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Alternatives to Growth

By Ben Habib     Ben is a member of WATCH (Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health)

Part of living lightly involves acknowledging that some of our ideas that have served us well in the past are no longer appropriate for the times we are moving into.  One of these sacred cows is the concept of perpetual economic growth.  The problem is not economic growth in and of itself, but rather continual and infinite growth.

To illustrate how perpetual growth is a problem, I take as my starting point that the Earth is a closed finite system.  This means there are limits to the amount of resources we can extract from the Earth and the amount of waste we can pollute, beyond which the biological processes of the planet and our human societies that depend on them come under threat. 

So is there any evidence that we’ve reached these limits?  I am persuaded by the thousands of peer-reviewed academic publications from scientists around the world, conducting independent research across numerous scientific disciplines, which consistently point to this conclusion.

Economic activities such as industrial production, agriculture, transportation, and material consumption necessarily consume resources and produce a carbon footprint.  It is not hard to understand that resource and pollution limits will be reached if these economic activities continually expand. 

To reduce carbon emissions to the degree mandated by the scientific community, we reach the uncomfortable but inescapable conclusion that we must stabilise economic growth.  This goes against all our instincts and theories about prosperity, but the logic is clear.  On a finite planet, bound by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, perpetual economic growth is impossible without the severest of consequences human societies and the ecosystems that support them. 

The magnitude of this task cannot be underestimated.  Moving away from the perpetual growth model will challenge entrenched economic interests, political institutions and social relationships.  It will challenge our beliefs and force us to re-evaluate our relationship with other people and the natural world.  There will be an up-front cost in making this transformation, but the cost of avoiding this choice will be far higher.

The good news is that we already have the tools to make this transformation.  We have the technologies, knowledge and ingenuity to find creative solutions.  We have working models like Transition Towns that can become alternatives to a growth-oriented society.  Rather than deny there is a problem, let’s work together and take some positive steps toward a post-growth economy.