Why do we continue to believe in infinite economic growth on a finite planet? Plenty of meticulously researched books and peer-reviewed articles report the consequences of excessive economic growth, including climate destabilization, biodiversity loss, ecosystem declines, and resource shortages. Overarching indicators (e.g., the ecological footprint) and global analyses (e.g., planetary boundaries) suggest that the scale of the global economy has surpassed the capacity of ecosystems to safely contain it. Despite such troubling evidence, economists, politicians, and the media remain mostly silent regarding the limits to growth, and high-consuming societies continue to pursue the maladaptive strategy of GDP growth. Ecological economics, an interdisciplinary field that has emerged over the last several decades, provides robust ideas on economic alternatives to perpetual growth, but these ideas have failed to make their way into the mainstream teaching or practice of economics.
Silence reigns because politicians, media moguls, and other people who influence public opinion share a common perception that economic growth equates to prosperity and serves as a proxy for progress. One of the main reasons this perception persists is protective cognition—a game of mental gymnastics in which people tend to dismiss scientifically sound evidence if it poses a threat to their worldview. They don’t want to believe that something they esteem (e.g., economic growth) could be detrimental to society. Furthermore, acceptance of the limits to growth could drive a wedge between them and their peers, so they have a strong inclination to reject the notion.
Overcoming denial of the limits to growth requires three complementary steps: (1) widespread inclusion of ecological economics in academic curricula, (2) increased engagement of politicians and the media on the subject, and (3) development of a communication strategy that circumvents protective cognition. This third step is critical because failure to bypass protective cognition will render the first two steps ineffective. The key is to frame information about the limits to growth in a way that prevents people from feeling threatened. Such framing can dampen denial and diminish the dangerous allure of endless economic growth.