For years, economists have posited that prosperity requires growth, with environmental damage as the regrettable but unavoidable consequence. A growing number of critics are now challenging this equation, though, calling for a radical revamping of the economic system.
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.