Can Innovation Lead Us to Growth (and Happiness) With Less Consumption?

I recently came across an article called, “How Can Innovation Decouple Growth and Consumption” I was intrigued by this as I’ve been wondering for some time if such a decoupling is possible. The piece describes a number of ways “to constrain consumption that do not continue to stress, deplete, degrade or waste our natural resource base.”

This would, of course, require a shift:

Innovation needs to be radically applied in new ways that alter the present mindsets of politicians, economists and business people who feel that the only path is continued consumption and growth. This approach is simply not sustainable and we need to find a radical alternative that still offers all of us progress but in a radically altered world.

I guess it all starts with the question of what is consumption and what does it mean to stop consuming. Does it mean to stop buying stuff altogether? What about buying an item that is produced in a zero waste factory that recycles 98% of its water and uses renewable energy to run its production line? The item is minimally packaged, and what packaging there is, is recyclable. The customer receives an incentive for recycling it. The item itself is repairable and lasts for thirty years with little maintenance. At the end of its useful life, the manufacturer takes it back, at no cost to the customer, so that it can be reused, remanufactured or recycled. Everything I’ve mentioned is already being practiced to some degree or other in various places around the world. So, if we reach the point where nothing is actually consumed in the production, transportation, use, and disposal of the product, is this still consumption?

Clearly we’re not there yet, but with a little innovation, we can and will keep getting closer. Though I don’t think we can ever get all the way to zero.

The article cites a book called What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption” by Rachel Botsman & Roo Rogers. “Driven by growing dissatisfaction with their role as robotic consumers manipulated by marketing, people are turning more and more to models of consumption that emphasize usefulness over ownership, community over selfishness, and sustainability over novelty.”

We used to just call it sharing. One day, as I was working in my backyard vegetable garden, I stopped to chat with my neighbor. We both said we wished we had a roto-tiller. We ended up buying one jointly and took turns using it. No problem. I always wondered why more people don’t do this. Why do people have so much stuff filling up their homes and garages, a lot of which they might only use once or twice a year? But yet everyone has to have their own. And why does everyone in affluent suburban neighborhoods have to have their own swimming pool? Why not one community pool for the whole neighborhood? You might even get to meet your neighbors. Oh, but then you might have to get in shape, too. That wouldn’t be good.

But wait, if we all started sharing and cooperating and making new friends, wouldn’t that mean that we’d be buying less stuff?  Then the economy might stop growing. We can’t let that happen, can we?

Well, there are folks that say we can and that we don’t really need growth at all, and so maybe we should let that happen.

In Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, he argues that “the global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100.” Jackson was the Economics Commissioner to the UK Sustainable Development Commission.

The book lays out a 12-point plan for transitioning to a sustainable economy. These are broken down into three major sections:

  1. Building a sustainable macro-economy, which includes investing in public assets and infrastructure, fiscal oversight and accounting reform.
  2. Protecting Capabilities for Flourishing, which includes work life balance, systemic inequality, strengthening human and social capital and reversing the culture of consumption.
  3. Respecting Ecological Limits, resource and emission caps, fiscal reform, ecosystem protection, and international technology transfer.

A Canadian economist, Peter Victor has done extensive modeling to see what would happen if growth slowed to zero in a variety of intentional scenarios.  Some of the variables he played with included: productivity, consumption, population growth, tax policy, savings rate, the rates of public and private investment, and the length of the work week. (Hint: with a shorter work week, more people can have jobs.)

The result? Under the best case scenario, after a few difficult decades (sorry for those of you growing up then), unemployment eased down to just four percent. Greenhouse gases went down to Kyoto levels. After that, things just leveled off– the proverbial soft landing. In 2008, Victor published Managing Without Growth, and became the first economist to demonstrate that a steady-state economy is possible.

This gives me hope that not only can we maintain some level of growth while virtually eliminating consumption, but that even if that growth rate is below present or even zero, we can still survive and maybe even thrive.

Of course, it’s going to take a lot of skillful maneuvering to get our economy from where it is today to there, at a time when our leaders are not demonstrating a whole lot of skill. But at least it’s good to know that there is a safe place to land if we can get to it.

In Charles Siegel’s (no relation) review of Jackson book, he tells us that, “International comparisons of self-reported happiness show that greater income correlates with greater happiness [only] until per capita income reaches about one-half to two-thirds of income in the United States today. Beyond that level, there is no correlation of greater income with greater happiness.”

So, not only can we survive in a near-zero consumption, near-zero growth economy, but if we can manage not to lose more than a third to a half of our income in the process, we can be happy in it, too.

I believe it. Do you?

[Image credit: mgstanton: Flickr Creative Commons]


RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

One response

  1. Innovation is change in perception and expression. Growth and consumption are relative terms.
    No offense meant but, whenever i read sophisticated reports i remember “Henry Ford’s daughter’s essay on Poverty”.
    Development should be based on the geographical, natural, climatic conditions coupled with demographic expertise. But, this is unfortunately being made universal with an yardstick identified by Corporate Sector who are waging an economic war against mankind.
    First of all centralized system should again replace with de-centralized system.

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