Review: The End of Growth

Almost a year ago, I read Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth that discussed the necessity of devising a financial system that isn’t dependent on economic growth. Again returning to the topic, I just finished Richard Heinberg’s brand new book The End of Growth – Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. In the book, he makes the argument that growth is, for all practical purposes, pretty much over. Today.

That, if true, obviously has huge implications on pretty much everything as the current financial system in particular is, as we have seen, stable only in times of economic growth. If growth is over, there is an urgent need to reform not only the financial system but many other things. The End of Growth gives a relatively thorough, if necessarily brief, introduction to the current financial system, including its history, the nature of debt and how growth is required for its stability. Heinberg debunks many of the myths of substitution, innovation riding to the rescue etc. The reason is simple enough, and best explained in his words:

It is natural for readers to find this distressing. […] It has been necessary to frame the issues this way because the end of growth is an inherently unattractive notion, and so most people are likely to avoid considering it, deny the evidence that it is occurring, and fail to contemplate its implications, unless presented with an airtight case in its favor. The end-of-growth argument therefore has to be made carefully, thoroughly, even somewhat redundantly. But it must be made. If the observation that growth is ending is in fact valid, and if policy makers and citizens don’t see or understand that economic expansion is no longer possible, they will continue to assume the impossible – that growth can and will continue indefinitely. In doing so they will increasingly be operating in a delusional state. People who are deluded this way may do things that make no sense in terms of the actual economic environment that is emerging, and will likely fail to do things that could help themselves and others adapt to new conditions. Opportunities will be wasted and human suffering will be increased unnecessarily.

That – avoiding to consider the end of growth – is precisely what we are seeing. From government policies to economic journalism, nobody in the mainstream dares to even contemplate the end of growth, because growth will supposedly solve all our problems. Even in the relatively down-to-earth Finland, politicians are blindly relying on projected future economic growth to even begin to deal with the debt load.

One could easily argue that the drivers behind the current sad state of affairs – that of reaching for ever-increasing economic growth – is human nature and cannot be changed; that inevitably we will only be stopped by a crisis, by a mass die-off at the latest. The paradox is that the sustainability revolution will occur, inevitably – but with each passing day of not planning and preparing for it, it becomes increasingly likely that the revolution will be driven by crisis and include much unnecessary suffering. But it is, in fact, not “human nature” to live outside sustainable bounds; it is learned behavior. Traditional societies planned ahead and lived truly sustainable lives; many indigenous people made decisions based on the likely impacts on the seventh generation yet to come. Today it’s rare to find decisions being made beyond the next quarter, year, election cycle or some similar very near-term-target.

.. so what do I do?

In the face of immense changes, it’s natural to ask what each and every one of us can and should personally do to adapt to the transition. While the end of the book is devoted to introducing initiatives such as the Transition, the book does not cover this “what should I do”-topic in great detail, as Heinberg concedes that while the trends are clear, broad and deep, the details of their unfolding can be surprising to everyone. While not giving practical advice out of fear for dishing out wrong advice is understandable, it doesn’t help those asking – I certainly have asked this question myself a number of times, and often even intense analysis does not provide a perfect answer, or the answer is at best inconclusive. But since inaction, or no movement from status quo, is the worst thing that one can do, providing what is likely to be beneficial advice is far better than providing no guidance at all.

In the same spirit, The End of Growth does provide a long list of practical advice. This, however, is not in the book itself but rather as a chapter on the book’s website at http://richardheinberg.com/the-end-of-growth-exclusive-supplemental-materials. It has a great list of practical advice to get one started – along with links to many more resources. Of the few practical advises in the printed book, I found one particularly interesting: getting to know your neighbors. Heinberg points out that most of us don’t know our neighbors today – at all – and that this could be a very dangerous thing at a time of crisis;

It’s hard to emphasize this point sufficiently; Get to know your neighbors. These may be people with whom you share very little in terms of politics, religion, or cultural interests; that fact is beside the point. When push comes to shove, these are the people you may need to depend on. Find ways – perhaps innocuous ones at first, such as a discussion about pruning a common shade tree or the sharing of surplus summer garden veggies – to make contact and to begin to build trust.

In conclusion

The End of Growth is an important book. The arguments it makes are not new, and have been discussed in various places and books earlier. It does, however, bring together the most recent financial crisis as well as other events and drives the point of us being at the end of growth home well – making, as it was said, an airtight case for it. We may still see some quarters or even a few years of economic growth, but after facing the facts, it does appear that some kind of delusion is required to think it will continue beyond that. It’s time to re-group and rebuild a society that we and our children can have a future in;

We’re at a similar junction today. Before us lies a future that will necessarily be very different from the one that our political leaders encourage us to envision. The only mental tools we have with which to imagine the possibilities that await us are ones honed in the past era of growth, extraction and combustion. As a result, we can’t hope to have a very clear picture of what life will or even could be like for our grandchildren of the children now being born.

What we can hope to do is make sure they have a future – that they will have even the possibility of existing and making their own contributions to our species’ unfolding story. In order for future generations to enjoy the barest of chances at life we must avoid the monetary-financial wall in our path, or ensure that the impact is minimal. And we must set a course toward sustainability and away from collision with Earth’s environmental limits. All of this will require us to question what we think we know, to leave our comfort zones far behind, and to engage in hard challenging work.

We will be tempted to waste time fussing over aspects of our current ways of life that may not be salvageable (including many of the goods we associate with economic growth). We will be tempted also to waste time apportioning blame for the failure of our existing economic and industrial systems, and venting anger over the greed and stupidity that stand in the way of building a new economy. None of this will help. The only efforts that will aid in the long run are those that contribute, in some tangible way, to the realization of a pattern of human settlement that is culturally and psychologically rewarding, and that supports rather than undermines the integrity of Earth’s living skin, our only home.

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5 Responses to Review: The End of Growth

  1. Macke says:

    Inspired by the review I orderd the book today. Looking forward reading the book.

  2. sim says:

    Great! Be sure to let me know what you thought of it when you’re done reading.

  3. jukka aakula says:

    I do not think “end of growth” is in any way enough ? Probably there will be a Collapse ala Jared Diamond even with zero growth ? People typically do very little before it is late. Is it even worth trying. Certain specific problems like the problem with ozone was solved but more universal problems like the overpopulation are hardly solved, if they are not solved “spotaneously” like it looked to happen with overpopulation.

    In finnish: http://kansankokonaisuus.blogspot.com/2008/04/nykyn-puhutaan-paljon-ilmaston.html

  4. Markus says:

    How to prepare for difficult times ahead?
    1) Our most important house/shelter/property is our body. So let’s invest in our fitness (be it cardio, muscle strength, mental strength, memory training).
    2) Let’s get rid of stuff; let’s go ahead light and fast.

  5. sim says:

    Thanks for the comments Jukka & Markus. I do agree that humanity as a whole tends to do far too little, too late in order to avoid a disaster – and in this case, it’s already too late to launch a meaningful response to all this, so there will definitely be a long period of de-growth. Possibly even a population collapse, no matter how uncomfortable that may be to think.

    And yes, fitness (mental and physical) will be important, as will the realization that the road ahead is a rather rocky one.

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