The Growth Illusion

Richard Douthwaite

I got involved in Greenpeace in the mid-late ’80s—as much as you could in my town. Door-to-door collections, leafleting and such like. Pollution, especially CFCs, was getting enough coverage to get through even to me, in a Daily Express-reading household with little interest in current affairs. Also, climate change was starting to become more talked about. I began piecing together the rising sea levels with the sub-sea level fens around me that I’d always taken for granted.

Then, I recall one day I was shopping in the supermarket, and I eyed up some of the new “green” products—washing liquid, etc.—being promoted on the shelves. And instead of seeing change, I saw more of the same. It wasn’t a completely intuitive moment, though any thoughts and facts that went into it were probably pretty rudimentary compared to my present knowledge of these issues. But something gave the realization more force than just rational thought; indeed, you could argue that the scale and complexity of the issue at hand means that rationality will always fall short in making a judgement call. Intuition, opinion, a hunch… something has to put its foot down. For me, it just struck me, quietly. I thought, “This is no good. People are just going to have to use less stuff, not different stuff.”

Most people are desperate to avoid such a conclusion. Growth is our dogma as God was for former ages. And just as those questioning God’s authority were usually seen as evil-hearted, or at best dangerously misguided, those who question economic growth are put down as anything from terrorists to naive masochists. We must carry on as normal, or invent things that will give us as good as normal, with the outside chance that we’ll avoid catastrophe, too. Anything, any risk to the long-term future, anything but scale things down.

Douthwaite’s book is now around 17 years old, and it’s a testament to our “hang onto growth to the bitter end” attitude that it’s now just as relevant as ever. He takes a period of British history—1955 to 1988—during which the country’s economy doubled. After surveying all the various approaches to measuring a nation’s well-being, he then compares this economic indicator—apparently demonstrating a vast leap forward in British quality of life—to all the others, in health, education, work, personal satisfaction and family life. He clearly had no real axe to grind at the start of the study, but by the end the conclusion is clear. By almost every other measure, life in Britain in 1988 is worse. Even when it’s not obviously worse, an astute pursuit of the chains of cause-and-effect reveals more subtle damage spread across larger scale in time or society.

The crucial revelation here is that growth is not, on balance, any kind of boon at all—except to the rich. Douthwaite demonstrates this quite clearly.

I’m not given to snap judgements, and often spend far too long analyzing an issue than is actually useful for drawing a valid conclusion. But more and more I look back on that teenage sense of pessimism in the face of nascent green consumerism, and see a good sense for things, cutting through the mire of debate and analysis that can surround this complex issue.

We need “green stuff”, but we also need less stuff. Our success as a species now seems to depend on whether we can unhook our sense of achievement from the accumulation of material luxuries. Or, more precisely, we need to start paying attention to the suffering our exponential hunger causes us, and how this suffering is of a piece with the more gravely physical suffering in “developing” countries. Douthwaite’s book is a solid introduction to seeing through the dogmas that smother these realities.

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