Berlin Institute / Limits of Growth

April 2014

Dr Klingholz, in your book “Die Sklaven des Wachstums” (The Slaves of Growth), you describe the 21st century as the era of “post-growth” in which mankind will have to adapt to huge upheavals. Why do you think that the limits of growth have already been reached?

Looking at things from a worldwide perspective, we are still experiencing high levels of growth – for the time being at least. The global middle-class is swelling, achieving a certain degree of prosperity and receiving better training and education. We are seeing declining birth rates across the planet as a result. Even now, over half the people of the world live in countries where the population is, of its own accord, not growing in the medium-term, which in turn creates an ageing populace. Both of these developments allude to less rather than more growth. 

An end to population growth and the advent of a shrinking global population, heralding a subsequent decline in economic growth, are the consequences of prosperity and societal developments. This process is likely to dominate the second half of the 21st century, but will occur even earlier in highly industrialized nations whose populations are already falling, for example in Japan and some European countries. A further negative factor for the economy is climate change, which is causing soil erosion that affects arable land worldwide and the groundwater levels to fall in many countries. It all leads to an inevitable realization that economic growth and population expansion will thwart itself.

Could you perhaps give a few examples for our Compact readers as to what this upheaval means for the future? (In your opinion, what effects will the “end of growth” have on consumption in Germany, for example?)

The dilemma is that this end to growth is certainly something desirable, because we live in a finite world which cannot support ever more production and consumption at constantly rising costs. Yet, at the same time, this is the complete opposite of desirable: most people and the vast majority of politicians want more growth. The latter have even recently enacted laws promoting an acceleration of growth (Wachstums- beschleunigungsgesetze) and absorbed debt in order to force growth. If we see an end to growth in future, this will be more by accident than design. The problem is that up until now, we have had no real idea how to organize a society whose well-being is not based on the concept of economic growth. We will only discover this when crises arise, forcing us to adapt. These could be financial crises, climatic crises, raw material crises or conflicts surrounding the distribution of wealth. Only then will we be able to establish how to organize our lives around less consumption of resources. It is a simple case of evolve or die. Those who live in an environmentally conscious manner today by drastically reducing their consumption levels aren’t doing anything wrong. However, one person can’t save the world. If everyone adopted this kind of lifestyle, our economic structures, the financial markets and the welfare state would simply collapse. They are unable to function without growth. Initially, we must modify the economic system, the financial markets and the welfare state.

In an interview with Geo you expressed your view that even sustainable growth is an illusion with an inherent contradiction at its very core. Could you elaborate?

Sustainability means treating your environment in such a way that you offer future generations the best chance to live as we did. However, growth signifies the production of more goods and services, and as had been empirically proven, this leads to a greater degree of raw material consumption and production of waste matter. Sustainable growth is therefore self-evidently an oxymoron within itself. The “green economy” can be as green as it likes, but there can be no talk of sustainability while growth remains the objective. Even green consumer goods require raw materials and energy in the production processes. This uses machines, and once produced, the goods still have to be transported to consumers. However, when all is said and done, nobody would buy these products if the notion of simultaneously making a positive contribution towards protecting the environment was not sold to consumers. It is this powerful sense of suggestion which drives sales, in turn encouraging growth.

According to the results of one of our surveys in the GfK household panel, ever more Germans are adopting a conscious strategy of buying fewer food supplies in advance, so as to reduce the amount thrown away. Another current trend is that of “foodsharing”, which also helps to reduce waste. Could other comparably frugal actions help in the face of the imminent upheaval? Do you think these actions are sensible?

The environmental awareness of German citizens has been on the rise for many years.Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily translate to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. For example, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, we are living more than four times beyond our means. Take energy-saving refrigerators, for example. Frankly speaking, they have no tangible positive effect, because refrigerators are becoming increasingly larger and many households have two or even three refrigerators. Any savings are mostly cancelled out by an increase of consumption in other areas. However, the previously named trend of food-sharing is important, as are carpooling and waste prevention. Vegetable patches in people’s own gardens too. These actions will not save the world today, but we need all of these concepts when the framework of our economic system is irrevocably altered, as mentioned above. Evolution, whether biological or societal, functions in the same way: major change is only ever triggered by a crisis or catastrophe. However, for change to continue, the building blocks of future structures have to be in place beforehand. It is from these building blocks that something better can be created, even though we might not know exactly what form it will take.

Are you personally worried about any imminent upheaval when you think about the future for your children, for example?

As long as my children receive a decent education, I’m not worried about them. They definitely have much to do in order to turn things around. I would be more concerned about the huge numbers of young people in developing countries, who can’t find jobs and who have no share in the growing affluence. First and foremost, these countries need growth and development, so that they can release themselves from the grip of an ever increasing population. If they remain poor, the population will continue to grow, and so will the problems; this will ultimately result in a demographic catastrophe.

Thank you for your time!