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The End of Economic Growth

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And this is just one event -- admittedly a spectacular one, but just one.   If it were an isolated problem, the economy could recover and move on.   But we are seeing a cavalcade of environmental and economic disasters, not obviously related to one another, that will stymie economic growth in more and more ways.   These will include but are not limited to:


  • Climate change leading to regional mega-droughts, mega-tornadoes, mega-hurricanes, mega-floods, and even famines;


  • Growing shortages of fresh water and energy, as aquifers and glaciers disappear, and deposits of oil are exhausted;


  • Repeated waves of bank failures, company bankruptcies, and home foreclosures, as the buying power of most American workers continues to shrink.


Each will be treated as a special case, a "problem to be solved' so that we can get "back to normal.'   But in the final analysis, they are all related, in that they are consequences of a growing human population striving for higher per-capita consumption of limited resources (including non-renewable, climate-altering fossil fuels), on a finite and fragile planet.


Meanwhile, the unwinding of decades of buildup in debt has created the conditions for a once-in-a-century financial crash--which is unfolding around us, and which on its own has the potential to generate substantial political unrest and human misery.


The result:   we are seeing a perfect storm of converging crises that together represent a watershed moment in the history of our species.   We are witnesses to, and participants in, the transition from decades of economic growth to decades of economic contraction.


Why did growth become so important?


During the last couple of centuries, growth became virtually the sole index of economic well-being.   When an economy grew, jobs appeared and investments yielded high returns.   When the economy stopped growing temporarily, as it did during the Great Depression, financial bloodletting ensued.


Throughout this period, world population increased -- from fewer than two billion humans on planet Earth in 1900 to nearly seven billion today;   we are adding about 70 million new "consumers" each year.   That makes further growth even more crucial, for if the economy stagnates there will be ever fewer goods and services per capita to go around.  So  unless some way can be found to let anyone, who needs basic goods and services, effectively and efficiently work directly on the production of those goods and services, and take a fair share of the product they cooperatively produce, there is going to be growing poverty and misery among a growing and very substantial number of people.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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