Home > RWER > RWER issue 57: Ted Trainer

RWER issue 57: Ted Trainer

The radical implications of a zero growth economy

Ted Trainer  

For 50 years literature has been accumulating pointing out the contradiction between the pursuit of economic growth and ecological sustainability, although this has had negligible impact on economic theory or practice.   A few, notably Herman Daly (2008), have continued to attempt to get the notion of a steady-state economy onto the agenda but it has only been in the last few years that discussion has begun to gain momentum. Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth(200) has been widely recognised, there is now a substantial European ”De-growth” movement (Latouche, 2007), and CASSE (2010) has emerged.

            The argument in this paper is that the implications of a steady-state economy have not been understood at all well, especially by its advocates.  Most proceed as if we can and should eliminate the growth element of the present economy while leaving the rest more or less as it is.  It will be argued firstly that this is not possible, because this is not an economy which has growth; it is a growth-economy, a system in which most of the core structures and processes involve growth. If growth is eliminated then radically different ways of carrying out many fundamental processes will have to be found.  Secondly, the critics of growth typically proceed as if it is the only or the primary or the sufficient thing that has to be fixed, but it will be argued that the major global problems facing us cannot be solved unless several fundamental systems and structures within consumer-capitalist society are radically remade.  What is required is much greater social change than Western society has undergone in several hundred years.

            Before offering support for these claims it is important to sketch the general “limits to growth” situation confronting us.  The magnitude and seriousness of the global resource and environmental problem is not generally appreciated. Only when this is grasped is it possible to understand that the social changes required must be huge, radical and far reaching.  The initial claim being argued here (and detailed in Trainer 2010b) is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be reformed or fixed; it has to be largely scrapped and remade along quite different lines.

The “limits to growth” case: An outline

            The planet is now racing into many massive problems, any one of which could bring about the collapse of civilization before long.  The most serious are the destruction of the environment, the deprivation of the Third World, resource depletion, conflict and war, and the breakdown of social cohesion. The main cause of all these problems is over-production and over-consumption – people are trying to live at levels of affluence that are far too high to be sustained or for all to share.

             Our society is grossly unsustainable – the levels of consumption, resource use and ecological impact we have in rich countries like Australiaare far beyond levels that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Yet almost everyone’s supreme goal is to increasematerial living standards and theGDP and production and consumption, investment, trade, etc., as fast as possible and without any limit in sight.  There is no element in our suicidal condition that is more important than this mindless obsession with accelerating the main factor causing the condition.

 The following points drive home the magnitude of the overshoot. 

You may download the whole paper at:  http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue57/Trainer57.pdf


  1. September 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Many of the same points I’ve made on occasion to folks at CASSE. The core structure of the system – capital, interest, investment, return on equity, etc. all must be scrapped or dramatically changed for steady state to occur. System integrity will collapse and a transition to a totally new, uncertain world will occur – a world not currently being discussed. Good on Trainer for pointing this out.

  2. September 6, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    Trainer asserts that “if there is to be no growth there can be no role for market forces.”

    This seems like a fundamental error, or perhaps just a lack of definition as to what “market forces” mean. There were markets, and therefore market forces, long before growth became the norm with the advent of capitalism.

    It seems to me that the market forces would just be very different, not non-existent. And I think this is crucial in envisioning the kind of economy we need to move towards.

  3. September 7, 2011 at 6:31 am

    possibly the ‘university of south wales’ is equally part of the problem. there are alot of ‘tenured radicals’ who point out the problems of ‘the system’ (eg capitalism—eg chomsky, zizel, badiou) but they still want the conferences, travel, dubious research, grants, monopolies on social critique etc.
    sure—you will never hear such critics outside of a book by juliet schor (herself a tenured radical with a husband who is also tenured—-its a family affair, hereditary meritocracy).
    i talked to herman daly once. he himself had been kicked out of the world bank. but he also said if you want to study steady state econ, its publish or perish, survival of the fittest, suck up to your mentor, or else get lost and get a job at walmart, where you will be the topic of a conference and books for progresssive academics. crocodile tears.

  4. September 7, 2011 at 6:41 am

    i’ll pack it on now. i see this is part of the ‘inclusive democracy’ thing from greece—part of the anti-imperial radical left on gaddafi’s payroll (as opposed to bush or soros).
    pure vanity. a bunch of junk editors (eg steve best of el paso texas—crocodile tears for the animals.)
    ‘real world economics’—kettle black. ‘new boss same as the old boss’. stalinism. paid in full–university of south wales—i wonder how many indigneous people are there. zero? but you can aty least speak for them and exclude them too.

