Manifesto for a Post-Growth Economy
What single change stands to give Americans more free time, healthier ecosystems, and more meaningful jobs?
By James Gustave Speth / yesmagazine.org

We tend to see growth as an unalloyed good, but an expanding body of evidence is now telling us to think again. Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for most it is a god that is failing—underperforming for most of the world’s people, and creating more problems than it solves for those in affluent societies.

We’ve had tons of growth in recent decades—while wages stagnated, jobs fled our borders, life satisfaction flatlined, social capital eroded, poverty and inequality mounted, and the environment declined. The never-ending drive to grow the overall United States economy has led to a ruthless international search for energy and other resources, failed at generating needed jobs, and rests on a manufactured consumerism that does not meet the deepest human needs.

Americans are substituting growth and ever more consumption for doing the things that would truly make us and our country better off. Psychologists have pointed out, for example, that while economic output per person in the United States rose sharply in recent decades, there has been no increase in life satisfaction. Meanwhile, levels of distrust and depression have increased substantially.

Politically, the growth imperative is a big part of how we the people are controlled: the necessity for growth puts American politics in a straitjacket—a golden straitjacket, as Tom Friedman would say—and it gives the real power to those who have the finance and technology to deliver that growth—the corporations.

Here’s the good news. We already know the types of policies that would move us toward a post-growth economy that sustains both human and natural communities. It is possible to identify a long list of public policies that would slow GDP growth, thus sparing the environment, while simultaneously improving social and individual well-being. Such policies include:

  • shorter workweeks and longer vacations;
  • greater labor protections, including a “living” minimum wage, protection of labor’s right to organize, and generous parental leaves;
  • guarantees to part-time workers;
  • a new design for the twenty-first-century corporation, one that embraces rechartering, new ownership patterns, and stakeholder primacy rather than shareholder primacy;
  • restrictions on advertising;
  • incentives for local and locally owned production and consumption;
  • strong social and environmental provisions in trade agreements;
  • rigorous environmental, health, and consumer protection (including fees or caps on polluting emissions and virgin materials extractions, leading in turn to full incorporation of environmental costs in prices);
  • greater economic equality with genuinely progressive taxation of the rich (including a progressive consumption tax) and greater income support for the poor;
  • increased spending on neglected public services; and initiatives to address population growth at home and abroad.

In this mix of policies, Juliet Schor and others have stressed the importance of work-time reduction. For example, if productivity gains result in higher hourly wages (a big "if" in recent decades) and work time is reduced correspondingly, personal incomes and overall economic growth can stabilize while quality of life increases. She points out that workers in Europe put in about three hundred fewer hours of work each year than Americans.

Taken together, these policies would undoubtedly slow GDP growth, but quality of life would improve, and that’s what matters.

The Growth We Need

Of course, even in a post-growth America, many things will still need to grow. We need growth in all the following areas:

  • The number of good jobs and the incomes of poor and working Americans;
  • The availability of health care and the efficiency of its delivery;
  • Education and training;
  • Security against the risks attendant to illness, old age, and disability;
  • Investment in public infrastructure and in environmental protection;
  • The deployment of climate-friendly and other green technologies;
  • The restoration of both ecosystems and local communities;
  • Research and development;
  • And in international assistance for sustainable, people-centered development for the world’s poor.

These are among the many areas where public policy needs to ensure that growth occurs. Jobs and meaningful work top that list because unemployment is so devastating. Given today’s unemployment picture, America should be striving to add far more jobs than likely future rates of GDP growth will deliver. The availability of jobs, the well-being of people, and the health of communities should not be forced to await the day when GDP growth might somehow deliver them. It is time to shed the view that, for working people, government provides mainly safety nets and occasional Keynesian stimuli. We must insist that government have an affirmative responsibility to ensure that those seeking decent-paying jobs find them.

The surest, and also the most cost-effective, way to that end is direct government spending, investments, and incentives targeted at creating jobs in areas where there is high social benefit, such as:

  • modern infrastructure;
  • child and elder care;
  • renewable energy and energy efficiency;
  • environmental and community restoration;
  • local banking;
  • and public works and childhood education, where there is a huge backlog of needs.

Creating new jobs in areas of democratically determined priority is certainly better than trying to create jobs by pump-priming aggregate economic growth, especially in an era where the macho thing to do in much of business is to shed jobs, not create them. Another path to job creation is reversing the United States' gung-ho stance on free trade globalization. To keep investment and jobs at home, journalist and author William Greider urges that Washington “rewrite trade law, tax law, and policies on workforce development and subsidy.”

Visions of Post-Growth Plenty

In Managing Without Growth, Canadian economist Peter Victor presents a model of the Canadian economy that illustrates the real possibility of scenarios “in which full employment prevails, poverty is essentially eliminated, people enjoy more leisure, greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced, and the level of government indebtedness declines, all in the context of low and ultimately no economic growth.” Here are some of the policies and resultant social changes that Victor says could get us there in 30 years:

  • a stiff carbon tax is used to control emissions of the principal greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide;
  • labor productivity gains are taken as increased leisure time;
  • population growth levels off;
  • and unemployment declines due to work-sharing arrangements.
It is time for America to move to a post-growth society, where our communities and families are no longer sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP growth.

