Is growth the only way to run an economy?
Ursula K. Le Guin writes a wonderful post about this over at Book View Cafe. I was excited, because she expressed something I’ve always thought: that constant growth can’t be done.
We can’t just keep getting bigger and bigger. The analogy Ms. Le Guin provides, that of the physical body, is perfect. Growth must happen for the human being. But at some point, growth has to stop, and we settle into maintenance. If we keep growing, we end up, well… obese. Ill. Dead.
Economies are the same. The idea that we must always Go Shopping! is ridiculous. Worse, it’s devastating, because we’ve let this idea be the required metric against which the health of countries is measured. Population and production must increase at a constant rate, or we are considered to be sick and failing. No one takes into account that trash and pollution are growing at the same rate. That the bloat of too many people and too many products leads to a collapse of Everything.
I know the arguments. Free enterprise. Competition. If we don’t build it, offer it, buy it, someone else will, and then they will have all the customers and money, and we’ll lose.
My question is: why do we have to run the race? Why can’t we build a different system? Use a different metric to measure things? Is it really impossible to allow, even encourage, growth for a short time – say until a specific rate of consumption is reached – then shift into maintenance mode?
How would a country function in a Maintenance Mode economy? In my area of the world, there a few small towns. We’re really one giant conglomerate, but it’s made up of several towns ranging in size from a few thousand to few hundred thousand. Some of the smaller towns are built around a landscape of hills. These are villages, really, with the homes scattered throughout the hills, and small downtowns with business and entertainment areas.
These towns have deliberately contained their growth. The downtowns are small on purpose, to keep the “village” feel. Now, to be honest, these towns are filled with the area’s richest people, who tend to regard their villages as their exclusive privilege. They don’t want apartment buildings bringing in the riffraff and their corresponding traffic and noise.
I will be the first to say this is a Bad Attitude. Returning to the physical body analogy, if you feed your body only filet mignon and champagne, you won’t live very long. It takes a variety of nutrients to grow well and to stay well once growth is completed.
So a diverse population is good for cities. I don’t live in any of these towns, so I don’t get to vote, but I do think they should allow for a few small apartment buildings and multi-use buildings in the downtown areas. In the end, they’ll be better communities for it. But I also think they are right to contain growth. They don’t need a constant influx of people and businesses. The business owners don’t need to make more and more millions every year. They need to make enough to stay in business year after year, to provide what the people need. They need to be run by the people who live there and use their products or services.
In her article, Ms. Le Guin suggests that socialism should be given another chance. I suspect we will need a system that has components of socialism. We have that now, of course, but it isn’t enough and it isn’t used correctly. And the main reason it doesn’t work is that our system is still, always, and finally, based on growth.
That is what we have to change. We need to base our system on moderation and on health. We need to go into Maintenance Mode. In fact, because we are currently too big and bloated, we may need to diet first. This will mean a period of disturbance and loss. It won’t be pretty. But we’ll end up healthier in the end.