Tom Schueneman: Redefining prosperity and the fallacy of growth

• April 23, 2012

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This is a guest post by Tom Schueneman,a finalist in the TckTckTck Rio Blogger Prize competition. If you would like to see this entrant as the official TckTckTck blogger at Rio+20 this June, please help spread the word by sharing this post on your social networks.

“In an empty world, it was a safe bet that growth was making us richer, but we no longer live in an empty world. We live in a full world” – Ecological Economist Herman Daly.

Victims of our own success

We owe the comfort and abundance of our lives to fossil fuel. Most people, at least in the developed world, enjoy “prosperity” through access to material goods and resources not possible without access to this vast store of “cheap” energy.

Our carbon-based energy economy has been so successful that we are now held in its grip, mesmerized into thinking it will go on forever. It has distorted our definition of prosperity by placing “growth” central on the altar of human intent and interaction with the natural world. To challenge the efficacy of infinite economic growth is suspect, even heretical.  But we arrive at the 21st century at a crossroads and challenge it we must if we are to choose a path toward sustainability.

Exponential growth – the Achilles heel of a finite world

As Physicist Professor Al Bartlet warns, failing to understand the exponential function is humanity’s Achilles Heal. The exponential growth in our numbers combined with our ability to extract energy and resources with ever greater effectiveness is at once unsustainable and the accepted foundation of economic theory.

More people mean more consumers equals growing markets and jobs to pay for consumption to support growing markets – plenty for all, and then even more, in an accelerating, unending cycle.

Human ingenuity and innovation notwithstanding, we live within a finite system. Be it climate change, energy, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, mineral depletion or collapsing fisheries, we cannot continually “grow” our way out from the challenges we now face.  At the core of any solution for creating a sustainable society is choosing a path based on a new definition of prosperity.

The growth fallacy – speaking the unspeakable

Limits to Growth” first brought the idea into public discussion in the early ’70’s, and it was squarely rebuked by the “experts” of the day. Forty years later those limits are only more manifest.

“Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with,” says Richard Heinberg in his book The End of Growth. Accepting the fallacy of growth is a disquieting notion because it threatens all we have ever known.

“The prevailing vision of prosperity as a continually expanding economic paradise has come unraveled,” writes Tim Jackson in his book Prosperity Without Growth. “Perhaps it worked better when economics were smaller and the world was less populated. But if it was ever fully fit for purpose, it certainly isn’t now.”

“Climate change, ecological degradation and the spectre of resource scarcity compound the problems of failing financial markets and economic recession. Short-term fixes to prop up a bankrupt system aren’t good enough,” Jackson continues. “Something more is needed. An essential starting point is to set out a coherent notion of prosperity that doesn’t rely on default assumptions about consumption growth.”

Heinberg and Jackson are among a host of thought leaders challenging our devotion to the fallacy of growth and pointing us toward a new path. Documentary filmmaker David Gardner is another such voice, as well as a self-described “growthbuster.”

Becoming a GrowthBuster

In the film GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth Gardner exposes the fallacy of growth for a general audience likely uncomfortable with the idea, but also with a growing sense that business as usual is a dead-end street for themselves, their families, and their communities. Increasingly ill-at-ease with a consumer society that demands of them to be just that – consumers; when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping, or so it seems.

GrowthBusters examines the beliefs and behaviors that may have worked in an earlier age, but are now pernicious barriers to a sustainable civilization; cultural norms enshrined by the “Great Acceleration” of the last half of the 20th century.

Gardner combines his own experience as a citizen of a growth-obsessed American town with the observations and insight from an array of experts, scientists, and economists.

“We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for.” Says Stanford professor and biologist Paul Ehrlich in the film, “either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.”

Instead of focusing on what we must “give up” as we move away from an infinite growth-based society, it clarifies what we’ve given up in our tenacious embrace of it, and the choices we have going forward.

