John Stuart Mill from Principles of Political Economy:
I cannot…regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economist of the old school. I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels which forms the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind.
I’ve been doing a bit of digging on this subject, which has apparently gained a bit of (probably reactionary) traction recently. The idea is that economic growth is fantastic in the developing world. It is the fastest way to improve quality of life and standard of living, to a point. However, at a certain point, when the standard of living is high, growth tends to fuel the accumulation of wealth rather than effecting positive change in the way the economy works. An extra $100,000 is not going to change the standard of living in the slightest for someone making a million per year. The problem is we really want that extra $100,000, and to get it, we push the ecological limit of what the earth can actually produce for us. Giant public works project like Three Gorges not only destroy large sections of the earth, but also displace entire communities so that other, richer people can make more money.
That’s the limiting factor: eventually, even renewable resources run out if we consume them faster than they can be produced, and with uninhibited population growth, despite advances in plant genetics and sustainable technologies, it is inevitable. More importantly, we can’t pollute the environment at a rate faster than that with which it can heal itself. Though I would love to, I haven’t heard any compelling plan for reducing population growth, other than to let it happen naturally. Several wealthy countries, including Germany and Japan, are already shrinking:
So what can we do? Things I think we should encourage to lessen our dependence on rampant consumerism as a driver of happiness:
1. Technological innovation that reduces the growth burden on the environment.
2. Though I don’t believe government changes will happen before social ones, eliminate subsidies that make oil, corn, and meat artificially cheap and move them to sustainable farms dedicated to their local populations.
3. The average work week dropped steadily from 1850 to 1940 with no detriment to growth. But as long as we are eliminating growth, why not cut more hours? Spend extra time on personal development and community involvement.
4. Promote arts and education, or what some call “creative capital.” It’s far more enjoyable to spend a day in the shop making something useless than it is to spend a day at the mall buying it.
4a. I’m also grouping “teach people to cook” under arts education, because I want to.
4b. I realize that not everyone can be artfully productive. Open-source [beer/architecture/software/furniture/paint-by-numbers] saves the day! Use libraries and the internet to spread ideas, the copying of which is free, and the value of which is assumed in each copy.