Is capitalism 'obsessed' with growth?

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Are fish ‘obsessed’ with water?

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Last week, this column featured Simon Butler’s talk, We’re overpopulated with oil tycoons and coal barons.

Dave Gardner, producer of the film Growthbusters, promptly objected that Simon and I had misrepresented the views of populationists. His focus on birth rates doesn’t mean that he isn’t concerned about “capitalist growth obsession.”

Michael Dawson, author of The Consumer Trap, replied: “Growth is not an ‘obsession’ for capitalists. It is a systemic requirement, 100 percent. To elide that point is to convey the impression that we just have to reason with the capitalists and get them to slow themselves down. ROFL.”

By coincidence, this weekend I was reading Fawzi Ibrahim’s new book, Capitalism versus Planet Earth (Muswell Press, 2012).  I like the way he says it:

“The importance given to growth — what is referred to as the ‘obsession with GNP,’ and what Clive Hamilton calls a fetish — is seen as a stand-alone phenomenon, a matter of individual choice by economists or a collective decision by government and society that can be turned on and off.

“It must be the first time in economic history that a necessity has been described as a fetish. You might as well describe fish having a fetish for water as capitalism having a fetish for growth. Growth is as essential to capitalism as is water to fish. As fish would die without water, so would capitalism drown without growth. …

“What is being suggested is that this ‘obsession with growth’ is a psychological obsession, a sort of collective whim that simultaneously grips all governments and all economists worldwide, or some kind of elaborate global conspiracy.

“Or could the truth be that GNP is not and was never intended to be a measure of the wellbeing of the economy or society, but is rather a measure of the wellbeing of the corporate sector and, as such, any ‘obsession with growth’ is effectively an obsession, with the wellbeing of corporations?”

Humanity’s enemy is an economic, political and social system, not a bad ideas or unfortunate mistakes. If we don’t understand that, we can’t win.


More from my notebook …