Life after growth

“Beyond the provision of nutrition and shelter, prosperity consists in our ability to participate in the life of society,” writes Jackson Prosperity Without Growth, “in our sense of shared meaning and purpose and in our capacity to dream. We’ve become accustomed to pursuing these goals through material means. Freeing ourselves from that constraint is the basis for change.”

Surely, for those with a full pantry, the latest iPhone, and a big-screen TV, it can be morally suspect to suggest to others to abandon the pursuit of material wealth. Positive change will not come through exhortation. Yet many feel trapped within their own material abundance. Beyond a certain point it no longer serves human prosperity and fulfillment.

“We are not purely greedy selfish individuals, that’s what free marketeers assume that we are,” says Institute for Food and Development Policy fellow Raj Patel in GrowthBusters. “That’s what we are encouraged to be in consumer society. But we are not, we are much, much more beautiful, we are much bigger, we are much … we are much more capable of sharing…

The tools with which we have been raised to help us understand looking at the way the world works and how our future might be delivered to us, well those tools are broken. But it’s OK, because there are loads of solutions around us in which we, we might manage the world differently and more sustainably…”

Among these tools are three principal ideas to help us get started:

  1. Adapt to a steady-state economic model:
    A global transition movement is growing and connecting individuals and communities in learning and adapting to a post-growth, post-carbon world. Networks like these help chart a path toward greater resilience and adaptation to a reworked economy aligned within material limits and focused on human flourishing beyond a consumer-based society.
  1. Stabilize human population:

Scientific estimates population the Earth can sustainably support range from under 1 billion to 5 billion, depending on how we much we curb our consumer lifestyles in the developed world. We must stabilize and then slowly reduce human population within Earth’s carrying capacity and provide women, especially in developing countries, education and access to health care and birth control.

  1. End our dependence on fossil fuel:

Climate change is unavoidable. Climate change is here and now. But to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption we must quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. Accomplishing the task requires redesign of our cities, agriculture, transportation, and energy generation.

It’s okay to be a Growthbuster

“It’s not an easy thing to change the inertia of a civilization, but it has to be done…”

What drives our endeavors and sustains our economies will not be tomorrow what they are today. But we have a choice. As Gardner says in his film, we can either turn away from the cliff or keep the pedal to the metal and “go down fighting.”

It is possible to live happy, healthy, prosperous lives within a bountiful – if limited – world. It will not be easy; in fact, it is likely that greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. And there is a price to pay for the damage we’ve already exacted on the Earth. But it can be done, if we accept the challenge for what it is.

“There’s a shift going on, and this is a shift from believing that we have a resources problem to really understanding that we have a cultural problem and that we need to evolve our culture.”

Twenty years after the first global Earth Summit we stand squarely at a crossroads. We cannot be blamed for the road that got us here, but we are responsible for each future step we take.  Many, like Gardner and his film Growthbusters, are pointing the way down a path to a sustainable future, helping us see that it’s okay to be a growthbuster.

Comments (34)

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  1. Nick Aster says:

    Great post Tom…. I wonder if the idea of “growth” is actually something that’s innate in the human condition and that perhaps we can still use the metaphor to “grow” in ways that are not physically consumptive – ie, other forms of wealth that are not material. Could such things actually substitue for material wealth once people’s basic needs are met?

  2. Luis Carlos Zardo says:

    I would like to read an article about overpopulation that spared me from having to read something along the line “overpopulation AND overconsumption are the problem…”

    Of course overconsumption IS a problem, but the point is:

    overconsumption is NOTHING compared to overpopulation.

    Changing a cellphone every years causes no damage at all if compared to EATING every single day.

    and every one needs to eat

    Even if we gave up buying stuff

    We´ll still have to eat

    Even if we become vegans

    We´ll destroy this world.

    So, the problem is OVERPOPULATION, population growth must be stopped, why don´t just state it clearly in the article?

    It´ll be obvious to everyone in a few years when the SHTF anyway…

    It´s completely pointless to avoid consumption and have two or more kids, why not make it REALLY clear so everyone reading it would understand?

