Economic Growth is Unfortunately, or Even Tragically, A Transient Phenomenon

Economic Growth is Unfortunately, or Even Tragically, A Transient Phenomenon
(that is to say an exceptional occurrence)

It is apparently extremely difficult for the general public, as well as for our decision makers and opinion leaders, to grasp (or wrap their heads around as the saying goes these days) the idea that economic growth cannot be expected to continue much longer, and thus cannot continue to improve the  lives of  people, as it has done in spectacular fashion for the past 200 to 300 or so years.

The fossil fuel era has allowed this economic (and population) explosion to happen, but the end of that era is in sight. Oil and natural gas will very probably not be available in commercial quantities much beyond the end of this century if that long, with coal lasting perhaps a half century more.

Perhaps the dominant feeling, although unjustified, is that renewable energy will be able to make up the gap when the fossil fuel age is over, but many experts believe that will be highly unlikely, with the result that after the end of the fossil fuel era, per capita energy available will be no more than some small fraction of what it is today.

If that analysis is accepted, or viewed as probable, what should we do now? The most important thing would be to focus on trying to decide what size population (both for each individual country, and for the world as a whole) could be supported by a world without fossil fuels, a size that would allow a decent standard of living for all, with a steady state, non-growing economy that would be sustainable for the very long term.

Many experts believe that without fossil fuels the earth will not be able to support more than two billion people at most.

We at NPG have long argued that an industrial society is incompatible with vast  numbers of people. We believe that we should aim for a U.S. population (now 316 million heading rapidly toward a half billion) of 100 to 150 million, and a world population (now six billion heading rapidly toward nine billion) of not more than one to two billion.

To achieve those goals would require, in the United States, an end to mass immigration and a somewhat lower fertility rate that could be reached by encouraging women to stop at two children. In the developing countries it would require a below replacement rate fertility and non-coercive incentives to lower desired family size to below replacement level in order to achieve a negative rate of population growth.

In addition a very fundamental change would be an absolute requirement. We must renounce our cherished goal of economic growth, and replace it with the goal of a non-growing steady state economy. The goal of economic growth is no longer valid, for the overwhelming reason that our economy is part of our environment, and no material growth can continue forever in a finite universe, that is to say the world we live in. If economic growth is persisted in it will lead eventually to the ruin of our environment, resources and standard of living, rather than the promised riches and abundance.

We need a far smaller population whereas the concept of perpetual economic growth implies  an ever growing labor force, and thus an ever increasing population so that GDP (Gross Domestic Product) can continue to grow as well. The worship of GDP, the great secular religion of our time, must be renounced, or it will eventually lead to the destruction of what it promises to deliver but cannot: per capita income and wealth.

Beyond any possible doubt the scale of our present economy is far too large to be sustainable for the long term. It follows, therefore, that for it to be sustainable, we need to reduce its size to a point where it would be sustainable. Because of the size and magnitude of the necessary reduction, that could only be achieved by reducing the size of our population. There is no other way. In the United States that would require, above all else, putting an end to mass immigration, the main driver behind our senseless population growth.

We urgently need, therefore, not only to stop our population growth but actually reverse it for an interim period of negative growth, until our population and our economy have been reduced to a sustainable level. Unfortunately, even some proponents of the steady state economy seem to be reluctant to call for a substantial reduction in population and recommend only that population growth be halted, without specifying at what level. I submit that without specifics such statements are meaningless.

Once again, for an interim period we need a negative rate of population growth in order to achieve a non-growing steady state economy, an economy that would be sustainable for the very long term and afford an adequate standard of living for all, in a sound and healthy environment.

The late Emile Benoit, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business (and a member of the NPG Advisory Board) warned that the “exponential growth syndrome” and the undervaluation of pollution  and depletion of resources, threaten the very survival of humanity. He defined the problem in the following terms:
“Our earth, we now begin to realize, does not and cannot supply us with an unlimited amount of usable energy, foodstuffs, safe dumping grounds for our waste products — or even standing room. It is much more like an interplanetary vehicle, where resources must be carefully conserved, waste products must be minimized and recycled, and where the number of passengers must be carefully limited to those that can be taken aboard without overcrowding … We have, in effect, a revolution of rising expectations, in a world of fixed dimensions, and limited productive capacity. Therein lies the problem.”  

Donald Mann

President of Negative Population Growth, a national non-profit membership organization dedicated to educating Americans about the devastating effects of overpopulation on our environment and quality of life.
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