The Folly Of Infinite Growth

First published on May 2014

Having read a recent article that stated ‘Every consumer is also a producer as well’, the article itself being ludicrously titled ‘The Myth Of Over-Population’, I felt obliged to respond. It would be nice if all consumers were producers too, but that is clearly untrue – just look at the figures for USA food stamp (SNAP) uptake and real unemployment in any country and that’s easily disproved. In centuries past people were obliged to produce something or die – those that had no wealth to buy food were forced to produce it in order to consume it or starve to death.

The very idea of consumerism has become somewhat twisted – if we look at the early twentieth century it was only the wealthy that could be consumers in the modern sense. Most people could barely afford to eat properly and if they bought an item (e.g. hardware) they expected it to last a long time.

As time has passed the desire for dividends and profits among investors has not subsided, on the contrary it has increased such that the current norm is to expect phenomenal growth year on year. Increased profits has been assisted by massive population growth and opening up of new markets to the western capitalist model, but now we have hit serious road bumps.

In part the continued growth of industry and consumer spending has been fuelled by the creation of ‘built-in obsolescence’. When the incandescent light bulb was first produced developers were interested in maximum longevity (in California a blub has lasted 110 years), but GE, Swan  and other companies copped on to the fact that if their bulbs lasted for decades that there would be much smaller demand for new ones. That is why commercial light bulbs were designed to last on average 1000 hours.

Built-in obsolescence is now something that we see in every industry and has become so ‘normal’ that most consumers expect their manufactured goods to last no more than a few years, gone are the days of getting 20 years’ use out of a refrigerator. Coupled with the flimsy manufacturing standards now commonplace, is the decision to allow a lower level of production quality that means higher failure rates of units produced but an overall reduction in production cost – and hence higher profits.

What this means is that companies are happier to literally throw away or recycle perhaps 20% of say electric drills, than to spend a bit more on better production to reduce wastage to 5%.  This is all about profit margins and obviously other considerations such as wasted materials, wasted labour, wasted transport (returns) and annoyed consumers does not really bother corporations that employ such policies.

This may make sense from a crude economic angle, but when this is employed on a global scale by all manner of companies it means that huge amounts of consumer products are wasted because they either never make it as useable products or break within the minimum expected life-span. This means that masses of resources are wasted simply to create a better profit margin so that larger dividends can be paid out.

If we lived in a world of infinite space and infinite physical resources then this would not be a problem – however, we all know that this is not the case. When resources become scarce the laws of supply and demand mean that excess demand for raw materials makes the price of production (and hence sale price) go up and up.

When you couple this resource-stress with increasingly unproductive populations (i.e. no-longer self-sufficiently subsisting or now dependent on handouts) then the stress on the human socio-economic system becomes much worse – hence the road bumps.

Many people would attribute the cause of these ‘road bumps’ to peak oil theory, which itself can be applied to any diminishing and restricted-flow resource. This theory is not complicated – it merely posits that we cannot keep on growing and in fact will be eventually forced into contraction by decreasing availability of resources.

Peak everything theory would suggest that instead of previous boom & bust cycles we are more likely to have stalled-boom & bust cycles in the future, as failure to provide sufficient fuel to fan the flames (excuse pun) will inevitably kill off any recovery. With increasing numbers of people being unproductive and also rather poorer it makes it difficult for such people to be good consumers, no matter how much the brainwashing has convinced them that they need more stuff.

So what is the answer? There are several rather obvious solutions to this problem, but none of them are popular – in fact they are so unpopular that most people are reluctant to even mention them.

1. Stop having so many babies – this would inevitably reduce the stress on an unfair and overstretched resource distribution system as the world population falls. However just reducing the population would not automatically guarantee a better slice of the pie for the world’s worse off, in fact that alone would just decrease the overall rate of resource usage.

2. Don’t buy so much stuff – this would again reduce the stress as a lowering of demand through decreased consumerism should mean a commensurate decrease in production and hence rate of resource usage. This idea is unpopular with many people because they like ‘stuff’ and no-one wants to be the first to leave the party when they are having a great time. Corporations and their shareholders don’t like this idea either because less purchases means less profits – profit is the whole raison d’etre for these commercial entities.

So here we are caught like Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis. If we keep on consuming like crazy we will eventually be sucked into a whirlpool of increasingly viscous competition for rapidly diminishing returns. If we suddenly slam on the brakes and stop consuming then the world economy collapses, leaving unimaginably vast numbers to be picked off by a different monster – poverty.

A third solution would be to completely abandon the current economic paradigm in a phased and managed way, to create a society based on collective quality of life as opposed to a society based on arbitrary goals derived from self interest. Such a solution would be entirely possible (we have the know-how) were it not for the innate selfishness and short-sightedness of humanity.

There’s the rub, it is our own folly that has got us into this mess and because we are foolish, selfish and short-sighted creatures we find ourselves unable to decide how to extricate ourselves from it.