Why Do We Need to Get Richer? The Unsustainable Concept of ‘Perpetual Economic Growth’ on a Finite Planet

economic growth

By Michael Smith (Veshengro)

Guest writer for Wake Up World

What is with our obsession with wanting to grow ever richer, and with the “holy grail” notion of perpetual economic growth and GDP? When is enough enough? For some people it would appear never.

But perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is flawed concept.

Of course there are millions and millions of people in this world who live in poverty, who need to get “richer”. But do we  all  need to get richer? And morally,  is the way we are getting richer the right way?

A growing divide

So far the pursuit of riches together with the ‘increase of wealth’ has not diminished suffering. On the contrary. The very rich,  the 1%, are getting richer and the rest of us all are getting poorer. And this trend affects the poor more so than any other group.

The dominant Western science, economics, with which Westerners like to measure progress, does not take account of suffering, of poverty. Nor do mainstream business models consider it to be a cost. The only costs that economists worry about are those that directly affect profits and shareholder value.

Wealth alone cannot overcome suffering and poverty. It requires a qualitative improvement and not (just) a quantitative one.

The emphasis on constant economic growth has led many in the developed world to worship wealth. Wealth has become the measure to be applied to how well someone, a company or a country, is doing. But what should be the real measure of wealth of a person, of a company and indeed a country, is  happiness.

The constant economic growth advocated by almost all governments is not sustainable and we cannot continue down that road if we do not want to destroy the Planet upon which all life, and not just human life, depends.

How rich must we be to be satisfied? The Roman philosopher Seneca had a very precise answer to this question when he said that we should acquire an amount that does not descent to poverty but one that is not far removed from poverty. In other words we should be satisfied with having  enough.

There are too many people who have more than enough but they still want more, and then still more, and after that still more, never being satisfied with what they have. They are spurred on by the desire not just to keep up with the Joneses but to keep well ahead of them, and many stop at nothing to get there. This is greed and nothing more.

Wealth or happiness?

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas has a different way of measuring the country’s wealth. It is Gross National Happiness that they are using as standard instead of Gross National Product as economists in ‘developed’ nations use as a standard of measure. In Bhutan, it is the happiness of the people that counts, and not the financial wealth of corporations and the nation.

The true assessment should always be how happy a country and its people are, rather than how rich the country and its inhabitants are. The two, of course, are very different. Wealth cannot buy you happiness. In most cases the acquisition of wealth does not make the person happy… just greedier for more and more wealth and possessions.  Simply getting richer does not make us happier and neither is simply getting richer the answer to poverty at home and abroad. While it is important that people have a decent standard of income and living standard, how this is achieved is another question.

People must be able to earn their living in ways that make them happy and not in ways that make wealth for corporations at the expense of the poor working class. This also means that our ways of producing goods and providing services has to change.  It has to become that the means of production, and thus the income itself, is in the hands of the workers, the craftspeople, the service workers, and not in the hands of some multinational corporation. And this requires a complete systemic change.

Perpetual growth on a finite planet?

I’m continually stunned by how many seemingly sane people believe you can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Perpetual economic growth, and its cousin limitless technological expansion, are beliefs so deeply held by so many in this culture that they often go entirely unquestioned. Even more disturbing is the fact that these beliefs are somehow seen as ultimate definition of what it is to be human; perpetual economic growth and limitless technological expansion are what we do.

~ Derrick Jensen,  author and environmental activist

Does that mean that the economy should not grow? The answer here is not an easy one, but first of all we have to realize that perpetual growth just is  not  possible in a finite world. The great majority of our non-renewable resources have almost gone, and that means that the economy just cannot carry on growing and people consuming as if there will be no tomorrow.

What is required is a resource-based economy, a constant economy and not a constant-growth economy. And, in order to bring a better life to the areas that are poverty stricken, the West must stop exploiting those areas and their people. Let’s, by all means, buy what other countries produce. But let’s not have them used as a cheap labor source.

For example: We cannot allow any further to have countries such as Kenya grow green beans and flowers for the West, taking valuable growing space and water resources from the Kenyan people. Buying their surplus foods is one thing, but actually having them grow cash crops (for which they are paid very little) that the local people themselves cannot afford to eat is a different story entirely.

