Is endless growth a problem?

futuristic wasteland
© Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock

Eco-friendly sandals are nice, but they won't save the planet.

Politicians may disagree on a lot, but if there's one thing they all parrot like ... parrots ... it's that we need to keep our economy growing.

Our economy is designed that way. It's built on investments: a bank loans you money to buy a house, and it charges you interest. Then you have to come up with the money you borrowed, plus extra. Society must come up with that extra every year to keep the economy growing, or the whole thing collapses (well, the stock market, anyway). So businesses have to keep pushing out products, whether or not people actually want them.

So we end up with an endless supply of disposable plates, new iPhones and plastic packaging. And we keep using the earth to make more. Deforestation, air pollution, mass extinction ... You know what I'm talking about. You're on a site called "Treehugger."

We're never going to dig up enough coal, cut down enough trees, catch enough fish or grow enough corn. To keep our economy plugging away, we need more than enough — we need enough, plus interest.

So some experts are saying that no number of new solar panels or city bikes is going to turn this ship around. We need to change the way our economy is designed.

"We are all hostages to growth, and hostages to those who promise it," writes Jason Hickel, a University of London anthropologist who I'm totally ripping off right now. "The good news is that it doesn't have to be this way."

We know it doesn't have to be this way because, for most of human history, it wasn't this way. Past economies were about sustainability, not growth. Loans have been around for thousands of years, but they were just a piece of the overall system. Now, they are the system. This constant, exponential growth really only kicked off a few hundred years ago.

Perhaps the current economy could become more sustainable too. Companies could stop pumping out disposable clothes and spending billions of dollars making advertisements to convince people to spend billions of dollars. Most new wealth goes to the ultra rich anyway.

"Economists and politicians tell us that we need growth in order to boost people out of poverty," Hickel continued. "But of all the new income generated by growth, only five percent goes to the poorest 60 percent of humanity."

There's a pretty awesome way to achieve this new, sustainable economy, says Hickel: we can all work less. Instead of spending our days in offices and using our remaining few free hours to spend our paychecks at bars, we can spend our days doing what we want. Sweden's already doing it. Can we just copy Sweden for once?

With more free time, people can hang out with their families and friends for more than a few hours a day. Perhaps some people will even spend their time inventing things people actually want, rather than paying marketers to come up with flashy to ways to shove therapeutic pillows, sleeping pills and French fries down everyone's throats.

Sorry, I got a little heated there. Rant over.

Not sorry.

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