Argument: Is it time to ditch the pursuit of economic growth?

April 29, 2013 • Daily Email Recap

Argument: Is it time to ditch the pursuit of economic growth?



Kenneth Boulding once warned that anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. It’s time for us to put an end to this mad pursuit in wealthy nations like the US and Britain.


Besides being a recipe for environmental disaster, we have reached a point where economic growth is no longer improving people’s lives. Although the British economy has more than tripled in size since 1950, surveys indicate that people have not become happier. Inequality has risen sharply in recent years, and jobs are far from secure. At the same time, increased economic activity has led to greater resource use, dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and declining biodiversity. There is now strong evidence economic growth is costing us more than it’s worth.


The real question is not whether we should ditch the pursuit of growth – that’s a given – the question is what to replace it with. How do we build a stable economy that meets our needs without endangering the life-support systems of the planet? Five years ago, it would have been difficult to answer this question, but now a new economic blueprint is emerging based on the work of hundreds of researchers around the world. It’s a blueprint for an economy of enough. It includes strategies to conserve natural resources, stabilize population, reduce inequality, fix the financial system, create meaningful jobs, and change the way we measure progress.


But in order to implement these strategies, we first need to let go of our obsession with economic growth. Only then can we build an economy where the goal is better lives, not more stuff.



Before I make the case for economic progress it is necessary to challenge your peculiar premise that the US and Britain are obsessed with economic growth. On the contrary, the sentiments you express are essentially a stronger form of an outlook that has long prevailed among the élites in both countries.


Admittedly, Western leaders sometimes proclaim support for growth. But they also, like you, talk incessantly about various types of alleged limits to prosperity: environmental constraints, the need for happiness and the dangers of inequality. Both US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have made countless statements along these lines. Indeed, they became mainstream in Western thought back in the 1970s.


In that respect, your Kenneth Boulding reference from 1973 is fitting. Yet you fail to mention he was chair of the American Economic Association – a pillar of the establishment.


Before we go on, I would therefore suggest that to be intellectually consistent you should concede two points. First, that green ideas are mainstream even if the élite does not go quite as far as you would like; and second, acknowledge that for all your talk of ‘better lives’, what you favour is savage austerity. The implication of your argument is that the cuts in living standards that people have suffered since the 2008-09 recession do not go nearly far enough. If you believe such sacrifices are necessary you should at least say so explicitly.

To read the full debate, please click here:

Current World Population


Net Growth During Your Visit