Economic Growth

Could we live in a zero growth society?

Seongwon Park
Associate Research fellow, Science and Technology Policy Institute, Korea
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Some possible visions of the future see economic growth being ended by war, pandemic or natural disaster. But what if people freely choose “zero growth” or even “de-growth”, i.e. a future with no or even negative economic growth? This idea is not new: the “wandering society” has roots in Daoist traditions, among others. After being forgotten for a long time, there is a renewed wave of interest in rejecting the growth-driven paradigm. So what might a future without economic growth look like – and how painful would it be to get there?

The idea of rejecting materialist values and living a carefree life is as old as the history of thought and still capable of resonating deep in the human psyche. In East Asia, it finds expression in such texts as Zhuangzi, one of the classical texts of Daoism, the tradition which stresses the interdependence of all things and is the inspiration behind many traditions of art, calligraphy and poetry.

The old Daoist ideas of the “wandering society” – people who like to move about aimlessly, looking for new horizons and boundaries – have been largely lost over the years, as industriousness has come to define the modern world. As a society, we appear to have largely lost the ability to imagine different worlds from the dominant contemporary lifestyle, which emphasizes working more with more resources.

But there are signs that the appeal of the nomadic life – unbounded, unsettled, willing to challenge the familiar – may be about to reassert itself. An example from the other side of the world comes in the popularity of the story of Christopher McCandless, whose 1992 death in Alaska was portrayed in the 2007 film Into The Wild. The protagonist’s family could not comprehend his desire to give away all his possessions and turn his back on education, but for many others his story tapped a latent yearning for the “wild” or dissatisfaction with a “caged” existence.

There is growing interest in moving from a consumer society to a wandering society. In a survey of more than 2,000 South Koreans in September 2014, more than half said they were attracted to a de-growth future.

Conducted by the Korean Presidential Committee for National Cohesion, the survey was intended to check the findings of a futures workshop for Korean people aged 20 to 34. Participants were asked to discuss and choose which of four scenarios they preferred, with the majority looking for alternatives to a continuation of our current model centred on economic growth.

New proponents of the wandering society argue that the desire for less work and more leisure, to conserve what exists rather than to produce more, is an appropriate response to the current global issues of energy depletion and environmental pressures. Some people are actually trying to build and run a wandering society, such as the Auroville community in India. It is possible to imagine slogans such as “Growth without Waste” or “Society Seeking the Highest Efficiency” rallying support behind such a political programme.

Technological advances are making the wandering society conceivable on a large scale. As explored in Jeremy Rifkin’s recent book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, as we move from a capitalist economy to a sharing economy, the marginal costs of many products and services are being driven towards zero and concepts of ownership are giving way to new models of collaborating to share resources. Rifkin forecasts a similar development of people embracing leisure time because of less production requirements as more and more is shared and less is owned.

If the idea of a wandering society seriously takes hold, how would the world handle the transition away from a paradigm of primarily pursuing economic growth? And what might we see in such a world?

Such a new world might have serious birthing pains. Far from East Asia increasingly creating its own demand, as conventional economic wisdom predicts, demand in East Asian economies could be curtailed. The economic impact could make people feel more uncertain and put off having children, resulting in a decline in the birth rate. The expected rate of urbanization could be in doubt. Central governments might become weaker, while local governments become stronger, as people launch self-sufficient village networks.

There would also be opportunities to redefine fundamental ideas about economics. We could, for example, see new regulations setting limits on each country’s use of non-renewable resources. Mechanisms could evolve to embed the negative externalities of a good’s production in its price. Societies could vote for longer weekends and shorter working hours – or establish targets to produce the goods which are needed, and then enjoy the rest of their time in leisure.

Rather than prioritizing material affluence through gross domestic product, governments could target measures of mental and spiritual well-being such as gross national happiness as indicators of successful governance. By its nature, the wandering society implies uncertainty – but the new values and norms which emerge could be positive.

This piece is one of a number of individual perspectives from the Global Strategic Foresight Community of the World Economic Forum for the Annual Meeting 2015. To read more access the full collection.

Author: Dr. Seongwon Park is an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Foresight at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in South Korea.

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