No-Growth Economics and You

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 7:35 PM EDT

Clive Thompson investigates the renewed interest in "no-growth economics" — that is, economics that assumes the total output of the world stops growing and just stays the same. Peter Victor and Herman Daly have tried to model what such a world would look like:

Some of their conclusions are surprisingly pleasant. For example, to move away from growth, we'll all have to work a lot less....Handled correctly, this could bring about an explosion of free time that could utterly transform the way we live, no-growth economists say. It could lead to a renaissance in the arts and sciences, as well as a reconnection with the natural world. Parents with lighter workloads could home-school their children if they liked, or look after sick relatives....Viewed this way, a nongrowing economy could have broad political appeal, ushering in the sort of togetherness and family values that social conservatives celebrate. Liberals might appreciate the concept of work sharing, which could help narrow the income gap between rich and poor.

....The hard part is that we would be consuming less — probably far less. What does that mean, exactly? Daly has suggested that Americans would need to scale back our energy consumption to 1960s levels....Western consumption rates would need to shrink disproportionately so that citizens of countries like India and El Salvador could enjoy a lifestyle upgrade. Why? The no-growthers argue that a world with fewer yawning inequities between the rich and poor would be more stable; but quite apart from that, their models require stabilizing world population, and raising the economic lot of the poor is a proven way to do that.

Given the shift in wealth needed to accomplish this, Americans would need to turn back the clock to well before 1983; in fact, we'd be pretty lucky even to find ourselves where we were in 1960....People might need to develop a renewed appreciation for durable goods that require lots of labor to make but ultimately use fewer resources than their throwaway counterparts.

This is....a wee bit rosy. If we all worked two days a week, I suspect the real result would be more time spent playing video games and drinking beer, not a renaissance in the arts and sciences. And more time to look after sick relatives? I'm not sure everyone would consider this a boon.

And that's the surprisingly pleasant part! Let's put a few numbers to the less pleasant part. Right now, per capita GDP for the entire world is about $10,000. If the plan is to stop growing, but redistribute global wealth so that we're all equally well off, that means America would need to cut back its per capita GDP to the global average. A per capita GDP of $10,000 implies a median income of about $7,000 or so, which basically means that well over half the country would be living at what's now considered poverty level. In other words, not only wouldn't we get a renaissance in the arts and sciences, we probably couldn't afford video games or beer either.

It's possible that things will come to that if we destroy the planet. But it sure isn't going to happen short of that. I mean, we just saw a climate bill go down to crushing defeat because it would have raised the average energy bill of the average American by a hundred bucks or so. So count me as skeptical that no-growth economics is really gaining much of a following.