For us, living in the 21st century, growth is normal. Our families grow, our homes are bigger, our city grows, our province grows in terms of wealth and population, our country’s GDP grows. Our institutions grow: our schools at all levels, our churches, our megaplex. As far as we are concerned, this is normal. We like it this way.
But at another level we also know that such growth cannot go on indefinitely. We know there are limits to growth. No growth can go on forever. At this level of awareness we know that growth will or must terminate at some time. We just don’t want this cessation of growth to affect what we’re doing or want to do – we don’t want to limit our consumption or to affect the size of our family.
So what are we to do? What is humankind to do?
COVID-19 has helped us glimpse at what things might look like if we stop growing. But it is just a glimpse. It is not the whole picture.
Some economists have been thinking about what a world without growth would look like. They call this a Steady State economy.
So what are some changes we can expect? Nobody knows for sure. Let’s just think about a few components.
Some food costs will need to go up for no other reason that the farmers producing these foods will have higher labour costs. I’m thinking here primarily of farmers accustomed to using migrant labour. Their labour costs are going up because of quarantine requirement and the need for less crowded living accommodation. But there have also been news stories of labour simply not being available to do the necessary work. Fields have not been planted and crops have not been harvested. Inevitably this must lead to higher food prices.
Air travel (and air holidays) will be more expensive. I recently spoke with someone who had flown to Toronto. There had been 25 passengers on a plane designed to carry 150. the Toronto airport had been empty. Obviously the airline was not making money. The airline companies have only begun to make the adjustments necessary in light of the reduced demand for air travel. (We, on the other hand, have learned that we can be quite happy and function well without as much travel.)
Who will pay for this – the higher food costs and higher air travel costs? To some extent all of us. There will be a desire, an attempt, to respond to these higher prices by pressing for increased income – those of us on fixed income will want our pensions increased, and unionized workers will want to negotiate for higher wages – but that needs to be resisted. If we, as the people inhabiting this planet, are to reduce our consumption, higher prices for consumables needs to convert into less consumption. That’s the way it happens within a capitalist system.
But the wealthy that will need to do the most to reduce consumption. I’m thinking here of the wealthy who holiday in Mexico, the wealthy who commute daily between Winnipeg and Steinbach, the wealthy who live in a house bigger than they need, the wealthy who use a car to get 2 litres of milk from the convenience store half a kilometre away, the wealthy who eat out several times a week, etc. etc.
For the adjustments to work, the very wealthy, the 1% will need to do their share. We need to find another way of distributing the wealth of a company. The question is how to do that in a capitalist society. Some NGOs have a guide that the person with the highest income in the organization will earn no more than four times that of the lowest paid person in that same organization. The Mondragon Cooperative in Spain strives for a ratio of 10 to 1. But the current ratio in many of our big companies, where the CEO gets more than 100 times that of the production line worker, is not sustainable.
Within a free capitalist society how do we achieve this? The answer is not obvious. But we need to find an answer. A meaningful life for our descendants depends on this. Previous civilizations, cities and nations have risen and then collapsed because they did not find an answer.