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Growing Pains: The Ecological Cost of an Insatiable Economy

A look at the global and political obsession with economic growth and the ecological and humanitarian consequences.

As the global temperature averages a 0.8-degree Celsius increase over the last century, one must question the seemingly insatiable appetites of politicians and world economies for endless and unprecedented growth. 

US efforts in the second world war demonstrated the might of the dollar. Although the basic concept of gross domestic product (GDP) was created in the 1600s, it was only in 1930s and 1940s America that this new way of understanding the economy and income, was introduced to the mainstream. 

We live on a finite planet. There isn't the space for a dream of this reinvigorated growth fetish.

by Professor Tim Jackson, economist, University of Surrey

As war-time efforts presented the United States in a successful light, the seed of obsession with economic growth was planted. The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, however, would soon prove to the masses that this growth was not without fault or delay; this faltering of growth would begin with the 1970s oil crisis, triggering a stock market crash and levels of unemployment that the world hadn’t experienced in decades.

The limits of growth, economic, social and, arguably most importantly, ecological, would finally be questioned.    

According to the NASA earth observatory, a one-to-two degree Celsius drop in temperature was once all it took for the world to be plunged into an Ice Age. The observatory also notes that a mere five degree drop could have buried North America under tonnes of ice.

These extreme scenarios are struck to demonstrate the urgency with which climate change should now be addressed. If economic growth is expected to continue, indefinitely, can the same be expected of the earth? If infinite growth is impossible in nature, why do we expect economic growth to continue forever? 

Confusion, and even anger, stems from the coexistence of terms like global warming, peak oil (the end of crude oil harvesting and other natural resources) and environmental degradation, which have become more commonplace of late, and which stand in stark contrast to the notable rise in standard of living that economically developed nations have been experiencing for decades. 

With a marked improvement in the GDP, higher life expectancy and decreases in mortality rates, plus an argument for biodiversity booming in times of economic growth, is there an argument for things getting better as they get bigger? After all, growth is the foundation of our economic system; without it, capitalism does not work.