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What if Growth Isn’t Possible? See the cartoon!

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist
– Kenneth Boulding

This week, world leaders, politicians, pundits and a solid majority of the population continue a global vigil – praying the world’s economies will return to robust growth. We hold our breath with the release of each new economic indicator – job creation, consumer confidence, retail sales, new home starts.

this week, if you find yourself cheering a return to growth, you may be inadvertently celebrating our acceleration toward an ecological cliff edge
– Andrew Simms, Policy Director and Head of Climate Change and Energy New Economics Foundation

Vigil participants might be startled at the above statement from Andrew Simms, accompanying the release of an important new report: Growth Isn’t Possible This report, which made headlines in the UK, outlines how economic growth – if we manage to get back on the habit – will almost certainly erase any gains we might make in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In the report, authors Simms and Johnson analyze reams of data and conclude it is utterly unrealistic to expect emissions reductions targets to be met if economic growth goals are achieved.

The problem is that growth drowns out the gains from increased efficiency and technological innovation…. even with the most optimistic likely uptake of low-carbon energy, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile a growing global economy with a good likelihood of limiting global temperature rise to 2C
– Andrew Simms in his blog about the report

If you’ve succumbed to life at the speed of the internet and lack the attention span to read or at least skim the full report, you can at least get the Cliff Notes version from this cute cartoon:


I’ve not yet digested the entire report (125 pages, plus endnotes), but I want to recommend it to you now. If you’re like most readers, you’re probably participating in the prayer vigil for our economy. That’s understandable. Most of us have been worshipping at the Church of Growth Everlasting our entire lives. But you need to know that perpetual economic growth is not possible. Fortunately, it turns out economic growth is not the answer to true happiness – or even the meeting of basic needs. There is a better, more sustainable way (a subject for another day).

we have surpassed limits within which me must live if this species is to survive on a vibrant, nurturing planet. We must move back within those limits if we are to have the possibility of ‘good’ life to offer future generations.
– Margaret Swedish

We’re served a healthy dose of perpetual growth Kool Ade daily – by news reporters and pundits, politicians, and at chamber of commerce luncheons, city council meetings and corporate sales meetings. This pervasive culture of growth is the topic of my documentary, Hooked on Growth. My collection of Kool Ade samples is overwhelming this office – on hard drives, stacks of newspapers and DVDs. I’m sure we’ll get a healthy dose of it Wednesday night in U.S. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Perhaps if you watch the cartoon or read the report, you might become a more discerning consumer of the Kool Ade, recognizing it for what it is. Visit here often, and soon you’ll be able to detect that the Kool Ade is “corked.”

For those who don’t buy the notion of human-induced climate change, there are several other factors limiting our ability to achieve unending economic growth. Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown offers an excellent explanation of the conflict between perpetual economic growth and environmental sustainability. It’s informative to close by returning to an earlier Andrew Simms quote, but this time I’ll include the end of his sentence:

this week, if you find yourself cheering a return to growth, you may be inadvertently celebrating our acceleration toward an ecological cliff edge and an opportunity missed to find a new, better direction.

As I mentioned, in future blog posts, and in my film, we’ll be addressing that “new, better direction.”

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