Growth is a positive word. We grow plants and trees and crops. Our children grow. Personal growth implies new learning and deeper understanding. It’s hardly surprising that economic growth sounds so appealing – especially if the alternative is the dank prospect of ‘stagnation’.
Indeed, growth is very positive in contexts of insufficiency. Where people do not have enough, more is necessary and welcome. It’s right to celebrate people lifted out of poverty, and not just by the abstract measure of crossing an arbitrary poverty line. We long to see people move into economic security, comfort and plenty, into a fullness of life.
There are several difficulties with growth, but two main ones. One is to do with distribution. When growth is not shared, it drives inequality without necessarily ending poverty. Capitalist economic structures deliver returns to capital, so it is wealth that is rewarded, not human need. Without measures to include those on lower incomes and redistribute wealth, growth tends to accumulate much faster for the richest than it does for the poorest, even though the poorest would benefit more in real terms.
The second big problem with growth is that growth in economic activity is inseparable from growth in energy and materials – and that means environmental damage. It means more damage from extractive industries, more pollution, and the greenhouse gases that are causing the breakdown of a stable climate. It is theoretically possible to ‘decouple’ economic growth from energy and materials use, but nobody is doing it fast enough to make a difference to climate change.
With these problems in mind, it’s clearly unwise to consider all growth good. We need to ask more questions about who benefits and what the costs are. But in current economics, those questions aren’t asked. All growth is considered good growth, regardless of its consequences.
This is what Jason Hickel calls ‘growthism’, a term that is helpful in navigating the competing positives and negatives of growth:
“It’s not growth that’s the problem”, he writes in his book Less is More. “It’s growthism: the pursuit of growth for its own sake, or for the sake of capital accumulation, rather than to meet concrete human needs and social objectives.”
Growthism is when the actual benefits of growth have been superceded by the priorities of growth itself. It happens when governments organise their policies around the abstract measure of GDP growth, rather than what is best for people and communities.
In the language of faith, we could also call this idolatry.
Idolatry is not forbidden because God is jealous of the attention, but because an image has already been provided – the image of God that resides in all human lives. The scriptures constantly point us towards each other as an expression of our devotion to God. To love God is to love one’s neighbour. “A new command I give you” says Jesus, “love one another.”
GDP draws our attention away from our neighbours, and orients us towards an abstraction. We put our hope in it to solve our problems, to give us what we need – with more growth, we could afford better healthcare or education, we could afford a transition to renewable energy – and so we pursue more growth. Like all idols, we make our sacrifices to it – sacrifices of lands and forests, fish stocks and our own hard work. But to paraphrase Isaiah 44, GDP knows nothing. It understands nothing. Ultimately, warns the prophet, a person who puts their hope in idols “feeds on ashes”.
Joy in Enough is a response to growthism. It is a call to sufficiency and contentment, and to working out together what a politics of enough might look like in the real world. Join us in the discovery.