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Does Capitalism Require Economic Growth?

If we don’t run and constantly change, we are left behind, loose contact, are outdated. Our friends have moved on and life passed by us. The automatic staircase has pushed us into the closet.

Hartmut Rosa in this article

Recently, the news are full again of concerned articles about the state of the German economy. Apparently, we live in a world where the slightest signs of economic stagnation cause collective anxiety. Why is that? It is even more astounding as economic growth measured as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has a deep connection with the climate crisis. Looking at the chart below the correlation is hard to deny.

When we produce and sell e.g. more stuff than last year (yay, GDP going up!) then this additional stuff usually causes additional greenhouse gas emissions. This directly contradicts the urgent need to reduce emissions. What about decoupling? Some people like to point out that many Western countries are increasing their GDP although their emissions are dwindling. However when taking a global perspective this does not hold up to reality. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are not going down although we need a massive reduction as soon as possible.

If it is clear that economic growth is wreaking havoc on our planet and decoupling is not happening, why on earth are we collectively still aiming for this? Can we not finally stop this rat race? Or is economic growth an imperative in a capitalist society?

I was surprised to find out that this question is scientifically not clearly answered. It is a matter of contemporary debate if a steady-state (so no economic growth) capitalist economy is possible. If it is not possible it means that we must either shrink or expand. Do or die. There is no middle ground.

Future GDP scenarios

But what ultimately matters more is how we are collectively behaving. And here the answer is clear: We are acting as if economic growth is an imperative. Our Ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel said:

Without growth no investments, without growth no jobs, without growth no money for education, without growth no help for the weak. And conversely: With growth investments, jobs, money for education and help for the weak and - most importantly - trust from the people. This is my belief which is grounded in my concept of politics.

Angela Merkel in her 2009 state of the nation address

Interesting is that the word growth is used although economic growth is meant. In our modern world, economic growth is synonymous with growth. This expansion of the growth imperative from the economic realm to our reality is what we experience. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has extensively studied and characterized our contemporary society. For him, the imperative to grow, accelerate and innovate is what defines a modern society. Stability and reproduction is only achieved through a constant increase in throughput. We live in a world of dynamic stabilization. To illustrate this, we can bring up the picture of each of us being on an automatic staircase running down while we want to reach the top. Our position in the world is constantly on the edge. We have to perform in order to keep our place. This story is replicated on a national level: If Germany is not economically attractive, jobs will move to another country. We will loose the game and our prosperity diminishes. What a grim world to live in.

For me, the good life should not depend on outcompeting my neighbor. Neither on an individual nor on a collective scale. And why should the GDP in any way be a good metric for human well-being? My utopia is living in a subsistence village, emphasizing collective care and not being under pressure to grow, innovate or accelerate - like the village of Asterix. Anyone ever heard of Obelix talking about the need to sell more menhirs (Hinkelsteine) in order to have the village survive? It seems absurd to me that we have maneuvered ourself in a system which knows only one working mode of operation: growth.