You are here

The Seven Subsets of Anti-Growth Consciousness

It has almost become commonplace now for prominent environmentalists like David Suzuki to declare that economic growth cannot continue in a finite world. Even Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May has been heard to quote Paul Ehrlich's old line that "growth is the ideology of the cancer cell". The problem is, however, that they do not follow this insight through to its logical conclusion. What does economic growth consist of? If population growth is a critical ingredient of economic growth, then what drives population growth? And if migration to affluent countries promotes population growth in both the nations of emigration and the recipient countries, must not any credible strategy to fight economic growth involve tightening borders and restricting this flow?

"We have come to believe that growth is the very definition of progress. You talk to any businessperson or politician and say, 'How well did you do last year?' And, within a picosecond, they will talk about growth in the GDP and the economy in profit, jobs or market share. And, anything in a finite world cannot grow forever. We live within the biosphere, that cannot grow- it's fixed." David Suzuki

At long last there is a growing consensus among environmentalists that growth must not simply be managed, but stopped, before nature does it in a more ruthless and arbitrary fashion. Nevertheless, while it takes little insight or courage to identify and attack the problem in broad terms, it requires bold persistence to follow that commitment to its logical conclusions and ruffling politically correct feathers in the process. Unfortunately, not many anti-growth advocates are so audacious. So far there seems to be seven subsets of anti-growth consciousness that must be treated as stages toward total comprehension of the issue.

1.Those who recognize that economic growth cannot continue in a finite world.

2.Those who realise that economic growth must not only be stopped, but reversed. There must be “de-growth".

3. Those who understand that global population growth is a critical component of economic growth.

4. Those who understand that population growth in affluent nations or nations of growing affluence is more dangerous than population growth in undeveloped countries.

5. Those who understand that immigration has become a key driver of population growth in many affluent nations like the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK.

6. Those who understand that mass migration to affluent nations is a spur to global population growth. Open borders are a fertility stimulant to countries of emigration and relieve the pressure upon their governments to pursue sustainable population levels, while affluent nations with immigration-driven runaway population growth lack the credibility to lobby for lower birth rates in developing nations.

7.Those who understand, then, that reducing mass migration to North America and similarly affluent regions is crucial to any effective effort toward pro-actively reversing global economic growth, if for only the reason that migrants from poorer nations greatly magnify their ecological footprints upon arrival. At the same time, we understand it is the practical and moral obligation of affluent countries to address the “push” factors which drive migrants of poorer nations out of their countries.

Lamentably, the great majority of environmental leaders who have “gone out on a limb” to denounce economic growth, or even to declare that it must be reversed rather than simply stabilized, will not go out any further. Perhaps they reason that their constituents are not yet ready come with them----or that corporate donors will de-fund their organizations if they did. It is clear that from the investigations of Washington Post, Johann Hari, Christine MacDonald, Michel Chossudovsky and Cory Morningstar---to name but a few---that corporate foundation money has played a decisive role in taming environmental NGOs and channelling them down paths that our less consequential to the corporate bottom line. But whether it be for mercenary reasons or simply deference to political correctness, Canadians remain puzzled why David Suzuki, for example, can tell Australians on their public radio that their country is over-populated, but is apparently unable to say the same thing in Canada about his own country on the CBC. If Dr. Suzuki—and other prominent green voices---are sincere in their determination to see economic contraction, then they must climb up all of the steps outlined above. They must take special note of Herman Daly’s ninth policy proposal for moving toward a steady state:

"Stabilize Population. We should be working toward a balance in which births plus in-migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but, as a start, contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, and who should get priority, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced. We should support voluntary family planning and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted. A lot of the pro-natalist and open-borders rhetoric claims to be motivated by generosity, but it is “generosity” at the expense of the U.S. working class—a cheap labor policy. Progressives have been slow to understand this. The environmental movement began with a focus on population but has frequently given in to political correctness."

Tim Murray
January 5, 2010

Image icon snow-white-plus-7-tiny.jpg7.76 KB
Image icon anti-growth-seven.jpg58.8 KB


Thanks, Tim, for yet another robust contribution to the debate. I have one stylistic concern, which I have raised a number of times before, but which is yet to be taken on board by other contributors. I think the word 'growth' should be placed inside inverted commas, because I don't any process which causes the destruction of vast amounts of natural capital can accurately be termed 'growth'.

