Bookshelf: The End of Growth

Before Occupiers swarmed Wall Street, and before Lehman Brothers fell, Richard Heinberg was writing about a growth economy with nowhere left to grow. His newest book, The End of Growth, is already in the hands of the Liberty Square protesters; and on October 18, Heinberg joined filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge and Orion staff for a live web discussion about the end of growth, and what it means for the #Occupy movement. Listen to an audio recording of the conversation, here. What follows is Heinberg’s recent message to the Occupiers.

Here’s a fact that’s hard for all Americans to swallow: economic growth is over. Given the finite nature of our planet and its resources, the recent trend of economic expansion was destined to end. No stimulus package or slashing of social programs is going to flip the economy back to an expansionary trajectory. We’ve hit the proverbial wall, and this will be the defining reality of our lives from now on.

The growth-seeking political-economic system has failed us—and that system is dominated by Wall Street. “Goldman Sachs rules the world,” trader Alessio Rastani told us in a now-viral BBC interview. I met people like Rastani in researching The End of Growth. At one lavish conference, eight hundred global investors packed a hotel ballroom to consider climate change. There was no talk of how to avert floods and droughts. Instead, the discussion turned on how to profit from global warming with—no joke—weather derivatives. These folks were just doing their job, despite any private feelings of concern, remorse, or dread. And each was getting paid enough to single-handedly fund a midsize school district.

Both Wall Street and Washington are trying to do something impossible: grow human consumption forever in a world of limited energy, minerals, water, topsoil, and biodiversity, while protecting and expanding the riches of the top 1 percent.

If economic growth is over, that means we can no longer count on a rising tide to lift all boats. Under these conditions, extreme income inequality is not just unfair, it is socially unsustainable.

It’s strategic to bring protest to Wall Street rather than Washington. We must go directly to the crime scene—not with a request for reforms, but with an arrest warrant from the people.

My main message to you courageous young people in the #Occupy movement is that you’re right to say that the system is broken, greedy, and unfair. But when the discussion turns to the question of what must replace the current system, we’ve got to embrace a bigger view of reality than the one held by stock traders and politicians. We need a post-growth economy that works both for people (all of them) and for the rest of nature—a localized economy based on renewable resources harvested at nature’s rates of replenishment, not a fossil-fueled global economy driven by the imperatives of ever-higher returns on investment.

There will be life after growth—and it can be a life dedicated to quality and integrity, rather than shareholder value.

Richard Heinberg is the author of ten books, including, most recently, The End of Growth. He is a Senior Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.


  1. Before you can dream about future policy it is necessary to first reclaim our democracy. We need united focus on getting money out of politics, severing the connection between Wall Street and Washington. This will require focus on the source of the problem – 5 plutocratic justices on the Supreme Court who by declaring money to be speech have allowed Wall Street to buy our democracy.
    There is ultimately only one solution: using single issue voting to force Congress to get the Supreme Court out of our elections, and then enact legislation that will sever the money bond between Wall Street and Washington.

  2. @LK: I think that you’re still missing the POINT- the ENTIRE system is flawed! Further, “democracy” does not, and never has existed in the U.S.! It’s a “republican” government. The very structure is reeked in hierarchy. Hierarchical structures are NOT democratic. Further, who and what are you asking what from? For an experiment try this: pretend that D.C. (the federal govt, not the location) doesn’t exist, then start asking/demanding the same things. Who would be hearing you, and who would be responding? Now, then, pretend that ONLY your local community existed (or that that’s the ONLY entity that you can communicate with), what would those questions be? and, as a member of That community, how would you be responding to your own please/requests (because you should be working alongside the rest of your community, it’s the democratic thing!).

    This thing has been wired in from the beginning, we were sold a bag of crap, unequal from the start, fascist from the start (from

    In 1789, Wall Street was the scene of the United States’ first presidential inauguration when George Washington took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall on April 30, 1789. This was also the location of the passing of the Bill Of Rights. In the cemetery of Trinity Church, Alexander Hamilton, who was the first Treasury secretary and “architect of the early United States financial system,” is buried.

