Endless Growth

We hear it every day. “We must have growth for a prosperous economy.” Negative growth describes a recession, or worse, a depression. This rule applies to all of earths major economies regardless of the form of government in charge. For a nation to prosper it must turn out ever larger amount of goods and services, year on year.

This need for never ending growth gets brought up in the PushBack first chapter. Jim Reed, the lead protagonist in the book, is describing the current financial condition of the United States to his longtime girlfriend Linda Alonzo:

“The country is financed by foreigners; the trade deficit is through the roof, there entitlements coming due that we can’t afford. But not to worry−the president said in his last news conference that the economy is strong and is poised for a period of steady growth.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Linda replied. “That’s what presidents’ say, no matter what.”

Jim agreed. “But you know, as long as the economy keeps growing, it will eventually cure a lot of these problems.”

Linda wasn’t convinced. “There’s something about this constant growth thing that I don’t understand. How long can something like the economy keep growing like forever? How long can an obese person keep gaining weight?”

This excerpt brings up the question of how long the human race can continue to grow in numbers and the consumption of non- renewable resources needed to sustain economic growth before the limits of a finite earth are reached. It would seem that eventually an economic model needs to be developed that will not depend on growth to maintain an acceptable quality of life for all of the earth’s inhabitants.

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Innovation in the 21st century

One of the criticisms of the PushBack story has been that technology in 2033 is depicted as not being that much different from what it is in 2011.  The dominate perception seems to be that in twenty five years everything will be different. Looking back twenty five years to the 80’s, how much has technology or new innovations changed the world since that time? The answer: Other than the internet, not much.  Other than the internet, everything we have now we had in the 70’s. We had cars, electricity, flushing toilets, television, radio, airplanes, intercontinental ballistic missiles, etc. and so on. Things have been refined, Cars run better and longer, we have flat screen TV. Computers have evolved but they are still computers.

I have just read an e-book, The Great Stagnation  by Tom Cowen who claims we are on an innovation plateau and as a result growth in industrialized nations, which have fully utilized previous innovations, have experienced low growth rates for decades. According to the book, innovation reached its peak at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. That is when cars, airplanes, electricity, toilets, radio, and telephone were among innovations that profoundly affected every person in the industrialized world.

My father, born in a Dakota Territory sod hut in 1898 probably saw greater change during his life than any generation before or since. During WWII my father once expressed the opinion that he would never see the day when bombers would be able to reach the United States. He died in 1987, when intercontinental ballistic missiles which could  reach the United States from half way around the world, and were equipped with nuclear warheads that could destroy entire cities. I haven’t seen changes during my life that compare with those my father saw, nor can my children claim to be in a world changing faster than what I have experienced. So barring some sudden innovation surge, or an episode such as described in PushBack, life in the 2030’s will not be that much different from life in 2010.