Growth is gospel. It’s the idea that solutions to our problems come from growing our economy, our population, and the boundaries of our cities.
The promise of growth is often the linchpin of political platforms. It’s at the heart of Windsor’s newest 20 year strategic vision and was a top priority in Justin Trudeau’s winning federal campaign.
At the municipal level especially, the inflating cost of doing business, like maintaining infrastructure and paying employees, means that our cities must constantly increase their tax base through property development. For now, growth pays the bills.
And yet, for a paradigm so hopelessly clung to, the promise of eternal growth is quickly becoming more of a problem than a solution. More and more the ideal of constant economic growth is butting up against the finite reality of our planet.
Whether it’s the increasing carbon footprint of our growing population, or the devastating disasters caused by climate change, the push for constant growth is an idea unfit for this generation.
It seems simple. If you take a closed system which has a limited amount of resources and add an element which consumes those resources, you’ll eventually reach a breaking point where the system collapses in on itself.
In essence, the gospel of growth is choking the planet we call home.
And that’s not a new idea. In the 1970s, economist and thinker Herman Daly posited that a closed system, like the Earth, cannot host an eternally growing economy. Instead he diverged greatly from his economist peers, proposing that the economy must reach a steady state.
Daly continues to push for solutions to the paradigm of growth. He now teaches public policy at the University of Maryland and wrote a number of books and papers on the practical steps that must be taken to achieve a sustainable world.
In 2004, Daly helped found the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), a non-profit group based out of Virginia, which advocates for the changes he outlined in his work.
The Centre engages academics from around the world to bolster the argument that the age of growth has passed, aiming to “set the record straight on the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.”
“We help articulate steady state ideas for audiences in Canada and around the world,” explains Dr. James Magnus-Johnston, CASSE’s Canadian Director and professor at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.
Most recently, Magnus-Johnston jumped at the opportunity to remind Canada’s new prime minister of a quote where Trudeau questioned whether infinite growth was indeed a good thing.
He penned an open letter to the new PM, urging him to adopt policies, like implementing a basic income and putting a price on carbon, that would work towards a steady state economy.
But even if Trudeau expressed a fondness for Daly’s idea, his hands could be tied by politics. While he ran a campaign to the left on the spectrum, a move towards “fringe” ideas like steady state economics could hurt him in the polls.
“Politicians often have their hands tied in terms of leading, picking up new ideas and implementing them,” Magnus-Johnston explains.
To push radical ideas would be to take a risk with the electorate, many of whom have never pondered a world without growth.
“We’re many years away from when folks will understand, or when it will be taught, that there is an alternative to simply making things bigger... that there are alternative ideas [to growth].”
That lack of awareness stifles creativity of our political leaders as well, which is particularly worrying in an age where big problems require creative solutions.
And while cities are on the forefront of dealing with the effects of climate change, they also require new development to balance their books, effectively feeding into the growth cycle that got us here in the first place.
But now’s the time to push back Magnus-Johnston says, against the forces that say the bottom line is the only line that matters.
“Local governments are uniquely positioned to tackle sustainability problems. If their main question is, we need more money, they’re just going to build more. If their main question is how do we make people healthier, happier, how do we improve everyone’s well-being, how do we care for the elderly and sick, then our neighbourhoods will be imagined in very different ways.”
It’s that holistic approach that makes CASSE’s message so effective. Their plea for an economy based on the finite realities of the natural world shouldn’t be considered fringe or radical, it should be common sense.
“We’re lying to ourselves with respect to using growth as a panacea for all of our problems,” Magnus-Johnston adds.
“We’re exceeding, by some measures, the worst case scenario when it comes to climate change,” he says, meaning “there’s there’s very little hope for the old [growth] narrative.”
“Its days are numbered. Whether or not we realize that is a whole other matter.”