Anti-consumerists are sometimes criticised for not practicing what they preach. Buying stuff is sinful – as long as it’s the stuff that other people buy. Frequenting fancy art galleries and organic food stores is not really consumption. That’s different, because… well, because it’s obviously different.
However, in terms of their discussion culture, opponents of economic growth do practice what they preach. The responses to my blog piece on the Steady State Economy (SSE) conference are a case in point. In a conventional discussion, you pick up your opponent’s arguments, and try to refute them. Ideally, this generates (intellectual) surplus value, resulting in growth (of knowledge and understanding). In a steady state discussion, you merely ‘respond’ by reiterating what you have been saying all along. A steady state discussion is thus like a Steady State Economy: it never progresses; it just goes around in circles forever.
Take the response by Sharon Ede from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy:
“A few tips for Mr Niemietz:
1. Limits to nature and to growth are a fact. There is only so much planet. Ask an astronaut.”
I’m afraid astronauts have preciously little to contribute on growth issues – you have to look at what people are doing down on planet earth’s surface. Real global GDP today is six times larger than on the day Yuri Gagarin first took off into outer space. This is not because we have discovered five additional planets since then, but because we’re constantly learning to make better use of the one we have. Since Gagarin’s take-off, energy consumption per real dollar of GDP has fallen by well over half in the US alone.
Edewould say that we have merely been granted a temporary period of grace, which has now definitely reached its end. But this is, of course, what doomsayers obsessed with alleged ‘natural limits’ have been claiming for at least 200 years: we have been lucky so far, but this time is different. For true believers like Ede, the failure of previous apocalyptic predictions is not a reason to question their underlying logic:
“Seeking to debunk Malthus and Ehrlich because their predictions have not (yet) manifested […] is arguably a bit of premature congratulation.”
Here, we are presented with an ingenious formula for shielding cherished beliefs against refutability: if anything goes right with the world, don’t cheer – it’s short-lived. If anything goes wrong with the world, integrate it into your mantra of overconsumption and resource depletion, even if it has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Take this statement:
“If Niemietz thinks that Ehrlich missed the mark about ‘prophesying decades of mass starvation in the Third World’, I suggest he familiarises himself with the Millennium Development Goals […]. Just because you are not starving, Mr Niemietz, does not mean many others are not.”
There was actually hunger in the world before Ehrlich came along, a lot more than today. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of the world’s population living on less than the real-term equivalent of $2 a day fell from 30% to 11%.
That, needless to say, still corresponds to a huge number of people, and $2 a day is a minimalistic poverty line. But abandoning our prosperity in the name of the SSE community’s false ideology of self-abasement and self-chastisement will not help anybody in the Third World. It will only deprive emerging economies of their major export markets.
Unfortunately, the SSE community is much more appalled by flat screen TVs, mass tourism and big shopping bags than by world poverty.