Reaching Peak Stuff: Is Growth Overrated?
In a previous post, I questioned the real meaning behind careers in CSR and sustainability by asking if they were indeed jobs where people actively promote or “do good”, or whether they were not just jobs where people could pride themselves for “doing less bad.” Lately, especially after reading an interesting article on Fast Magazine’s co.exist blog about whether we might have reached “peak stuff” (analogy to the fear of reaching “peak oil” or point of declining supplies), I’ve been starting to question more some of the fundamental assumptions that today’s world economy is based on. One in particular stood out, and it applies particularly to developed countries.
I am talking about the assumption that our economy’s health depends on companies producing goods and that they keep doing that until the end of time. It’s called “growth” for economics laymen. Question is, what happens if all companies keep growing?
To this topic we’ve had some interesting literature come out last year, led by Tim Jackson and Richard Heinberg, who argued in a nutshell that the answer to the above question was catastrophe. Against conventional economic wisdom, both Jackson and Heinberg try to make the case that we have come to an inflection point where producing and consuming more is becoming a serious problem because we simply are running out of natural resources the world over. In other words, the rate of resource depletion is exceeding that of replenishment.
If that claim is true, then I would argue that almost all companies that manufacture tangible goods, no matter how sustainable their efforts and intentions lead them to be, are still net contributors to the problem of environmental decline. This intuitively would seem even more true if we consider that every single company wants to grow, i.e., produce and sell more stuff in one year than they did the previous year. This begs a question: if environmental protection were their priority, should companies consider NOT growing?
Here some more questions for you to ponder this week: especially if you live in a developed country, what do you think about the idea that some or most companies should decide not to grow? Assuming even if the majority of a company’s investors and owners decided they wanted to be impact-neutral on the environment and care less about their financial return, do you think it is viable for those companies to produce only at the level that matches today’s demand or even cut production? What consequences would this have on the so-called world economy?
For sake of argument take “essential goods” like food, clothing, shelter and healthcare products out of the picture for a moment. Now, taking this a bit further for you as a consumer: what would you say if as a result of the above you would face less choices, less updated, less improved goods? Could you live with that? Assume that companies only took into account the world’s population growth and somehow had a way to produce exactly how much was essentially needed, would this be acceptable to you? Assume technology and all sustainability tricks in the world were not enough to do more than slowing down the rate of depletion of essential resources like water, what other choices do you think we realistically should consider?
By implication for this blog’s theme around career reflections: how does that affect your excitement about the idea of “modifying” capitalism as we know it to be more “creative” or “socially responsible?” How much would you have to really “modify” capitalism (the idea that investors want a return for their money and that return is based on growth usually) for it not to contribute to the world’s ruin? Can we have our cake and eat it, i.e., keep cranking out stuff, enjoy the fun, entertainment, and comforts this stuff confers upon our lives, and still do it in a way that is perpetually sustainable in terms of resources? Can we really change our accustomed way of life, especially in the developed world, and reduce consumption quantity while maintaining quality?
If I’d knew the answers of course I’d run for President. But I remain deeply curious and I would be in need for some wise perspective on this provocative idea. So, what do you think?
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