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How can we create a successful economy without continuous economic growth?

How can we create a successful economy without continuous economic growth?


Every politician is touting their plan for economic growth. Is economic growth the answer to our challenges? Is economic growth the only way to produce jobs? The only path to a vibrant society and culture? Is continuous economic growth even possible? Our Senior Scholars and Contributors weigh in. We invite you to join the conversation. What's your response?   
                                                                                                                                                                                           photo credit: Rafael Rivera

Additional Contributors

John de Graaf

Workers of the World, Relax!

The late, great environmentalist David Brower used to say that there will be no profits, no corporations, no economic growth, and by implication, no successful economies on a dead planet. Brower, who … Full Response ›
John de Graaf, Executive Director - Take Back Your Time
Kate Raworth

Doughnut Economics

When I studied economics at university twenty years ago, the diagram below (fig. 1) was at the heart of every macroeconomics textbook—and it still is. The Circular Flow of Income shows … Full Response ›
Kate Raworth, Senior Researcher - Oxfam GB
Robert Costanza

A Vision of a Successful Economy without Continuous Economic Growth

I’m reporting from the year 2050. The world has achieved a prosperous state of sustainable human well-being embedded in a healthy ecological life-support system without continuous economic … Full Response ›
Robert Costanza, Distinguished University Professor of Sustainability - Portland State University
Marina Fischer-Kowalski

Stationary Social Systems as a Dread from the Past: What Is Needed to Make Them an Attractive Future?

When you pump a lot of energy into a system, it is going to accelerate. This not only holds true for physical systems, it also holds true for social systems. If a substantial part of this energy is … Full Response ›
Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Professor - Alpen-Adria Universitaet
Herman Daly

How Do You Envision a Successful Economy without Continuous Economic Growth?

Consider the question, how do you envision a successful planet earth without continuous growth? That is easy to envision because it exists. The Earth as a whole does not grow in physical dimensions. … Full Response ›
Herman Daly, Professor - University of Maryland
Peter Timmerman

The Hunger for Abundance Amid a World of Scarcity

Contrary to what seems the obvious response to concerns over the Earth’s limits  and to the increasing scarceness of resources to cope with a burgeoning population driven by ever-increasing … Full Response ›
Peter Timmerman, Associate Professor - York University
James Gustave Speth

America Beyond Growth

When I was in school in England, the dean of my college told us when we first arrived that we could walk on the grass in the courtyard but not across it. That helped me love the English and their … Full Response ›
James Gustave Speth, Director Emeritus - CHN | Professor of Law - Vermont Law School
Juliet Schor

The 80 Percent Solution

The conclusion that continuous economic growth is not feasible on a finite planet may seem obvious to ecologists, scientists, and perhaps much of the citizenry, but it is antithetic to mainstream … Full Response ›
Juliet Schor, Professor - Boston College
Mathis Wackernagel

...By Working with Rather Than Against Nature's Budget

Of course I want growth. Forever. It makes everything so much easier. No need to redistribute. Far fewer social conflicts. And it becomes a piece of cake to run fancy retirement plans. There’s … Full Response ›
Mathis Wackernagel, President - Global Footprint Network
Richard B. Norgaard

Exiting Economism

To “envision a successful economy without continuous economic growth,” we need to understand the ever-hungry beast we have heretofore encouraged to grow. The economy is frequently … Full Response ›
Richard B. Norgaard, Professor of Energy and Resources - University of California, Berkeley
Gar Alperovitz

Some Requirements of a Steady-State Economy

A steady-state economy will require numerous policy, technical, and technological changes—many of which are discussed in other responses in this series. None, however, are likely to be … Full Response ›
Gar Alperovitz, Professor - University of Maryland
Philip Lawn

A Qualitatively Improving Steady-State Economy as an Alternative to Continued Growth

A successful economy is one that increases the well-being of a nation’s citizens in an ecologically sustainable and equitable manner. Empirical evidence indicates that growth is now failing to … Full Response ›
Philip Lawn, Senior Lecturer - Flinders University
Giorgos Kallis

Living Simply, Together

Disciplined as a scientist, my imagination is poor. Listing the various proposals that are springing up from the degrowth movement and pretending that they form a coherent vision would not be sincere. … Full Response ›
Giorgos Kallis, Professor - Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
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Join the Conversation (17)

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But sir, how will the citizenry be engaged to call upon these reversals; they challenge powerful interests who control the very media that shapes the lives of the citizenry.

