Dick Smith on growth; emphatically yes…and no

16 08 2017

Ted Trainer

Another article by my friend Ted Trainer, originally published at on line opinion……

The problems of population and economic growth have finally come onto the public agenda, and Dick Smith deserves much of the credit…but he doesn’t realise what’s on the other end of the trail he’s tugging.

For fifty years a small number of people have been saying that pursuing population and economic growth on a finite planet is a very silly thing to do. Until recently almost no one has taken any notice. However in the last few years there has emerged a substantial “de-growth” movement, especially in Europe. Dick Smith has been remarkably successful in drawing public attention to the issue in Australia. He has done more for the cause in about three years than the rest of us have managed to achieve in decades. (I published a book on the subject in 1985, which was rejected by 60 publishers…and no one took any notice of it anyway.) Dick’s book (2011) provides an excellent summary of the many powerful reasons why growth is absurd, indeed suicidal.

Image result for dick smith

Dick Smith

The problem with the growth-maniacs, a category which includes just about all respectable economists, is that they do not realise how grossly unsustainable present society is, let alone what the situation will be as we continue to pursue growth. Probably the best single point to put to them is to do with our ecological “footprint”. The World Wildlife Fund puts out a measure of the amount of productive land it takes to provide for each person. For the average Australian it takes 8 ha of to supply our food, water, settlement area and energy. If the 10 billion people we are likely to have on earth soon were each to live like us we’d need 80 billion ha of productive land…but there are only about 8 billion ha of land available on the planet. We Australians are ten times over a level of resource use that could be extended to all people. It’s much the same multiple for most other resources, such as minerals, nitrogen emissions and fish. And yet our top priority is to increase our levels of consumption, production, sales and GDP as fast as possible, with no limit in mind!

The World Wildlife Fund also puts the situation another way. We are now using resources at 1.4 times the rate the planet could provide sustainably. We do this by for example, consuming more timber than grows each year, thereby depleting the stocks. Now if 10 billion people rose to the “living standards” we Australians would have in 2050 given the 3% p.a. economic growth we expect, then every year the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be 20 times as great as it is now.

Over-production and over-consumption is the main factor generating all the alarming global problems we face is. Why is there an environmental problem? Because we are taking far more resources from nature, especially habitats, than is sustainable. Why do about 3+ billion people in the Third World wallow in poverty? Primarily because the global economy is a market system and in a market resources go to those who can pay most for them, i.e., the rich. That’s why we in rich countries get almost all the oil, the surpluses produced from Third World soils, the fish caught off their coasts, etc. It’s why “development” in the Third World is mostly only development of what will maximise corporate profit, meaning development of industries to export to us. Why is there so much violent conflict in the world? Primarily because everyone is out to grab as many of the scarce resources as they can. And why is the quality of life in the richest countries falling now, and social cohesion deteriorating? Primarily because increasing material wealth and business turnover has been made the top priority, and this contradicts and drives out social bonding.

Dick has done a great job in presenting this general “limits to growth” analysis of our situation clearly and forcefully, and in getting it onto the public agenda. But I want to now argue that he makes two fundamental mistakes.

The first is his assumption that this society can be reformed; that we can retain it while we remedy the growth fault it has. The central argument in my The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (2010a) is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Many of its elements are very valuable and should be retained, but its most crucial, defining fundamental institutions are so flawed that they have to be scrapped and replaced. Growth is only one of these but a glance at it reveals that this problem cannot be solved without entirely remaking most of the rest of society. Growth is not like a faulty air conditioning unit on a house, which can be replaced or removed while the house goes on functioning more or less as before. It is so integrated into so many structures that if it is dumped those structures will have to be scrapped and replaced.

The most obvious implication of this kind is that in a zero growth economy there can be no interest payments at all. Interest is by nature about growth, getting more wealth back than you lent, and this is not possible unless lending and output and earnings constantly increase. There goes almost the entire financial industry I’m afraid (which recently accounted for over 40% of all profits made.) Banks therefore could only be places which hold savings for safety and which lend money to invest in maintenance of a stable amount of capital stock (and readjustments within it.) There also goes the present way of providing for superannuation and payment for aged care; these can’t be based on investing to make money.

The entire energising mechanism of society would have to be replaced. The present economy is driven by the quest to get richer. This motive is what gets options searched for, risks taken, construction and development underway, etc. The most obvious alternative is for these actions to be come from a collective working out of what society needs, and organising to produce and develop those things cooperatively, but this would involve an utterly different world view and driving mechanism.

The problem of inequality would become acute and would not only demand attention, it would have to be dealt with in an entirely different way. It could no longer be defused by the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. In the present economy growth helps to legitimise inequality; extreme inequality is not a source of significant discontent because it can be said that economic growth is raising everyone’s “living standards”.

