.

However, a) is false because new technologies (nuclear fusion and space mining are the potential saviours most commonly mentioned) and the reources and waste required to implement them will increase economic growth (and therefore ecological damage) even more quickly, and hasten our demise.

And b) is false, because economic growth always increases overall spending power (otherwise it’s not economic growth, it’s just something that devalues the currency), and there’s no way to ring-fence this increase in spending power so that it’s not spent on material things; therefore if we are to stabilise the material economy (and we must), we need to stabilise the entire economy.

However, capitalism can’t be stabilised, mainly because of the way money is created. This is a complicated subject, but very basically, money is loaned into circulation by capitalist banks, with compound interest attached. The money to pay the interest is not loaned into circulation, and so the only way it can be paid is if the economy grows. There are other reasons (the advertising industry, government policies, the unjustified status of the economics discipline, the desire for increasing returns on investments), but the money supply is the most important. Douglas Rushkoff explains this in more detail here.

Surely it’s obvious that tinkering isn’t going to work, and that capitalism needs to be replaced, rather than reformed. We can’t reform away its need for constant growth. We can’t replace it by voting, however, because in capitalism, money buys power. In a capitalist system, wealth is concentrated to the point that economic power captures political power, and renders it impotent apart from legislation that is beneficial or irrelevant to capitalists. So you can’t vote to stabilise the economy or to stop wars, and so we can’t vote to stop ecological collapse.

Rather, we need to replace capitalism a non-cancerous system that allows us to live without damaging ecology. And how do we do that, if voting won’t do it?

  1. Individual change: the way we live, eat, travel and provide our own energy, housing, employment and consumables – more here. Not enough people will do this, obviously (isn’t it?), and so we need more systemic changes, like:
  2. Change in land ownership: let’s take back the land – more here; there are wonderful groups mentioned in the article that are starting to do just that – and you can help them and / or join them.
  3. Economic change: changing where we shop and who we bank with, and where we get the essentials of life from; more here and here.
  4. Change in the political / decision-making system: there are plenty of ideas bandied about, but because the decision-making system is dominated by corporate money, we find ourselves in a Catch-22 situation as regards implementation. Always ask about implementation, and be prepared to be dismissed when you talk about system change; there are a lot of vested interests out there – persevere.

But initially, as regards the quest for perpetual economic growth, all you can do is start to refute it, to naysay, to question. There must have been some brave people who spoke out against the Church, and witch-burning did eventually end. It doesn’t take as much courage today to speak out against the quest for perpetual growth. It just needs intelligence and integrity. Happy New Year.