Can the economy grow for ever?

Is infinite growth possible on a finite planet? ... Watch this animated explainer video by TED Education and the World Economic Forum.
Image: TED-Ed
  • Just like universes, economies can seem to have been growing since the dawn of time.
  • Many economists believe growth is vital for improving lives, but with endless expansion comes the need for infinite resources.
  • This animated video explainer by TEDEd and the World Economic Forum asks: what would happen if growth stopped?

The global economy has been growing for the past 200 years. Traditionally, that’s seen as a good thing - a larger pile of money that leads to a longer list of opportunities for everyone.

But the ‘tide that lifts all boats’ theory feels less convincing with every new economic alarm bell. As a global recession looms, and as natural resources dwindle closer to their reasonable limits, and as inequality widens around the world (a new billionaire was minted every 26 hours during the pandemic), the question begs to be asked: can we have infinite growth on a finite planet?

This video digs further into the conundrum. Created by world-class storytellers TED-Ed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, it's an entertaining and informative examination of growth for growth's sake, and the world that might lie beyond it.

'Economics Explained' is a video collaboration between TED-Ed and the World Economic Forum

The goal of green growth

Granted, the idea of endless economic expansion feels pretty academic at this moment in history. Russian's invasion of Ukraine has triggered widespread economic chaos; energy crises, inflation and rising living costs are nudging the world to the brink of what economists warn will be a worldwide recession.

But perhaps it is a moment to take a pause, to ask how we can work together to build stronger and more sustainable societies and economies. It's a theme that has been central to the World Economic Forum's mission over the past 50 years. In this blog, President of the World Economic Forum Borge Brende explains why global cooperation is key.

Wondering what a recession actually is? This handy explainer will tell you how to know if you’re in one, where recessions came from - and how they end.

But wait, can economic growth ever be made into something that benefits the planet? Clever tech innovations are a good start, but what we really need is a decision on shared principles - one that includes all areas of society, from the scientists to policymakers to politicians. What we do know is the private sector looks willing to engage, writes Michael Froman, Vice Chairman of Mastercard.

It's 'perfectly possible' to enjoy economic growth while protecting the planet, says British economist Lord Nicolas Stern. In this video interview, he offers the United Kingdom as an example: since the 1990s the UK economy has grown 70% while cutting emissions by 40%.

The challenges to sustainable growth are laid out in this studio interview with Brookings economist Zia Qureshi and Stanford International Policy Director Marietje Schaake, who tackle the question: can growth be green?

What about the world of finance? Can banks and investors shift the world towards ‘net zero’ targets in a meaningful way? A panel of experts from the United Nations, HSBC and the IFC debate in this podcast show:

Infinite growth: a youth perspective

Ultimately the work of building foundations for sustainable future growth will fall to the younger generations. We asked six young movers and shakers - members of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader community - what they think current world leaders should prioritise in order to hand down the hope of inclusive economic growth.

What's next for economic growth?

For more on what the experts are saying about upcoming economic trends, check out the World Economic Forum's latest Chief Economists Outlook, in which leading economists consider once-in-a-generation inflation in the US and Europe, and the prospect of a global recession.

Economics has had a huge impact on the world we live in - and understanding the key factors at play in these massive, interconnected systems can give us insight into how to make them better, stabler, and more equitable.

To find out more, dig into a new series of quick and compelling explainers from TED-Ed and World Economic Forum at ed.ted.com/worldecon. A great many articles, videos and podcasts to answer all your economic questions are waiting for you at weforum.org/focus/economics-explain.

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