What If We Can’t Continue to Grow Our Economy? What Then?

We can’t continue to grow indefinitely. The planet has said no. Growth creates too much waste and too much pollution. For capitalism to succeed, it requires growth and profit. If that is not sustainable, what then? This post begins a journey, a deep exploration into the need for a no-growth, sustainable economy and what might be next.

This article: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update describes the limits to an economic system predicated on growth and continuous consumption. It convincingly conveys that capitalism and neoliberalism are simply unsustainable. Leaving aside the gross exploitation involved in capitalism, this research shows that it doesn’t really matter if you “like” capitalism or feel it has been the source of tremendous achievement — it just isn’t sustainable. For there to be enough profit for the 1% there needs to be continuous production of goods, much of which we really do not need, and the production of those goods necessarily creates waste and pollution, a burden our planet simply can’t support.
If you start there, then you must acknowledge the need for another model. But what? Our country has been soured on socialism since the 1950s. I found a short, succinct YouTube video of Noam Chomsky describing how capitalists basically eliminated any discussion of socialism or alternative economic models by pointing to the Soviet Union as a failed model, distracting all focus from any alternative socialist-like models. As he points out, the Soviet Union was never anything like a true socialist model. This is a very clear, worthwhile 4-minute video to view: click here.
In the video, Chomsky points to Participatory Economics by Michael Albert as one of the few existing descriptions of what an alternative economic model might look like. Participatory economics puts some bones and meat on a skeleton of what a truly socialist community and economy could look like. Click here to read a very approachable and brief description of participatory economics, its principles and, importantly, some of the structures that would frame it.
These pieces help me see an alternative structure, but the articles and video are still missing something for me. I want to be able to see, in very human terms, what would life be like under a new economic system?  
I think we need a clearer vision of the daily life of real people living in a real community, operating under a completely different system. Forget for a moment how we get there, first we need to taste, smell, and feel a different future.
  • What would life be like for the family at left?
  • What if they each worked only part-time jobs but earned enough to live comfortably, so they could devote time to develop themselves, cultivate their relationship, contribute to their community, and not race to 2 jobs each just to pay rent?
  • What if they benefited from family planning services, delayed starting a family for two years while one of them became a certified solar installer, and then when the decision to start a family was made, what if they benefited from high-quality prenatal care that was free, accessible, and culturally appropriate?
  • What if both parents were connected to a high-quality early childhood education system that initiated its work before their baby was born and prepared them to be the best parents and the best teachers of their child? What if because of this, their child entered K-12 as ready to learn as his/her classmates?
  • What if they lived in a neighborhood with an active community center that was a social, recreational, educational hub for their neighborhood, and where neighbors developed community priorities together, priorities that drove how cities prioritized use of resources?
  • What if this kind of system were supported financially by a completely different tax system, one that taxed high-income individuals at 80% (as in 1950)? What if an iron-clad wealth tax ensured that the first $2 million of accumulated wealth could be transferred to heirs tax-free and the remaining was taxed at 95%? What if our transportation, education, banking, and health systems were all public, profit-free and designed to benefit all of us?
  • How would this kind of society differ from today’s in terms of how we treat immigrants? Seniors? Those who are ill? Those with chronic conditions? Those with addictions or criminal backgrounds?

What if? Utopian? Naive? Maybe not.

Until two years ago, I had felt that it was quixotic to even think about this kind of world. But two things have happened to make this seem more realistic. Indeed, I would offer that achieving the above is the only chance our planet has to survive. 

First, in just two years so many socialist-like policies have gone from being considered unthinkable to being part of the public discourse, thanks in large part to the Sanders campaign. What could lead to an even further leap to the left? Toward humanism? Toward collectivism? That brings me to #2.

Second, we are inching closer and closer to a fixed deadline and the entirely likely reality that shocking climate catastrophes are inevitable. Naomi Klein has a theory called the “shock doctrine.” Most of Klein’s theory has been focused upon how the GOP and the 1% have used things like 9-11 and Katrina to introduce policies and programs that would have been unthinkable until a crisis made them seem inevitable.

I recommend Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough, to understand how the shock doctrine has played out in innumerable contexts. It is short, easy read and a critically important book for our time. Her premise is that the GOP devoted much time and effort to laying the groundwork, developing the neoliberal policies of which they dreamed, and then they were ready when the shock came.

The right has always been ready to take advantage of shock. In 2008, the bank collapse provided an enormous shock and a new, inspiring President had just been elected. But the left was not ready to take advantage of this. There was a moment when the private banking system could have been dissolved and a national public bank created. While previously an unthinkable option, with the nation in shock a public bank could have been achieved. We were not ready; the left had not carefully formulated a radical departure from the norm, and instead used band-aids to hold together neoliberalism. We can’t afford to make that mistake again.

The left needs to learn from the GOP and construct a platform that may seem unthinkable today, but could appear absolutely necessary soon, and then when climate change or some other neoliberal failure provides the rude shock, we’ll be ready. In that moment there will be an opportunity: to move to a new economy and a new way of life, and that shift will either be to the extreme dystopian right or a quantum shift to the left, toward humanism, collectivism, and sustainability. The right will no doubt be ready with its militaristic, repressive solution; we need to be ready with our alternative.

And so, over the coming months, sprinkled among posts focused on other more practical, immediate concerns (e.g., Ranked Choice Voting), we will continue this line of thought. Retake may well form a group to discuss this together and flesh out the human details of what a sustainable, just future could look like. If we can’t see it; we will never get it. And no sense tinkering with band-aids. I think we are all tired of band-aids being applied to a dying system. If you are interested in being part of this conversation, please write to us at volunteer4retake@gmail.com.

In solidarity,
Paul & Roxanne

Categories: Economic justice

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3 replies

  1. Growth at all costs and as an ever-desired result is an economic sinkhole as we see all around us…it breeds GREED and narcissism and ego driven cultures……NEW economic models must have a healthy bit of “maintain and improve what you’ve got” with the over-riding ethic being THRIVE, LIFE IS TO THRIVE….it is a no-brainer. It is just that this patriarchy and boundless capitalism without a clear NORTH STAR that says “for the good of all” in whatever ways this plays out over all cultures and all aspects of nature is a mutant economic form. YOU MUST NAME IT TO CHANGE IT–a motto for all aspects of life on planet earth. Thanks.

  2. I am wondering why you made no mention of the Leap Manifesto. Yes, it was created by Canadians, but it is a wonderful, workable document for all North Americans if groups can agree to treat all issues as equally important and of a piece of the larger vision of a sustainable world. Could it be that currently the groups involved in our part of the world are not able to arrive at that? Or is it that the assumption is somehow our vision would be completely different? Do tell. Your answer makes all the difference as to whether or not I can participate in the conversation.

    • Please read tomorrow’s post. You will smile and continue reading. I hadn’t finished No Is Not Enough until Tuesday. But it is featured in tomorrow’s post along with an American, somewhat tempered platform that references No Is Not Enough.

      Please comment on tomorrow’s post, Catherine.

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