The folly of perpetual growth

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, March 2012

Nobody wins when the environment and economy are pitted against each other.

Like most people, I’d never heard of Klaus Schwab, a German-born business professor and founder of the decades-old World Economic Forum for the ultra-rich and powerful. That is, I’d never heard of him until he opened his mouth at the Forum’s annual gathering in the Swiss Alps last January to announce to his exclusive audience: “Capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us.”

Sounding like a man who’d been doing some heavy pondering, he spoke of the growing inequities within and between countries and suggested the time had come to “embrace a much more holistic, inclusive and qualitative approach to economic development…A global transformation is urgently needed and it must start with reinstating a global sense of social responsibility.” 

No doubt Schwab’s words were influenced by the current sombre situation in Europe but I found them courageously spoken nonetheless. It’s time to see and do things differently, and if the change must come from the top, then the occasion of Schwab’s speech has the potential to be game-changing. 

For decades we’ve been told that a healthy economy is based on growth. Unless we created more, bought more, sold more, used more and did more than the sum total of the previous year’s enterprise, the economy would falter and the lifestyle we’ve come to take for granted would surely deteriorate. Throughout all that industriousness we never stopped to consider the impossibility of perpetual growth as plotted on a graph. It didn’t occur to us that bad things in life often give the economy its biggest boost—that social strife, wars, earthquakes, and environmental disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and, closer to home, the fuel carelessly decanted into Goldstream River, all contribute robustly to the GNP.   

That’s one of the biggest blind spots with a growth-based economy. The concerns over negative long-term repercussions—even those known to be imminent—don’t stand a chance against the boon of immediate and often short-term jobs. And the environment typically bears much of the strain because mostly it’s still being positioned by our governments and old-order corporations as an obstacle to growth and prosperity: “If you want a job, you must allow access to the mine/forest/deep blue sea.”

But now this tack is being challenged in high circles, at least in theory. Schwab declared to his peers that the time has come to shift the economic emphasis from growth to quality. To also assess future growth on the basis of sustainability today and impact on the environment down the road. 

David Suzuki has long pointed out that nobody wins when the environment and economy are pitted against each other. Jeffrey Sachs, a leading international economic advisor, proposes a bold new perspective for future prosperity in his new book, The Price of Civilization (Random House, 2011): “As individuals we need to regain the balance of our own lives between work and leisure, saving and consumption, self-interest and compassion, individualism and leadership. As a society we need to establish the right relationship of markets, politics and civil society to address the complex challenges of the twenty-first century.” 

How do we get started in a new direction? Make conscientious consumer choices. Run our businesses on a smaller ecological footprint and incorporate more than just profit into the model for success. Support local innovation and demand that our governments do as well. We have companies in town working on some amazing technology, including the development of a whole new generation of solar-powered outdoor lighting that’s in demand around the world. I’d rather see them getting financial assistance than the traditional auto industry. 

Think locally. Support people who make and grow real things. Champion projects that bolster both the economy and our finite environment. (Imagine what could have been accomplished if the millions spent on the ill-designed McTavish Road Interchange had instead been applied to developing a transit system using the rail corridor between Langford and downtown Victoria.)

Quality of life no longer equals quantity of stuff; if it ever did. Now, if we could only convince our politicians.  

Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic is overcoming her aversion to writing to politicians on issues that matter. The power really can be with the people.