Symptoms of growth addiction

Shifting towards sustainability requires recognising our economies growth addiction. Here’s your therapist’s list of symptoms. 

The most important insight of ecological economic research might not be that there are clear ecological and social limits to growth (as discussed in a previous food for thought post), but that our system is addicted to growth. Several authors have used the analogy of addiction to describe our fixation on growth no matter the cost [1, 2]. Let me be clear that addiction in all various forms is nothing to be ashamed of and this is not meant as a moralizing blogpost. We stigmatize and individualize addiction and related health issues and isolate those who are suffering. It also creates a myth that addiction is a niche phenomenon, whereas addiction is widespread and doesn’t just concern drugs or gambling: when work is an addiction, we are impressed and reward folks as true “workaholics” [3].

To explore the analogy of growth addiction, here is what I did: I looked up lists of symptoms of drug addiction and replaced words related to substance use with words related to the economic treadmill we are in: economic growth, consumption, income, work, stress and care. I wrote words I replaced in CAPITAL LETTERS. You can find the original list of symptoms here [4]. When reading these sentences you can imagine them being said (or felt internally) from various positions: as a politician, a CEOs or as an individual citizen. Check for yourself which symptoms you can observe, and which ones you don’t. Here is what it looks like:

GROWTH ADDICTION symptoms or behaviors include, among others:

  • Feeling that WE have to CONSUME regularly — daily or even several times a day
  • Having intense urges for ECONOMIC GROWTH that block out any other thoughts
  • Over time, needing more INCOME to get the same effect
  • Taking LONGER WORKING TIME over a longer period of time than WE intended
  • Making certain that WE maintain a supply of CONSUMPTION
  • Spending money on CONSUMPTION, even though you can’t afford it
  • Not meeting obligations and CARE responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of WORK
  • Continuing ECONOMIC GROWTH, even though WE know it’s causing problems in OUR SOCIETIES or causing US physical or psychological harm
  • Doing things to GROW THE ECONOMY that WE normally wouldn’t do, such as stealing
  • CONSUMING or doing other risky activities when you’re STRESSED
  • Spending a good deal of time getting INCOME, CONSUMING or recovering from WORK
  • Failing in your attempts to stop CONSUMPTION
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop ECONOMIC GROWTH

I find the analogy helpful to show how we continue business as usual even in the light of disastrous consequences. It highlights an experience many people have in the current economy: we lack time and capacity to care for what really matters and feel unable to escape the treadmill. Our economic system is literally becoming part of our internal psyche creating “mental infrastructures” of growth [5] when our culture is teaching us that we need to expand our options and capitals to be worthy. We are locked into an economy, where our social participation depends on expanding our income and we feel the need to defend our position [6]. As addiction is not an individual problem, so is our unsustainable growth economy. What the addiction image doesn’t communicate: the benefits of growth are not shared equally and inequality is a key driver for this vicious cycle. Bearing that in mind, if we acknowledge the collective addiction to growth, we can see that a drastic transformation of working-, provisioning- and distribution structures are required to liberate our path towards sustainable forms of well-being. As with curing addiction, degrowth means phasing out growth with a planned, caring and collective approach rather than through an abrupt recession by disaster, impacting marginalized people the most. 






[6] Dean curran (2017). The Treadmill of Production and the Positional Economy of Consumption. Canadian Review of Sociology.

Image credits: Frederick Marschall on Unsplash

Author: Sven-David Pfau, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien / Austria

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