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Point of view: How much growth is enough?

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In Point of View, Galah invites two people with different views to make their case. This issue, we put economic growth under the microscope.

Fix it, and watch it grow

Words Jack Archer

Economic growth is a polarising and complex issue. But it isn’t inherently good, bad or even the point. If we consider what’s needed to tackle Australia’s most pressing regional challenges, success is likely to lead to a future of growth. 

The upsides of decades of economic growth are clear: remarkable social stability, access to more resources that help us live longer and more comfortable lives, and more freedom to choose our path in life. The downsides are also very apparent and ongoing: environmental damage, inequality, exclusion and exploitation, destruction of First Nations societies, and the persistent unhappiness experienced by many despite material wealth. 

The conundrum of growth is also deeply cultural and moral. Our values drive a general commitment to hard work, the benefits of science and the idea of personal fulfillment and wider social improvement as a shared goal. Living these values has driven growth. But we also idealise frugality and austerity and are generally uncomfortable with too much luxury and success. This is probably an unresolvable – but positive – moral conflict. 

At its core, economic growth (or decline) in our communities is driven by changes in three things: population (more or less people in an economy), participation (more or less people contributing to the economy) and productivity (more or less output from that work).

Fixing the issues that most regional people I meet are concerned about is more than likely to drive further growth than to see our communities and economy shrink. 

Regional work is now mostly in services and we have serious unmet needs in the health, caring and education sectors. Right now, every region around Australia lacks the people needed to deliver services and care for the population. Caring for communities properly and improving regional lives requires the effort of more people, not fewer. 

Happily, participation in regional economies is the strongest it’s been for decades. But these areas also still have some of the lowest incomes and need more inclusive economies. Better childcare would enable more parents to work. Different pension policies would enable older people to work and improve their quality of life. Better support and caring initiatives would enable those with barriers to find a place. While some might improve their lives by choosing to work less, success means more people participating, not fewer. 

Finally, at its heart, productivity means doing more with less, and the right sort of productivity can drive genuinely positive change. 

Regenerative farming practices that need fewer inputs can increase returns to local farmers and heal environments. Creation of renewable energy systems can lead to new jobs, lower energy costs and lower emissions. A four-day working week and working from home can provide more time for families and communities as well as more productive work. 

This is what we need most – the right kind of productivity changes. Those are the ones that lead to real gains for communities, rather than simply meeting the relentless demand for returns by businesses and asset owners. 

There is a pathway of positive growth that is deeply aligned with fixing the problems that previous growth has created. Making this case does not mean advocacy of an “all growth is good” model, or a “more is better” philosophy. 

In this time of enormous challenges, we need to search for better ways to define and pursue our shared goals as a society. Future success for our regional communities probably means more growth will occur – but if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. Ultimately, economic growth or degrowth isn’t the point. It’s about creating and fuelling an economy that serves its purpose: a sustainable future for our regions and the people that call them home.

Jack Archer is the founder of specialist regional consultancy ProjectsJSA, adjunct research fellow at the Cairns Institute, and a former CEO of the Regional Australia Institute.

An elegant sufficiency

 Words Samuel Alexander 

The capitalist growth economy is everywhere, which makes it hard to think beyond it. Trying to imagine a post-growth, post-petroleum, and in some senses a post-capitalist economy is tough. But in an age of overlapping social and ecological crises, I believe we must develop new visions of the good life, visions in which human and economic well-being take priority over the pursuit of ever-increasing material wealth. 

We need to think our way towards a genuinely sustainable future. That process can begin by asking the question: how much is enough?

Sufficiency is the crucial concept here. An unfashionable term, sufficiency is the key to sustainability, social justice, the well-being of individuals and societies, and the survival of the life-support system we call Earth. In contrast to high-impact consumerist lifestyles prevalent in affluent societies, sufficiency means consuming considerably less and consuming differently. It demands a break from the consumer cultures with which we’re familiar. Sufficiency cannot be achieved within a growth-orientated global capitalist society that needs relentless “progress”, relentless growth. 

Australia’s economy experienced 29 years of uninterrupted growth from 1990-91 to 2018-19. No other developed economy can boast this economic achievement. Economists, and governments, see it as good news. But how did it impact the Earth? Our climate? Our oceans? Ourselves?

Capitalism of the mixed-market variety, as well as the state capitalism practised in China and Russia, is predicated on limitless economic growth. Yet definitive research shows that such a trajectory is incompatible with planetary health – perhaps even survival. If capitalism is the dominant economic system in 2050, our planetary ecosystem will likely be on the brink of collapse. In Australia, bushfires will become more intense and damaging, wildlife will continue to be annihilated. Waterways will be even more stressed. 

There is an assumption, particularly in the push for electric vehicles, solar panels, wind farms and more efficient battery technologies, that science and ingenuity will save us; that the green-tech revolution will solve our problems. It won’t – not on its own. Real sustainability implies a different vision of the good life, one that embraces the elegant virtues of moderation, frugality and harmony with nature. This implies no hardship or sacrifice, but it is certainly a different conception of flourishing.

It’s important, of course, that we develop greener renewable energy sources. We also need to reduce our demand for energy. On an individual level, for example, we can dress appropriately for the cold rather than reaching for the heater, buy clothes made to last rather than fast fashion. But personal lifestyle changes are not enough on their own. We face systemic problems that require systemic responses. And this demands a fundamental cultural change that must drive the necessary structural changes. 

Some might consider this a radical way of thinking with dangerous consequences. It’s not at all. It would be radical not to change. Certainly, it demands a revival of the “limits to growth” thesis popularised in the early 1970s by the progressive think-tank the Club of Rome. In turn, this has its roots in a notion put forward by the philosophical father of liberal democracy, John Stuart Mill, in the mid-19th century. Mill proposed a “stationary state” economy. It was, he argued, the direction in which advanced capitalism would inevitably move. For “the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward”.

I believe the prospects for planetary – and human – survival this century will ultimately depend on a form of post-capitalist society that operates within the Earth’s ecological limits, embodies the value of sufficiency, and orients itself around, as Mill saw it, the stationary state. To live within our environmental means, the richest nations will need to embrace a planned process of economic degrowth. Though it sounds painful – like a strict diet – degrowth can be achieved by a planned and deliberate downscaling of economic activity and reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. Less stuff, but more freedom. 

The process of questioning that will kick-start the evolution to a post-growth society must emerge from the grassroots. Governments, with their addiction to the artificial high of perpetual economic growth, won’t do it. Structural reforms will eventually come from the top. But the impetus for change will need to come from below, and soon.

Samuel Alexander is the academic director of Sustainability and Environmental Action with the School for International Training.