Harald Welzer's career as a critic of growth began with a few simple reflections. Just how progressive is it, he asked himself, when millions of hectares of land are used elsewhere in the world so that we keep down the cost of meat? How modern is it when producing a kilogram of salmon in a supposedly sustainable way requires feeding the fish five to six kilograms (11 to 13 pounds) of other types of fish?
If everyone used up as much space and resources as we do, says the 54-year-old Berlin-based social psychologist, we would need three earths. In Welzer's eyes, this can hardly be called progress.
All of this made Welzer so angry that he wrote a book critical of equating this sort of progress with growth. The ruling class of economists, who he characterizes as "disdainers of reality" and "proponents of a world essentially limited by consumption," is responsible for compulsively tying these two concepts together, he argues. His treatise, "Selbst denken" ("Thinking for Ourselves"), is a manual for phasing out the "totalitarian consumerism" that gives people desires that, until recently, they didn't even suspect they would ever have.
Until a few months ago, Welzer specialized in studying the psyche of Nazi criminals. He has also written about climate wars. His current bestseller, "Selbst denken," has now made him the figurehead of a movement that radically questions the growth model of the Western economy.
Welzer was also recently named a professor in transformation design at the University of Flensburg, in northern Germany. When a local journalist asked him what transformation design is, he replied: "We don't exactly know yet ourselves." But the goal of the discipline, he added, is to counter the "systematic scam" created by an industry that produces things that break unnecessarily or are hardly capable of being repaired. Welzer wants to "design corridors" in which companies would be given time to transform faceless, no-name products into durable products with an origin and a history.
Economists have largely disregarded the environmental consequences of growth. For them, the key benchmark of prosperity is gross domestic product (GDP), the sum of all products and services produced in a given country. However, GDP does not factor in the overexploitation of resources, the destruction of biological diversity, air pollution, noise, the expansion of impervious surfaces known as soil sealing, and the poisoning of groundwater.
But for many people, a wealth model built on chronic growth is no longer a desirable goal. They are deciding to opt out of this model by establishing "repair cafés" or "transition towns," communities that try to run things differently at the local level. But doubts about the growth dogma are even beginning to creep into politics. For instance, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), recently argued that Western countries should "espouse limiting economic growth" at home.
But can there be prosperity without growth and growth without environmental damage? How can jobs be preserved in a stagnating or even a shrinking economy? How can a government service its debts in such an economy, especially as the population shrinks?
The 'Culture of Enough'
The German parliamentary commission on growth, prosperity and quality of life spent two years trying to find answers to these questions. Two weeks ago, the commission presented its 1,000-page final report. In the end, it was as far removed from a consensus as it was at the beginning.
Faith in never-ending growth has long had its critics. But many found warnings like those coming from the Club of Rome, especially in its study on the "Limits of Growth," to be too alarmist. Nevertheless, the financial crisis has brought renewed misgivings about the system. One of the first to point the way to an alternative was British economist Tim Jackson. In his 2009 book "Prosperity Without Growth," he outlined a "coherent ecological macroeconomics" based on a "fixed" economy with strict upper limits on emissions and resources.
Many in the British political world have viewed Jackson, an expert with the UK's Sustainable Development Commission, as a bit of an oddball. Hostile government tax officials wondered whether Jackson was proposing that we all go back to living in caves. A professor at the University of Surrey, near London, Jackson had had the audacity to paint capitalism as a faulty system, as a gluttony machine that constantly needs new supplies of people prepared to resolutely continue consuming goods and services.
And when consumers lose their taste for new things, Jackson argues, our system has plenty of shrewd advertisers, marketers and investors to persuade us "to spend money we don't have on things that we don't need to create impressions that won't last on people we don't care about." Jackson's book, already translated into 15 languages, became a bestseller in the new "culture of enough."
"It's time to change the channel," says Welzer, the German growth critic. He is giving a talk in a large lecture hall at the University of Flensburg, and the room is so full that even most of the steps along the side are occupied.
"We apply the old recipes, which is typical for societies that come under stress," he says. "They recognize that resources are dwindling, and yet they intensify their exploitation and accelerate their own demise." He sees no better example of this than the way we treat our resources. "Peak oil? Let's drill deeper! Natural gas bottlenecks? Let's use chemicals to pump it out of the earth! Cash-strapped financial markets? Let's flood them!"