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What’s the Story with Unsustainable Economic Growth?: Understanding Economic Growth as Ideology, Myth, Religion and Cultural Meme

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Abstract

Economic growth (and neoclassical economics) has been a long-standing object of critique by environmentalists, sustainability advocates and more recently heterodox and green political economists. This article interrogates economic growth (defined as ‘undifferentiated GDP growth as a permanent feature of the economy’), and by extension neoclassical economics (the dominant form of economic thinking) as normative not neutral, combining facts and values, descriptive and prescriptive analysis. In a word, modern economics is a values-based not an objective social science. While there is a large body of critical knowledge demonstrating the biophysical unsustainability and socially disruptive consequences of undifferentiated economic growth after a threshold, which would suggest going beyond economic growth, the dominance of economic growth within popular culture, political, policy and economic discourse and practice remains remarkably resilient. How can we interpret this resilience? This article presents economic growth as a narrative, a meaning-imparting socially shared and reproduced story and examines economic growth as ideology, myth, meme and religion as overlapping/complementary ways of representing this narrative and meaning-imparting dimension of economic growth. As the article is motivated in large part as a ‘ground-clearing’ or diagnostic exercise in more fully understanding the multi-faceted nuanced and cultural-affective dimensions of economic growth, so as to better propose ways of moving beyond growth, it concludes with some suggestions as to how we might, on the basis of this preliminary ‘cultural political economy’ analysis, begin to both think and act beyond orthodox economic growth as a permanent feature of the economy. It examines some of the key ways modern neoclassical economics fuses a certain value set (pro-growth and pro-market) within key foundational ideas (homo economicus/view of the person, Pareto optimality, and ‘trickle-down economics’). These ‘technical-normative’ foundational ideas themselves buttress more commonplace and popular expressions of pro-growth ideology such as ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, ‘the American Dream’, and the belief that only economic growth can tackle poverty, solve climate change or provide the conditions for the good life.
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