There’s an elephant in the room – and it’s growing

What price endless economic growth? A degraded environment, an over-heating atmosphere and a threatening climate crisis. [6 March 2008 | Peter Boyer]

The all-consuming engine of growth – more people fostering burgeoning economies serving more people – has been our frame of reference for decades.

For many it’s a life-support system that underpins our prosperity. For them, to suggest that we abandon it as an article of faith would be to bite the hand that feeds us. But (deep breath) that’s what I think we must do.

Ever since Thomas Malthus attacked the idea of unfettered population growth 200 years ago, there’s been a stream of warnings about economic and population limits. But the limits were over the horizon, so no-one took much notice. Until now.

A growing number of economists now acknowledge that our future has been compromised by uncontrolled growth. They call it “uneconomic growth”.

In measuring economic performance, said the eminent New Zealand economist Marilyn Waring, we have totally ignored the well-being of things that made today’s wealth possible, like healthy, functioning families, communities and governments.

The result is a skewed sense of reality permeating corridors of power everywhere that can’t, or won’t, understand the absolute limits on economic activity imposed by our environment, most urgently by our dangerous greenhouse emissions.

And all the while, more and more of the world’s people, seeking higher material living standards, are getting aboard the gravy train. Who can blame them? It’s exactly what we’ve been doing for decades.

Professor Ross Garnaut fingered the problem in his February interim report to Australian governments, identifying a challenge to “end the linkage between economic growth and emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Given the huge energy demands of a consumer society, this will be a colossal challenge. Creating a truly sustainable economy means going outside the compass of conventional economic thinking, changing the way we do things and how we measure our performance.

A whole generation – mine – has been brought up with the folly that human ingenuity will enable Planet Earth to accommodate an endless expansion of wealth and population.

Worshipping the Great God Growth is a life-threatening activity. We need to see “endless” growth for the cul-de-sac that it is.
The task is urgent. The cul-de-sac ends here.

Making the transition: What do we have to do to move to a low-carbon life? A free community workshop at the Phillip Smith Centre in Hobart on Saturday will examine how we foster effective household and community action to meet the challenge of climate change. For more information call 62345566 or email

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