I think real growth, in which the development of human society or the natural world actually can be plausibly shown to at least match the consumption of natural capital (that is, of course, if we ignore the destruction of natural capital in the sun without which even that growth would not have been possible) would not be an altogether bad thing. Of course such growth would have to be finite.

Some past pre-industrial periods of human society as well as pre-human development of the biosphere could rightly be labelled periods of 'growth' in my view.

Could a growth pusher possibly be motivated by kindness and not by selfish greed?

In one way it just could be argued that some growth pushers just could be more kind-hearted and generous than opponents of growth. However this would only be possible if it could be shown that any growth pusher, through the goodness of his/her heart, truly wants to share his/her own wealth with others including the as yet unborn or those wishing to settle in his/her country.

I have yet to see any credible evidence of this. However, there is more than ample evidence which shows that growth pushers are, to the contrary, motivated by selfish greed. For them population growth is a way to increase the demand for commodities they have monopolised, most markedly shelter or to use the consequent greater labour competition to force others to work for them at lower rates of pay.

Growth pushers must surely know that what they do makes the whole of the society poorer and less sustainable. However, because of the perverse structure of the economy (at least in the Anglicised part of the world) they, themselves, instead, gain.

Even if it could somehow be proven that the growth pushers were motivated by selfless altruism and not by greed, I think the rest of us should still be entitled to oppose their demands as all of us (and the rest of the biosphere) and not just them are being made to pay the price.

Growth pushers most likely rationalise or spin to themselves, their nearest and dearest and anyone else who asks that the growth they demand will benefit them and that a proportion of this economic benefit will trickle down to others. Even if others lose out all over the place, ultimately I'm sure the growth pusher would say that others benefit from his/her wonderful contribution to the over all economy. Of course it is complete self deception and an often successful attempt to deceive others.

Thanks for your thoughts, quark.

However, unfortunately, even this gives more ground to the growth pushers than they deserve.

The only 'economic benefit' of 'growth' is not, in fact, an economic benefit at all. Transfer of wealth from the poorest in society to the wealthiest, through increased housing costs and lower wages driven down by higher competition is, if anything trickle up rather than 'trickle down'. Possibly, arguably some of the wealth trickled up from the poorest to the richest is 'trickled down' again to the less wealthy amongst the priveleged, but this would be tiny in comparison to the wealth already lost outright to society through the cost of immigration and population growth.

I very much doubt if any growth pusher would be able to fool any intelligent person with his/her claims even for as little as a minute if the sheer illogicality of what growth pushers argue was more widely pointed out. The claim, that population growth is of any benefit to society as a whole, let alone to the poorest in society, can be easily shown up for the deceitful fraud that it is.

A further thought, 8 Jan:. Perhaps "gush up" and "gush out" would be more appropriate terms to decribe what happens to the wealth of ordinary people and society as a whole because of 'growth'.

Just to fill this out a bit, there are those (Herman Daly ex chief economist World Bank) who have argued for strong population controls for a long time. (

I think the reasons for this is that there needs to be growth in a large section of the global south, there are basic rights that just aren't there yet. I think it is becoming more and more obvious to all as the plight of refugees is discussed that our "lifestyle" cannot be advanced much more, particularly when a finite planet is brought into the discussion.

There are those, such as Prof Tim Jackson who would see a re orientation of investment into ecological areas as a transition to a Steady State. Of course even a Steady State (which goes back to John Stuart Mill) allows for growth within ecological limits.

Others, such as degrowth - ers maintain that the economic "uplift" of poorer nations must continue "as quickly as possible" but must run in parallel with a "contraction" in wealthy countries. This is urgent and necessary, this was also put very forcefully by John Bellamy Foster in "Capitalism and Degrowth" in the Monthly Review -

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Frankston, the latest Economic Development Strategy is advocating a CAD permanent population of 18,000 as well as a ramp up of the workforce to 18,000 with the necessary gross floor area of 1.3 MILLION m2 (currently 120,000 m2). It's "our" turn right ?

There is no doubt that the "growthers" still feel there is much to be gained from advocating for the "perceived poor" in western society and this needs to be countered wherever possible to compare with the "actual poor" globally.