  3. Stephanie says:

    In the words of Steve Martin: Everybody, let’s get small! Thanks, Tom, for this enlightening and interesting article.

  4. Dave Gardner says:

    Luis, the best minds calculate the Earth can sustainably support fewer than 2 billion living a North American lifestyle. While we can get population back down to 2 billion surprisingly quickly if we stop telling ourselves how impossible that is, we simply don’t have time. We have no choice but to make radical changes in both our reproductive and our consumptive choices. I’m glad you support more candor about population’s critical role in the sustainability equation.

  5. Tom says:

    Thanks for your comments. I certainly take your point. Population is obviously the “pink elephant” in the room. While I don’t disagree with you, I’m not sure how we can separate overconsumption from overpopulation, as it seems your comments suggest I should. My point – Dave Gardner’s point in his film Growthbusters – is for people, especially in the developed world, to look at the way our society is structured and dependent on growth to function. These are important points to make that I don’t think anyone should be “spared”. An economic model based on growth (overconsumption) and unsustainable population growth are both the problem. You will not fix one without addressing the other. Certainly articles can be written focusing exclusively on population growth, but that leaves out half the picture.

  6. Tom says:

    Great comment Nick. Certainly the idea of growing in non-material ways is, I think, essential to the whole concept. Though it might sound a bit cliche, one way to think about that is how we could “grow spiritually” or, as the title of the piece suggests, redefine the idea of what human prosperity means.

  7. Emily Alix Fano says:

    The discussion about overpopulation and over-consumption is very interesting. When you look at the data on carbon dioxide emissions per capita (assuming such data correlates to patterns of consumption), it is clear that the most densely populated countries are not necessarily the biggest emitters of CO2; the wealthier countries are. Of course the world is overpopulated, but when you look at the data, it is wealth – and the systems that created it – that lead to the biggest environmental impact:

  8. Vivian says:

    I’m happy to share this article. It’s a good read for those actively working on the issue and for those who aren’t quite on board yet. Here’s to growthbusting.

  9. Amanda says:

    Great post Tom and it’s made me want to go away and look up Growthbusters.

  10. Dave Gardner says:

    In a world where people gravitate to “downstream” solutions to environmental damage symptomatic of a system-wide problem, it’s nice to see someone raising awareness of that systemic problem. Stopping a dam or coal-fired power plant, while good, will not be enough. Whole system thinking is essential for our civilization to come out of this alive. We must move from a culture of growth to a culture of sustainability. Thanks for writing this.

  11. Much more of this kind of work is needed. Thanks for all you are doing.

  12. Jerry Schranz says:

    It’s a small world after all. Great work, Tom!

  13. ecobold says:

    “Victims of our own success” couldn’t have put it better…

  14. Michael R. says:

    A rare combination: educational and inspiring.

    Perhaps a future essay will offer details (real world examples) on ways to achieve ‘prosperity without growth’. It’s one thing to identify and critique a basic fallacy…it’s another to show the way forward.

    The battle against fossil fuels’ has begun, and it will get very ugly (as we are seeing in our poisoned political discourse today) before it falls away. There’s too much big money at stake. There will be great violence.

    But thanks to writings and thinkers like this, the chorus of opposition to ‘the-way-things-have-always-been grows larger and louder.

    The sustainable world we dream of will not be achieved in our lifetimes…maybe, by our grand childrens’ twilight years. It is still worth doing and working towards; it is imperative that we do so for future generations of humanity, who will view these thought pioneers as revolutionaries, even heroes.

  15. Than Hansen says:

    A really important piece, that gets to the crucial matter of the unsustainable nature of our fossil fuel driven consumer based economy. We all need to help spread the word about Peak Oil and resource depletion, how the past 150 years of growth has put our planet in peril, no exaggeration. I hope your piece wins, and in turn helps further illuminate this existential decision-making phase in which we find ourselves.

