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Prosperity Without Growth (2)

20 July 2010

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The Dilemma of Growth

There are three related propositions in defence of economic growth. The first is that material opulence is (after all) necessary for flourishing. The second is that economic growth is closely correlated with certain basic ‘entitlements’ – for health or education, perhaps – that are essential to prosperity. The third is that growth is functional in maintaining economic and social stability. There is some statistical correlation between economic growth and key human development indicators. Basic capabilities are threatened when economies collapse.

Growth has been (until now) the default mechanism for preventing collapse. In particular, market economies have placed a high emphasis on labour productivity. Continuous improvements in technology mean that more output can be produced for any given input of labour. But crucially this also means that fewer people are needed to produce the same goods from one year to the next. As long as the economy expands fast enough to offset labour productivity there isn’t a problem. But if the economy doesn’t grow, there is a downward pressure on employment. People lose their jobs.

With less money in the economy, output falls, public spending is curtailed and the ability to service public debt is diminished. A spiral of recession looms. Growth is necessary within this system just to prevent collapse. This evidence leads to an uncomfortable and deep-seated dilemma: growth may be unsustainable, but ‘de-growth’ appears to be unstable. The failure to take the dilemma of growth seriously may be the single biggest threat to sustainability that we face.


保证经济增长有三大理由。第一,财富的积累是繁荣的基础。第二,经济的增长和必要的社会保障 - 比如医疗保险和免费教育等等 - 密切关联。第三,增长使经济得以稳定、社会获得安定。一些统计数据显示经济增长和人文发展之间有相关关系。经济的崩溃足以让人在社会中无立足之地。

至今为止经济增长是防止经济崩溃的不二法门, 尤其是在市场经济学家们强调生产力至上的情况下。科学技术的不断发展和运用使生产力不断提高。要命的是生产力的不断提高意味着对员工需求的不断减少。如果经济不断扩大,这不是个问题。但如果经济不再增长,失业的人就会越来越多。

当投资减少了,产量也相应减少了,公共开支和有关的服务就跟着削减了, 于是经济萧条期就到了。由此可见经济增长之所以必须只是因为可以防止经济崩溃。于是我们就不得不面对这样一个尴尬的现实:经济增长导致经济发展的不可持续性,而经济负增长则导致经济和社会的不稳定。不摆脱这一发展困境可持续性繁荣就永远不会实现。

The ‘Iron Cage’ of Consumerism

In the face of the evidence, it is fanciful to suppose that ‘deep’ resource and emission cuts can be achieved without confronting the nature and structure of market economies. There are two interrelated features of modern economic life that together drive the growth dynamic: the production and consumption of novelty. The profit motive stimulates a continual search by producers for newer, better or cheaper products and services. This process of ‘creative destruction’, according to the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is what drives economic growth forwards.

For the individual firm, the ability to adapt and to innovate – to design, produce and market not just cheaper products but newer and more exciting ones – is vital. Firms who fail in this process risk their own survival. But the continual production of novelty would be of little value to firms if there were no market for the consumption of novelty in households. Recognising the existence, and understanding the nature, of this demand is essential. It is intimately linked to the symbolic role that material goods play in our lives. The ‘language of goods’ allows us to communicate with each other – most obviously about social status, but also about identity, social affiliation, and even – through giving and receiving gifts for example – about our feelings for each other.

Perhaps the most telling point of all is the almost perfect fit between the continual production of novelty by firms and the continuous consumption of novelty in households. The restless desire of the consumer is the perfect complement for the restless innovation of the entrepreneur. Taken together these two self-reinforcing processes are exactly what is needed to drive growth forwards. Despite this fit, or perhaps because of it, the relentless pursuit of novelty creates an anxiety that can undermine social wellbeing. Individuals are at the mercy of social comparison. Firms must innovate or die. Institutions are skewed towards the pursuit of a materialistic consumerism. The economy itself is dependent on consumption growth for its very survival. The ‘iron cage of consumerism’ is a system in which no one is free. It’s an anxious, and ultimately a pathological system. But at one level it works. The system remains economically viable as long as liquidity is preserved and consumption rises. It collapses when either of these stalls.



对于一个企业来说,设计、制作和推销不但更便宜而且更吸引人的产品的能力是其在竞争中赖以生存和发展的关键。做不到这一点它就会面临倒闭。但有了新产品还不够,还必须有渴求新产品的消费市场。捕捉并理解对特定产品的市场需求便成了至关重要的企业成功之道。而这与物质产品在我们的生活中所起的具有标志性的作用密切相连。工业产品成了我们彼此间交往和沟通的渠道 – 其中最明显的一点就是我们拥有的产品起着标志我们的地位、身份及关系网的作用,我们彼此馈赠的作为礼物的产品则反映了我们在彼此眼中的定位。


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