The Universal Notebook: Just say no to growth

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If you’ve been around as long as I have, you’ve probably noticed how the pendulum swings back and forth between economic development schemes when times are tough and growth management strategies when the economy is booming.

A lot of people are beginning to realize, however, that it may be time to stop growing.

Despite the conventional wisdom, we don’t need more businesses, more jobs, and more people in Maine. We just need more self-sufficiency and sustainability. We have come to the end of the era of economic growth based on consumption and waste.

The end of growth occurred in 2008 when the housing bubble burst, credit collapsed, investments tanked, oil peaked, and food started getting too expensive for the average person. Add to that the aggravating effects of climate change and you’re suddenly living in a world of declining resources just as huge populations in China and India start demanding an untenable American standard of living.

As the world economy went into a tailspin in 2008, what did our fearless leaders advise? Spending our way out of recession. If consumers just consumed more, we’d be OK.

Well no, ladies and gentlemen of Planet Earth, we will not.

These days, all you hear from local, state, and national officials is “jobs, jobs, jobs.” If we just had more jobs, we’d be OK.

But it’s not more jobs we need, it’s a new paradigm of work.

Politicos and bureaucrats are busy beating their breasts over the fact that Kestrel Aviation decided to expand in Superior, Wis., rather than Brunswick, taking 600 theoretical jobs with it. But in what sort of an economy is there going to be a constant demand for luxury aircraft such that Kestrel can keep 600 people busy building unnecessary and environmentally indefensible personal airplanes?

We won’t miss those 600 phantom Kestrel jobs anymore than we will miss the hundreds of temporary jobs MBNA created as it helped manufacture the debt that brought on the end of growth.

Forty years ago, we were talking about the post-industrial society. Now we’re talking about the post-carbon society. My guess is the back-to-the-land ethic that was a passing fancy of the counterculture in my youth will soon become a reality for the mainstream culture of my old age. And we will all be better off for it.

The American Dream died in an economy that required both parents to work full-time instead of raising their children, that forced people to work simply for benefits, that sent college graduates out into the world with major debt, that ushered in an epidemic of bankruptcy and foreclosure.

What we need now is a steady state economy. My guess is that the not-so-distant-future will look increasingly like the agrarian past. The dignity of hard work will be restored. Jobs will be part-time. Producing your own food and energy will again be the social norm. Maine does not need more jobs; it needs more people who can support themselves, people who can create their own jobs.

In “The End of Growth,” the text from which today’s sermon is drawn, no-growth guru Richard Heinberg writes that “instead of more, we must strive for better.”

When I despair of the world we are leaving our children and grandchildren, I am consoled by the thought that, if we are to have a future as a species at all, it will have to be one in which we all live better on less.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.