Ronald Reagan once said, “There are no great limits to growth, because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, or wonder.” In the United States, growth is mostly unquestioned as a source of prosperity and happiness. In fact Reagan, under the influence of economist Milton Friedman, believed that the U.S. could prosper, as long as the economy was freed from government influence. Neo-classical assumptions rule U.S. economic development, to the point where politicians of the right and the left wings both fervently believe it in. Barack Obama, during a campaign speech in Berlin, said:
“This is the moment when we must build on the wealth that open markets have created, and share its benefits more equitably. Trade has been a cornerstone of our growth and global development. But we will not be able to sustain this growth if it favors the few, and not the many. Together, we must forge trade that truly rewards the work that creates wealth, with meaningful protections for our people and our planet. This is the moment for trade that is free and fair for all.”
Obama, like Reagan, believed that growth was essential, but he felt that we should take some of the surplus and provide it to the poorest Americans. He also understood the importance of “meaningful protections for… our planet.” Based on the policies his White House has proposed during the first 18 months of his administration, Obama clearly believes that we can protect the planet – preventing runaway anthropogenic climate change – by relative decoupling, a reduction in the ecological intensity per unit of economic output. Like Reagan, he has faith that Americans will continue to discover technology that will make unending growth possible, with greater efficiency and greater performance.
However, that faith in human innovation is running directly into the ecological limits that Earth provides. With a growing population, with increasing standards of living, unending growth is in doubt. In Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson examines the dilemma of growth, and how prosperity and flourishing relate to it. He writes that: “the truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of 9 billion people (the United Nations projected 2050 global population).”
If we assume that continuing growth is not sustainable, then what norms can guide economic activity? Jackson identifies an important factor that helps to inspire our need for growth, our “tendency to imbue material things with social and psychological meanings:”
“Consumer goods provide a symbolic language in which we communicate continually with each other, not just about raw stuff, but about what really matters to us: family, friendship, sense of belonging, community, identity, social status, meaning, and purpose in life.”
With the limits of growth, on an Earth with an expanding human population, finding ways to circumvent that opulence, to find a way to short-circuit the positional race. In the United States, that race was known under the mantra ‘Keeping up with the Joneses.‘ The task, it seems is to decouple those important qualities, which Martha Nussbaum identified in her essay “The Good As Discipline, The Good as Freedom,” from material opulence. In contemporary societies, the institutions that can best influence and nurture that decoupling would be religious and community groups. Institutions that would be most affected by that kind of shift would be groups like the Chamber of Commerce, that favor growth at all costs.
Additionally, another norm that can help to guide the transformation of the economy, and society, would be an emphasis on quality in everything that we produce. Right now, the goal of growth encourages the production of cheap, disposable objects that consumers will need to replace. These cheap goods are often produced on the other side of the Earth from where they are consumed, in Third World economies. An emphasis on quality, and the nurturing of artisan producers, would help develop local economies to sustainably, and collectively, prosper. The nurturing of local production would also reduce transportation, and environmental costs.
Our companies are designed to maximize efficiency at the cost of people and the planet. To trace one example, by making meat production local, the meat becomes more expensive; however, that meat better bears its cost to the environment and to our continued prosperity. This emphasis on quality and local production would impact the global business world, namely the companies which have grown on such a scale as to become more powerful than many States. For example, ConAgra is a dominant player in food production. They are already being affected by the locavore movement, and have bought numerous brands in order to find a niche in that economy. The question of course, is whether we, as consumers, will nurture the artisans instead of the ConAgras of the world.