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The Cancer of Growth

Gustavo Esteva

It has become possible, only after tragedies such as the one that took place in Tabasco, to publicly debate a central precept of the dominant religion: the goal of accelerated economic growth. Fifty years of propaganda have converted the economists' dogma into a general prejudice. Without discussion, we accept that accelerated economic growth is desirable. Now the time has come to abandon this pernicious obsession.

To get as much growth as possible from the economy as well as growth in population appears to be a common sense principle. But it is not. Many things should grow until they reach their correct proportion: plants, animals, people. When something reaches its correct size, and then continues to grow, the resulting protuberance is called a cancer. Much of what increases when formal economy continues to grow is a type of social cancer. Speculation grows, irrational or destructive production grows, corruption and waste grow - all at the cost of what really should increase: social justice and the well-being of the majority.

In every country there are things that have grown too much, things which should be made smaller - and others that have not grown enough or need to continue growing for the greater good. A high rate of economic growth, measured through the gross national product, habitually reflects a growth in what is already large, an authentic social cancer, and a diminishing of what should continue growing.

Economic growth produces the opposite of what it promises. It does not imply greater well-being or employment for the people, or greater efficiency in the use of resources. Quite the opposite: it generates poverty, inefficiency and injustice. There is an abundant historical record to support this argument. To continue to propose a high rate of economic growth as a social goal is pure nonsense. It can only be attributed to the ignorance of a simple soul, cynicism or a combination of the two.

Almost forty years ago, Paul Streeten rigorously documented for the ILO the perverse connection between economic growth and injustice. He demonstrated that greater growth corresponded to greater poverty, and that there is a relation of cause and effect between one and the other. He demonstrated as well that the famous "trickle down effect" - the idea that concentrated riches spill out onto the majority generating well-being in their wake - is a perverse and unfounded illusion.

To concentrate social efforts on economic growth disguises the real goal: greater opulence for a few, at the expense of generalized poverty and the destruction of the natural patrimony. This result is hardly logical, as the economist's obsession does nothing more than apply to the whole of society a strict capital necessity that applies only to him: capital that does not grow, dies; and so it follows indefinitely. For this reason, cultivating the obsession implies writing a blank check to the market leaders or the State, so that they do their thing in the name of the well-being of the majority, a well-being that doesn't appear, and following that path, will never appear.

We need to recover a sense of proportion that is simply another form of common sense: that sense that exists in community. To struggle against a culture of waste, disposability, destruction and injustice, and the culture that has produced global warming to which disasters caused by irresponsibility are now attributed, we can reclaim the sensible and responsible rejection of what is unnecessary in the name of socially viable goals, and discard forever the idolatry of economic growth.

The time has arrived to seriously propose the advantages of a negative growth rate, clearly specifying what we would continue to stimulate. For example, the support of highly efficient, productive and sensible sectors, such as those that make up the majority of the persecuted "informal sector." This will imply a focus on strengthening the productive capacity of the majority, instead of supporting the inefficient giants. The economists' nightmare, a drop in the gross national product, could be a blessing for the majority.

It is time to stop the dominant insanity. Some things need to grow, and others need to contract. Let our capacity to sustain ourselves and our vital autonomy grow. Let our expressions and spaces for exercising liberty and initiative grow. Let the opportunities for a good life multiply, according to the way in which each individual and culture defines that good life. And, to make that possible, let us reduce the weight of a formal economy that oppresses us and wears us down, through everything that contradicts a good life for everyone or destroys nature.

This article first appeared in the opinion section of Mexico's La Jornada on Monday, November 19. Mary Ellen Sanger translated it into English.

Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist and deprofessionalized intellectual. He received the National Award of Economics in 1978, the Mexican Pulitzer in 2006, as well as an honorary degree, honoris causa, from the University of Vermont. He was Chairman of the Board of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and advisor to the Zapatistas. Author of more than 30 books and many essays. He can be contacted at

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