Growth and Prosperity – Choose One

How can you tell it’s summer? I’ve been too preoccupied with garden work and various outdoor chores to write much lately on this blog. One interesting article did catch my eye. Growth – the real elephant in the room? raises the alarm about growth – population growth and economic growth. If it’s not sustainable, how do we create prosperity without growth?

This comes from the UK where people are much more conscious of finite space and finite resources. Britain was already deforested a few hundred years ago and her navy was dependent on American timber from the time of the American colonies.

Now globally, “We are extracting 50% more natural resources than was the case only 30 years ago, amounting to around 60 billion tonnes of raw materials each year. Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions have grown nearly twice as fast over the past decade, compared with the previous thirty years – despite the economic slowdown. Based on our current trajectory, reports estimate that we would need two planets by the year 2030.”

Pretty alarming stuff, especially if you have children or grandchildren who will be entering the workforce within 10 or 15 years! In Canada, we’re pressing ahead with tar sands development because our government thinks ‘the economy’ trumps everything else. In Ontario, we’re planning to spend a billion dollars on infrastructure to develop extraction industries in the northern “Ring of Fire”. And here in Innisfil, tracts of “industrial lands” are zoned for development and on the drawing board. But what kind of industry will it house and who will it employ?

In the UK they seem to be way ahead of us. They are pressing ahead with development of a “circular economy” where the ultimate aim is to eliminate ‘waste’ by requiring all resources to be recovered and returned to useful production. But the article suggests that even that is not enough:

“The fundamental problem is that our debt-based system of capitalism relies purely on continued economic expansion. Without continuous growth, capital does not meet its own expectation of more and higher returns …”

The author goes on to say, “we need to re-think ‘growth’. For a start, we need to distinguish between good and harmful growth. As we seek to expand, does our business model contribute real value by enriching people and the planet?

This line of thinking is similar to Aware Simcoe’s lobbying for the introduction of a “net benefit” analysis as part of future residential and commercial development planning in Ontario.

What are the alternatives? The writer introduces some new concepts such as “’smart growth’ supported by business models centred on generosity, creativity and resilience”; “the ‘Purpose Economy’ … with a focus on real, life-enhancing and truly value-adding goods and services”; zero or low growth; and ‘decoupling’ resources from growth.

The real challenge will be to reimagine the structure and purpose of corporations, and reform the functioning of the financial sector. The ‘Social Enterprise’ model and online crowd funding provide examples.