More, more, more

Economics, as it’s currently understood, is all about growth. The economy is failing unless it continues to grow; wages must keep rising; there must be inflation; we must spend more and consume more. If not, we are failing. But why? What skewed theory is based on continuous growth? It doesn’t work in natural systems, so why would it work in human systems?

Adam Smith, who seems to be at the bottom of much of current economics, considered that technology would result in increased outputs. The enhanced economy would lead to reduced mortality and increased fertility thus delivering an increasing workforce to deliver this ever-expanding economic growth.

Unlimited growth isn’t possible in a limited space

At much the same time as Smith was developing his theories, Thomas Malthus was writing about about limitations. In recent years, Malthus has been somewhat maligned and his Limits to Growth model has been criticised for its simplicity. It’s true that there are more factors to consider than Malthus’ simple contention that food production could only increase arithmetically, whilst the population could expand geometrically, thus the former would limit the latter. However, in a more general way, you have to accept that he had a point: the world contains finite resources, and at some point these are going to limit the populations (human and other organisms) that can be supported.

And it is resources that I have been thinking a lot about lately. The two main environmental issues in the news recently have been plastics and climate change, but really the overarching factor is over-exploitation of finite resources. Whatever aspect of the environment you are concerned about, reducing your use of resources will have a positive impact. Use less “stuff” and you will reduce energy consumption (in production and transportation of goods). Buy less “stuff” and make what you have last longer and there will be less material that needs to be disposed of or recycled. Make the best use of the resources you already have and you will be reducing your impact on the planet.

The economy may not grow as a result of your actions, but the economy is simply a human construct, whilst life in the oceans (for example) is very real and will certainly benefit. In my opinion, a change in what we consider important – from economics to ecology – cannot come soon enough.

Spend, spend, spend

Question: What is the best way to help the environment and, at the same time, save money?

Answer: Stop buying stuff.

We in the UK (and the US, Australia, Canada, Europe and many other places) live in a consumer society. We buy stuff. We are encouraged to buy stuff… not just by manufacturers, but by the governments that we elect.

The UK Government website (gov.uk) list one of their policies as being ‘Achieving Strong and Sustainable Economic Growth‘, stating

To make sure the UK can succeed in the global economy, we are taking action to stimulate economic growth while supporting people who work hard and want to get on in life.

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can't produce any more!

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can’t produce any more!

Well, maybe I’m being stupid here, but I think that continuous growth is simply not sustainable. As an ecologist, I know that natural systems have a ‘carrying capacity’ for any given species and ecosystem. Growth occurs until the carrying capacity is reached, then there is sometimes a bit of an overshoot, but eventually if nothing else changes, an equilibrium is reached and numbers remain steady. Since our world does not have infinite resources, then infinite growth is not possible* and any government that claims it is (in whatever context) must be lying.

However, many governments continue to present continued economic growth as a panacea that will cure all our woes. And how do they wish to deliver this? By getting you and me to spend money: to buy ever bigger houses, to replace our mobile phone as soon as a more advanced model becomes available, to follow fashion, to feel we can only be happy with the biggest TV, trendiest trainers and latest computer. Of course, much of the ‘stuff’ that we buy comes from overseas (why do you think China has been experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years?), but some of the money (especially linked to things like construction) goes to companies based in our own country… and if this increases then, hey presto! economic GROWTH and, apparently, universal happiness.

But it’s simply not true. First, apart from the media telling you that we need economic growth, do you really see a great benefit for YOU? And, perhaps more importantly, do you see any great benefit for the planet and the other people living on it? We continue to use up finite resources (and they really are finite, let nobody tell you otherwise) in a drive toward this nebulous thing called growth.

Of course we can do things like recycling, but a demand for more and more stuff means we have to expend energy to produce it, whether from new materials or from recycled ones; plus, if we buy from overseas we have to meet the environmental costs of transportation. The more I write about it, the more like nonsense it seems.

So, what are we to do? Well the answer is in your own hands – stop buying so much. Environmentalists used to talk about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. These days how about reduce, repair, revamp… and learn to treasure your possessions. Buy items that are good quality and can be mended if they break… reject the throw-away society and our governments and corporations telling us to spend, spend, spend our money. Instead, how about a bit of civil disobedience? Lets

SPEND more time growing things
SPEND more on good quality items that won’t need replacing
and
SPEND your leisure time being creative

-oOo-

* Malthus had something to say about this… Google him if you’re not familiar with his “Limits to Growth” work

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