For reasons explained elsewhere (see, e.g., this post and that one), I am among those dreaming of a post-growth society. Of course, it is not entirely clear what a post-growth society would look like, and even less is known about the road there. Still, many people around the world–for instance those coming to Leipzig in September for the 4th International Degrowth Conference–agree that one of the greatest problems of the current societal-economic model is that it is heavily dependent on economic growth. And that at least the first steps towards it should be done soon, for the longer we wait the more we put our civilisation at danger of collapse of one kind or another. Nevertheless, there are numerous obstacles that hinder the urgently needed transition. In what follows, I would like to present three reasons why a post-growth society is not within reach, which are related to three aspects of human psychology: laziness, narratives and conservative inertia.
Let’s start with laziness. What I mean here is a rather simple mechanism: if we accept that GDP growth is not a sensible measure of socio-economic progress of a society (I’ll refrain here from the controversial question whether it is right to speak of “progress” in this context), we have to answer two questions–what is good life and, based on that, what indicators of socio-economic progress might serve as orientation for policy. As suggested for example by the Sarkozy Commission, there are very many things that are crucial for good life that are ignored when we stick to GDP, ranging from meaningful work to social cohesion, education, equality, freedom to live as one wishes to live, self-acceptance and many more. It is unlikely that we can sensibly construct a single indicator that would encompass all the meaningful aspects of good life. Rather, a whole range of indicators would be needed. Some of them might be quantitative (e.g., the ecological footprint), others only qualitative. However, orienting policies towards a number of different, incomparable and incommensurable indicators is terribly inconvenient and problematic. No wonder economists hate the idea. Also, as they rightly point out, multi-criteria evaluation of policies bears the danger of manipulation. Still, it is unlikely that we can avoid this problem by fooling ourselves that some single indicator might do. Our unreadiness to accept that is what I call laziness here: we stick to GDP because it is simple and unambiguous. If it grows, that’s (supposedly) good. If it does not, we have a problem to solve. Simple as that. Us overcoming this “laziness” is a necessary condition on the road towards a post-growth society.
Another reason for the persistence of our growth-based socio-economic system is the existence of powerful narratives linked to it. There are many such narratives, but probably the most important one is that this growth-based system we would like to abandon now was incredibly successful in the past. At least from the perspective of today’s rich countries–and they are the source of the narrative, which has spread throughout the world–economic growth has raised millions of people from poverty. It triggered or at least influenced such societal achievements as dramatic increases in life-expectancy and literacy, the creation of social security systems and a general “equalization” of the access to essential goods and services. Until at least the 1950’s there was not much one could sensibly say against economic growth, its correlation with increases in well-being was indisputable. Even today, although we know that economic growth does not come without a cost, the sweeping success of China and other emerging economies in raising their populations from poverty is inherently linked to it. These narratives are powerful and should not be underestimated in their role of internally stabilising the growth-based society we live in. Maybe as the collective memory of past successes vanishes (with the generations that directly experienced them subsequently disappearing) the narratives will lose their power. The problem is that this social process of forgetting may take too long for a smooth transition towards post-growth to be achieved.
The third reason why we are still far from a post-growth society is what I called “conservative inertia” above. I mean by that humanity’s general uneasiness with change, and with deliberate change in particular. Despite all the controversies within the post-growth movement as to exactly what a post-growth society might look like, one issue is clear: we cannot get there if we do not dramatically change the way our society and, more importantly, our individual lives work. Early in the 1970’s, Alvin Tofler wrote a book titled Future Shock, in which he argued that the pace at which modern societies change faces their inhabitants with a huge amount of stress. We are inherently conservative beings, which is a result of our risk-aversion: every change is related to uncertainty. Since we hate uncertainty, we try to avoid changes if it’s possible, and we fear them. This makes living in a fast-changing world hard. But these are, at least, changes that appear to be independent of our actions. The transition towards post-growth, on the other hand, must be deliberate. We must accept the need of huge changes in lifestyle without being offered anything close to certainty as what the end-result will be. This dissonance is one possible explanation of the well-known phenomena of the widespread discrepancy between awareness and action, and of the equally widespread hope that politics will take the burden of change off of us. Many people know what sustainability means and which actions they might undertake to facilitate it. But they don’t do it, limit themselves to the least burdensome tasks (we sort our waste but fly on holiday) and expect that politics will do the rest. While this is understandable for reasons of risk-aversion, convenience and social dilemmas (what does it change that I refrain from flying if all others do not?), deliberate change at the individual level is another necessary condition for a successful transition out of the growth-based system we live in.
I am aware that there are further obstacles that limit our ability to reach post-growth. However, I think that the three “psychological” obstacles discussed here are among the most important. At the same time, I have the impression that they are often being overlooked in the debate. I’ve wanted to show that we should not precipitously blame people for behaving as they do or call them irrational just because they do not easily change their behaviour in spite of being aware of the necessity to do so. Also, the arguments I’ve presented here show that information campaigns alone will not solve the problem. Honestly: I do not know what will. Overcoming psychological limitations of others is pretty much the most demanding task I can imagine–maybe except overcoming them in oneself.