“There are deep traditions, east and west, of frugality, living within your means and a contemplative life”. Vaclav Smil on growth


More musings on “growth” - and our interest in the distinction between its negative connotations (as the principle end of our industrial and financial systems, heedless of its polluting externalities) and its positive ones (our sense that to grow, or gain the right things - wisdom, relationships, community - must be worthwhile).

Vaclav Smil’s new book Growth is a multidisciplinary opus on the subject - but this interview in The Guardian is salty and direct (perhaps rooted in Smil’s experience under Czech communism, which he says trained him well in “detecting bullshit”). An extract follows:

You debunk overly rosy projections by techno-optimists, who say we can solve all our problems with smarter computers, and economists, who promise endless capitalist growth. In many countries, the downside of material growth now seems greater than the upside, which leads to what you call “anthropogenic insults to ecosystems”. Is that a fair summary?

Yes, I think so. Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know. The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense. The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone. The best hope is that you find some way to manage it. We are in a better position to do that now than we were 50 or 100 years ago, because our knowledge is much vaster. If we sit down, we can come up with something. It won’t be painless, but we can come up with ways to minimise that pain.

So we need to change our expectations of GDP growth?

Yes, the simple fact is that however you define happiness, we know – and we have known this for ages – that the amount of GDP is not going to improve your satisfaction with life, equanimity and sense of wellbeing. Look at Japan. They are pretty rich but they are among the unhappiest people on the planet. Then who is always in the top 10 of the happiest people? It is the Philippines, which is much poorer and smitten by typhoons, yet many times more happy than their neighbours in Japan. Once you reach a certain point, the benefits of GDP growth start to level off in terms of mortality, nutrition and education.

Is that point the golden mean? Is that what we should be aiming for rather than pushing until growth becomes malign, cancerous, obese and environmentally destructive?

Exactly. That would be nice. We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives. People don’t realise how much slack in the system we have.

The growth of information is not just a flood or an explosion. Those adjectives are inadequate. We are buried under information. It’s not doing anyone any good

You cite Kenneth Boulding’s distinction between the “cowboy economy” and the “spaceman economy”. The former is wide-open spaces and seemingly endless opportunities for resource consumption. The latter is a recognition that planet Earth is more like a closed spaceship on which we need to carefully manage our resources. The challenge is to shift from one way of thinking to another. But human history is thousands of years of cowboys and only a few decades of spacemen. Aren’t we hardwired?

There is a deep tradition both in the eastern and western traditions of frugality, living within your means and a contemplative life. It has always been like this. Now there is this louder voice calling for more consumption and a bigger bathroom and an SUV, but it’s increasingly apparent that cannot go on. It will be something like smoking, which was everywhere 50 years ago. But now that people realise the clear link to lung cancer, this is restricted. The same will happen when people realise where material growth is taking us. It is a matter of time I think.

How do we move in that direction before the risks become unmanageable?

To answer this, it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience. There is this pernicious idea by this [Thomas] Friedman guy that the world is flat and everything is now the same, so what works in one place can work for everyone. But that’s totally wrong. For example, Denmark has nothing in common with Nigeria. What you do in each place will be different. What we need in Nigeria is more food, more growth. In Philippines we need a little more of it. And in Canada and Sweden, we need less of it. We have to look at it from different points of view. In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.

More here. And some of our previous pieces on growth.