    • Alice
      September 7, 2011 at 10:55 am

      Ishi – I agree. I must agree.

  5. John M Legge
    September 7, 2011 at 8:04 am

    There is no serious energy limit once solar is considered; there are transport fuel issues but electricity plus carbon dioxide plus water can create methane (Sabatier reaction) which can be catalysed into practically any hydrocarbon you fancy. It won’t be as cheap as raiding third world oil reserves, but it would serve to keep critical transport running.

    In Melbourne (and Germany) people LIKE trams and light rail, and this makes a huge reduction in motor car use possible and acceptable without coercive measures. It also means less demand for liquid fuels.

    Grain fed meat is certainly an issue but achieving an adequate protein supply is not.

    Growth can mean growth in physical volume but it can also mean an increase in economic quality: better products (including services) may not involve greater resource consumption.

    The article argues for a radical change in economic and social relationships; a more useful approach would be to set out a minimal set of changes to currently-existing-capitalism that would eliminate growth in non-renewable resource consumption and the incentives for overpopulation in the developing world.

  6. Dave Taylor
    September 9, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Ishi’s comments are pathetic: he can’t even distinguish South Wales (UK) from NSW, Oz.

    John Legge makes many useful points, but doesn’t perhaps understand either the gravity of the situation or that conceptual and ethical changes ARE the minimal necessary to bring about the necessary social changes. Copernicus just changed our interpretation of what we are seeing when the sun rises each day; once it was obvious he was right, Newton was left with a soluble problem and we rapidly changed our way of doing things ourselves.

    I agree with Eric Doherty. Marketing should not be a way to make money, however. That should be a salaried job like any other, without the percentage mark-ups that are the cause of exponential monetary growth.

    I would like to congratulate Ted Trainer, the author of this fine piece of exposition, for going most of the way with Chuck Willer and myself! I have gone further, arguing that money itself represents no more than a credit card limit, which can be incremented for personal maintenance on a legally authorised salary scale, used or saved as now, but insofar as it is used must be repaid by work, so that whatever is used gets replaced. Businesses can operate similarly, with credit written off when jobs are done.

    That takes money out of the labour market, so jobs would have to “sell” because they were worth doing. Banks and businesses would do much what they do now (authorising and earning credit), except that with incomes (including pensions) already provided for, they wouldn’t pay wages or make money, and any bonuses (prizes) would be for real contributions to society. Property in excess of personal need could now be required to be earned – or given back to the local community. With the half of the work force redundant that is now wasting its time on pay, tax, advertising, insurance and security, we could all split our weeks (or maybe seasons) between scheduled work and what we ourselves find is worth or needs doing: not least household, community and area maintenance, R & D, on-going training and running social facilities like shops, workshops, pubs and churches.

    Ted says “The above changes could not be made unless there was also a profound cultural change, involving nothing less than the abandonment of the desire to gain”. Agreed, but how to change the ethos? Let me suggest as a model someone giving a hitch-hiker a lift. The hitch-hiker isn’t expected to pay for the ride, but may express his gratitude by giving lifts himself, when he is able to. That’s how life works, from our cradle to our grave.

  7. John M Legge
    September 10, 2011 at 2:20 am

    The CPSU spent 73 years trying to change the way Soviet citizens thought, and all they succeeded in doing was creating a social, economic, and environmental crisis.

    It is probably possible to change human nature, but I don’t think that there is time to do it. A brief look at the current US political scene shows that there are powerful forces pushing in precisely the wrong direction. They won’t give up readily and they aren’t upset by inequality or other people’s privation. “Up yours, Jack. I’m all right” has become a successful political program.

    It would be quicker and rather easier to educate women and give them access to contraception and so stabilise the global population: no matter how well the world’s resources are distributed, continuing population growth is unsustainable. Paedophile priests have done the world a favour by depriving the Catholic Church of its authority and hence its ability to dictate population policy.

    Dave Taylor describes ethical cooperation; but as Putnam and others have shown, there are also societies where motorists are more likely to run down a hitchhiker than offer one a lift. Cooperation and tolerance may prevail at the community level, but at the global level things are not so pretty.

    As a practical matter proposals to change the way the world operates need to be able to attract majority support. Calling for human nature to change fails this test.

