Economic growth and the type of society that the United States Is


Richard E. Garner, Jr

Economic growth is defined as an increase in the total quantity of goods and services produced in an economy in a given period of time, usually a year, or a quarter of a year, as reported on by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. (See; also, Corrections for inflation in the level of prices are worked into some definitions, so that we have “real growth” or “inflation adjusted growth.” We may quibble over how accurately a given system for measuring economic growth does in fact reflect the actual increase in the production of goods and services that has taken place. And some people seem to confuse the system for measuring the phenomenon with the phenomenon itself. And there has been a great deal of debate about other systems that would measure economic activity differently, with less emphasis on material production and more on subjectively perceived benefits, such as welfare or happiness.

However, what is of critical importance is the underlying phenomenon of economic growth, the steady increase from one year to the next in the material production of goods and services. What is also of critical importance to understand is that no matter how efficient we get in the different processes and economic activities that we engage in economic growth will always involve some increases in the total quantities of matter and energy into the overall economic process.

These steady increases in the total quantities of matter and energy that we humans are putting into the economic process are what our finite, limited biosphere of life on Earth ultimately cannot take.

This problem applies to our struggle to avoid an unacceptable level of climate change as well as to everything else. Even if we are successful in transforming our economy so that it is entirely free of the use of fossil fuels, as long as we continue to have economic growth, we will have continued increases in inputs of matter and energy into the economic process.

The transformation of energy from sunlight falling on the Earth into electricity by solar cells might seem to be a perfectly innocent activity that could not possibly impact nature in any harmful way.  This is true as far as contributing to greenhouse gases and the problem of climate change.  However, the minerals that are the source of the semiconductor materials for the solar cells have to be extracted from nature through mining and other activities. In fact, all of the materials for the solar panels and the wires for the transmission lines and all of the materials for the use of renewable energy involves extractions from nature.

We are a long way from the time that this particular activity alone, the use of renewable energy, becomes a problem because of its unseen and unthought about impacts on the natural world. However, as long as we continue to have a society where population growth and economic growth both continue to take place, even this seemingly innocent activity could conceivably become a big part of our problems at some point in the not all that distant future.

Every single activity that we engage in, or that we might ever engage in has the potential for becoming a problem in how it impacts nature given a sufficiently large aggregate level of the quantities of matter and energy involved.

Today we have a system for measuring economic growth called Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. A report on GDP is issued after the end of every quarter and after the end of each year by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and agency of the US government. The most recent report of the BEA states that the initial estimate for US GDP for 2018 was over $20 trillion dollars. They say that real GDP increased 2.9 percent from 2017 to 2018. These annual increases add up over time. Our US and world economies are quite huge and have a tremendous impact on the natural world.

The political and moral importance of the underlying phenomenon of economic growth extends beyond any system for measuring it. Even if other systems for measuring economic activity seem to do a better job of measuring such things as welfare or happiness, these other systems are unlikely to overshadow the importance of economic growth and its impact on the prospects for the survival and well being of humankind and much of the rest of life on Earth as far into the future as we can see.

The political importance of economic growth flows logically from our core political values and ideals. It flows from our founding fathers’ ideas about the nature of individual political freedom and political power. Our founding fathers thought that freedom essentially consisted in not being taxed, or at least in not being taxed without representation. After the Revolution, any tax was suspect. Only grudgingly, enough power was given to the federal government to protect each individual man from the potential violence of other individual men and all from the threat of violence from other nations.

Throughout our history the good life has been thought of, at first, as the ability of men to use their property as they saw fit, and later as the ability of more and more people to come to this frontier society and pursue the acquisition of more and more things, without limit, and without regard for the impact on nature here in the United States or in the world as a whole.

Building a society that does not need continuing economic growth will not be easy. However, it simply must be done if humankind is to survive and if the complete destruction of the biosphere is to be avoided. This will be among the most difficult things that human beings have ever done. We will need to integrate our efforts to bring economic growth to a gradual halt with efforts to bring population growth to a complete end and with efforts to build a carbon free or as close as possible to a carbon free economy. And we will need to proceed on from there to try to bring about through noncoercive means a slow gradual decline over a long period of time in population size everywhere on the planet. And we will need to build a fundamentally different kind of society that grows from intangible intellectual, moral and spiritual achievements and from improvements in health, education and improved relationships among different groups of human beings and between humankind and the rest of life. This is what we need rather than a society growing endlessly in its physical impact on the Earth through population and economic growth. It[RG1]  will need to be a democratic society, but also a society where the marketplace is no longer the central organizing principle. There may be a way to contain the economic process back within the boundaries of the state in such a way that it does not produce such extensive economic and political inequality and where the biosphere is not threatened, but it is difficult to see now. Whatever type of society we try to build we must remember to ask ourselves, what does the Earth need? What does the rest of life need not just to avoid extinction but to thrive and flourish?

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Some possible topics for future posts include the following:

Some possible problems with a carbon free economy

Why we need a new political party

A new political party for a type of society that is more truly democratic but also fundamentally different

The international empire of business corporations and the fate of humankind

The type of society that we need – a good society in a world of limits

A long-term nonviolent revolution based on love and cold realism

Work, energy, the industrial mode of production and democracy

Power, freedom and the economic process

Beyond socialism and capitalism

Into the universe – the wonder of being

Copyright 2019 by Richard E. Garner, Jr