Bursting the Bubble of Excessive Economic Growth

Did you catch Boyhood? Watching Ellar Coltrane’s character, Mason, grow up is pretty cool – except when he gets his long locks trimmed at the insistence of an abusive step-dad. To simply see the physical growth and changes in Mason happen before your eyes (even at a lengthy two hours, forty-five minutes) is almost worth the price of admission. Toward the end of the movie, as Mason reaches young adulthood, we anticipate other changes in his person – not so much physical, but emotional and even spiritual.

A girl or a boy grows for 15-20 years and then reaches a state of physical maturity. In the adult years, physical growth ceases and the continued development of one’s character, spirit, and psyche prevails. Borrowing inspiration from the teacher of Ecclesiastes, there is a time for growth and a time to refrain from growth. In a finite world growth is necessarily limited. Development, defined as elaboration or maturation, deals with internal structuring and happens within the bounds of external physical limits. In my book, Just a Little Bit More, I critique the culture of excess that chooses the value of fast growth over slow and continued development much more often than not.

Economically, the long-term growth beginning at the dawn of the industrial era (early 1800s) and the short-term growth since the post-World War II era have significantly blessed millions of the world’s inhabitants, lifting them from poverty to prosperity. The ingenuity, sweat equity, and persistence of inventors, entrepreneurs, and millions of workers have made this beneficial economic growth possible. None of these, however, played the primary role as have the fossil fuels coal and oil, the cheap energy sources powering the geniuses and the grunts. As I stated in a previous post on this topic, gasoline boasts the energy equivalent of four hundred person hours of work. Yes, we’ll still have plenty of oil for some time and it will accomplish many things at the behest of human creators and doers. But, it is a non-renewable energy source and its externalities of pollution and carbon emission are unsustainable in a finite world. Beyond that, its ubiquity (and new lower price!) lures us into a false sense of security: we feel the economic growth we are so accustomed must continue on ad infinitum. For it not to continue as we’ve known it would be cultural and societal ruination, or so we think.

steady state 3

Other options do exist. A steady-state economy is one such option. It’s not socialism or Marxism or a forced recession, but economic sustainability. A steady-state economy at its core is an economy of stable resource usage and consumption. Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (Berrett & Koehler, 2013) is an excellent resource for understanding the issues of a steady-state economy. The 19th century is over; we can no longer operate with a mentality that assumes an endless frontier of untapped resources exists solely for our economic exploitation. Dietz and O’Neill claim that, in our current day, technological optimism – the belief in the power of technology to overcome limits to growth – gives us a false sense of separation from the environment. The economy and our way of life are not somehow unconnected from the natural world; we need to adopt an economy that suits the needs and limits of the planet. Sixteen percent of the world’s population – those living in developed nations – accounts for 78% of the world’s consumption expenditure, while 2.7 billion people, 40% of the world’s population, live on $2/day or less. If we think “economic growth” is going to lift a majority of these 40% out of grinding poverty, we’ll have to pick up a few more planets on eBay or Amazon, because this current one won’t be enough neither in terms of resources nor waste-holding capacity!

A stable population is a necessity for those who advocate a steady-state economy. World population: today, 7 billion / 2050 estimate, 9.3 billion. US population: today, 316 million / 2050 estimate, 400 million. The US population continues to increase even as the US fertility replacement rate is 1.8, below the rate of 2.1 needed for a developed nation to maintain its population. Because of immigration, US population continues to grow. Even so, conversation on the feasibility of a steady-state option is a necessity especially as world population continues to increase. Smart economic development and sustainability must increase and the acceptance of growth at all costs must decrease.

Did you catch President Obama taking credit for the recent economic growth in his 2015 State of the Union address? The very next day Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was counteracting the president, claiming the credit for his own political party. While members of both parties childishly bicker as to the generation of economic growth, and blindly tout its merits (it helps them to get elected), the world and our place in it desperately need a leadership they are not offering. The truth is that our society is thoroughly wedded to economic growth as a way of life and being – and it’s creating an increasingly complex dilemma:

             We rely on economic growth to generate jobs, yet continuous economic growth undermines the very life-giving and life-supporting systems of the planet. What in the world are we going to do about it?


My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available at http://www.blueocotillo.com and wherever books and ebooks are sold, including Amazon.




3 thoughts on “Bursting the Bubble of Excessive Economic Growth

  1. Carl Anderson

    Convincing both political and business leaders that steady state and sustainability in economics is the real challenge of our time. Keep banging away!

  2. Norb and Geanie Firnhaber

    Tim, keep these blogs coming. You continue to articulate one of the headiest challenges of our day…and our nature. A prophet among us…

    May see you Tuesday in New Braunfels.



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