Quick Hit: The Need to Grow, Grow, Grow… Then What?

One of the very common and very annoying arguments against gay marriage/parenting or voluntary non-parenthood is that, without children, our society will be doomed. (Western) culture will crumble and our society will fall into disaster, just as the Romans once did. While I agree with the idea that children are a necessary part of the propagation of the human species (hard to get past biological fact and all), I question the idea that without constant growth, we will all perish.

There are almost seven billion people in the world today. An immense population explosion has occurred within the past one hundred years and there are more people on this planet then there ever have been before. And yet certain people are decrying the sudden decline in birth rates (for Caucasians that is). What would happen if populations were to decline worldwide? Would it really signify the end of all humanity? Must we always be growing?

As generational gaps increase and there are fewer younger people around capable of supporting the older generations, problems are arising over the ability of countries to maintain their current standards of living, their social programmes and their economies. However, is one of the most cherished human traits not our ability to innovate and think? Why should a shrinking population doom us all to devastation and the end of the human race as we know it? Furthermore, are we really talking about a future of doom and gloom? Or are we looking at the need to re-think Western levels of consumption and standards of living? Is my ability to vacation abroad, my perceived need for quick, cheap products mass produced with the labour of the Global South, and the Western dream of comfortable, “middle-class” living what perpetuates this need for growth, growth and more growth? Is forced population growth really just forced economic growth?

The idea of a constantly growing population to fuel a constantly growing economy seems like a suicidal mission on the part of humanity. The Earth is a planet of finite resources which will run out if subjected to too much pressure. Eventually, we will not be able to feed all of the people on this planet, let alone supply them all with a smartphone. Some believe that when this happens, we will all take to spaceships and spread out across the universe. As much as I love sci-fi, I think that getting to the point of needing to leave Earth will be precipitated by scarcity, starvation, and death. Can we not avoid this fate?

I have read a bit on the idea of slow growth or even no growth economies. The idea that we do not need to constantly strive for “new and better” items that we do not necessarily need in order to sustain a false road of development is at the foundation of these theories. These ideas support the reduction of Global North consumption, they encourage a simpler state of living and one in which we can reach for equality for the entire world. Yes, for the most privileged, it means a reduction in one’s life style. It means de-powering corporations and radically changing business models. It necessitates that we completely refigure national and global economies, class structures and the capitalist system itself.

None of these changes will be an easy sell, at least to the Global North. Particularly with the fear of the dreaded demographic winter threat which is bandied about so often lately and the worry that most European nationalities will die out within the next few hundred years. Humans are a resilient species and I highly doubt that we will forget or refuse to have babies to the point of extinction. However, we may very well grow our way into destruction with our attitude of constant, never-ending economic development and consumption.

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2 thoughts on “Quick Hit: The Need to Grow, Grow, Grow… Then What?

  1. The root of the problem, for those of us who are not hard core consumerists, is that the foundation of the welfare state -which I personally think is the most civilised form of government- is predicated on having more people working than people in need of support (be they poor, old or in need of health services). So the problem of a lack of demographic growth is to some extent legitimate. Where I could not possibly agree with you more is in regards to the IDENTITY of the people who are expected to be around to support those in need. As you point out, there are more than enough people on the planet to take care of each other, and it is only the fact that white people are not reproducing that is seen as a problem, and this is primarily due, ideologically, to deeply embedded racism, and structurally to the harsh constraints of labour mobility. Imagine how many problems could be solved at once, without even a radical rethinking of the econmic system (not that I necessarly advocate that, but pragmatically I think total revolution is unlikely), if people were able to move from regions with “too many” young people (read able to work) to those where there is a lack of labour to support the welfare state!

  2. It’s not only a European problem; Japan and Korea have the lowest birthrates, I believe. And Japan has the worst ratio of fertility and high life expectancy. 21% of citizens are over 65.

    “The idea of a constantly growing population to fuel a constantly growing economy seems like a suicidal mission on the part of humanity. The Earth is a planet of finite resources which will run out if subjected to too much pressure. Eventually, we will not be able to feed all of the people on this planet, let alone supply them all with a smartphone. Some believe that when this happens, we will all take to spaceships and spread out across the universe.”

    Not really. So far as I can tell, every country in the so-called Global North has below-replacement birth levels. And yet the world population rises on. Forcing our elderly people to die or suffer from lack of support won’t change that.

    While I like your post I haven’t seen anything that really addresses the issue or offers a solution. Your answer seems to be to downgrade our style of living, less luxuries. But that doesn’t change the fact that pensions, medical care, etc. for the elderly are expensive, and have to be paid for somehow.

    Your idea that the world will completely run out of resources is false as well. If that were possible, and resources were indeed finite, then we would run out and need to leave eventually anyway, regardless of population. It is possible to have a population that outstrips our current production of food, certainly.

    You would need to talk to the Global South about that, however. The USA, for instance, has an increasing population. Increasing because of immigration. There is also immigration to Canada and Europe that somewhat offsets and hides the population decline in those places. That is one reason why Japan’s birth rate problem is so pronounced: the country gets little immigration.

    “if people were able to move from regions with “too many” young people (read able to work) to those where there is a lack of labour to support the welfare state!”

    And how does this change anything? That is what happens now. The population still rises, even with people leaving their countries in the Global South.

    “However, we may very well grow our way into destruction with our attitude of constant, never-ending economic development and consumption. ”

    And even with our grow/birth rates falling and declining, development and consumption grows. The idea that less people will consume less is baseless and always have been; one need only look to the disparity between the consumption rates of countries like the USA and say, India. The USA uses more but has 1/5 the population…

    To which we come back to the “just consume less!” idea. Which is, quite frankly, pure blue sky fantasy. There has been nothing in historical, anthropological, psychology study so far to indicate that people will be willing do so, on a world-wide scale. In fact, there has been a lot of data that says otherwise. If you can show me any serious proof to the contrary, I’ll be surprised.

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