I’d like to discuss the terms with which economic debate and analysis is almost always undertaken. The catalyst for this particular essay was a discussion on NPR’s Morning Edition, October 29, 2009, between Steve Inskeep and John Ydstie. Inskeep and Ydstie were analyzing the latest economic growth figures and were questioning whether last quarter’s growth could be sustained. Despite some growth, the concern was whether, Ydstie put it, we “are on a path of sustainable growth.”
As an economic analysis, there was nothing extraordinary here. Given the standard terms of the debate and general assumptions of the dominant (or exclusive?) economic paradigm—in which continued growth is the norm with contraction being an aberration which needs remedy—this was entirely unexceptional and I have no opinion on the “truth” of the analysis if seen solely within the paradigm of permanent economic growth.
However, words like “sustainable” and “unsustainable” have significant and pressing meanings that extend beyond—that, in fact, question—the accepted terms of economic thought, analysis, policy, and debate. It is careless, irresponsible, and intellectually shortsighted not to consider the broader meaning of “sustainability.” Given NPR’s mission and function within our society, I expect better of it, which is why I have written numerous letters addressing this issue in one way or another.
When the standard economic question is asked, namely, whether current economic growth is sustainable, another, more significant question is elided and ignored: whether economic growth, itself, is sustainable. As a piece of bitter irony, the story that came after the one I’m addressing here was about global warming, as if to announce the underlying issue which was not, and is rarely, addressed. For the question of the true sustainability of economic growth may ultimately be an ecological question: can our planet and its ecosystems survive sustained economic growth? This is a somewhat euphemistic way of asking whether humans can survive sustained economic growth.
I believe we cannot. There may, I will admit, be validity to an argument that suggests that economic growth, in a post-industrial world, may be of the sort that does not need intensive energy, or that alternative, renewable and non-carbon emitting, energy sources will provide the energy needed for economic growth. I believe that such arguments have crippling weaknesses and omissions, and would point to the simple fact that up until this point, economic growth has always been accompanied by increased consumption of fossil fuels. Future economic growth, I believe, not only depends on an endless supply of cheap energy, but will also increase carbon emissions for as long as our supply of fossil fuels lasts. Nevertheless, I still believe that a debate is worth having.
However, there is no such debate. That we may have to devise an economic system that is not wholly dependent on permanent and continued growth is, apparently, a forbidden topic. Whether it is too scary or threatens too many entrenched interests, the questioning of the economic growth is entirely absent from all mainstream media. Perhaps this is the case because we so fully rely on economic growth even to maintain something of a status quo. A lack of economic growth does not simply mean that we will all have to make due with a little less. This addiction’s withdrawal is far more painful. The system seizes up, credit freezes, jobs are lost. Our economy is like a bicycle—easy to balance when moving but nearly impossible to keep upright when at a standstill. This is something worth considering as we are running out of road. We are in dire need of a broad discussion of the potential unsustainability of sustained economic growth.