Growth. No, that’s not the one word to change the world, but it is the word of the day — the front-runner among strategies for improving society. Economic growth is the universal plan coming from classrooms, boardrooms, and pressrooms. If you stop for a second and listen, you can hear a professor, a pundit, or a politician prescribing economic growth as the pill to cure any ill. Climate change? Don’t worry — all we need to do is grow the economy and we’ll have the money to capture carbon emissions or re-engineer the climate. Poverty? Sit tight — all we need to do is grow the economy, and a rising tide will lift all boats to waterfront mansions.
The only trouble is that the “cure” has become more of a curse. We’ve had decades of economic growth in nations around the world, but our most profound social and environmental problems continue to intensify. During the age of growth we’ve witnessed the loss of climate stability, the loss of biological diversity, and the loss of social cohesion. To add insult to injury, surveys indicate that the additional production and consumption is failing to make us any happier.
It’s time to try a new strategy — the strategy of enough. Suppose that instead of chasing more stuff, more jobs, more consumption, and more income, we aimed for enough stuff, enough jobs, enough consumption, and enough income. What if enough took the place of more as the organizing principle for the economy?
A prerequisite for changing the economy this way is to recognize the point of enough in our own lives and in the broader economy. Common sense can give individuals a starting point. For instance, if you can’t find enough to eat, then more food is better. If the alarm wakes you up before you’ve had enough sleep, hitting the snooze button and resting for a few more minutes feels great. But once you’ve had enough, eating more food can lead to obesity, and sleeping more could be classified as a medical condition.
Even so, knowing when to stop pursuing more can be challenging, especially because we live in a society where the imperative to grow creeps into all facets of life. Advertisements, the mainstream media, pop culture, and even our peers push us in the direction of more consumption: eat more, drink more, drive more, buy more. It helps to inoculate ourselves against this consumptive push so that we are more likely to see when we have enough. To do so, we can avoid advertising — or at least become aware of how advertisers exploit our psychological shortcomings — so that we can limit the degree of influence. We can join communities of friends and peers who focus on health and well-being instead of what the consumer culture tells us to do. We can look for opportunities to boycott unsustainable sectors of the economy.
Such activities can help us achieve the satisfaction that comes with having enough, but to make the transition to a sustainable society, we need more sweeping changes. And as challenging as it is for individuals to spot the dividing line between more and enough in their own lives, it’s a tougher challenge to define this line in the broader economy. Fortunately researchers have made progress.
The ecological footprint is a measure of how much productive land a population requires to produce the resources it consumes and absorb the wastes it generates. The footprint is telling us that we’re consuming resources fifty percent faster than they can be regenerated. Simply put, we’ve overshot the point of enough. The warming climate, disappearing species, vast numbers of people living in poverty, and drawdown of critical natural resources — these are all warning signs of an overgrown economy, an economy that has been seduced by the madness of more and neglected the wisdom of enough.
Acknowledging this predicament obligates us to overhaul our economic institutions and policies.
Specifically, we need new strategies to conserve natural resources, stabilize population, reduce inequality, fix the financial system, and create jobs. Developing and implementing these policies for a prosperous, nongrowing economy will be an exceptional challenge. But what’s the tougher challenge: embracing a new set of policies for a sustainable economy, or dealing with the aftermath of collapse because we failed to heed the warning signs?
Imagine an economy that can meet people’s needs without undermining the life-support systems of the planet. Imagine an economy founded on fairness instead of foolishness. Imagine taking action to begin the transition. One thing’s for certain: the changes will only materialize when we achieve widespread recognition that enough is enough.
Rob Dietz is the editor of the Daly News and the former executive director of CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy). Dan O’Neill is a lecturer in ecological economics at the University of Leeds and the chief economist for CASSE.
You can purchase their book, Enough is Enough, Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources directly from the publisher or at your favorite bookseller.