Published in the Telegraph-Journal 14th May 2013
Economists continue to insist that the recovery is at hand, even though unemployment remains stubbornly high, global warming continues unabated, GDP growth stagnates one quarter after another and governments stagger under record deficits.
In the face of these set-backs or even outright failures, some are asking whether more economic growth is the single solution to deliver prosperity and well-being for our societies. There is little denying that development and growth is essential for poorer countries but in the advanced economies the argument is gaining momentum that ever-increasing consumption makes little contribution to human satisfaction. In addition, the critics of unconstrained growth charge that the ecosystem that supports economies is straining to the point of breaking under the weight of rising consumption. For these critics, the solution is devising a route to prosperity that does not depend on continued growth.
This limited-growth thesis has startling implications. It proposes that society has reached a fundamental turning point in its economic history in which the growth of industrial civilization can no longer be guaranteed. Economic orthodoxy would view this as heresy. Supporters view the limits to growth as the most urgent task of our times. They see the possibilities of flourishing within the ecological limits of a finite planet. And they see an opportunity to improve the sources of well-being, creativity and lasting prosperity that lie beyond the reach of the market.
This is what became known as the sharing economy. Participants in this economy were developing better ways to share fewer resources for less money, sacrificing or limiting their ownership of things such as living accommodations, vehicles, clothing and consumer technologies. The sharing economy, which can be seen as a circular economy rather than the conventional linear economy, was built on the belief that, because the Internet had connected everyone, a global inventory had been created that could be discounted and shared.
The profit margin from the sharing business was significantly smaller than anyone thought even a few years ago. With time and perspective, the circular economy has failed to take over in the way it was anticipated. Instead, its resilience has been uneven and limited to specific segments of the market. The ideal sharing economy customers are young urbanites who value flexibility and savings over consumer purchases. The question is how much of their decisions are ideological and driven by concerns for the planet.
But the limited success of the circular economy is only part of the story. Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and an economic adviser to the UK government, makes a compelling case against continued economic growth in developed nations. Mr. Jackson argues that “prosperity goes beyond material concerns”, and at beyond a certain point growth does not increase human well-being. Mr. Jackson asks if it is conceivable that economic growth may not deliver lasting prosperity.
These concerns have some resonance in New Brunswick. Some are beginning to question if conventional economic growth is the solution for everyone in all parts of the province. New Brunswick is a society with not insignificant economic problems. Life in this province can be, for an increasing number of its residents, more difficult than in other places. But New Brunswick also possesses greater strengths and assets and it is clear that most residents find it a rewarding place to call home.
Facing a slowing economy, increasing regional disparities and a chronic skilled human resource scarcity, governments and businesses will soon be forced to review the prospect that unorthodox directions should be considered alongside those traditional policy solutions that have shown limited effectiveness for an increasing number of New Brunswickers.