How would we handle unemployment in a zero-growth economy? At present its tendency to increase all the time is offset by the increase in consumption and therefore production. Given that we could produce all we need for idyllic lifestyles with a fraction of the present amount of work done, any move in this direction in the present economy would soon result in most workers becoming unemployed. There would be no way of dealing with this without scrapping the labour market and then rationally and deliberately planning the distribution of the (small amount of) work that needed doing.

Most difficult of all are the cultural implications, usually completely overlooked. If the economy cannot grow then all concern to gain must be abandoned. People would have to be content to work for stable incomes and abandon all interest in getting richer over time. If any scope remains for some to try to get more and more of the stable stock of wealth, then some will succeed and take more than their fair share of it and others will therefore get less…and soon it will end in chaos, or feudalism as the fittest take control. Sorry, but the 500 year misadventure Western culture has had with the quest for limitless individual and national wealth is over. If we have the sense we will realise greed is incompatible with a sustainable and just society. If, as is more likely we won’t, then scarcity will settle things for us. The few super privileged people, including Australians, will no longer be able to get the quantities of resources we are accustomed to, firstly because the resources are dwindling now, and secondly because we are being increasingly outmanoeuvred by the energetic and very hungry Chinese, Indians, Brazilians…

And, a minor point, you will also have to abandon the market system. It is logically incompatible with growth. You go into a market not to exchange things of equal value but to make money, to get the highest price you can, to trade in a way that will make you richer over time. There are “markets” where people don’t try to do this but just exchange the necessities without seeking to increase their wealth over time e.g., in tribal and peasant societies. However these are “subsistence” economies and they do not operate according to market forces. The economies of a zero-growth society would have to be like this. Again, if it remains possible for a few to trade their way to wealth they will end up with most of the pie. This seems to clearly mean that if we are to have a zero-growth economy then we have to work out how to make a satisfactory form of “socialism” work, so that at least the basic decisions about production, distribution and development can be made by society and not left to be determined by what maximises the wealth of individuals and the profits of private corporations competing in the market. Richard Smith (2010) points this out effectively, but some steady-staters, including Herman Daly and Tim Jackson (2009) seem to have difficulty accepting it.

Thus growth is not an isolated element that can be dealt with without remaking most of the rest of society. It is not that this society has a growth economy; it is that this is a growth society.

So in my view Dick has vastly underestimated the magnitude of the changes involved, and gives the impression that consumer-capitalist society can be adjusted, and then we can all go on enjoying high levels of material comfort (he does say we should reduce consumption), travel etc. But the entire socio-economic system we have prohibits the slightest move in this direction; it cannot tolerate slowdown in business turnover (unemployment, bankruptcy, discontent and pressure on governments immediately accelerate), let alone stable levels, let alone reduction to maybe one-fifth of present levels.

This gets us to the second issue on which I think Dick is clearly and importantly mistaken. He believes a zero growth economy can still be a capitalist economy. This is what Tim Jackson says too, in his very valuable critique of the present economy and of the growth commitment. Dick doesn’t offer any explanation or defence for his belief; it is just stated in four sentences. “Capitalism will still be able to thrive in this new system as long as legislation ensures a level playing field. Huge new industries will be created, and vast fortunes are still there to be made by the brave and the innovative.” (p. 173.) “I have no doubt that the dynamism and flexibility of capitalism can adjust to sustainability laws. The profit imperative would be maintained and, as long as there was an equitable base, competition would thrive.” (p. 177.)

Following is a sketch of the case that a zero growth economy is totally incompatible with capitalism.

Capitalism is by definition about accumulation, making more money than was invested, in order to invest the surplus to have even more…to invest to get even richer, in a never-ending upward spiral. Obviously this would not be possible in a steady state economy. It would be possible for a few to still own most capital and factories and to live on income from these investments, but they would be more like rentiers or landlords who draw a stable income from their property. They would not be entrepreneurs constantly seeking increasingly profitable investment outlets for ever-increasing amounts of capital.

Herman Daly believes that “productivity” growth would enable capitalism to continue in an economy with stable resource inputs. This is true, but it would be a temporary effect and too limited to enable the system to remain capitalist. The growth rate which the system, and capitalist accumulation, depends on is mostly due to increased production, not productivity growth. Secondly the productivity measure used (by economists who think dollars are the only things that matter) takes into account labour and capital but ignores what is by far the most important factor, i.e., the increasing quantities of cheap energy that have been put into new productive systems. For instance over half a century the apparent productivity of a farmer has increased greatly, but his output per unit of energy used has fallen alarmingly. From here on energy is very likely to become scarce and costly. Ayres (1999) has argued that this will eliminate productivity gains soon (which have been falling in recent years anyway), and indeed is likely to entirely stop GDP growth before long.

