‘Growthism’ is a term for society’s pervading belief that growth – primarily economic growth – is essential. This is problematic because our planetary resources are not growing, and yet growthist attitudes mean that we are still planning on plundering it forever. Until we recognise the inherent flaws in our society – the impossibility of never-ending growth – we’ll never be able to change it. Articulating this in words is the first step.

Never-ending growth – an easy sell

Every few years in a democracy, we come together to decide who will lead our country into the future. 

It’s a mix of looking back on people’s track records, and looking forwards by judging candidates on the trustworthiness of their promises. And, underlying all these promises, lies growthism.

At the heart of most elections is the economy. And at the heart of how we measure its success is one factor – growth.

‘Growth’ is perfect fodder for news outlets. Headlines proclaiming that ‘the economy grew by 5%’ or ‘GDP crashed by 7%’ quantify performance in ways that are easy to understand. Instead of a complex analysis of complex systems, we can take an almost childlike approach to economics by saying that more is good and less is bad. Easy. Simple. Obvious. Unquestionable.

And yet, the simplicity of GDP is precisely its downfall. It belies the complexity of the economic systems we live in. Although the idea that national economic growth will help to solve all our societal problems is ingrained in our collective consciousness, it is full of flaws. 

As attractive as it is to think that we don’t need to raise taxes, we simply need to create more wealth in order to fix everything, it is almost utopian. The pervasiveness of growthism is so counter-intuitive that we don’t even consider how a country could possibly be happier or healthier without an ever-growing economy.

But we need to.

Kate Raworth, in her book ‘Doughnut Economics’, paints a stark picture of this:

‘Over the past three decades, the majority of workers across high-income countries have seen their wages barely increase, flatline, or even fall while executive pay has ballooned. In the UK, GDP has grown far faster than the average worker’s wages since 1980, and the wage gap has widened too, resulting in the average worker earning 25% less than they otherwise would have done by 2010.61 In the US, the years 2002–12 have been dubbed ‘the lost decade for wages’: while the economy’s productivity grew by 30%, wages for the bottom 70% of workers were stagnant or in decline.’

How can this happen? There are many answers – but they all come down to one conclusion: national economic growth does not automatically result in more wealth for all. That, of course, comes down to taxation and redistribution policies. The fallacy that we’ll all get more pie if we simply have a bigger pie is easily refuted when you show that someone else is just taking a bigger slice every time. 

The growthist fallacy

This fallacy is exactly what the term ‘growthism’ sets out to highlight. The idea that growth is the answer to all our problems, alongside the idea that it is possible to grow constantly and indefinitely without any repercussions on people or planet.

Fortunately, there are people who are starting to change this narrative, and it’s about time. Kate Raworth, the economist quoted above, being one; sharing models for alternatives to a constant upwards trajectory with her Doughnut Economy model. Andrew Yang, democratic politician, who is fighting for anti-growthist policies to become mainstream US politics. Organisations like Greenpeace, who are promoting alternatives to growth economies – such as circular economies where recycling and reuse take centre stage – are disrupting growthist narratives and showing another way.

These examples are important because they are slowly working to change the narrative around growth. Only by telling a different story will we be able to create the systemic change we need to build a better future for people and planet. For decades, growth has been unquestioned. But finally, the time to question it has come.

I’ll be following up with more posts on ‘growthism’ in the future so please share any comments below.