Have We Outgrown Growth?

By Caitlin Leney-Tillett

Economic development has simultaneously perpetuated inequalities and depleted the world’s natural resources, the product of which is the climate crisis. Despite this, countries across the globe continue to choose unsustainable, fossil fuel-led development, deepening the crisis and closing the window of opportunity to overcome climate change. So, where did our addiction to economic growth begin?

It’s hard to tell when we became obsessed with growth, in turn prioritising economic growth over the natural environment. Pinpointing the starting point of our devotion to growth is hotly debated with some arguing that it started when we first took control of the land and created agricultural systems around 10,000 years ago. Others, such as Yanis Varoufakis, would argue that it began with the birth of commerce when a price and thus a profit for a service or product was created. Whilst these examples would have boosted growth around the globe, our obsession with growth came in 1934 when Simon Kuznets developed the modern index of Gross Domestic Product or as it’s more commonly known GDP. Suddenly, the world had a (heavily Westernized) index that ranked countries from top to bottom and with it came a race to get to the top. The birth of GDP happened within a renaissance of economic theory where Veblen’s Neo-classical economic theory dominated thought; with consumers seeking to maximise utility and firms maximising profit. A drive towards economic development was in the air.

Rostow’s Model of Economic Development

Rostow’s Model of Economic Development is one of the most widely accepted visualisations of a nation’s projected growth. This model acted as a launching pad growth, shaping almost a century of economic development agenda, despite its many critiques.

However, the model’s disregard for the finite characteristic of natural resources in favour of economic development has resulted in an acceleration towards rapid environmental decline. Although Rostow’s model was published at the dawn of environmental awareness in 1959, all of the economic wheels were already in place to support our obsession with growth. Enabling Rostow’s model to propel our obsession into overdrive in across the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, despite that the world’s eyes beginning to open to the destruction caused by our nonchalant obsession with growth, governments across the globe continue to promote economic growth as the solution to the many crises we face. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a list of 17 goals for 193 countries to reach by 2030, fall short of the mark, placing economic growth at the centre of the development agenda for the next decade.

Although the SDGs may fail to reconcile the environmental goals of development with the economic goals, they certainly do not lack ambition – with some examples being to stop global corruption and eradicate food poverty. Because these goals tackle such mammoth issues, each goal has targets to work towards and indicators to show its completion. However, a common critique is that these targets and indicators are too vague. For example, take target 11.1: “By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums” and the indicator (11.1.1) attached to it, “Proportion of urban population living in slums, informal settlements or inadequate housing”. Although these are extremely positive goals to work towards, each nation develops their own action plan to account for their national variables of the issue. Unfortunately, this results in a prioritisation of further development made by each individual country rather than a “collaborative partnership” that the UN boasts about.

So, although the SDGs have been valuable for stimulating action towards climate change, they have not been able to shake off the shackles of Rostow’s model. Therefore, without an effective action plan that countries can look towards, these goals are rendered as a short-sighted mission. A mission that negates many economic issues but has further development within a capitalist system at its core.

Circular economy

So how can we shift our mindsets towards having an economic framework that doesn’t damage the environment and works towards an equal society? Kate Raworth has a solution for a system that is regenerative and completely distributive. For an economy to be regenerative, people must use waste products as a means to put back into the beginning of the production line and create more products. This is called a circular economy and its implementation is much more common than you may think. Take eBay or Depop or any other reselling company. All of these products were used and then instead of being thrown away were given a new life. However, these companies still rely on the consumers to not only buy the products, but also to provide them to be sold. This is why we must have a distributive framework as well. A framework that is decentralized and connected between each actor, thus diminishing inequality and increasing accessibility.

By now I imagine you have your head in your hands, cursing Rostow and other neo-colonial actors that have cemented the want for never-ending growth into societal thought. But, to move into the future we must look to the past and understand the mistakes that we have made. When it comes to economic growth, Terri Maxwell argues that it is a natural human instinct to always want more. However, if we look to our eldest ancestors around 2 million years ago who lived a  community-based lifestyle, you will quickly realise that it is only since we became fixated on competition that we truly became addicted to growth. As the SDGs main focus is to create an equal society for all, a notion of thriving at a certain level should be put forward. In fact, looking back at Rostow’s Model of Development a possible suggestion for a 6th stage of ‘Thrive’ where the curve levels off would be a more suitable goal for the global development agenda.

When looking to nature we do not see endless growth, instead we see an initial growth that then stops when the plant/species can mutually gain from its surroundings.  Imagine you are looking at the top of a rainforest. The sea of green stretches on to the horizon. Then suddenly, a single tree begins to grow higher. This rogue tree receives more sunlight and their roots grow deeper, pushing up towards the sky with no end in sight. However, as  a side effect of this, other trees around it begin to die as they have been sheltered from sunlight. This one tree’s growth has imbalanced the entire habit around it and has damaged the symbiotic relationship it has with the other trees. This one tall tree is now at the mercy of prevailing headwinds and is generally over exposed, which now puts it at risk of dying as it forged ahead, out of the shelter of the canopy. This doesn’t happen in nature, instead trees grow to a certain point and then thrive at that same level for the rest of their life, as it’s in their best interest to remain part of the pack.

Perhaps we should take inspiration from nature. For as we continue to pursue never-ending growth we further consolidate the future destruction of our planet. Instead, we should recognise the immense progress we have made and protect what we already have before it is too late.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.