  16. Dave Gardner says:

    Emily, certainly affluence plays a huge role in environmental impact. We can’t minimize that. But neither can we divorce that from population. The impact of 2 million affluent CO2-emitting human beings is twice the impact of 1 million affluent CO2-emitting human beings. In a global emergency of the scale we face, it serves no purpose to try to take one of these contributors off the table.

  17. Tom says:

    It’s certainly is a small world – and less is more. Thanks for the comment Jerry

  18. Tom says:

    Thanks Michael. I agree that a 1400-word essay can’t possibly do this justice. I do highly recommend Dave Gardners film “Growthbusters” There’s also Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth” and Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity Without Growth” – but I think a good starting place is “Growthbusters.” One reason is that the film shows how Gardners “bucked the system” and got folks in his local community to start thinking seriously about growth and how to lead a life not based in unsustainable, infinite growth. Gardner faced tough odds and a lot of dismissive attitudes, but persisted.

  19. Dave Gardner says:

    Michael, I think we need more and more people dissatisfied with the current system in order to achieve a critical mass of folks thinking about and creating “ways to achieve ‘prosperity without growth.” Critiques of the current system are a necessary first step.

    There are some movements afoot, trying out new models. Among them, Transition Towns, Steady State economics, and De-growth. While the GrowthBusters film only had time to touch on a few of these, the film’s website offers links to many organizations of people innovating in this space.

  20. Tom says:

    Thanks for the comment Than. Whether this “wins” or not (and frankly, I’ll be glad when the “winning” or “losing” part of this is over with) I hope we can all work to help influence how people think about our economic model of unsustainable growth and our energy future – how we might redefine human prosperity. Again, kudos to Dave Gardner and his colleagues at the forefront of this endeavor.

  21. Tom says:

    I’ve also been having a very interesting “offline” (at least offline from this post) with a colleague (who has commented here) over concerns for a sustainable future, the future of our children, and how in large measure society seems unaware of the situation and peril we face if we don’t change. Through that conversation we’ve shared some interesting links that I’d like to share here:
    Center for a New American Dream
    Resilience Circles
    Transition Network
    There is also some great work done and information available through the Post Carbon Institute

  22. Once again, Tom Schueneman demonstrates his mastery of the written word, his deep concern for the fate of our planet, and his ability to effectively communicate complex ideas.

    I truly hope those who read and judge this article will avail themselves of the many salient references found in the article’s well-placed links.

    Although his valuable words and insights stand alone, the thoughtfulness to provide myriad and relevant additional information enhances the depth of the article, and speaks to his professionalism as a journalist.

    One lingering thought.

    Gardner says, “There’s a shift going on, and this is a shift from believing that we have a resources problem to really understanding that we have a cultural problem and that we need to evolve our culture.”

    Perhaps we needed to evolve our culture before stepping out of the cave. As a species apparently hell bent on self destruction, the ‘shift’ we see may well be a proliferation of madness and mendacity. Time will tell.

  23. As seen in the previous comments, bringing up population control or asking someone to modify their lifestyle is a hot button topic, especially population control. As Tom points out, we do have to appreciate that fossil fuels got us here, industrialization is why we are able to discuss topics like this on the web. Though while we can appreciate that, fossil fuels do belong in our history books as a footnote to our path to greatness. I challenge the group to think a little differently…. By implementing and enforcing deeper sustainable practices the Earth could sustain much greater populations. Rethinking food production (or even what food is), energy consumption and production is just a start. It is all under noses, we just need the catalyst of change to take hold and unfortunately that usually means we need to get closer to full collapse.

  24. Liz says:

    Well said Tom! Sir David Attenborough’s lecture last year on overpopulation is also well worth a viewing. He wants more and more people to talk openly about the issue.

  25. JACKIE GYTE says:


  26. Frank Parker says:

    The sentiments expressed here are ones with which I heartily sympathise. Indeed, as hinted in the article many of the ideas expressed have been around and espoused by me since the 1970s at least. And, whilst I agree that the “elephant in the room” is over-population I believe that there is an even bigger one that none of the affluent middle class writers/campaigners for sustainability ever tackles: the diabolical duo of inequality and poverty.

