Growth Myth

The promise of growth, the fantasy of today's world?


Food depletion, loss of biodiversity, pollution, energy crisis... While reports are accumulating about the negative consequences of the current production system, the economy of promises is in full swing. Growth and progress are merging, and the hope for technological solutions remains. Against all evidence?

Ever more capital-intensive production tools

Growth has determined, and still determines, the direction of progress: towards "more and more". Science, sport, mobility, energy... The tools of production are increasingly capital-intensive: the amount of capital needed to put them in place is ever greater. Thus, in biology, "modern" genetics does not exist without the machines that make it possible to analyse the genome. In astrophysics, it is impossible to observe distant stars without orbital telescopes. In the human sciences, the use of digital technology is progressing in order to interrogate texts, circulate them and make them accessible to the whole Earth, provided that one has a suitable terminal. In sport, how can we understand that records are constantly being broken without taking an interest in the equipment used? The round-the-world sailing races show it well: even the most gifted sailor in the world wouldn't win any race without a Ferrari of the seas...

This accumulation of capital, beyond the game of supposedly competitive markets, is at the heart of the progress that has been gradually established since the 19th century.e century. A well-described process by Marx in his writings Capitalists buy, sell, but above all accumulate.

Winner takes all

This progress is determined by rules and standards that leave a lot of room for manoeuvre to the entrepreneur, whether private or even public (socialist economies have indeed been described as structured by an entrepreneurial state). This analysis is not dated, as the current success of "communist" China shows as much as the importance of planning at all levels of "private" enterprises and the economy. If management or strategic marketing do not provide for ten or twenty years, they contribute to stabilize the process in the direction of accumulation. As such, the Silicon Valley model is instructive: billions of public dollars, billions of start-up purchased at 99 % by large groups that are constantly growing .

It's the famous "winner take all". The adage is often associated with digital technology, yet things were no different before its emergence: in the automotive field, for example, the hundreds of manufacturers that existed have given way to a dozen or so.

Citizen involvement, consequences: the great forgotten?

In this context, the citizen's share is limited: it is seen above all as a malleable material, recipient of goods and services that are, necessarily, progress. His behaviour is not interpreted, in decisions and dominant theoriesas an insatiable glutton seeking only to maximize his pleasure.

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The example of digital technology shows this over and over again: at the beginning, we were in a supply market, not a demand market. Desire was weak. It has been sparked by inflammatory speeches such as those of Al Gore and many other public officials on the "information superhighway"or later by Barack Obama on the smart cities. The foreseeable consequences of this digital explosion, such as waste, energy consumption or dependency, have been ignored, as they are contrary to progress.

However, today several reports are sounding the alarm on these issues: too much waste, poorly treated, exploding energy consumption (the most alarming scenarios are going to be to forecast that the energy consumption of digital could reach 50 % of the total electricity consumption in 2030, dependence on scarce materials

All of this had already been pointed out two decades ago, both by the Council of Europe than by the European Parliament. However, public authorities were more concerned about the potential delay than about the possible "technological impasse" they were entering.

The means before the end

This concept of "technological impasse" is mentioned in the Villani report :

"The production of digital equipment is a heavy consumer of rare and critical metals that are not easily recyclable and whose accessible reserves are limited (15 years for Indium for example, whose consumption has increased sevenfold in 10 years), which could lead to a technological deadlock if the growth in needs does not slow down. » (p. 123)

It is interesting to underline the title of the report: it is about making sense, i.e. finding out how to use AI, not about first asking ourselves the question of the world we want to live in (question of meaning) and then the tools best able to achieve this, a process at the end of which AI might not appear as a relevant option .

Here again, there is little difference with ("real") socialist societies. In the USSR, in the 1970s, the demand for a telephone could take years to be satisfied, and cars were notorious for their poor quality. But in other areas (military, aeronautics, etc.) the industry flourished. In some sectors, such as health care, needs were sometimes better controlled in socialist societies. Thus, Cuban life expectancy is better than that of the citizens of the United States. Much better, in fact, than thelifespan of the fraction of the American population whose skin is darker than others...