  3. It is true that the US began in 1789 as a Republic of property owners. However those property owners who founded the US did erect a strong blueprint for opposing tyranny which they saw as conceptually the opposite of a “thing of the people” (res publica). True, that generation did not establish a democracy. It has been the consistent course of American history to gradually extend the definition of the “people” of the Republic until by the 1970s’the one person one vote precept was recognized and did reach virtually all citizens over 18. That would define a democracy.
    Plutcrats were disconcerted by the outbreak of democracy as Jim Crow and rotten boroughs receded at the end of what could be called the extended New Deal era. During this era there was increasing financial equality – the best quantitative test of whether democracy was operative. The era ended in 1976 when 4 Nixon appointees on the Supreme Court enshrined Nixonian corruption in the Constitution by defining political money as protected speech. Since 1976 the US has suffered increasing inequality and economic stagnation, disguised behind several cultural changes (women working, unsecured credit) and bubbles.

    The final test of democracy is before us right now. We will either get money out of politics with the power we have at hand or we will passively resign ourselves to the fascism that has been casting its lengthening shadow since 1976.

    You ask, “Who and what are you asking what from?” Please visit the for a complete answer to that question. And yes you need to ask it of people right where you are in your own communities to play your part in achieving democracy.

    As for the thought experiment of the withering away of the federal government – that would include the Supreme Court and the problem would be hypothetically solved. But the reality is that we have two corrupt elected branches and a plutocratic Supreme Court that has imposed a corrupt electoral system on all levels of government. Before we can enter the world of your thought experiment or achieve any policy goals that challenge the interests of plutocrats we need to change the process. We need to get the Court out of elections and money out of politics. This is eminently doable, if 1) the #Occupy movement would focus on occupying polling places both to vote and to protect balloting in their own communities against stolen elections and 2) the single issue of money out of politics guides even a sizable minority of voters.

    If you want change, there is no other way but democracy. This struggle is really no different than the democratic struggles that preceded us for extending democracy to the unpropertied, non-whites, women, those asked to pay a poll tax, 18 yr olds, the malapportioned and gerrymandered- except that this one is the end of the road – one way or the other – plutocrats will establish their new fedualism, or the people will perfect a democracy for all.

  4. I’m constantly amazed at how people refuse to look reality firmly in the face.

    Hopium isn’t going to transcend the realities of diminishing resources. People here can prattle on and on about how we can “improve” things, but this is always based on an utterly myopic view, one that overlooks the fact that 2/3 of the world’s population lives on $3/day or less, and that everything that we in the Western World have come to base ourselves on has only come by way of the gift of abundant, cheap energy. This country ain’t an island.

    Again, as long as you accept a governing structure that’s a vertical hierarchy you’ll NEVER achieve whatever it is that you’re expecting (for doing so would require that YOU be just like those who are corrupted- fighting to be at the top of the power heap).

    Talk all you want about how the founders intended for something else, about how we were supposed to be able to improve ourselves, the reality of that system stares us in the face.

    The Bolsheviks also promised things would be better, in the future. Always better IN THE FUTURE, never today. This is the blueprint for keeping people oppressed. Build a round room and tell people to go pee in the corner; hoping to retain the round room AND still pee is what people are expecting. Fine, but know this, you’re either going to create a room that’s NOT WHAT WAS CONSTRUCTED _OR_ you’re going to have to hold it, indefinitely.

    Yeah, sorry I didn’t use pretty words and all.

    Do people demand a really just system? Well, we’ll arrange it so that they’ll be satisfied with one that’s a little less unjust … They want a revolution, and we’ll give them reforms — lots of reforms; we’ll drown them in reforms. Or rather, we’ll drown them in promises of reforms, because we’ll never give them real ones either!!

    – DARIO FO, Accidental Death of an Anarchist

    You’re up against MUCH more than you think:

    But, I suppose that you’ll do as you feel you must, that you want to preserve the system by overhauling it, well… I won’t ask you to join me if you don’t ask me to join you: sadly, I suspect, you’ll end up forcing me to join you (all those nice words and all- fitting for the lawyering that those in power so well live by).

Commenting on this item is closed.