Monday, December 7, 2015

Growth No Growth

Mr. Porter,

You are certainly fortunate to have a platform as large and renowned as the New York Times. I hope they give equal time to someone who has spent as much energy considering the alternatives to perpetual growth as, I might predict, you have devoted to defending it.

Yes war and poverty are possible outcomes of a ratcheted down economy, if poorly planned and poorly effected, but to make the claim, as you forcefully have, that they are inevitable in the absence of growth, misses many opportunities and alternate futures and ways of looking at economics. Indeed, given that perpetual growth is not possible, and that an economic crash is inevitable if we do try to grow perpetually, war and poverty will be inevitable if we charge ahead as you seem to advocate. Indeed, the wisest course of action is to plan for shrinking the overall through-put of stuff and energy, precisely to avoid what you fear and predict from an uncoordinated slowing of the global economy.

There are many other wise and immanent economists who are asking "How do we do de-growth in a healthy way?" and since de-growth of the kind you predict is a necessary effect of a pure-growth strategy (nature is plagued by periodic swings in prosperity, while "recoveries" are increasingly anemic), our own wisdom would have us listen to them.  

The greatest error I find in your reasoning is the implied expectation that prosperity is necessarily material. A healthy planet with plenty of room for wild habitat, clean water, vibrant oceans and methane securely locked in the perma-frost, is also a planet where people can live happily in peace. The question worth asking is not "How do we deliver continued material growth for all people?", but "How do we ensure that the existing wealth and resources are distributed fairly?". My gamble and studied expectation is that true happiness does not require stuff so much as it requires meaningful relationships, access to sufficient resources, opportunities for creativity, and a social fabric - to which the individual can contribute and from which the individual can derive security - and if the advanced countries were to accept marginal reductions of material wealth, the developing world would be able to come up to their level, and we could all have good quality lives without being dependent on growth, and without further straining the ecological services of our planet.

The problem, Mr. Porter, is not in the economics, but in the vision of the future you believe to be necessary. As a polemic, intended to demonstrate the absolute imperative of the perpetual growth model of economics, your vision sounds mostly intended to protect the wealth interests of an elite which is dependent upon investments for its income, and not at all to prove the necessity of growth. Economics can get us to whatever vision we choose, but the wrong vision – perpetual growth – will result in poverty and war, and perhaps even end history.
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