You don't fall "in love" with a growth rate

To gain acceptance, this race for progress relies on a vast enterprise of desire arousal, which replays the primitive potlatch (the practice of giving and spending to increase one's prestige, according to anthropologist Marcel Mauss) on a scale never before achieved. But it has implications that are not progress: impoverishment of food, ecological (especially genetic) destruction on an unprecedented scale, etc.

This "bad news" is challenges, carefullyand in last place in the decision making process. Investment, on the other hand, presses behind dreams of grandeur and accumulation. For example, the Tesla's Pharaonic Market Capitalizationwho's never made any money, and yet is way behind schedule...In the same way, the fanciful prophecies of the controversial Ray KurzweilThe work of the Google engineer and "futurologist" is also receiving a lot of media attention.

It is also significant that in the face of the threats mentioned, the solution is often seen in more capitalism rather than less. The Breakthrough Institute thus explains that, to protect the biosphere from increasing consumption, we need to tap into the soil in unprecedented quantities - and recycle, of course ... "Economics of Promise" is therefore running at full speed, but in only one direction: that of capital accumulation. Any signal to the contrary is viewed with suspicion. Messages about food or inequality are globally drowned in the permanent celebration of the system, as Jean Baudrillard already suggested in the 1970s.

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To refuse is to regress

Capitalism leads to a concentration of means in fewer and fewer hands. Therefore, whatever the problem envisaged, they are always the same interlocutors who have the means to put forward their solutions. Structures that offer alternatives to the solutions of large groups are handicapped by regulations that are not adapted to their specificities, and do not have the means to send staff to all meetings to change this situation.

As a result, visions of progress that are not in the "ever more" are discredited as being more about progress than about regression. This is the famous "we're not going to go back to the candle! This is the famous "we are not going to go back to the candle", a recurrent "argument", although devoid of any basis, since hardly anyone defends it. It is therefore only used to discredit the opponent.

Technology, the new divinity

However, soil insulates better than concrete, the enormous amount of medications consumed has a limited impact in terms of cost, nanotechnology (e.g. on the flagship product, the carbon nanotubes) and biotechnologies (two major types of GMOs in 25 years, gene therapy long overdue...) have not brought a revolution in terms of well-being.

"Not yet," reply the advocates of "progress", for whom any doubt is sacrilegious. Jacques Ellul is one of those who theorized the furthest this idea that the technology has become sacred. Its proponents are only just willing to discuss how technologies are adopted and used, but certainly not how they should be discarded (or even discarded) in favour of other paths and ways of thinking.

They have for them the experience gained over 150 years in "developed" countries: after all, the same warning speeches were made yesterday and yet "technology has found". Why won't it be the same tomorrow? Even so, some of the warnings are already coming true: in his seminal work Silent Spring (Silent Spring), published in 1962, biologist Rachel Carson announced the possible disappearance of insects and birds. 56 years later, we're almost there...

Above all, the conditions do not allow the emergence of a real power of the (citizen-)consumer. 30 billion were spent in 2017 by the major companies to convince the French to the usefulness of their products. According to Ademewhich spent $16 million in 2016.

"Communication towards the general public and professionals is a major challenge to change behaviors and accelerate the energy and ecological transition of the whole of French society. »

On the other hand decisions taken following citizens' conferences show that, when informed, citizens make very different choices than industries. Ironically, after having set up a system that pushes the mass adoption of products that have become commonplace, policy makers are now faced with a new set of challenges. are now blaming the consumer, as soon as they worry about threats... This subordinate position of the consumer, in any case, clearly shows the direction in which power flows: from top to bottom.

To find out more:
F. Flipo, F. Deltour, M. Dobré and M. Michot, (2012), "Can we believe in Green ICT? »Mining Press;
P. A. Samuelson and W. D. Nordhaus, (2005), "Economy"Economica;
J. Baudrillard, (1973), "The Mirror of Production"Galileo;
J. Baudrillard, (1972), "For a critique of the political economy of the sign."Gallimard;
J. Baudrillard, (1970), "The consumer society"Gallimard.

Fabrice FlipoProfessor of Social and Political Philosophy, Epistemology and History of Science and Technology, Telecom School of Management - Institut Mines-Télécom

The original text of this article was published on The Conversationeditorial partner of UP' Magazine

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