According to Niels Röling

Global society is structured to support unsustainable exponential growth rather than the adaptive, cyclic management of ecological processes.

Yes, unfortunately most economists would still agree that the best measure of the health of an economy is growth.

Let me leave aside the issue of how this growth is achieved.  (Economists seem to be willfully blind to the injustices of “primitive capital accumulation”, or what geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”, fostering the politically convenient illusion that almost all growth can be chalked up to virtuous advances in technology, education, the rule of law, and so on.)

The fundamental problem is that growth simply cannot go on forever if it means consuming ever more of a finite world.  Economics as it is may be a fine guide to the economic system as it is, but economists ought to have higher aspirations than that.

Is there really no alternate economic system that would incorporate markets, competition, free trade and all the other things economists love, but which does not depend on growth?  Or at least not on the growth of material consumption?

More blog entries about Sustainability.

See also “Vivid details of a completely different kind of life“.



  1. According to the Nobel committee

    Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.


  2. I agree with the sentiment here, but I blame only the Keynesian and Marxist economists for the attitudes you summarized so well. They are fond of growth because their employers (the world’s central banks) use growth as an excuse to increase the money supply – an activity which enriches these counterfeiters disproportionately and undeservedly.

    I have coined a term for this (more of a recurring headline actually):
    Keynesians Declare Hamartial Law to Avert Crisis
    A few economists mistaking self-centered measures of “growth” for a Good worth pursuing would have little impact without the heavy-handed and necessarily coercive (hence political) means afforded them by governments.

    Much of the injustice laid at Capitalism’s feet arose not from fair trade and voluntary exchange, but from mercantile favoritism in the taxes and regulations of the most forceful governments.


    • But didn’t extreme overexploitation of the environment occur already thousands of years ago? If so, the roots of the tragedy are deeper than Marxism or Capitalism, and my question is, what practical economic system could we devise that would guard against our tendency to devour the Earth?


      • If you’re thinking of the earliest episodes of overloading an ecosystem such as the collapse of Ur of Chaldeans, we have only scant evidence of exactly which social practice was unsustainable. Doing the same things that are driving one’s collapse is the definition of inflexible insanity.

        Free markets are by definition adaptable; they nurture enterprises that find a natural (usually smaller) scale and they let voluntaryism rule as the decisive force. Immense corporations which empower far fewer decision makers only survive under artificial non-market force supports. They resist free markets as much as Marxists, but grow vulnerable to bubble-popping collapse once the manipulated prices in their market no longer provide a true picture of the real human economy.

        The solution to scarcity of every kind is Private Property Rights.
        You can hint all you want about kinder, gentler, socialist systems where
        concern for one environmental factor or another has been codified in law,
        but your burden of proof is still to out-perform a just system of private property. Tell me WHO but an owner will guard a scarce resource from overexploitation?


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