Time to transcend the obsession with growth

Global elites use their affluence to coopt policymakers, and they employ deceptive tactics

Syed Mohammad Ali May 18, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge


If global wealth was a pie, we would evidently see how some people get a much larger slice of it in comparison to others. Those who get much larger slices use a deflective strategy to counter demands for redistribution. Instead of offering up some of their own disproportionate share to those who hardly get anything, we see varied arguments drawing attention away from how the pie should be sliced up, to focusing on making the pie bigger. A bigger pie could potentially offer a win-win solution to everyone, except that the pie would have to be huge to meet the basic requirements of those getting insignificantly smaller proportions of it. Moreover, the resources needed to continue making this proverbial pie bigger are not infinite.

The fact that our world does not have enough resources to deliver ever-increasing economic growth is not a new discovery. Back in the 1970s, an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology clearly pointed out that our precious planet cannot tolerate perpetual population growth, and the accompanying quest for increased agricultural yields, and the constant natural resource extraction needed to support it, would increase pollution generating industrial outputs. The findings of this study were published in the form of the seminal ‘Limits to Growth’ report which advocated the need for a global equilibrium where population and production are carefully balanced to enable sustainable growth. This reasonable message for working towards a more sensible model of growth was, however, sidelined by aggressive growth maximising strategies unleashed by the neoliberal economic model adopted by much of the industrialised north, and pushed onto poorer countries in the form of loan conditionalities tied to World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans.

Decades of unimpeded reliance on market forces have delivered significant, yet rather lop-sided, growth. This has enabled staggering accumulation of assets in the hands of a few in return for very meager improvements within the lives of the many. We thus live in a world where a few dozen billionaires are estimated to have amassed more wealth than half the world’s poorer population. Poorer people are also ironically bearing the brunt of disasters triggered by climate changes, which have been the direct outcome of growth-obsessed economic models.

Those at the top of the food chain still avoid paying their due share of taxes and they remain unwilling to compensate those who have been ruthlessly exploited by profit-maximising models of business. Instead, global elites use their affluence to coopt policymakers, and they employ deceptive tactics such as corporate social responsibility and greenwashing to beguile consumers into thinking that profit-driven production processes cause less harm than feared, or that business leaders are taking impressive steps to prevent future harm. However, there is little cause for such optimism. Faith in technological fixes and more efficient management may help defer action against environmentally destructive behaviours, but they are also unlikely to offer the sort of utopian future their proponents keep promising.

Given growing global discomfort with the glaring inequalities in our midst, and increasingly frequent and severe climate threats, we are seeing the resurgence of Marxist thinkers, some of whom are now arguing for the need to consider ‘degrowth’.

Marx’s emphasis on the need for the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeois and exert direct control on the means of production seems to have bred his mischaracterisation as a pro-technological and anti-ecological thinker. However, Marx did not just criticise capitalism for exploiting workers, but also for degrading the environment. A young Japanese academic, Kohei Saito, argues for contending with ecological disasters drawing on Marxist ideals in a book titled Capital in the Anthropocene. Such degrowth proponents rightly argue that unbridled economic growth is not possible on an already stressed planet with finite resources, and that the world needs to reduce consumption to avert ecological collapse. The way degrowth should occur, however, merits much closer attention, or else this degrowth notion could also be hijacked by authoritarian and populist leaders in the name of empowering ordinary workers.

Degrowth needs to be selective. Saito, for instance, has called for regulating advertising, the use of gas-guzzling personal vehicles, and barring constant mobile phone model changes as easy examples to begin discouraging unproductive growth. Conversely, people in all countries need access to necessities — such as food, education, electricity, sanitation and health services — but these goals need to be met without relying on mass production which causes mass wastage.

Instead of letting the global elites lobbying governments to do their bidding, it is high time that ordinary citizens around the world begin using their voices, their purchasing power and their votes to demand fundamental changes which can make the world a safer and fairer place.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2024.

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