Even very intelligent thinkers (Ayaan Hrisi Ali in a discussion with Jennifer Byrne - could be on iview) see the "primacy" of western society at a point whereby those "desparate" refugees who risk their lives to get here have a "choice", the ultimate existential choice, of accepting their part of contributing to economic life and growth or not. Am not sure if this derives from her abandonment of Islam or not.

The point is that even when education fulfills it's role to the fullest extent, the "choices" this brings are often too seductive to pass up.

The time has come for "us" to be selective and bring into the equation, as a minimum, the "externalities" which have to date been completely dismissed, including population. Even the Queensland floods are seen a a fillip for economic gowth, when the rain stops that is.

In my view, the virtue of this blog---candobetter---lies not so much in the essays posted but in the quality of comments that they provoke. The comments above are a case in point. The last one particularly is a launching pad for much more discussion. I will leave with a few questions.

1. As a former charter member of the perceived poor, now at the threshold of re-entry to their ranks, cannot those who are currently unemployed, on food stamps, deeply leveraged or with homes foreclosed or about to be foreclosed be forgiven for believing that they are "actually poor"? Homeless Vancouverites may not suffer to the degree of Calcutta slum-dwellers or Brazilians in flavellas, but let me tell you, they are not liking outdoor living right now.
2. If the goal is global de-growth, but within that framework selective growth for those most in need, are North America's working poor and dispossessed to be the considered ripe for de-plucking? And should the corrupt elites in developing nations be exempted from the radical wealth transfer? In other words, must we not think in terms of the redistribution of wealth within countries as much as between them? In Canada, as in the US, the growth of the past three decades has come with a widening of the income/wealth gap. As the pie has grown bigger, ordinary Canadians have gotten smaller and smaller slices. Ditto America.
3. Is the reason tha growthers feel that much is to be gained from advocating for the perceived poor have something to do with the fact that our poor are really hurting, and would react rather harshly to any politician who would advocate economic contraction for the benefit of people in the southern Hemisphere? Try running on a no-growth platform now. The working poor, the ordinary folks, think any such proposal is mad.
4. Here is a politically incorrect thought. What if, in the interests of global equity, an all-powerful global government commanded severe economic shrinkage for the relatively affluent 20% of nations and economic growth for the 80% fuelled by massive wealth transfers, would there be enough to go around? Would the economic growth necessary to uplift the developing world impose enough biodiversity loss, soil erosion and GHG emissions as to be fatal to our species even if affluent economies were subject to severe austerity and retraction? Perhaps Foster answers that question. I need to read his analysis.

Editorial comment: Thanks, Tim. I agree, of course. However this blog still lacks sufficient structure and does not yet have even its own search engine, which is a consequence of my past poor prioritisation before my road injury and hospitalisation back in May last year more seriously hampered my own ability to contribute to and manage this site. Thanks, Tim and so many other visitors for having kept breathing so much life into this site, during the recent times, when I was almost completely unable to.

With proper structure and even with no more than the existing authors and contributors I think candobetter will be indisputably seen as an unparalleled Internet resource for good by any reasonable environmentalist or progressive. (JS, 10 Jan 2011)

Personally, I would like to see many more authors, as well as comments. And on all kinds of topics as long as they can relate to our core subjects in some way - as most things do anyway. Just to remind anyone browsing, our website is for reform in democracy, environment, population, land use planning and energy policy. There is room there for all kinds of politics, styles, illustrations, languages, culture, sciences and humour.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page
Articles Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction

Thanks Tim, I enjoyed your original post as much as I did contributing, so to keep the ball rolling.....

1/ I think the current economic system has let everyone down, no matter where they are. I too have my low income card in my pocket, and have for the last 10 years, altho not having children I assume it's easy to say I wouldn't have it any other way. Those who have been let down the most are those who believed the spin. To that end, education, or the lack of it certainly plays a big role.

I remember Harold McMillan (U.K. conservative P.M.) telling me as I unfurled my first wage packet in 1966 that "You've never had it so good", the 4 pounds that I poured into my hands didn't seem like a king's ransom but then I believed my parents, borne and bred in frugality that the main aim was to provide a better world than they had when they were children, and given that my parents went through 2 world wars and a depression I can understand exactly where they were coming from.

We are now in a different space, and forgive me but I haven't had children, but I feel we have overshot the necessities and frugality that kept this world sustainable. Yes there were the London "pea soupers" when thousands died from bronchitis, but I think the advent of advertising and later marketing, the green revolution (based on oil) which saved the lives of millions in Africa and India has led us down a path that is too good to be true.