Our concept of modern living is borrowed from the media: work for money, have a house, provide for children ... Read More
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The idea of slowing economic growth is a myth as the human condition of warlords, armies, and churches, an overloaded and growing political sphere, by the same ancient college, has remained the same, and economic growth is directly correlative to the cost of building these things and building what ... Read More
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It seems to me that the history of human civilization can be defined by economic downturn and prosperity. Every time we begin to recover from the last slump, we say, "never again" and work to have consist growth in a thriving economy. Maybe society needs to see that sometimes it is hard to... Read More maintain a modern economy and not feel like a day of low DOW points means economic collaspe?
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The idea that we need to escape from economism resonates with me. Thanks, Richard, for sharing your insights. I wonder whether the persistent pressure of over-population and climate disruption, and the conflicts they influence will feed economism or ecological civilization. Will humanity come to ... Read More
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I believe the first thing we must do to understand a macro-economic thesis consonant with our sustained presence on this planet is to disabuse ourselves of the notion that we know all about economics or what it requires for transacting a healthy relationship with ourselves and with the earth. We ... Read Morehave come to regard Smith and Marx as the alpha and omega of all political-economic thought. It is not. To say so is equivalent to saying that hunter-gatherer economics or Plato's economics or some other historical epoch of economic thought was the apex of all economic theory. It was not, nor is the perpetual 'Either/Or' war that those brands of economic idea dragged along with them.

Moreover, even the de facto regard for the earth as "resource" may be outdated and inadequate for understanding what kind of economic history going forward might be expansive enough to include the earth as an agent of its own interests, as much as a resource or product for our market economies. Sure, hot economics and its regard of earth resource as an infinite source of supply is badly flawed. But that discussion, once had, can only be preamble to what kind of economics will replace it in a sane and flourishing world.

Change, by very little, the Marxian elliptic "Who owns the means of production?" for example, to "Who owns the means of survival?" and see what you get. For one thing, we'd certainly get a legitimate expansion of economic theory obligated to account for the earth in its calculus of supply and demand, or cost-benefit. A calculus of survival that could not be ignored.

Suddenly, the earth is transformed from a passive object for exploitation to an active agent in negotiating its own economic transactions. Consider, for example, that what the earth provides, in addition to resources, is a whole lot of proprietary concepts which we've certainly exploited, but never paid a dime for. The last piece of velcro you unhinged came from nature's original blueprints for transporting seeds -- the hook & loop design. Or any of the thousands of products and processes that employ fibonacci numbers that were first provided us by nature -- as the chambers of nautilus shells for example.

We have moral and survival terms for why we ought to preserve and conserve this planet. However those regulators don't seem to have worked very well. What if, instead, the earth itself were rationalized and written into our economics. What if we were required to pay the earth fair return for the goods and services we extract from it? Perhaps even regard some of those offerings as proprietary holdings which we had to pay for before we could own or license them? In strictly economic terms, we would need to compensate the planet for using those resources or appropriating those ideas, just as we do with any other transaction that requires mutually beneficial terms in its contract.

Nature, as we know, has no particular preference for "live planets". There are plenty of perfectly good dead ones scattered around the universe, doing what they do in accordance with what nature permits. As far as we can tell, life-supporting planets are scarce . Even there, nature shows no particular preference for keeping them alive. Galaxies collide, asteroids visit, occupants are free to trash or otherwise terminate themselves and their planets.

So, whatever there is that attaches some special value to living planets and the life they sustain is going to have to arise out of a regard for those living systems by those sustained by them. It seems quite reasonable, that if economics is the driver of that regard, so too, the impulse to keep the system healthy is going to have to be written into the economic system itself.

To pay back the earth for its supply of resources, we need to offer what earth requires in exchange. We hide those 'sales slips and purchase orders', in present economic terms, by treating the earth as a voiceless object of the transaction. We hide the true costs by subsidizing our rapacious appetites; we hide them by ignoring the scars and wounds we leave behind and walking away after we get what we wanted; we hide them by passing them on to future generations.

However, in an earth-active economy we wouldn't be permitted to do that. Earth would need to be paid for its goods and deliveries. It would need to be paid in repair, in mitigation, in conservation and other ways. What would that look like in an earth-as-a-corporation world?

Well, for one thing, it might mean that the 'amount due' might have to be tacked right on to the cost of the goods we make, at point of sale and paid for at the register. It might mean every can of tuna, every product sold, would have earth mitigation, repair and other costs tacked right on to the unit price. You couldn't buy something unless the bills to the earth were paid out of revenues from each transaction.

None of this is illustrative of what an earth-economy would look like if sanely and sensitively done (using human representatives to do it). It merely suggests that it would be quite different than anything we've done before. To even imagine it, we will have to disabuse ourselves of a good many things we may now feel are indispensable and axiomatic in today's economic practices.