    It is all very well to talk of sustainability and reducing consumption when you already have lots of stuff. How do you tell the poor in developing nations – where the greatest volume of growth is currently taking place – that they cannot have the same standard of living as those of us fortunate enough to live in the West? And, here in the West where politicians on all sides argue that growth is the only way out of the current recession, how to you tell those hardest hit by so called “austerity measures” that actually the level of consumption represented by that austerity is unsustainable?

    How do you tell millions of unemployed people that they may never have a job? The homeless that they may never have a home better than a cardboard box? The starving that they will be forever denied food? The sick that decent standards of health care are not for them?

    Across Europe people are protesting about the economic strictures being imposed in order to stabilise debt-ridden economies. Further cuts in standards of living could well lead to a revolution in volatile countries like Greece and Spain. The current Presidential election in France could see the introduction of a popular Socialist leader dedicated to reversing “austerity”. The kind of cultural change that is needed is still a very long way off. Unless, that is, the redistribution of wealth envisaged by Socialists and potential revolutionaries is part of it.

  27. Tom says:

    Excellent video. I’m posting that on the blog today.

  28. Diane says:

    Good article. I look forward to watching Growth Busters and to learning more. Good luck with the contest!

  29. Fiene says:

    love the post. I want you to blog!

  30. JACKIE GYTE says:


  31. Moth says:

    A classic example is, as Tom points out, The Limits to Growth, which is about 40 yrs old now. Even though recent revisits and studies of this work over the past decade show just how close it’s models were to the reality of since then, such as,

    Turner (2008) A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality :

    the critics remain unimpressed and the rest of us, as a collective, do nothing to avoid the path we’re heading. The inertia is too great, I fear more so in the developing world which reaches for a first world standard of living.

    To change the course, I suspect we need to develop a high standard of living that has a low per capita footprint to set the scene for a sustainable future and from there a global committed goal to ensure this efficiency does not translate to further growth but rather is inspired by our set boundaries.

  32. Dave Gardner says:

    Matthew, I’m curious. What is your factual basis for believing this: “By implementing and enforcing deeper sustainable practices the Earth could sustain much greater populations”? And why is it important to you to make this point?

  33. Dave Gardner says:

    Frank, I don’t think anyone has found the answer to your question (“How do you tell…”) But I’m guessing you know the fact that this is tough news does not make it any less true or any less essential to communicate. It really is going to be the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced.

    There is some good news. The affluent American standard of living is not really that enviable. Growth stopped delivering what really matters to us quite some time ago. We are like drug addicts who are beginning to see the destructive nature of our habit. It is okay for us to warn others not to get addicted to this drug. Just because it LOOKS like we’ve been aving quite a party doesn’t mean we are suggesting deprivation for others. “Don’t follow in our footsteps” is actually a humanitarian bit of advice.

  34. Joc Forsyth says:

    This essay on overpopulation is great and needs to be considered universally. If people want an article on the topic to quote, Desvaux M The sustainability of human populations Significance September 2007, is a good one. I have the .pdf but it is rather large – ~10 meg, largely because of a colour photograph showing the density of agriculture.
    On the associated topic of aspiring for greater ‘wealth’, might I suggest, just for further refinement and elaboration, the suggestion that we consider ‘quality’, rather than quantity as the metric. That would include quality of life, quality of goods etc rather than more, and more turnover, of goods.
    The indigenous populations of Australia survived the vicissitudes of 40,000 years in a harsh and changing environment, partly, I believe, by the adoption of extreme conservatism in culture. Can we repeat this capacity to survive while still retaining the aspiring nature which so enriches our culture? (For example, what is the nature of the universe, of the immune system, of ecology.) I believe it is possible but it will take a lot of hard work and the shedding of many adverse traits. Nevertheless, our very survival is at stake.

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