End of growth

It is not because of gluttony that we constantly want to consume more. Our consumption is initially used to satisfy our primary needs, but after a certain level we use it primarily to indicate the position we occupy in society. We enthusiastically succumb to the game of leapfrog where we want to at least follow the parade and if possible get a little ahead of it, using the lifestyle of the rich as a last resort. And to get there, we often drown in work. It’s a never ending story that could turn us into quasi-robots, trapped in the feeling that we’ll never get enough.

It wasn’t always like that. Access to greater wealth is a recent phenomenon in history. It was not until around 1750 that growth appeared, first in Europe and North America, and 60 years ago in Asia. Previously, the standard of living of people stagnated from century to century at the subsistence level.

The increase in growth over the past 270 years has two sources: technological and political. The engine of technology is the two great industrial revolutions that followed one after the other from 1750 to 1950. The first produced the steam engine and the railroad. The second created electricity, the internal combustion engine, the landline telephone, running water, indoor toilets, vaccines, and penicillin. The political engine is the institutions that protected the freedom of innovators from state despotism and democratized public education.

Will economic growth continue on its own in rich countries? Not sure. In Canada, for example, per capita income grew rapidly from 1929 to 1979, but has slowed significantly over the past 40 years. Same slide in Quebec. The third industrial revolution, the revolution of computers and the Internet, is underway, but we see that it has not yet revived economic growth. As for the future, nothing is known yet. For my part, I am convinced that the innovations of the good old days, such as lighting, plumbing, the landline telephone, and household appliances, have brought much more to the well-being of mankind than modern inventions, such as the mentioned smart phone, social networks and facial recognition.

Today, greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by our production and consumption systems pose a serious threat to the physical integrity of the Earth and even the survival of the entire population. How can we avoid disaster? The answer is clear: by implementing carbon neutrality as soon as possible. By taking action that will force us to emit greenhouse gases at a rate below the critical level that the Earth can naturally absorb on its own. Is it possible ? Yes, but there is an urgent need to intervene in three ways: make fossil fuels more expensive or ban; imposing strict rules on other dirty or destructive processes; and by accelerating research to develop new clean technologies.

The demonstration that carbon neutrality can be achieved quickly and affordably through such a program has been made. But for implementation, the necessary measures must be based on the strong and internationally coordinated political support of local authorities. This is not a given, because the collective action required may conflict with individual freedom or local nationalism, and the benefits of carbon neutrality often seem distant and obscure, while the costs of achieving it are immediate. The hurdle to be overcome has much more to do with the response of the political system than the economic system.

If we succeed in this task, nothing will stand in the way of further economic growth, especially in those parts of the world that it has yet to reach. For huge differences in material well-being persist between countries and within countries. Today, more than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day. Humanity may continue to want more. But reflection should be focused above all on the best means of curbing the ambitions of the richest, who already have many things, to give preference to the less well off here and elsewhere, who do not yet have enough and reasons to want more.

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