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Critics Question Desirability of Relentless Economic Growth

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WASHINGTON -- Fresh-faced tech millionaires snap up glitzy new condos in San Francisco. Across America, construction is up and unemployment is down. Consumers are buying. The economy is growing.

Yet instead of applause, voices from across the political spectrum -- Berkeley activists and Beltway conservatives, Pope Francis and even some corporate CEOs -- are criticizing economic growth and its harm to the well-being of humans and the planet.

Ecologists warn that economic growth is strangling the natural systems on which life depends, creating not just wealth, but filth on a planetary scale. Carbon pollution is changing the climate. Water shortages, deforestation, tens of millions of acres of land too polluted to plant, and other global environmental ills are increasingly viewed as strategic risks by governments and corporations around the world.

"The physical pressure that human activities put on the environment can't possibly be sustained," said Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily, who is at the forefront of efforts across the world to incorporate "natural capital," the value of such things as water, topsoil and genetic diversity that nature provides, into economic decision-making.

The efforts are "mostly behind the scenes," Daily said. "No one is going out really trumpeting this work. It's kind of quiet, but really rapid and intensive innovation" around the world.

"Everybody basically understands why we need to change our ways," she said. "The big question now is how."

No limits?

Mainstream economists universally reject the concept of limiting growth. As Larry Summers, a former adviser to President Obama, once put it, "The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs."

Since World War II, the overarching goal of U.S. policy under both parties has been to keep the economy growing as fast as possible. Growth is seen as the base cure for every social ill, from poverty and unemployment to a shrinking middle class. It is seen even by some as the path to a cleaner environment, generating the means for pollution cleanup.     


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