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 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.
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