Limits to growth

As countries prepare for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD 2012), virtually every one of them is committed to “growth”. With many of them facing unfolding sovereign debt crises, a growing economy is seen as the necessary prerequisite to create jobs and raise income in order to reduce and eliminate budget deficits, not to mention service debts at some point down the road. Low-income countries are also seeking growth to pull their populations out of poverty and invest in desperately-needed infrastructure.

 But is it not time to ask whether the medicine is killing the patient? Humanity currently faces a bleak future, from ecological overshoot and climate change to growing social injustices such as widening income disparities. An increasing number of voices are arguing that these are the symptoms of decades of growth-above-all-else policies coupled with a lack of wealth and resource
redistribution, and that things will only get worse if growth remains the overarching goal of national and international agendas.

 So, what does the path forward to a happy, sustainable world look like in a post-growth world? The starting point is collaboration and reciprocity, since collective problems require collective solutions. UNCSD 2012 is the historical opportunity to finally reach a turning point and draw up the “great transition” blueprints that are founded on attractive sustainable futures jointly conceived. The global initiative “The Future We Want” aims to catalyze visions of a positive future in the lead-up to Rio+20, and it can be harnessed to its full potential by UN-member States in drawing out the outcomes of the Conference.

 Many groups around the world are already trying to work out the solutions, from rethinking the whole economic system to focusing on concrete measures and actions. Networks such as the Great Transition Initiative, the New Economy Network and the New Economics Institute are trying to take a holistic lens to the economy, as do authors such as Juliet Schor in Plenitude and Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth, who talk, for example, about the merits of working less. Exciting patterns and concepts to meet the world’s great challenges are emerging, such as industrial ecology, biomimicry, and new business models such as social enterprises and businesses that subordinate profits to social and environmental goals. We are seeing game-changing initiatives that involve sharing, kindness and trust, from collaborative consumption that includes tool-lending libraries to the Pay It Forward movement, where a stranger in need can enjoy for free a prepaid meal in a restaurant.

 The will is there and people are ready! Governments must now show leadership and act in the collective interest by supporting, scaling up and drawing on the innumerable projects and ideas that are springing up everywhere as answers to the failings of old, stale and ineffective growth strategies. There is no better time to do this than at the 2012 Rio Earth Summit.

 Emmanuel Prinet

 Policy Director at One Earth Initiative Society, Canada