The End of Growth

We do not want to constantly consume more out of sheer gluttony. Our consumption initially serves to satisfy our basic needs, but above a certain level we use it primarily to mark our position in society. We enthusiastically indulge in a leapfrog, trying to at least follow the parade and get a little ahead of it if possible, using the lifestyle of the rich as the ultimate bait. And to get there, we often drown in work. It’s a never-ending story that can turn us into quasi-robots trapped in the feeling of never having enough.

That was not always so. Access to more wealth is a recent phenomenon in history. Growth only began around 1750, first in Europe and North America, and 60 years ago in Asia. Before that, people’s standard of living stagnated from century to century at the subsistence level.

The increase in growth over the past 270 years has two sources: technological and political. The technological engine are the two great industrial revolutions that followed each other from 1750 to 1950. The first produced the steam engine and the railroad. The second produced electricity, the internal combustion engine, the landline telephone, running water, indoor toilets, vaccines and penicillin. The political engines are the institutions that have protected the freedom of innovators from state arbitrariness and democratized public education.

Will economic growth in rich countries continue on its own? Not sure. In Canada, for example, per capita income grew at a rapid pace from 1929 to 1979, but has slowed significantly over the past 40 years. The same slide in Quebec. A third industrial revolution, that of the computer and the Internet, is underway, but we see that it has not yet revived economic growth. Nothing is certain for the future. For my part, I am convinced that the innovations of the good old days, such as lighting, running water, landline telephones and household appliances, have contributed much more to the well-being of mankind than contemporary inventions, such as said smart phone, social media and face recognition.

Today, the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by our production and consumption systems pose a serious threat to the physical integrity of the earth and even to the very survival of entire populations. How can we avoid catastrophe? The answer is clear: by introducing climate neutrality soon. By taking actions that result in our emitting greenhouse gases at a rate below the critical levels that the earth can naturally absorb on its own. Is it possible ? Yes, but there is an urgent need to intervene in three ways: by making fossil fuels more expensive or by banning them; impose strict regulations against other dirty or destructive processes; and by accelerating research to develop new clean technologies.

Evidence has been provided that climate neutrality can be achieved quickly and at an affordable cost thanks to such a program. But to be implemented, the necessary measures must benefit from political support from local authorities, decided and coordinated at international level. This is not a given, as the collective action required can conflict with individual liberties or local nationalisms, and the benefits of climate neutrality often seem distant and unclear, while the costs of its implementation are immediate. The obstacle to be overcome concerns the reaction of the political system much more than that of the economic system.

If we meet this challenge successfully, nothing stands in the way of continued economic growth, especially in those corners of the world where it has not yet arrived. Because there are enormous differences in material prosperity between countries and within countries. Even today, more than 700 million people live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day. Humanity can continue to want more. But reflection will need to focus primarily on how best to curb the ambitions of the richest, who already have plenty, to favor the less well-off, here and elsewhere, who do not yet have enough and reason to want more.

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