Therefore in a steady state economy the scope for continued capitalist accumulation via productivity gains would be very small, and confined to the increases in output per unit of resource inputs that is due to sheer technical advance. There would not be room for more than a tiny class, accumulating greater wealth very gradually until energy costs eliminated even that scope. Meanwhile the majority would see this class taking more of the almost fixed output pie, and therefore would soon see that it made no sense to leave ownership and control of most of the productive machinery in the hands of a few.

But the overwhelmingly important factor disqualifying capitalism has yet to be taken into account. As has been made clear above the need is not just for zero-growth, it is for dramatic reduction in the amount of producing and consuming going on. These must be cut to probably less than one-fifth of the levels typical of a rich country today, because the planet cannot sustain anything like the present levels of producing and consuming, let alone the levels 9 billion people would generate. This means that most productive capacity in rich countries, most factories and mines, will have to be shut down.

I suspect that Dick Smith is like Tim Jackson in identifying capitalism with the private ownership of firms, and in thinking that “socialism” means public ownership. This is a mistake. The issue of ownership is not central; what matters most is the drive to accumulate, which can still be the goal in socialism of the big state variety (“state capitalism”.) In my ideal vision of the future post-capitalist economy most production would take place within (very small) privately owned firms, but there would be no concern to get richer and the economy would be regulated by society via participatory democratic processes.

So I think Dick has seriously underestimated the magnitude of the change that is required by the global predicament and of what would be involved in moving to a zero-growth economy. The core theme detailed in The Transition… is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Dick seems to think you can retain it by just reforming the unacceptable growth bit. My first point above is that you can’t just take out that bit and leave the rest more or less intact. In addition you have to deal with the other gigantic faults in this society driving us to destruction, including allowing the market to determine most things, accepting competition rather than cooperation as the basic motive and process, accepting centralisation, globalisation and representative big-state “democracy”, and above all accepting a culture of competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness.

The Transition… argues that an inevitable, dreadful logic becomes apparent if we clearly grasp that our problems are primarily due to grossly unsustainable levels of consumption. There can be no way out other than by transition to mostly small, highly self-sufficient and cooperative local communities and communities which run their own economies to meet local needs from local resources… with no interest whatsoever in gain. They must have the sense to focus on the provision of security and a high quality of life for all via frugal, non-material lifestyles. In this “Simpler Way” vision there can still be (some small scale) international economies, centralised state governments, high-tech industries, and in fact there can be more R and D on important topics than there is now. But there will not be anything like the resources available to sustain present levels of economic activity or individual or national “wealth” measured in dollars.

I have no doubt that the quality of life in The Simpler Way (see the website, Trainer 2011) would be far higher than it is now in the worsening rat race of late consumer-capitalism. Increasing numbers are coming to grasp all this, for instance within the rapidly emerging Transition Towns movement. We see our task as trying to establish examples of the more sane way in the towns and suburbs where we live while there is time, so that when the petrol gets scarce and large numbers realise that consumer-capitalism will not provide for them, they can come across to join us.

It is great that Dick is saying a zero-growth economy is no threat to capitalism. If he had said it has to be scrapped then he would have been identified as a deluded greenie/commie/anarchist out to wreck society and his growth critique would have been much more easily ignored. What matters at this point in time is getting attention given to the growth absurdity; when the petrol gets scarce they will be a bit more willing to think about whether capitalism is a good idea. Well done Dick!




3 responses

16 08 2017
don Owers

Dick spent a million dollars on advertising yet the media is by and large ignoring his message. Ditto for our political parties , hard to believe the ALP let alone the Greens would support John Howards immigration policies.

16 08 2017
david higham

‘What matters at this point in time is getting attention given to the growth
absurdity’. I feel somewhat mean criticising an article that is more grounded
in reality than 99% of articles written on this subject.
I am 62 now,and have been reading articles and books similar to this,explaining the
absurdity of the course we are on,for over 40 years.
In that time,the trajectory we are on has continued,the natural world has
continued to be devastated, the finite fossil fuels which are the essential
requirement to keep our growing ‘Bubble’ population fed have continued
to be depleted,and climate disruption and ocean acidification have become
increasingly problematic.
It is obvious to me that there is never going to be a ‘lightbulb’ moment.
The institutions of this unsustainable civilisation are too well embedded,the
population has grown far too large,and most people are ecologically clueless
and live in a fantasy land. The recent absurd delusions that EVs are a solution to the systemic flaws of industrial civilisation are a good example.
We have run out of time. The population will certainly decrease greatly
before 2050,but not because humanity has become ecologically enlightened
and changed our current course. It will be the physical world teaching us
that its limits trump the virtual reality world that people increasingly reside in.

16 08 2017


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