Nicole Foss and the End of Growth

New ideas about ‘progress’

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on 21st January 2012


I don’t think anything remotely like business-as-usual is going to come back in our lifetimes, or probably ever again, quite frankly.

These are the words of Stoneleigh, aka Nicole Foss. One of the world’s leading writers and speakers on the global energy and financial crises, the deep connections between them, and the implications for advanced economies such as our own, Nicole is travelling to Australia next month on a speaking tour. She will be visiting Coffs Harbour on Saturday, February 11, and speaking and answering questions for a couple of hours from 12 p.m. at the Cavanbagh Centre. The Advocate is sponsoring her visit, and will be running a series of articles exploring aspects of her thought over the next few weeks.

Nicole Foss, aka Stoneleight
Nicole Foss, aka Stoneleight

“Business-as-usual” means all sorts of things, of course, but here Nicole is talking specifically about economic growth. An expanding economy is the very definition of ‘normal’, which is why deep recessions, and above all depressions, are regarded as so awful. The idea that we are perhaps on the cusp of entering a prolonged – very prolonged – period of deflationary depression is extremely hard to contemplate with equanimity. Yet this is the no-holds-barred perspective that Nicole offers; and she does so on the basis of a sharp and clear analysis, with the sole motivation of helping individuals and communities inform themselves and prepare for the seismic changes she believes are now unfolding.

Buen Vivir

Let’s assume for a moment that Nicole is right. This raises all sorts of questions, but the one I want to look at briefly here is this: can the end of economic growth actually be a good news story? If you ask any politician of any major party in most parts of the world, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. The terrible experience of the 1930s has been seared into our collective historical memory as something to be avoided at all costs, and with good reason.

And yet…as time has gone on, many are saying that the costs of growth now outweigh the benefits. More growth means more pollution, more waste. Having more ‘stuff’ doesn’t mean that we’re any happier. Bigger doesn’t always mean better – have you watched SuperSize Me? Maybe it’s time to start thinking in terms of quality, rather than quantity.

That’s what been happening on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Ecuador and Bolivia. The citizens of both countries recently re-wrote their constitutions, and in them they included some old wisdom from the Quechua and Aymara indigenous peoples of the Andes as the guiding principle for the new development paradigm they wish to follow. Sumak Kawsay is a Quechau phrase that translates as buen vivir in Spanish; which in English we might understand as ‘good life’ or ‘living well’.

In contrast to individualistic ideas of progress based on economic growth, buen vivir seeks balance and harmony, amongst peoples, and between humanity and nature, as its primary goals. In a recent article, Thomas Fatheuer notes that it is ‘sharply distinct from the idea of individual good life’; and is ‘only conceivable in a social context, mediated by the community in which people live’.

Interestingly, buen vivir is being embraced by two of the poorest countries in the world, whose main source of ‘wealth’ has traditionally been based on the extraction of their natural resources, minerals especially. That they are seeking to strike out on a different path at this point in time should give us pause for thought, as we seek to keep riding on the wave of the minerals boom.

Maybe buen vivir is relevant to us; maybe not. But at the very least it offers a positive story for the future.


Nicole Foss and her co-writer Ilargi Mendoz (touring Australia with her) write at The Automatic Earth:

Thomas Fatheur’s discussion of buen vivir can be read here: