Beyond the growth pushers

| April 5, 2011

As my concern with our ceaseless reliance on economic growth increases, I have come to see the peddling of this singular truth about prosperity everywhere I look. The critique of growth has become quite familiar, and can be described in a nutshell as awareness that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible, and that change is imminent -- welcome or not. This means thoughtful development of alternatives is necessary for our survival and well-being.

What's growth got to do with it?

This critique of growth most frequently arises in relation to matters such as economic systems, environmental health, waste and our throwaway society, patterns of consumption and production, corporate power, globalization, and wealth. However, concern about the growth model also finds its way into some unlikely places, such as how we think about happiness, love relationships, social services (including health and education), and social justice activities -- to name a few.

These days, growth even informs the way we think about activism. As a result, the current generation of young people who are interested in engaging in social justice matters are often "pitched" with the enticing possibility that they can "do more for less." For example, they are told that "liking" We Day on Facebook can change the world, buying a fair trade T-shirt can contribute to global justice, and that attending a one-day corporate-funded, star-studded event can start a revolution.

I'm not suggesting that these small moves are harmful in themselves (it's certainly better to buy a fairly-traded T-shirt than one produced unfairly) -- but I am suggesting they are nested within a model that is quite harmful. Convincing the youth of affluent nations that they can change the world without changing themselves is a lie. Indeed, encouraging youth to continue to consume at the rates that they do, and ensuring them that doing so will transform them into activists is hijacking their efforts toward real justice. And by eliciting corporations to support such movements, we are witnessing the infiltration of growth norms and practices into initiatives which, in fact, require that we move beyond such a model.

Objective reporting or peddling growth?

So what is it that has so successfully facilitated the normalization of growth as a singular, unquestionable, underlying truth? While of course there is not one answer to this question, I find "business reporting" to be conspicuous in its absence from the list of areas (mentioned above) in which critiques of growth have surfaced.

Indeed, the more I think about the normalization and prevalence of growth ideals everywhere I turn, the more I shudder when I hear the introduction to the business report on the CBC, Canada's publicly-funded news source. And I shudder frequently: business seems to be reported as often as the weather forecast.

As a listener, my day is punctuated with information as to which stocks are up and which are down. With (comforting?) regularity throughout the day/week/year, CBC reporters inform their audience where our dollar is in relation to America's, let us know how we can all do our part as consumers, and remind us that certain things (like oil prices) are simply out of our hands. They comfort us that while our housing market is struggling, the bailouts and checks and balances are proving to have served Canadians well, and the recession is increasingly spoken of in the past tense.

I have to wonder: to whom do the minute details of Wall Street's activities matter? The average Canadian is busy going to work, raising their families, planting their garden, or trying to find a few coins to rub together -- let alone invest them. In fact, most Canadians live paycheque to paycheque (those of us who receive one at all, that is). This being the case, most of us simply glaze over at the mere mention of stock options. What, then, is the function of this frequency of business reporting? It's with that question that the notion of propaganda seems to make sense: if a message is repeated often enough from reputable enough sources, well, eventually it becomes irrefutable. And the growth message comes from everywhere.

It's not just the frequency of this message that has become curious to me, but the form as well. Amanda Lang's assertion on the news the other night that increased private spending is "a sign of health" runs in direct contradiction to the things I am learning about the sustainability of this economic model. I know this is not the only story here, but the interviewer nodded in acceptance of Lang's statement -- the same kind of statement that is unquestioningly accepted every time I hear a business report.

Despite CBC's self-proclamation as a news source that provides fair and balanced reporting, I have never heard a business report that did not state in absolute terms that a growing economy is a thriving economy. By adopting this "objective" stance towards economics, by interviewing "experts" who unconditionally support a growth model economy, our information sources -- particularly those that are either for-profit or government subsidized -- are effectively eliminating from public discourse the possibility that there are viable and necessary alternatives.

Post-growth economic futures

The growth story as it is currently peddled is very compelling. Much like our current medical narrative which suggests there is a cure for everything (we just have to discover it) and that we never have to experience loss, the growth narrative promises there is a way we can have everything, and we never have to experience less.

But like it or not, these two stories are exposed as myths by the likelihood that this generation will be the first not to outlive its parents; it may also be experiencing a lower standard of living than its parents. Despite technological advances, are we experiencing our own decline? It's time to consider what post-growth futures might look like.

While growth-pushers suggest there's only one trajectory for this storyline, there is good reason to believe otherwise. Rather than the "growth equals prosperity"slogan we've been sold, in fact much of the more recent evidence shows quite the opposite: when different measures are used, it becomes clear that post-growth futures are actually far more likely to serve the needs of the planet and its people than a growth model does today. Maybe having less stuff means having more of what really matters.

The good news is: growth is not the only economic model, despite what we hear on the daily news. The very exciting news is: a post-growth world is feasible -- and it looks good. As we embrace alternatives to this model, we can expect that more of us will experience greater satisfaction, health, and well-being.

Fortunately, scores of people all over the world are already taking up the challenge to think and act seriously about post-growth futures. There are visionaries, activists, economists, educators, researchers, and concerned citizens setting to work creating such post-growth possibilities. The challenge is to create the space for their work to be normalized, replacing the incessant repetition of the promise of growth with which we are currently bombarded.

What can we do to contribute to a world in which the growth story is not the only story we hear? Here are a few suggestions:

- Find out who is paving the way for post-growth futures in your town. For example, in my community of 20,000, there are a number of initiatives: slowcoast, transition town, family and community resource centres, a fruit tree project, community gardens, landshare co-ops, and much more.

- Develop relationships with these initiatives; support their work, get involved, and spread the word.

- Write a letter to your MP in support of these local initiatives.

- Write your local and national paper in support of these (and related) initiatives.

- Contact your local and national news source and challenge them to include "post-growth" economic possibilities in their business reporting. Encourage everyone you know to do the same!

- Join or start a letter-writing campaign, such as this one.

Create your own ideas... and spread the word here!

Janet Newbury is currently a PhD candidate, instructor, and researcher at the University of Victoria. She is also involved in a number of social justice-related initiatives in her hometown of Powell River, British Columbia.



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