The model succeeds in generating these results, however, only if no-growth is phased in over several decades, not imposed immediately. In his discussion of policies needed for the transition, Victor mentions caps on emissions, resource-harvesting limits that take into account the environment’s assimilative capacity and resource regeneration rates, government social policies to eliminate poverty, reduced work time for employees, and other measures.

It is time for America to move to a post-growth society, where working life, the natural environment, our communities and families, and the public sector are no longer sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP growth; where the illusory promises of ever-more growth no longer provide an excuse for neglecting our country’s compelling social needs; and where true citizen democracy is no longer held hostage to the growth imperative.


James Gustave Speth author pic James Gustave Speth adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. He is an environmental lawyer, advocate, and author, most recently of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. From 1999 to 2008, he was dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. From 1993 to 1999, he served as administrator of the U.N. Development Programme and chair of the UN Development Group. Prior to his service at the U.N., he was founder and president of the World Resources Institute; professor of law at Georgetown University; chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality; and senior attorney and cofounder, Natural Resources Defense Council.

Interested?

  • America's Attention Deficit Disorder

    Money is the least of our problems. It’s time to pay attention to the real deficits that are killing us.

  • Putting the Science of Happiness Into Practice
    Countries around the world are beginning to apply the science of well-being to the decisions they make. News from the 5th International Conference on Gross National Happiness.
  • Why We Revolt
    Rebecca Solnit: When and how does the moment come when people stop believing in the power that has ruled them? When and how do ordinary people discover their own power?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

4.0 · 1
What's Next
Related
Load Comments
Trending Today
"Desert Goddess" Remembers Arizona's Glen Canyon
7 min · 10,485 views today · In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the "desert goddess," Katie Lee. When the Glen Canyon Dam was...
9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible
Kai Cheng Thom · 3,770 views today · In my first year of college, I stopped calling myself an activist. It took attending just a few meetings of the campus queer group for me to realize that I didn’t fit in with...
The Great Forgetting: You Probably Haven't Heard about It But It Completely Affects Your Life
Deep Ecology Hub · 2,523 views today · This article summarizes the ideas of Daniel Quinn, first written about in The Story of B, which was a sequel to Ishmael. The longer, original essay can be read here, and comes...
Who Are You? This Breathtaking Video Might Change Your Life
2 min · 1,614 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
The Profound Ways that Schooling Harms Society: Incredibly, All of This Is Invisible to Our Culture
Carol Black · 1,419 views today · Occupy Your Brain: On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-Occupation of Common Sense One of the most profound changes that occurs when modern schooling is introduced into traditional...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,392 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
I Wish for You... Jeremy Irons is a Grandfather With A Beautiful Message for His Granddaughter
5 min · 1,283 views today · 'War Horse' author Michael Morpurgo and actors Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake have joined forces to make a powerful new 5 minute film especially for you. Please watch and...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 952 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Republicans Welcomed Bernie Sanders to Wisconsin By Calling Him an Extremist. His Response? Perfect.
5 min · 946 views today · This was just awesome. No wonder so many people love Sander's message. The opening minutes of the July 1st rally was a classic #FeelTheBern moment, delivered to a 10,000...
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 936 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Brilliant Comic of Banksy's Call To Arms Against Advertisers
Gavin Aung Than · 868 views today · Banksy is an anoynomous English street artist and activist who has become a cult hero for his anti-establishment and rebellious artwork.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into A Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 867 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Comedian Brian Dunkleman Takes On the Stigma of Socialism
3 min · 836 views today · There's nothing more American than Football. There's also nothing more socialist. Brian Dunkleman Takes On the Stigma of Socialism.
Free Trade Explained In An Excellent Comic
Michael Goodwin, Illustrated by Dan E. Burr · 810 views today · The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are the latest in a long line of international free trade agreements. But why are...
Nigerians Are Building Fireproof, Bulletproof, and Eco-Friendly Homes With Plastic Bottles and Mud
Amanda Froelich · 805 views today · These colorful homes are bulletproof, fireproof, and can withstand earthquakes. They also maintain a comfortable temperature, produce zero carbon emissions, and are powered by...
How Stress Affects Your Brain
4 min · 682 views today · Stress isn’t always a bad thing; it can be handy for a burst of extra energy and focus, like when you’re playing a competitive sport or have to speak in public. But when it’s...
This Video Dispels Every "Nature VS Nurture" Myth You've Ever Heard. The Implications are Profound.
31 min · 676 views today · If everyone watched this it could radically transform the world. This is a segment from Moving Forward (2011). Watch the full documentary online here.
The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy
3 min · 654 views today · What is the best way to ease someone's pain and suffering? In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic...
A Very Heavy Agenda Part 1: A Catalyzing Event (2015)
94 min · 618 views today · Thanks to the filmmaker, A VERY HEAVY AGENDA PART 1 can be watched for free for 1 week: Feb 1st - 7, 2016. If you want to support the film, you can share the film with your...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 578 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?