    • Dave Taylor
      September 10, 2011 at 10:01 am

      John, let us agree time is of the essence; so is the ability to communicate to everyone, i.e. people with different temperaments, concepts and experience, which despite TV and the internet can’t be done without face-to-face interaction at a local level: a reality recognised in the Catholic church’s parish structure and the one-time Communist cell structure. As a Catholic I have some sympathy with your comments on paedophile priests and dictation, but the latter is a double-edged sword: in emergencies like the present one it is essential, but it is also essential that what is dictated is right, i.e. adaptable to local circumstances (a point rarely understood by civil and clerical lawyers. The key to it is a physiological understanding of Jungian/Myers Briggs psychology. Even if we all have the same faculties, it doesn’t follow that they are all working properly or that we know how to use them).

      That, though, wasn’t the line I was taking in respect of Copernicus. I’m more on about shared concepts giving rise to “positive feedback” and the formation of a “party line”, as happens not only within the Vatican and political parties but among the fraternity of financiers divorced from real life, and in economic and business education where high finance is calling the tune. What we’ve all got to do is get eveyone singing a better tune. Not just (as we largely are now) complaining about the old one, but recognising a morally appealing logical alternative and SHARING it.

  8. September 15, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Here’s the comment I left for Michel Bauwens on Facebook; I haven’t finished reading the paper yet, only the summary he posted on the p2pfoundation blog.

    I’m finding the summary you posted incoherent. Yes, it’s true that we can’t keep using more and more resources from Earth. But how does that imply that economic growth can’t continue? There’s only so much arable land, it’s true, but economic growth doesn’t work by producing more and more calories per person; it works by making agriculture a progressively smaller part of the economy and refocusing human efforts on other parts of the economy, and indeed making use of *less* arable land per ton of harvest per year.

    More concretely, the US has 16 times the per capita GDP (PPP) of Nicaragua, Uzbekistan, or Pakistan; but that doesn’t mean that people in the US eat 16 times as much food on average. They *do* eat more food (thus the obesity epidemic) and they also eat more grain-fed meat, which is a shockingly inefficient use of arable land (even though it counts toward “economic growth”). But the extra 15 Nicaraguan incomes per Yankee mostly don’t go to harvesting more corn; they go to other things.

    The summary also understates the magnitude of the change it proposes when it says, “there can be no role for market forces… nothing less than the abandonment of the desire to gain.” This is not merely, as Trainer writes, “the dominant driving force in Western culture for several hundred years;” in one form or another, it is the dominant driving force in the entire history of life on Earth, including all of human history and prehistory.

    Trainer may not realize it, but he is not proposing merely a cultural change, but the extermination of all life.

    I do not expect that his proposal will meet with success. If nothing else, iron(III)-reducing bacteria in the deep subsoil will probably survive any proposed program for the abandonment of the desire to gain, and their desire to gain will eventually bring them to the surface to take advantage of the resources there, if no other life remains on the surface.

    • Dave Taylor
      October 1, 2011 at 11:21 pm

      This sounds like a townie who doesn’t understand that employing less people in agriculture means our Earth doesn’t get the care it needs. Doesn’t understand that monetary markets in the modern unself-limiting sense have only existed for Trainer’s “several hundred years”. Doesn’t understand that the increase in obesity is more likely due to the side effects of various medicines and the growth hormones used to make more profit from cows and chickens than from actually over-eating. (I myself have always had a huge appetite but my weight has been stable over decades). Above all, doesn’t understand that the obsession with “growth” is significant only to those seeing the economy through the lens of the theory that economics is about free trade in money, wherein “growth” means lending more people more money “created out of thin air” so they can pay back what they already owe for the bankers and usurers to pocket. That is how Britain has become so covered with stately homes since 1694.

