I am currently reading former Greenpeace CEO Paul Gilding’s 2011 book The Great Disruption in which he contends that we will have no choice but to transition the global economy away from its fundamental focus on the notion of growth.
Gilding states that growth will inevitably come to a halt due to its reliance on finite resources and unsustainable and inequitable patterns of consumerism. This premise has been highlighted by some of humanity’s founding economists including John Stewart Mill who in 1848 stated that ‘The increase in wealth is not boundless. The end of growth leads to a stationary state. The stationary state of capital and wealth… would be a very considerable improvement on our present condition’ (Mill, 1848).
According to Critchley (2004, p.4), Under the stationary state described by Mill, ‘…socio-economic differentiation and class struggle would recede along with the money grubbing and drudgery associated with market society’.
As has been predicted, we are now pushing up against the limits of our economic growth. We are at the brink of massive ecological change, finite resources such as coal and oil which have aided us on the journey of human progress are becoming increasingly difficult and costly to extract and we have failed to lift millions of the Earth’s population out of grinding poverty.
Humanity now finds itself in a position in which we must consciously choose to leave traditional notions of economic growth behind us in favour of a new, post – growth economy. We must do this, or suffer the consequences of stagnation.
This has led me to consider the questions, what will the new economy look like; and how will it cater for the social, ecological and humanitarian needs of the 21st century and beyond? This is not a question for science fiction, but a deeply personal one. In the hope of one day having a family of my own, I am left wondering what the future will look like for my children and subsequent generations. What will their reality be?
The brilliance (or tragedy) of these questions is that in part, the answer is for us to decide. By ‘us’ I mean those of us who are living on the Earth at the present time. Sure some of the changes that we face are already locked in and irreversible including some degree of warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gasses into the oceans and the atmosphere. However, we have the power to consciously decide how we live our lives and thus, what legacy we choose to pass on to future generations.
On the surface, things are not looking good. Climate and extreme weather records are being broken across the globe, species are becoming endangered at an alarming rate, and nations appear to be more fixated on growth than ever. People are becoming economically rich, but time poor and increasingly dissatisfied with their lives.
If we continue on this trajectory, the future seems bleak and is likely to be characterised by a volatile climate and mass human suffering. This is not a doomsday scenario or a snapshot of the apocalyptic movie 2012, but a possible reality if as a society we do not make some enormous and urgent changes.
However, the evidence is mounting that we are already beginning to make those necessary changes. Every day, a new company or organisation emerges with a new ethos which is not predicated solely on economic growth but the overall wellbeing of society and the planet.
From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement people are rising up in numbers to demand changes in the way that human systems operate. Community gardens are springing up across the globe and many social and environmental groups are campaigning for a closed loop system in which renewable sources are used and waste minimised. Renewable energy investment has already increased substantially in the past decades and human innovation is limitless.
These are all signs that a new economy based on sustainability and quality of life is bubbling just under the surface and is slowly gaining critical mass.
Despite this, history has proven that transition is not always easy and it is fair to say that the shift from the old wasteful and consumerist economy will be a bumpy ride. Climate extremes and a currently unequal distribution system will ensure that we have a tough time ahead of us. As the famous economist John Maynard Keynes stated ‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones’.
We have the innovation, the ability and the need to create a new economy. The only question is whether society will abandon unsustainable and out dated political and economic systems before it is too late. I have no doubt that we will rise to meet these challenges because as Paul Gilding states ‘humans are slow, but not stupid’. Considering we are pushing all the limits of the Earth’s capacity, we will ultimately have no choice but to adapt and evolve, or stagnate and perish. The choice is clear.
Critchley, P. (2004) The Stationary State of John Stuart Mill, [e-book] Available through: Academia website <http://mmu.academia.edu/PeterCritchley/Papers
Gilding, P. (2011) The Great Disruption, Bloomsbury Press, Great Britain
Mill, J. S. (1848) Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, Translated by William J. Ashley, ed. Longmans, Green and Co, Great Britain