The end of growth is painful. We had a foretaste of it in 2008, but the current crisis promises to be much worse.
Amid a horrific human tragedy of sickness and death, much of it taking place in hospitals staffed by brave but overworked and under-equipped doctors and nurses, we are all learning once again what it feels like when economic growth comes to a shuddering stop and the economy goes into reverse—shrinking and consuming itself. Millions have been thrown out of work, untold numbers of businesses shuttered. The St. Louis Federal Reserve estimates that Q2 unemployment could clock in as high as 32.1 percent (for comparison, unemployment at the depths of the Great Depression was 25 percent, and during the Great Recession of 2008-2010 it peaked at 10 percent). Though radical measures must now be adopted to slow the spread of the coronavirus, those measures are having toxic side effects on the economy.
Yet, economic growth was bound to end at some point, with or without the virus. A few moments of critical thought confirm that the exponential expansion of the economy—whose physical processes inevitably entail extracting natural resources and dumping polluting wastes—is destined to reach limits, given the obvious and verifiable fact that we live on a finite planet.
However, we also happen to live in a human social world in which a decades-long spurt of economic and population growth, based on the snowballing exploitation of a finite supply of fossil fuels, has become normalized, so that world leaders have come to agree that growth can and must continue forever.
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