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The End of Economic Growth

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As a result, what could have been a somewhat painful but endurable process of adaptation could become history's greatest tragedy.   In short, we can survive the end of growth, but only if we recognize it for what it is and act intelligently and accordingly.


In nature isn't growth normal?


Economies are systems, and as such they (to a certain extent at least) follow rules analogous to those that govern biological systems.   Plants and animals tend to grow quickly when they are young, but then they reach a more or less stable and mature size and stop growing.   In living organisms, growth rates are largely controlled by genes, but also by availability of food.


In economies, in a way that is parallel to the growth of organisms, growth is tied not to genes but to their equivalent, economic planning, and also to the availability of resources--chiefly energy resources (the "food" of the industrial system), as well as credit (the "oxygen" for the economy).


During the 19th and 20th centuries, expanding access to cheap and abundant fossil fuels enabled rapid economic expansion;   economic planners began to take this abundance for granted.   Financial systems internalized the expectation of growth as a promise of returns on the investments that were based on this abundance.


But just as organisms eventually cease growing, economies must do the same.   Even if planners (society's equivalent of regulatory DNA) dictate more growth (by way of their temporary blindness to the biological limits of growth), at some point sufficient amounts of "food" and "oxygen" will no longer be available.   It is also possible for industrial wastes to accumulate to the point that the biological systems that underpin economic activity (such as forests, crops, and human bodies) are smothered and/or poisoned.


Yes it's true that many economists don't yet see or understand any of this.   Again, that's because today's economic theories were formulated during the long but historically anomalous period of sustained growth that is now ending.   Economists are merely generalizing from their historical experience:   they point to a great many decades of more or less steady growth in the past, and simply project that experience into the future.   Moreover, they have rationalized ways to explain why modern market economies are immune to the kinds of limits that constrain natural systems.  


These explanations use the concepts of substitution and efficiency.   If a useful resource becomes scarce, its price will rise, and this creates an incentive for users of the resource to find a substitute.   For example, if oil gets expensive enough, energy companies might start making liquid fuels from coal, as Nazi Germany did.   Or they might develop other energy sources undreamed of today.   Many economists theorize that this process of substitution can go on forever.   It's part of the magic of the free market.   It's also illusory.

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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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