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It is believed that when a truth is acquired, by the play of science or simple logic, it is acquired for all and for all time, and that we will be able to build, for the whole of humanity, a new world based on this truth. It is believed that no book will ever contest it again, and that errors, false beliefs and superstitions concerning it will have no place anywhere. And yet, this is not the case: even when a truth is scientifically acquired, there are always people somewhere, not to surpass it by another scientific truth, but to refuse it, to fight it, and even to convince reasonable people to doubt it. Therefore, it is necessary to constantly, from generation to generation, from country to country, fight against false news and to re-demonstrate what was taken for granted.
This is true for non-intuitive realities, such as the results of the work of Galileo, Bruno, Darwin, Einstein or Schrodinger. It is also true, surprisingly, for much simpler things, in very basic fields, such as accounting.
One might think that nothing is debatable there and that everything is self-evident, simply by adding up; yet some people, for example, continue to believe, and to spread the idea, that economic growth, as measured by corporate or national accounting, is the real cause of climate disruption and other environmental problems. You can even hear it being spouted in the French environmental primaries. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and this forces us to recall the obvious, which we would like to see established once and for all.
There would be no point in interrupting growth, because it is not growth that pollutes, but market production (in the private or public sector). At least in its current form. It is production that destroys the environment, by sending greenhouse gases into the air, by artificialising the soil, by flooding rivers with waste, by polluting the seas. It also destroys the fauna and flora, and eats away at the health of children, women and men through the work it demands of them. Growth is only a small part of market production; reducing it to zero or even making it negative would not be enough to reduce the impact of the rest of production on the environment. In this logic, production should be reduced to zero: it is not growth that pollutes, it is production. And it is production that should be stopped completely.
This is obviously absurd. Yet it would be possible to have production that does not harm the environment. Not by zero growth, and even less by a decrease, but by two major changes in what is produced:
One would make all polluting dimensions of market production disappear, by no longer using fossil fuels, artificial sugar, pesticides, tobacco or drugs to produce. This would mean closing down, or totally reconverting, the oil and gas companies, the producers of plastics, packaging, food, transport, chemicals, textiles and, very largely, tourism enterprises; and some others. It would also mean reorienting all market production towards health, prevention, hygiene, education, healthy food, sustainable agriculture, clean energy, digital, distribution, non-speculative finance, insurance, security, the press, culture and a few other sectors; they do not currently account for half of GDP and they do not degrade the environment. This reorientation would require enormous investments, both to develop them and to reorient other sectors. These investments would bring about a tremendous growth in productivity and production.
The other, more important development should lead to a reduction in the place of market production in human activities; to living with fewer artefacts and more good times. To spend an increasing part of our time without buying, selling or consuming commodities or even tax-financed public goods. This would mean spending more time conversing, laughing, loving, reading, making music or theatre, playing, spending time with friends. All activities that are largely outside the monetary economy.
This evolution would not lead in the long run to less well-being, but to find it elsewhere; not to produce less but to produce other things, to satisfy the immensity of unmet needs, in all countries, developed or not.
Could we overcome the immense difficulties that such a transition would encounter? Could we understand that living well in the very short time we have on this planet is more important than accumulating things? Will we be able to measure our well-being in ways other than by the number of cars or washing machines or telephones produced? Will the current pandemic have given us some of this utopia? Is it possible to achieve such a transformation on a global scale? I do not know. I only know that it is the condition for the survival of humanity.