From the website of the UNSW social work department comes one of the most common critiques of economic growth:
Our society’s most fundamental mistake is our commitment to affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyles and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output, on a planet whose limited resources make these impossible goals.
Our way of life is grossly unsustainable. Our levels of production and consumption are far too high. We can only achieve them because we few in rich countries are grabbing most of the resources produced and therefore depriving most of the world’s people of a fair share. Because we consume so much we are rapidly using up resources and causing huge ecological damage. It would be impossible for all the world’s people to rise to our per capita levels of consumption.Â
Although present lelvels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact are unsustainable we are obsessed with economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, as much as possible and without limit!
This is a sufficiently common critique of growth that it seems worth citing one of the best-honed responses, from Stanford’s Paul Romer:
Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. History teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking. New recipes generally produce fewer unpleasant side effects and generate more economic value per unit of raw material.
Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply.