The capitalist system needs an accelerated rhythm of growth to function, but that pace is unsustainable for a healthy planet. Fully aware of this dichotomy, the same system creates the terms: sustainable growth and ecological sustainability. The basic idea contained in both concepts is that capitalism’s requirement for infinite growth can be achieved through the concept of sustainability, i.e., the exploitation still goes on, but in a way that doesn’t completely exhaust the resources without first allowing nature to replenish those reserves.
Herman E. Daly, when he was Senior Economist of the Environment at the World Bank, spelled this out quite clearly: “sustainable growth is impossible,” he asserted. But to palliate the effects of this anti-capitalist statement, the senior ecological economist of the system offered a semantical alternative that differentiated between the concepts of growth and development: “when something grows it gets bigger. When something develops it gets different.” The ecosystem develops rather than grows. Daly therefore coined the term sustainable development as an alternative to sustainable growth, insisting at the same time that it must be understood as “development without growth.”
Daly’s idea was presented in 1993 and it caught on: or at least his terms captured the imaginations of the politicians who love to be given new altruistic terms to bandy about, but they have taken little no interest in what Daly meant by that change in terms. Now sustainable development is used as a synonym of sustainable growth rather than an alternative to it, as no one at administration levels in the developed world seem to be challenging the virtues of growth itself. It is impossible for capitalism to relinquish the idea of growth, for that would mean betraying the fundamentals of its own ideology, but calling it development doesn’t make the problems of growth go away.
However, what is clear when we contemplate Daly’s paper, more than 25 years after he submitted it, is that capitalism has had a profound need for legitimising growth, and it has been absolutely aware of the inherent absurdity buried within its own ideology for decades.
Growth is impossible and absurd, and that means capitalism is impossible and absurd. Growth is profoundly dangerous, and that means that capitalism is profoundly dangerous.
The capitalist argument pitches nature as an enemy of freedom, and this is obviously another false premise of its ideology. Freedom for the capitalist of course, means freedom to accumulate wealth. For the poverty-stricken, working but anti-socialist classes who support the freedom ideal of capitalism, the growth-freedom idea offers them the illusion of being able to get to the top of the pile themselves. In fact, an economics of un-growth has far more chance of closing the vast gap between rich and poor and hence create a feeling of empowering the poorer classes. An empowering that would itself engender a greater sensation of freedom.
The principle of the goodness and necessity of economic growth is not a valid one. All necessity rests on the eradication of all ideologies of growth. We cannot afford to keep toying with the capricious whims of those who have engendered and who perpetuate the capitalist lie. It must be judged in a fair trial, and a verdict must be reached.
Of course, the case is so strong against the unsustainability of growth that its advocates will feel that a fair trial is impossible, but that is no reason not to pounce on the assassin who is holding the smoking gun. Did I say pounce on them? Well, in this case the murderer owns the police force and the press, so: who will make the arrest? That is our real dilemma.