Do we take Growth for Granted?

Is the endless story of infinite growth coming to an end? For 250 years, growth in every sense of the word has been synonymous with the capitalist success story – is the story over?

Growth is the foundation of modern society – the idea that we can expand industry and productivity through innovation, expansion, and investment. What we rarely remember is that the growth mentality was born out of an industrialization that for 250 years was and still is based on cheap energy. 

Oil and coal may not feel particularly "cheap" right now, at a time when energy prices are high, and markets are disrupted by the war in Ukraine. But consider that a single large excavator can do as much work as 300,000 people with shovels. Compared to muscle power, fossil fuels are much more efficient and made the industrial revolution possible. It was not until the British succeeded in mining coal on a large scale that the price of running a steam engine became low enough to make automation worthwhile. Growth then came to be seen as a naturally good thing, especially in democratic countries, where politicians' promises for almost a century have been about more jobs, more welfare, more – well, more growth all around. 

This has slowly been challenged. Since the 1970s, the environment has increasingly entered the debate as a constraint on growth. We began to suspect that growth was not infinite after all. Logistical challenges put limits on how far we can transport energy, raw materials, and people. These considerations, in turn, have led to concerns about the Earth's limits - the most discussed of which today is climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere.

Earth's ceiling and floor
In 2009, Johan Rockström, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center, developed a model to illustrate these limits, a "ceiling" on how much of the Earth's resources we can extract sustainably. This model was criticized for not taking into account human needs and rights, so Oxford economist Kate Raworth modified the model and added a 'floor'. According to Raworth, the future challenge for political systems and governance is to find the right balance between the social floor and the ecological ceiling – in other words, the right amount of industry rather than perpetual growth. We don't want to go back to a world where it takes 300,000 people to replace one excavator in the construction industry – but we need to understand that bigger and bigger excavators won't solve all the problems. 

Degrowth instead of growth?
Given all this, many are now starting to talk about "degrowth" – the idea of thoughtfully stopping the rate of growth to create a society where machines work smarter, not harder, and therefore require less energy as an input. More expensive fossil fuels are in some ways the beginning of such a transition, but the question is whether the solution will be:

• to increase the supply of energy (for example, through solar panels and wind turbines), 

• to reduce its use, 

• or perhaps a combination of the two. 

The other major uncertainty is how sharply we will feel the effects of climate change in the future – more disasters and more extreme weather are likely to drive the process, regardless of the costs. It's an open question whether we can meet the challenge of driving a better society at a lower energy price – and which of these two principles will dominate in the future.

Want to learn more about how to understand the role of growth in the future and what is happening in sustainability and technology today and in the future? You can get the key insights by joining the Kairos Future Club! Contact Helena Mella at Kairos Future to inquire about our reports and discussions on topics shaping the future.

By Rikard Molander