Can you imagine if people could grow forever?
If, instead of becoming an adult, we just kept on getting taller and taller and bigger and bigger until we died?
What would we need to sustain ourselves if we kept on growing throughout our 20s, 30s, 60s, 80s?
We’d need more food; more clothes too. More resources to shelter us, more fuel to power our journeys with our humongous old person bodies. We’d become too big for our houses, we’d stomp on little ones, and we’d run out of space to live. Eventually, our planet would be too small for all these giant people.
But, luckily, we do stop growing.
We stop growing when we reach maturity – a state where our bodies can perform all the functions we need to be able to live our lives.
A state where our bodies are simply big enough.
When will the economy be big enough?
Growth, in and of itself, is not useful. Ever.
Growth is only ever useful until something is big enough to perform its intended purpose.
Otherwise, growth is simply consuming resources, with no clear purpose.
And yet, somehow, the economy doesn’t seem to ever be big enough.
The economy never ‘matures’.
Think about it – have you ever heard a politician talk about a day where we will have got a big enough economy?
Why does no politician ever say, “It’s my vision to grow the economy until we’ve got enough for everyone, and then level it off.”
Perhaps it’s because, after all these years, we still have no agreement on the economy’s intended purpose. And if we can’t come to a consensus on that – well, we’ll never know when we’ve reached our goal. So instead we just pretend there isn’t one, and we’ll just keep on growing.
Abundance for all!
Of course, that doesn’t quite work.
An ever-growing economy needs more resources. An ever-growing anything needs more resources.
For the economy to grow it needs more energy – which comes from a combination of things we take from the earth; and people power, which in turn is also powered by – guess what – things we take from the earth. And yet the earth’s resources aren’t growing. They are finite, and being depleted.
We need to get a goal
Just like a real-life human, the economy must have a point where it becomes simply big enough.
It should be able to evolve to be able to sustain all of us (at least, it could be aligned to population growth).
And yet we haven’t got any clue what that target would look like, and despite year-on-year world economic growth happening every decade, we STILL see billions of people in poverty whilst inequality increases. Constant growth, questionable benefit.
We hear vague promises like ‘no child should be left behind’ or ‘let’s end poverty’, and we fixate on more growth as the solution – not even entertaining the idea that there must be an endpoint to that growth.
What’s the endpoint?
The idea of setting a growth target, or a target economy size, isn’t new.
Visionary systems thinker Donella Meadows wrote in the 90s, “Growth is one of the stupidest purposes ever invented by any culture… We’ve got to have an enough.”
And yet here we are, 20 years on, still no wiser.
So maybe it’s time we start challenging the unlimited growth narrative ourselves.
As I often do, I’m going to end this post on questions I’ve been asking myself – because I don’t have all the answers yet. I’d love to hear your reflections on them.
- How can we decide how big the economy needs to become?
- How will we know when we’ve got there?
- Aside from growth, what other alternatives are there?