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Can the economy grow forever?


To keep this kind of growth going, we need to tap more resources, which is beyond the Earth’s capacity. Till now the growth was possible because we thought resources are abundant. But today we know that we will have to experience a serious crisis in the next half century, depending upon how we use resources.

Milan SaRa, Frontier Weekly

Our economy, our country, constantly aims for GDP growth. People, political parties, economists, scientists are all chanting only one mantra; GROWTH! Growth is the religion of modern society. As our nation is a developing country, people expect more growth and political parties constantly make promises to deliver it. And we vote for them. This has been continuing for the last seventy years. We have developed hundreds of cities, constructed millions of kilometres of roads and railway tracks. Millions of motorized vehicles are running all the time on the roads. Big dams and power plants are standing like towers of our pride. We have more than 900 million mobile phones and almost the same number of computers.

Wow! Impressed!

But wait! Let’s first see what the TV news shows!

Oil prices have reached an all time high and Egypt, Syria are facing economic collapse; global warming is the hot topic of the day and glaciers in the Himalayas are melting. Potable drinking water is a rare commodity in the urban centres as well as the villages. Extreme weather events have become common phenomena all over the world. Cities are struggling with waste management. Global scientific community has given a ‘second warning’ to the world leaders.

What is all this about? On the one hand, there’s an outcry for development and growth and on the other we are facing serous environmental threats. It is the high time we rethink our growth paradigm in the view of natural resource depletion and ecological turmoil. The question of the day is; can the economy grow forever?

Let’s start with concept of growth. Here’s what the definition says:

It says,”Economic growth is defined as an increase in the capacity of an  economy to produce goods and services compared from one period to another”. Economic growth is a state when groups of economic actors can produce more goods and services than before; i.e increase substantially economic activity. Economic growth is a state that manifests in more energy production , infrastructure, transportation, more jobs, etc. We measure a country’s growth by Gross Domestic Product (GDP: Total value of all goods and services produced by a country in one year) and Gross National Product (GNP: total value of all goods and services produced by a country in one year including the total income from foreign countries). It does not measuring the well-being of people, nor their quality of life.

Now let’s try to understand what happens to the environment when more goods are produced from non-renewable resources, and on whole nature is exploited for economic purposes. We know that, all these natural resources are limited on Earth; whether it is fossil fuel or minerals, the stock is limited.

When we use them up, they are finished for ever! Now just look at the statistics given by the geologists; what they are saying is that half of the world’s fossil fuel stock has been used up globally in the last two and half centuries. Not only fossil fuels, but also other mineral resources are diminishing at the same rate. Fossil fuels are the mainstay of our economy and if they dry out, the economy will collapse.

To keep this kind of growth going, we need to tap more resources, which the Earth cannot keep providing because it is beyond its capacity. Till now, economic growth was possible because resources were available and we thought they are abundant. But today we know that we will face a serious crisis in the next half century, depending upon how we use resources.

Overuse of natural resources creates not only resource depletion, but also ecological degradation. It is well established that global warming, climate change, species extinction ad waste generation are very much related to economic growth. Furthermore, infinite economic growth appears to be totally unscientific given a planet with finite resources.

There are theories which are being professed to convince us is that even when the Earth losses its natural resources, economic growth can be sustained using renewable resources. That we will shift to green technologies like Solar, Wind and Biofuels to fulfil our current demand. Going green is a better option. But before that, we have to ask ourselves whether we would be able to afford the same resource forever. We must understand that green technology can only postpone the crisis for a while. The real question we have to ask ourselves is, are we ready to compromise our lifestyles?

There are several environmental groups, small communities, scientists, social thinkers and even governments who are asking the same question. New theories and concepts are coming up from such questions. Here I shall try to introduce one of them – the concept of Degrowth – briefly.

Degrowth means primarily the abolition of economic growth as the primary social objective, which implies a new direction for the society, one in which society will use fewer natural resources and live differently from today. Ecological economists define degowth as an equitable down scaling of production and consumption that well reduce societies’ need of energy and raw material. The concept of degrowth has been described by William Rees, an ecological economist, as a planned and controlled contraction of human economic activities towards a sustainable, equitable and steady state within the means of nature. So it represents a level of economic activities that is compatible with the productive capacity of the ecosystem on which it depends upon.

There are several other movements like organic farming, slow food, transition towns, eco-villages and peace movements all over the world working towards a more sustainable way of life. They believe that the economy can’t grow forever. They are advocating a society based on sustainability, equity and justice. Let’s work for it together.

Milan SaRa is a BSc Environmental Science student @ Vivekananda College, Kolkota.

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