  9. steve
    October 1, 2011 at 11:38 am

    I am not an academic or economist, but I am increasingly conscious of and worried by these seemingly unsolvable problems of mankind racing toward world destruction from over population, over consumption and pollution. Accelerating destruction of many species and habitats that have survived thousands of years will then inevitably lead to resource and economic wars against other people and nations when there is insufficient to go round.
    In the west, domestically we already have another cause of low/zero growth which is the lack of competitiveness with the East which is now causing sustained unemployment, falling living standards, no jobs for the new entrants to the workforce, and starting to destroy the social fabric of our society. Governments have nearly used up all their borrowing capacity to unsuccessfully stimulate growth, and it is increasingly obvious have run out of ideas.
    So we are facing a future of long term low growth for at least 2 reasons, and may be more.
    Faced with this challenge, I agree with the many that the current form of capitalism is going to be severely tested unless some radical new rules can be employed to continue to harness the needs of man without over using resources and irreparable damage to our planet.
    There are 2 possible ways I see – the way we are going is to the pure “market” solution which as certain things become scarce, will cause them to increase in cost and people to have to use less and conserve them – the problem is that although this may eventually work, it will be a ruthless and inhumane route. For example the poor and poor nations will be priced out of the market for food and ultimately population will fall and there will be reduced competition for the remaining resources. This is how Darwin and “survival of the fittest” and the jungle would work. However a major problem with this is that we could overshoot and certain limited natural resources could all be used up or too much pollution created before the market properly intervened to stop it.
    So my suggestion is that we need a managed form of capitalism whereby we distinguish between those parts of the economy that use natural resources and those that don’t. Growth can continue and indeed blossom in the virtual and many of the “service” parts of the world economy, whilst the “manufacturing” elements using up natural resources will need to be tightly controlled and quotaed.
    Personal consumption of eg the internet, communication and education can grow rapidly as always , giving free vent to the strengths of capitalism; whereas consumption of limited resources such as food, land, natural resources, carbon emissions must be globally rationed, and will present capitalism with new challenges to overcome. People achieving success in overcoming these challenges can be rewarded in the capitalist way with money to spend on the unregulated parts of the economy but within strict limits where using scarce resources. Perhaps not a perfect world but better than the Darwin’s survival of the fittest?

  10. Dave Taylor
    October 1, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Good for you, Steve: at least you are rejecting the Darwinian solution as sub-human and offering the discussable alternative of an intelligently managed Capitalism.

    I’m also neither an academic nor an economist, though I see science as finding out what is worth teaching and Capitalist economics (defined as the employment, in competitive money-making, of the many by the few) as the biggest obstacle to that, as ideas and presentations get patented, copyrighted or suppressed to protect investments rather than shared. I therefore want to eliminate the power of tone-deaf pipers to call the tune, and that means a revolution in our understanding of money so that is no longer the root of all evil but an accepted way of cooperatively sharing.

    As recompense for your earnings money looks valuable, but in fact you lived on credit until you were paid, and your employer is only paying you in credit notes for what he owes you for your work. Money, looked at this way, represents not positive but negative value, and so interpreted it is perfectly reasonable to live on rationed credit and repay not a banker or employer but society, by our contribution to it. The attitude of mind required is not that of the workers in Christ’s story of the workers in the vineyard (Mtt 20:1-16) who expected to be paid more for working longer; it is that of the generous landowner who pays anyone willing to work, or the hitch-hiker who expresses his appreciation of a lift not by paying for it but, when he is able, by giving lifts himself.

    I appreciate and accept your argument about resources, Steve; I’ll point out that one can ration totals without unduly limiting allocations by timesharing or raffling e.g. high-energy flights. I’m looking at different people wanting to different things, though. My analysis sees the need for continuous organised production to replace what we actually use, but also much more haphazard personal needs which virtually all the economic theories I’ve seen fail to consider: the time and effort necessarily devoted to personal and social maintenance;
    pre-production education, research, design, development and trying out; post-production training, care, enjoyment, celebration; playfully competitive development of skills, arts and interests. I imagine saving so much time by automating allocation of credit and much of necessary production and distribution that we can have a much more sensible sharing of time between necessary and interesting work. We can also make the best of industrialised cities by providing accomodation for workers from more friendly-sized communities, on stop-over shifts between caring for each other and the activities they personally want to pursue. Doubtless that’s far too tidy a subdivision, but I hope that it too is clear enough to be suggestive.

  11. October 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Great article – I have made a submission to the UK Government’s Consultation on sustainable aviation, were I argue that to reduce aviation emissions we will have to reduce flying. No other proposed solution will work. But I conclude the arguments that this will not be possible within the current economic system that we have, and we will need to move to an alternative such as carbon rationing.

    See document at http://www.aef.org.uk/downloads/Plane_Stupid_and%20People_and_Planet_response.pdf

  12. Bruce Ferguson
    December 30, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    Exactly the point I have been arguing in my 2014 publication Cannibal Business where a projected population of 9 billion souls will be fighting over a diminishing pie of resources. The seeds of economic implosion have been planted many decades ago and the young, poor and educated are already making conscious decisions today to delay starting families, which is reflected in today’s low fertility rates of 1.4 children per couple in some developed economies. While I agree capitalism will not survive in its present form the adjustment to zero growth will be a messy cannibalistic struggle where the rich will grasp for power during a period of prolonged economic recession. it is only after enduring a couple of decades of grinding economic depression that mainstream economists will finally admit the reality of Zeronomics or the paradigm of zero growth is the new normal for centuries to come and it is only then that we will be able to craft a new economic system based upon more socialist models.

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