Well, we’ve done a hell of a job ever since, especially lately. Indeed, one might say that growth is a deeply-rooted human epistemology. For a long time, it was a nice concept with few practical consequences. It’s now driving us off a cliff.
For millennia, families would have lots of kids (far higher than the “replacement rate”). Land was cheap, many children died very early and who didn’t want progeny to carry on the family name and perpetuate our genes.
What we now call the “Anthropocene era,” the geological moniker for the period of time in which human intervention into natural processes became significant, began roughly 400 years ago. Since then, human population has soared (see my piece on “Pop Culture”).
Also about that time, Europeans began to recognize the relationship between the number of people in a country and its military prowess. Ditto for economic strength. And countries began to consciously foster both, in order to enhance their national/regal/imperial glory. [This awareness and policy may have happened elsewhere as well, but I haven’t done the research.] Growth thereby became a matter of inter-national competition.
By the 19C, the rise of the science of economics and the political pressures of democracy added further rationales for growth: profits and domestic peace. The profit part was pretty straightforward: bigger groups could mine and grow more stuff, and then make and sell more things; and the owners/investors could build nicer houses. Competition between countries spurred (European) imperialism and the take-over of most of the world in one way or another.
The democracy connection is a bit more subtle. As ordinary folks began to be more aware of their political power in the aftermath of the French and American revolutions, ruling classes (who (unamazingly) combined political and economic power) had all sorts of reasons for maintaining their position/privileges. Growth as a doctrine answered multiple needs. It provided a basis for more/bigger activities whose profitability was directly beneficial to those groups and provided a public theory of opportunity for those well down the socio-economic ladder.
Since (the implicit theory ran) no one would (should!) expect the rich to have less, the only other way for the “rest” to get more was for economic growth to produce more wealth and thereby provide a means by which the “rest” could advance their standards of living (even if those new comforts were always trailing the luxuries of that era’s “1%”). It’s sort of macro-economic version of “trickle-down” economics. Other than its disingenuity, exploitation of most of humanity, and on-going inequality at both the national and international levels, this “growth” thing looked like it was just the ticket to wealth, domestic peace, and a stable international structure.
But, as with most good things, they can be overdone: one glass of champagne is divine, the second is excellent, the third is fine, and after that, it’s a blur.
Growth, both in terms of population and economics is running into a wall. The planet can’t support the amount of economic activity necessary for all 8 billion of us to have the standard of living “enjoyed” by those at the US poverty level (currently about $13k/person) without those at the top getting a haircut. For everyone to live at the current average rich country standards, we would need to “grow” the world economy to more than twice the current amount. Needless to say, in the midst of a slight constraint on planetary output imposed by global warming and environmental disruption, this isn’t likely. [Just to do the math: 8B people, OECD average income- $30k = $240T; current global GDP=$94T.]
If our current trajectory isn’t tenable, then we need to figure out a new way of thinking about wealth, growth, and economics in general. Early in the 20C, the Bauhaus architect, Mies van der Rohe said “Less is more,” as the justification of a minimalist aesthetic. Modern minimalism was the result. There’s something to be said for a simpler line in design (though it, too, can be taken too far). Various groups (the Amish, hippies, Marie Kondo) have urged simpler lifestyles over the years. Malthus (1798) warned that there were real limits on the population of human societies. Many of us remember Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 apocalyptic (and a bit overhyped) warning: “The Population Bomb.” In 1972, the Club of Rome famously published a more sober precatory report on the modern global economy entitled: “The Limits to Growth.” All have been downplayed or “pooh-pooh’ed” by conventional thinking. The consequences of the necessary change are fearful to contemplate. It’s difficult to conceive of most people I know of voluntarily living on $30k (OECD average), much less the US poverty level ($13k). So, we have all implicitly bought into this “growth” and inequality model.
Stanford historian Walter Scheidel has persuasively argued that the only way economic inequality has been alleviated on a broad level is by disasters, especially wars. This makes sense, since the rich have the most to lose and, in extremis, their property is less protected. This historical perspective is not pretty, but it reinforces the attractiveness of the growth epistemology as well as hinting at the likely outcome of the upcoming climate disaster.
In sum, there are only a few factors driving a solution to the global mathematical equation: 1) fewer people, 2) lower standards of living, 3) reduced economic inequality, or 4) technological solutions that increase the economic capacity of our planet to support our species. The debate about what share of the burden each of these factors will bear will underpin the geopolitics of the 21C, as well as decisions at societal and personal levels.
I was once given the sage advice: “Never confuse your net worth with your self-worth.” It’s good counsel. If we give our species a chance at a choice over the next few decades, we will have to sort this out.