Given those practices -- our little 'cap&trade's', 'our fracking is better than your coal', 'off-shore, outsourcing, get-around' economics -- it's unlikely such radical ideas as requiring the earth sit at our negotiating tables is not going to happen anytime soon. Something for future generations to contemplate. But its clear, that without adapting some of those ideas about 'earth as negotiator' to the current conversation on global economics, there may not be a future generation to make the needed adjustment.


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I think that the use of the 80 percent solution, more equal taxation and maximization of utility + more creative ways to give the population ways to expand its economy as well to increase the GDP and reduce income inequality and also taking care of solving problems due high Gini coefficient is what ... Read Moreis going to create a successful economy.
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It's great to hear that you connected with Juliet Schor's 80 percent solution. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on a combined set of steps towards a more successful economy.
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Peter's comments about the environmental impact of economic growth are eye opening. His points sparked an analogous conversation about the social impact of economic growth, which Peter covers at a high level during his discussion about the leveling of poverty in a slow/no growth economy. As the... Read More nonprofit sector, including healthcare and welfare initiatives, continues to struggle to build brands, raise funding and expand capacity, I am curious about how to address these social gaps as non-stop economic growth continues to destabilize the fabric of our communities.
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Kimmie, You're asking a key question here: how? On a small scale and at a grassroots level I think we are starting to see creative ways to implement socially-reinforcing economic models. Juliet Schor's research focuses on this and you can read her response to this question as well as ... Read Moreexplore her work here:

If others on this forum know of more examples or have ideas for the "how?" sparked by Peter Victor's talk, we would love to hear!
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Paul, your points are well taken and, for me, bring to mind Peter Timmerman's essay on this page: "The Hunger for Abundance Amid a World of Scarcity." In this essay, Peter highlights the difference between an abundance worldview and a scarcity worldview. He argues that modern ... Read Moreeconomics is predicated on a self-fulfilling assumption of scarcity, which has implications for the entire economy, including how we define (and use) money. Peter writes, "In this [scarcity] view, saving money, owning property, buying insurance, and so forth, are signs of insecurity—a fear that the abundance of things will dry up. And because of that, it does." Peter goes on to explain why. I also found this insight Peter shares to be fascinating: "In Islamic economics, usury—the charging of interest—is considered to be a mockery of Allah’s abundance." As you note, here we have only started to scratch the surface of how the way we see the world defines how we see and use money. We welcome you to share more of your thoughts on how we might begin to tackle this challenge.
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In all of the discussion of these authors, no mention is made of the fact that the structure of our money is one of the greatest impediments to creating a no growth economy. The inclusion of interest in the definition of money creates a situation in which more money is due from the productive ... Read Moresector of the economy to the financial sector over time. Only principal is created in the money creation process. Interest is simply entered as a debt to the monetary authority creating money as a loan. In this situation the productive sector must grow, monetizing more and more of earth's assets in order to maintain the stability of the money system. Our present situation in which the Government is expected to borrow money from the financial sector to provide the growth necessary to keep the money system from disintegrating, is a product of system structure. Government deficits can only be stopped by restructuring money, making it a fee for service business that is a service to the economy rather than a profit center for an elite minority.

if we wish to stem growth, we will have to redefine money.
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Alf, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. What an interesting way to promote local consumption—as well as properly price global goods. Do you know of any examples where this has been tried?
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In order to break the logic of general-purpose money, which inexorably rewards the dissipation of resources with increasing access to more resources to dissipate, we need separate currencies (and markets) for local and "global" goods and services. In using a distinct currency (issued by ... Read Morethe state) to purchase goods and services that can be locally provided, individual consumers would save their formal money for other uses and finally find it rational to consume locally, thus reducing long-distance transports and carbon dioxide emissions. Such a bi-centric economy would have many other benefits, but the most important is to acknowledge that all values are not interchangeable, if we want to avoid biospheric (and civilizational) breakdown.
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Public infrastructure is failing all over USA, water works in cities, roads pavement etc and public subway transportation are not meeting population demands. Ironically to meet climate change demands in public infrastructure might just be a timely issue for the new POTUS and a good case study for ... Read Moreother issues of economic growth need attention on a practical level. Weigh public infrastructure vs economic growth and get back to me.
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1) Gary Becker would tell you that economics is about utility maximization - not wealth or GDP maximization. So, we need to convince people that these "other" principles should get (more) weight in one's utility function. This is not changing economics.

2) Solving a ... Read More
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Does "utility maximization" capture and reflect the ideas that Kate Raworth is sharing here? Can the concept of "utility maximization" encompass maximization of responsibility, community, and care? Read More
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The problem is that those who promote infinite economic growth always pull the “technology rabbit” out of the hat, saying that we can have both economic growth and environmental protection, that we should not worry since human ingenuity will come up with better innovative technologies in... Read More
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