As another example, the Ethiopian famine in the late twentieth century was less caused by drought and more caused by the prolonged civil war that racked the country. For, when we see that Saudi Arabia is using Ethiopian and Sudanese lands, and those in Somalia to grow commercial wheat crops for its use, then we must question the drought idea more than ever.  Starvation and malnutrition is caused by systemic poverty, not any climatic changes or drought. This fact makes, at first sight, the question “why we need to get richer” even more absurd.

Our manufacturing has to be brought onshore again, so that workers at home have jobs and the exploitation of workers in foreign countries can stop. Then the means of production must be in the hands of the workers and no longer in the hands of capitalists who exploit man and nature equally for profit.


Our making of things, whether in “factories” or workshops, must be done once again on a human scale, rather than on the industrialized scale that has dominated production for the last century or two.  Large industries and plants are not sustainable anyway and we just cannot go on this way.

People will still buy goods made in a sustainable way, even if somewhat more expensive, as long as they are well made and made to last and are repairable. And that means the makers will still be able to sell goods. It will be a different kind of economy though. One led by income and based on resource availability rather than led by capital and high finance.  Every individual (adult) would have a means of livelihood, and ideally this might include working for himself or in a cooperative with others. This is the first step from oppression and dependence to liberation.

Getting rich from market driven economics is not healthy; it benefits the wealthy and not the poor. We have seen where this kind of economics lead us; to a stock market that crashes time and again. To an increasing divide between rich and poor.

Those behind the current ‘economics of growth’ lack a moral purpose; profit is their ultimate aim. And not just profit, but the unsustainable concept that that profit can continue to grow… at the expense of the planet’s limited natural resources and 99% of its human population.

Another way to live

It should be that you don’t consume more than you need. The consumerism that we see all around us in the developed world today is a case of people just buying things because it is a sort of a passion, or should we say an obsession. They seem to believe that the more they have in material goods the happier they will be and if they can just have the latest this or that then their happiness will be complete. But that never happens. There is always more to consume.

We need to learn to be satisfied with what we have, and what we can make for ourselves, instead of buying more and more things that we do not need. Consumerism is, basically, based on greed. Constant advertising suggests to us that we need more and more, and we become more and more greedy. To overcome this we have to accept the message of consumer and consumption restraint, instead of continuing to spread the message that ‘more is good’.

Thus we need to change the way we produce and only produce what is required for our communities, considering say, a 100 mile radius. Then we don’t have to have this buying all the time to keep the economy, in this case a localized economy, going. And in return for working only for what we need, we reduce our need to work unreasonably long hours.

This kind of economy does not mean that there will not need to be any growth at all, only growth in areas where there is a growing demand. For example, farming will have to produce more and more to ensure food security for a growing population. But much of that can also be achieved, to some extent, by people growing at least some of their own food in their own yards, in allotments or community gardens.

Other “industries” should not grow but should, in fact, be diminished, such as the defense manufacturing and arms industry. And considering that oil resources are finite, instead of building more motorcars, buses and trains should be built instead so that people can use more resource-friendly public transport systems. And at the same time, growth should be encouraged in areas such as renewable resources.

This model needs, to some extent, a planned economy where, as Gandhi said, it is not a case of not producing but what to produce, by who and for whom. With these three points considered – “what to produce”, “who produces it” and “for whom” – you have the perfect moral basis of a good economy. It is a simple cycle of production and consumption. It is logical. And that is the reason why Marx and Lenin advocated the planned economy. Even though it did not always work, that was largely due to the fact that, in the days after Lenin, the planned economy became state capitalism and not (true) communism.

The growth economy has so infiltrated each and every aspect of our lives that everything is being measured only in economic terms. And that is the main reason, it would appear, that those of us living in wealthier nations are not happy. And buying more and more things does not make us happy, as those that have the means to do so keep finding out, time and again.

Enough must be enough and as, as I said before, the Roman philosopher Seneca put it when he said that we should acquire an amount that does not descent to poverty but one that is not far removed from poverty. That should be the aim, and no more. When you have all that you need and a little above it should satisfy.

This is how we honor our fellow man and Mother Nature…

Previous articles by Michael Smith:

About the author:

Michael Smith (Veshengro) is the editor of  Green (Living) Review.

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