Alternative to the growth economy
By Tony Copple
February 2013

Richard Heinberg and others have predicted the end of the growth economy as a viable alternative economic model. In fact, the pursuit of economic growth is a post-industrial revolution characteristic. In earlier times no-one was concerned about seeing percentage improvements year over year in exports or anything else. As long as one could still obtain bales of hay, beef, wood, etc then the system worked. Today, as every salesman knows, targets will always go up on 1 January, encouraging everyone to make 5% more, sell 5% more, and yes, eat 5% more, than the previous year. When there is an economic downturn, the Keynsian solution to get back on track is to stimulate activity in the marketplace by printing enough money so that building workers are paid, and then hopefully will spend so that there is more demand for consumer products, which in turn allows the growth economy to operate.

A result of the growth economy in the world of technology is the never - ending development of unnecessary new capabilities in electronics and other manufactured goods. A case in point is the digital camera, invented in 1975, but coming to prominence since 2000. Once the technology had advanced to the point where resolution was comparable with film cameras, the owners of digital cameras were faced with a dilemma. How could they continue to see sales growth every year. They decided that the answer was to direct their R & D towards sophistication in the additional facilities offered by the camera to distinguish it from the many competitors. Of course they (the competitors) then had to provide equivalent facilities. The fact that most users of digital cameras were point-and-shoot folk who wanted fewer, not more options, meant that the majority of the more sophisticated capabilities were beyond the interest or intelligence of the average user. For example, only about 10% (my guess) of digital camera users know how to reduce the resolution from the maximum to a lower level which will generate smaller picture files. The 90% use up 5MB with every shot, and then crash their friends' computers e-mailing them hundreds of hi-res pictures. There are so many clever capabilities built into modern digital cameras that will only be discovered and used by professionals. When I buy a new camera I only look for a second-hand previous generation model which I can then understand and use properly, and then I use it till it breaks.

All of this, you recall was to allow Fujitsu or Canon to see an increase in their sales year over year which, reported in their annual reports will entice buyers for their shares. The share price has become the indicator of value for the company.

Another example of this madness is Microsoft's relentless development of ever more intricate operating software. Would that Windows 98, or at least Windows XP had remained as standards, and that Vista, 7 and 8 had never been invented. As a user of several of these, I view everything after XP as unnecessary, over complex, less user-friendly, and of benefit only to Microsoft rather than their customers. It would have served us better had they put the effort into wind-power or solar cell optimization, or any other needed technology. And then there is the mountain of ingenuity put into video games, a product that offers almost no benefit to mankind other than leisure, in a world where today's youth virtually ignore the heritage of literature.

In a non-growth economy, it has been suggested that the measure of economic performance is not the gross domestic product, but the gross happiness product. That instead of workers continually striving for better results, they provide the same results and have more time to smell the roses. Maybe competition is the lubricant and stimulate for our economies, but should it be? Are we only motivated by seeing others not doing so well? Concentrating on doing or making something that will work properly seems to me to be a better gift to the world than making something that will do something else that I don't want. Have you bought an electric can opener recently? Most of them will fail in less than two years, and even when they are working they are frustrating. How come the practice of opening cans is so hard for today's designers?

So here is my challenge for today's philosophers. Envisage a society where we would strive for anything other than material possessions, and where the inexhaustible potential of the human spirit not be directed to trivial consumer products but to the betterment of fellow humans in competition with others seeking the same goal.

The element of our lives today that has been lost by so many in the west is Christianity. There are so many competing alternatives, from new-age spirituality to yoga, fantasy and transcendental meditation, which the young are not being shown the total package of joy in living that Christianity has on offer. In any pursuit of gross happiness it will be of major advantage to repent and turn to Christian principles.

Without escallation in the demand for consumer goods, the need for oil and coal will downtrend. The idea of building a pipeline across North America to make energy more accessible so that more people can take larger digital pictures or frustrate themselves with Windows 8 is misdirected. Gross happiness as a measure of achievement is roughly inversely correlated with personal income. Let us build a world where people matter more that obscene bonuses to bank employees, where loving your neighbour is a way of life, and where the threat of war is reduced because the terrorists see little to gain from exploiting their envy of billionaires.