Prosperity without growth?

The dominant model of wealth and growth has come to the end of the line. Time to rethink.
by Meinhard Miegel

Given the current status of humankind’s knowledge and expertise, economic growth and increased material wealth are leading to a situation where more and more countries are exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity and thereby destroying the very basis of their success. 250 years after the advent of the modern era and the onset of industrialization, only 43 of the 158 countries whose data has been gathered have reached a state of development that – in terms of the population’s life expectancy and educational standard plus the amount of goods generated per capita – complies with the current ideas and expectations of Western Europeans, North Americans or Japanese.

These countries, however, use up reclaimable resources faster than the Earth can regenerate them, and produce more pollutants than the air, water and soil can degrade. These rich countries contrast with those that do not overtax the earth, but are materially poor. There are currently 57 such countries, whose total population of approximately 2.7 billion makes up almost two-fifths of the world’s population. What is more, the downside of their usually involuntary protective treatment of the environment and its resources is not only a low material living standard, but also a low life expectancy and poor education, on a global comparison. Currently, 58 countries with a total population of about 2.5 billion make up a third group. This group is characterized by the fact that although the majority are still far from having the wealth of the successful countries, they have nevertheless already surpassed the earth’s carrying capacity to a considerable degree and are leaving it further behind with each step in the direction of prosperity.

The dilemma is evident. As humanity – led by the peoples in the countries first industrialized – has so far not developed the kind of economy that does not destroy the foundations of its success, it has come to a crossroads. The options are either to continue as before and sooner or later be teetering on the brink, or else to learn to live in a way that befits the respective state of knowledge and expertise. It is impossible to predict which alternative will be opted for. In the developed countries many people have learnt no other way of living, which is why they adhere to it, whatever the cost. And in the developing countries the large majority harbours the irrepressible and understandable wish to share the material standard of the top group in the none too distant future. The thinking and actions of politicians are still largely influenced by traditional concepts of growth. Many people believe they need growth like they need air to breathe. Yet they cannot produce it, let alone maintain it. What are the reasons for this weakness? Why does the constant spark not kindle the fire? Why do so few people consider the issue of what should grow where and how?

Growth has limits and will not continue for ever, even if the whip is persistently cracked. This makes the challenges both more 
simple and more difficult. It makes them more simple because it shows that slow economic growth, and its great dependence on ever new economic stimulus measures, is not the expression of a crisis that might be overcome by this or that means, but of a fundamentally altered reality. Increasingly, quantitative changes are being replaced by qualitative changes. But this makes the challenges more difficult, for people in the first industrialized countries are not prepared for such a changeover from the quantitative to the qualitative. So far they are only practised at defusing distribution-related conflicts under conditions of unparalleled growth, safeguarding employment or investing. But now a different course has to be set: either to continue as before for a while, possibly towards a steep fall, or to prudently adapt the material living conditions to the respective level of knowledge and expertise.

Agreement has already been reached on the fact that human knowledge and expertise will have to be considerably improved if a drastic fall in the material standard of living is to be avoided. What is controversial is which knowledge and expertise should be promoted, and how. Those who mainly regard technological progress as the universal remedy, rely on technological knowledge and expertise. For the others, this very restriction is the main cause of the problems that have arisen. Which is why they demand the development of all human faculties and facets, that is to say, the artistic, social and emotional. In their eyes, these constitute the actual basis of creativity, without which even the technlogical sector cannot flourish. The fact that all those whose expansive economic phase is coming to an end have to rouse their mental 
powers in order to master the pending challenges speaks in favour of this view. For the dimensions of these challenges are only superficially material. 
Essentially, it is a question of mentalities.

To put a figure on it: given the high level of material wealth attained by the first industrialized countries, if that level sank no one would need go hungry or cold. For example, were Germany to now operate economically within the Earth’s carrying capacity, about 40% of the current volume of goods and services would be available per head of the population. That is a nightmare scenario for the large majority. And rightly enough, it is not a desirable goal, for which reason every effort should be made to increase prosperity through more knowledge and 
expertise. It is just that in the early 1960s, when 
Germany was generating that very 40%, it was considered an econ­omic miracle.

All that has changed since then is people’s attitudes. What sufficed then no longer suffices now. Yet the vast majority have long since outgrown consumption for genuine needs. More and more of what is consumed serves to satisfy unquestioned habits and personal vanities. And the Earth is being plundered and the threat of a collapse evoked just for this. In the foreseeable future scarcely anyone will need to really do without, especially if the material wealth is distributed more evenly than before. For most people, this merely means offloading ballast, of which there are large quantities.

One example may suffice: food. That the production and consumption of food place demands on re­sources and the environment is largely unavoidable. What is avoidable, however, is that private households in Europe throw out a quarter of the food purchased, and many people eat a lot more than is good for them. More conscious eating habits would increase their well-being in the long-term. They would have to deny themselves nothing, and at the same time they would be doing themselves, their fellow human beings and their environment good. The same applies to most other areas of life.

The question that still remains is whether the social, economic, technological and cultural progress which almost everyone desires is still possible under such conditions of moderation. The answer to this is also simple: not only it is still possible, this is what will make it possible. After all, the progress achieved over the past 250 years may have increased the material prosperity of millions, yet at the same time – and this is where the circle closes – it has catapulted them beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity. That progress represents victories, but above all Pyrrhic victories. Future progress must aim to create and secure humankind’s material and immaterial well-being within the Earth’s carrying capacity. We are currently far from this goal. Which means that future progress must differ from today’s progress. Conditions of moderation will surely facilitate this change of course.


is Chairman of the Board of Denkwerk Zukunft – Foundation for Cultural Renewal. In his book Exit he advocates taking leave of the growth paradigm. Miegel is a member of the Bundestag Commission of Inquiry 
on Growth, Prosperity and Quality of Life.

by Meinhard Miegel

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