Goodbye 'Shop Til You Drop' Mentality: Renegade Band of Economists Call for 'Degrowth' Economy
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In this country, shopping is not just a national pastime. Consumer spending, which makes up about 70 percent of the economy, is a sort of patriotic duty -- never more so than in the last four years of economic malaise.
So news from the National Retail Federation that the country is on track for a record-breaking holiday shopping season -- $469.1 billion in sales, up 3.8 percent from last year -- could only be a good thing, right?
But what if all roads to prosperity don't lead to the shopping mall, as most economists would have us believe? What if, in fact, all that shopping -- and the imperative to grow corporate profits quarter after quarter and continuously expand the economy -- was actually the root of many of the problems we face today?
That's the view of a renegade but increasingly influential band of economists, who say the myth of perpetual economic growth and "the iron cage of consumerism" are the chief causes of world economic dysfunction and environmental crisis -- and the biggest obstacle to our very happiness.
"Overwhelmingly, growth is seen as the solution to all problems, but growth is failing," says Herman Daly, a former World Bank economist who is also known as the father of "ecological economics," an offshoot of the same field that spawned Adam Smith three centuries ago but challenges many of the assumptions that classical economists hold dear.
While the term may seem like an oxymoron to some, ecological economics places the economy inside the larger "ecosphere" that supports all life on Earth, rather than seeing the economy and job creation in direct opposition to environmental protection. That's an idea that has gained ground in recent years as businesses have become increasingly compromised by water and raw material scarcity, extreme weather, crop failures and other problems linked to global warming and environmental degradation.
The problem, says Daly, is that the economy, once an inconsequentially small part of the natural world, has become so supersized that -- sort of like an ingrown toenail or an evasive Japanese knotweed bush -- it's now growing into the remaining ecosphere and jeopardizing our ecological life supports: things like drinkable water, fresh air and a stable climate.
Those ideas can be found influencing, among other things, the slow money movement, D.I.Y. culture, modern barter systems, car sharing, and corporate sustainability rhetoric. They are also reflected in the views of ecologists such as Lester Brown and Jeremy Rifkin, the author, pundit and adviser to the European Union, as well as entrepreneurs such as Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, which ran an advertisement this holiday season urging consumers not to buy the pictured jacket and to think twice about making any purchases they don't really need. Even Unilever, the consumer goods conglomerate, has embarked on a corporate social responsibility campaign pledging to "decouple" its growth from its ecological footprint.
Daly's work and the related "degrowth" movement have inspired books, academic conferences and documentaries. Even as such ideas struggle to gain purchase with the world's leading economists, they are blurring the lines between the economic and the environmental and acquiring new political dimensions, as well.
"You can see it in the Occupy Wall Street movement; People are finally starting to say, what has growth done for us? It's simply increased the inequality in the country," Daly says.
While some may see growing income disparity as a political issue and global warming as an environmental problem, Daly sees them both in economic terms.
"What does the economy do when it runs into limits?"