So now we come to the "earth fights back" part of history, and just as I thought that people would notice if a massive natural disaster occurred, the Tsunami came and wiped away 200,000 people in one hit, and we just kept on going.

Ayaan Hrisi Ali's remarks about the "desperate" refugees having the choice of joining this merry go round or suiciding hit me right between the eyes. She came out of Ethiopia and landed in Holland which gave birth to her wonderful intellectual potential, and yet came up with such a "final solution" I was shocked.

2/ So yes I agree that there is to be a re distribution, both within and amongst global economies, and the wages gap is the first place to start. And no matter who it is, we all have to allow a voice for ecological limits. I liken this to the proposed emissions reduction scenarios. Global emissions have to be reduced by 50% by 2050 (I know these are all "modelled" figures) ergo, western societies face a mind boggling 90 - 100% reduction whereas developing countries are allowed to INCREASE their emissions to allow development. Naturally for the U.S. this is a major sticking point, remember Dick Cheney and his "The American lifestyle is non-negotiable" comment, they really mean that.
As the U.S. and Oprah Winfrey gain more and more access to Australia so does the Amway. I saw a Q & A a while ago and Bill Shorten appeared. A question came from the audience re Tim Jackson's "Properity without Growth" and in 10 seconds Shorten completely white anted the whole paper by saying, "I'm sure there are a lot of people earning $150,000 a year who would question that theory" It's easy to attack and destroy ANY theory that quotes Marks, degrowth, or is percieved to herald a "backward step" where we'll all end up living in caves.
A Steady State does not advocate this at all.

3/ & 4/ Show me the money. When the bean counters tot this all up a figure of $12 TRILLION has been lost through the global financial crisis. Now tell me there's not enough to go around. There have been many suggestions about a levy of miniscule amounts on the trillions of financial transactions that take place every day, but no-one has got the courage to take these bastards on. I remember when Argentina were in real financial trouble and they just defaulted on their debts, so what ? Ireland bent to the whim of the IMF and borrowed their future away rather than constructing a new one.

I agree wholeheartedly that there is a complete vacuum when it comes to leaders who are advocating for the future, determined to maintain the status quo, we seem to have forgotten that this current market system is only 30 years old and failed miserably at the first hurdle. The vested interests hold sway and are not going to give in - just today I heard all the CEO's of big tobacco swearing on oath that smoking was not addictive. Well the same applies to growth, it is an addiction completely destructive to ourselves as people and society as a whole, not to mention the surface we live on.

Of course the biodiversity loss would be increased as the undeveloped world "develops" or as more and more people migrate to countries where they can aspire to western standards. The first move has to come from the west. From a grass routes movement that has seen through the paucity of infinate economic growth.

A breath-taking perspective, Ixpieth. I feel pretty certain that Australia is going down the same road as Ireland. When the IMF comes to collect, Australians need to refuse to pay up, like Argentina, not like Ireland. I nearly said that we are like Ireland, except that we have minerals and other raw materials, whereas Ireland has little and even lost all her trees (to the same English colonial phenomenon) centuries ago. But then I thought of how we have gone into infrastructure debt to turbocharge our mining product and of how sales depend on a market which is inexorably grinding to a halt. And, after even politicians refused more taxpayer money to create and finance Swann and Rudd's "Ruddbank" in 2009, Mr Swann seems now to have managed by himself to make Mr and Mrs Middleclass's superannuation legally available to bolster the doomed construction sector for when the banks pull out. The floods in Queensland and Northern NSW highlight the wobbly basis of the Australian growth economy. If we had a bill of rights, or better still, a civil code, like the French and other European states have had since the 19th century, to guarantee us affordable shelter and income, we would stand a chance. If the payroll tax laws were repealed and we then had the right to withhold our income tax (which is collected before we get paid) we would also have bargaining power. And, if we had zero-net immigration, we would stand a chance of consolidating and redistributing what real wealth we have (as opposed to paper-debt-based 'wealth').

Feel free to dispute these observations; I would like some feedback.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page

This is a decent tips particularly to those new to blogosphere, short and precise data… Thanks for imparting this one. An unquestionable requirement read article... eazaxdcj

eazaxdcj (?) - Ed