The Great Apocalypse

Limiting Economic Growth

Joseph Tharamangalam

[This article attempts to explore the concept and project of de-growth and of its relevance, indeed urgency, at this historical juncture. It will provide the current context of the world facing an existential environmental and climate crisis as the finite earth has already exceeded its bio-capacity by about 50 percent. Climate scientists warn people that the crisis is fast approaching irreversible levels and there is very limited time left to take serious action. It is in this context that concerned scholars and activists are engaged in the discourse of limiting economic growth, using concepts ranging from sustainable growth to post-growth .]

This paper is organised in four parts. After this brief introduction in Part I, Part II offers an overview of the concept and history of the project of continuous GDP growth that began with what Polanyi (2001) has called “the Great Transformation”, the rise of industrial modernity some 3 centuries ago, and became a taken-for-granted common-sense across the world. It will briefly discuss how this project of achieving continuous and strong GDP growth received a new life in the post-war period of high growth and a new interest among development scholars and policy makers in promoting rapid growth in the developing or underdeveloped “third world”. Part III provides a brief overview of the debates about the “growth problematic”, the impact of “development” across the world, and the scholarly discourse about sustainability using concepts that range from sustainable growth to de-growth. Part IV summarises the paper and concludes with the assertion that there is now no option but to embrace the project of de-growth and reduced consumption if people want to avoid the impending collapse of the planet earth.

GDP Growth
Is GDP growth a natural phenomenon in all societies? The answer is a decisive “no”, based on whatever one can learn from sciences such as history, pre-history, and Anthropology as well as from the traditions of still surviving indigenous communities across the world. To cite one such example, when this writer visited an Andean community in Bolivia, he was introduced to their cherished philosophy of“buen vivir” (also “vivir bien”) or “live well” (not better) in harmony with mother earth (Panchanmama) and the community.

In fact, there are no instances of continuous GDP growth anywhere till about three centuries ago. The average GDP till then was estimated to be 158 USD .The idea that humans as homo sapiens are called upon to make continuous progress, seen as increasing extraction and consumption of the earth’s resources, was a novel one that arose only in the wake of “The Great transformation” (Polyani, op.cit) that followed the so-called “Enlightenment”. A new group of scholars advancing the newly popular science of “Economics” seized the moment and developed the technically sophisticated measure of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or GNP (Gross National Product) to gauge and monitor progress in “economic growth”, the sum of goods and services. It is possible to identify some of the radically new ideas that were developed by them, including some that seem to have proposed new ways of seeing even the very nature of the human person, of human society and culture and the meaning and goal of human life itself.

Four important such ideas are: 1) the idea of progress, the idea that humans as rational beings are called upon to aim at continuous progress /improvement in all spheres of life, 2) the idea of growth, now defined as GDP growth, that is, the idea that the economy needs continuous and endless growth, empowering the society to extract and consume more and more of the earth’s resources, 3) the idea of an “economy” that is now conceived as “dis-embedded” (Polanyi) from nature and society, from such domains as those of the moral, the religious and political, and 4) perhaps the most novel and radical idea was that all these would be driven by the now dis-embedded “homo economicus”, an economic man, a utility-maximising, instrumentally rational actor whose sole goal is to increase production and profit . To the question, who, then, would serve and look after the “common good”? The now famous answer was “the invisible hand.” While Adam Smith seems to have made a casual reference to this “hand”, the idea of an invisible market serving the ”common good” despite the individual homo economicus pursuing “his”(this actor was seen as male) selfish goal of maximising utility and making profit. These ideas are well known to people as these became entrenched in neo-classical economics and has seen a revival in present time with the rise of neoliberalism and the vigorous promotion of liberal, “free-market” economics by the world’s capitalist powers.

Armed with this ideology of progress and growth, European entrepreneurs embarked upon a path of “growth” and “progress” through the industrial revolution--- travelling the world, looting, colonising and eventually creating two worlds and the so-called developed and underdeveloped (developing) ones. The post- World War II period of high growth saw the rise of new theories and programmes about how to accelerate growth with a special focus on the development of the latter. WW Rostow’s Stages of Growth that became the handbook for many development theorists and policy makers proposed five stages of growth that could, and should, be followed by all countries (Rostow, 1990). These stages that ranged from the 1st stage of “traditional society” through one of “take-off” to the final 5th stage of “mass consumption” envisioned and predicted this golden age of mass consumption for all people in all parts of the world.

Sustainable Growth to De-growth
It is a fact that the post-war period saw a period of high growth across the world, including the rise of a few newly developed countries, for example, in East Asia. But it became clear that such development was very uneven, creating unprecedented inequalities within and across countries, a world of opulence and hunger, of the “stuffed and the starved”. Obesity and malnutrition became the two major health issues even in the richest country, the US. Today 50% of the world’s wealth is owned by just 1% of the world’s people, 85% by the richest 10%. India, a country that did experience relatively high growth has the single largest pool of hungry people among all countries in the world. Its rank in the Global Hunger Index slipped from 94 to 101 between 2020 and 2021. It also is known for the world’s highest rate of child malnutrition. The most devastating consequence of the growth path has undoubtedly been its impact on the environment, on the finite earth that is now exceeding its bio-capacity by 50 percent. It is estimated that if all people in the world were to consume at the same rate as the people of the US, people will need 5 earths to sustain that (UNDP, 2020). No wonder that there are rumours about some super-rich entrepreneurs dreaming of colonising new planets in space! This also raised the issue of “inter-generational Rights”. Do people have the right to ruin the lives of their children and grandchildren, to “steal their dreams and childhood” in the words of the 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunburg (2019) who gave her famous and angry “how dare you speech” to the world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit Conference.  The crisis of climate change and global warming has been a wake-up call that has triggered the urgent debate about the need to end growth. The Meadow’s Report on “Limit to Growth” that was submitted to the Club of Rome 50 years ago was the first to highlight the negative impact of growth on the vulnerable planet earth. This debate has since metamorphosed into different, but related narratives and concepts such as Human Development, sustainable growth, no-growth and finally to de-growth.

Even a cursory overview of the current climate crisis provided above shows why all people of the world, need to seize the moment and act, and act now, if they want to save themselves and the planet from the impending apocalypse. While the small steps, taken by the UN and other international organisations, as well as by some of the relatively progressive countries may be in the right direction, these are not only grossly inadequate , but in danger of attacks from the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and other “strong” far-right ideologues. More important is the entrenched interests of the corporate world, the military-industrial complex that controls the global economy. When their spokespersons, even global organisations including the UN, offer plans to cut carbon emissions and find more sustainable growth-paths, can one blame a cynic or critical theorist for seeing this as the proverbial arsonist playing the role of the fire-fighter? And now ‘Democratic’ US President Biden has recently approved a very controversial project to extract fossil fuel from the Arctic despite dire warnings from climate scientists about the irreversible consequences of such a project on the world’s environment.

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Vol 55, No. 47, May 21 - 27, 2023