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Ending the “endless growth” fairytale needs moral clarity

If economic growth knowingly increases mass-scale suffering, can we stop chasing it?

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
  • Greta Thunberg got it right, the "endless economic growth fairytale" covers up clearly wicked consequences.
  • We're no longer in the same moral world where many of our smart abstract ideas (like "growth") were conceived. We face new material and moral constraints, and their logic requires "degrowth."
  • We have all the tech we need to cope with the climate crisis right now. It's not a technology, it's a technique.


Is "endless economic growth" a fairytale, as Greta Thunberg warned the UN? Is "green growth" a good witch, or the old wicked one in pretty party-on disguise? Any "happily ever after" needs new material and "moral clarity" (and "degrowth").

Economist Robert Frank says economic growth in rich nations will help voters make "sacrifices" for sustainability. He cites "loss aversion" studies, but they're like the "marshmallow test" (see here) unreliably over-generalized. Abstractions like "growth" and "consumption" often hide this trade-off structure:

a) 4 flights this year, and your children suffer shorter lives, or

b) 2 flights and they breathe safer air for longer.

In concrete moral terms, higher consumption now often increases future burdens. We're no longer in the old moral world where many of our popular "smart" abstract ideas (like "growth") were conceived. Those that don't fit now-known limits must be revamped. Frank advocates "green growth," and that's obviously better, but to use Thunberg's our-house-is-on-fire metaphor, that's only adding fuel more slowly. And it ignores very material realities.

Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy

In "Why Growth Can't Be Green," Jason Hickel recasts the concrete realities typically ignored in growth debates. We're already extracting more of the Earth's materials and life forms than we safely can (fish, forests, fuels, metals, etc). Planetary parameters enable ecological economists to calculate a sustainable material consumption rate, and the magic number is ~50 billion tons of resources per year. We're at ~80 billion tons now (~160% of Earth-capacity). Usage varies greatly: rich nations devour 28 tons per person per year, ~1,400% higher than the ~2 tons per person per in poor nations. We'd need four Earth's for all humans to consume like Americans. Hickel describes several studies showing that "even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale."

"Growth must end," agrees Valcav Smil (his 500-page book analyzes every kind of growth). "Economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense." He explains, "Relative decoupling… reductions in energy intensity and in the material requirements of individual products or entire economies… will continue. But absolute decoupling of economic growth from energy and materials on the global level… contradicts physical laws." For instance, our 10-fold increase in crop yields needed a 90-fold increase in energy usage (for chemical fertilizers, without which ~2 billion fewer humans could be fed, and tractors etc). And while wind turbines are monuments to eco-action, they also embody masses of fossil-fuel-driven materials (concrete, steel, plastic). Renewable energy helps, but it doesn't necessarily reduce or replace materials consumed. To be sustainable we've got to get to a steady state consumption of below 50 billion tons per year. That's what "degrowth" and "postgrowth" mean.

In sacred-to-many-economists "growth" hides the idea that we can't possibly live without every trinket. Or wear clothing more than 7 times. Whenever growth's necessity is asserted, test the thinking against material practicalities. And discount reflex dismissals by economists (like this where Noah Smith says Smil reveals "spectacular, pugnacious ignorance," and "doesn't understand economic growth").

Thunberg says extending the status quo given what we know "would be evil." She has the "moral clarity" to see that every delay compounds the monetary and moral costs (whichever of those most moves you). To go on growth-chasing in business-as-usual mode is becoming our era's "banal evil." It knowingly increases mass scale suffering. Scientist David P. Barash calls this a Ponzi scheme—we gain by burdening all who come after (a legacy not of heirlooms, but heir-gloom).

I'll end with two good-news takeaways.

a) Solving this doesn't require "any new inventions" (Smil). We have all the tech we need right now. It's not a technology, it's a technique: the once-prized skill of self-restraint.
b) Much climate-cooking consumption isn't needed for a "good" life (e.g. 40% of all food is wasted, and "fast fashion" is far from essential).

A great task of our times is to reimagine what a good-enough life means (in moral and material terms).

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Jupiter's moon Europa has a huge ocean beneath its sheets of ice.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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Jordan Klepper: Comedians vs. the apocalypse

Watch The Daily Show comedian Jordan Klepper and elite improviser Bob Kulhan live.

Big Think LIVE

These days, if you don't laugh, you might just scream. Enter comedian and The Daily Show regular Jordan Klepper!

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Supporting climate science increases skepticism of out-groups

A study finds people are more influenced by what the other party says than their own. What gives?

Protesters demanding action against climate change

Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study has found evidence suggesting that conservative climate skepticism is driven by reactions to liberal support for science.
  • This was determined both by comparing polling data to records of cues given by leaders, and through a survey.
  • The findings could lead to new methods of influencing public opinion.
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What is counterfactual thinking?

Can thinking about the past really help us create a better present and future?

Jacob Lund / Shutterstock
Personal Growth
  • There are two types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward.
  • Both upward and downward counterfactual thinking can be positive impacts on your current outlook - however, upward counterfactual thinking has been linked with depression.
  • While counterfactual thinking is a very normal and natural process, experts suggest the best course is to focus on the present and future and allow counterfactual thinking to act as a motivator when possible.
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