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…is becoming one of the central themes of my economic thought.

In my previous post I argued that what we’re calling economic “growth” is largely not maturation or development, but mostly bloat.

For years now, I’ve been calling 4WDs (SUVs, to Americans) “bloatmobiles”, for their ridiculous carbon footprint, the way their puffed-up shapes block the sightlines whether moving or parked, the increased risk of death and injury they pose both to their own passengers and (by a factor of about 5) to other road users, the absurd tax subsidies they get to their price because of the fiction that they’re “trucks” and therefore automatically work vehicles, and the deliberate marketing of overinflated ego that has been used to sell them. I never minded them when the only people using them actually needed them…

I digress. I may even rant. My point:

Bloat is unhealthy expansion. Its applicability to a huge number of aspects of modern life, especially the economic/environmental, is obvious. Spread the meme.

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[As seen on graffiti alongside the light rail.]

…Actually, although I agree with the underlying sentiment, no.

Growth is ideally supposed to be an approximation of the prosperity of a nation. And prosperity can continually increase, as technology improves. What’s finite is the raw materials and the capacity of the biosphere (us included) to survive the byproducts (and sometimes products) we’re creating. If we were completely recycling everything we created, including neutralising harmful compounds and reintegrating them back into our production cycles, there is no reason we couldn’t continue to grow indefinitely.

What we can’t continue to do indefinitely is expand our environmental footprint. Or, if you prefer, bloat. The word “growth”, with its connotations of maturation and health, is too important to surrender to the econocrats. (Mind you, it has also come to have connotations of cancer… so, you know, it’s not a single-edged sword either way.)

This all suggests an interesting idea – that when calculating growth, extraction of raw materials should actually be deducted from the total. To the extent that we’ve had to increase our demand and throw things away, we haven’t improved our capacity to use the resources available, we’ve just cheated and used more resources. If we’re measuring growth in economic efficiency, our impact on the natural world should surely decline.

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