Whether or not a growth-oriented economy has fostered synergies that have spurred technologic progress, in any case this process is now reaching ecological and social limits. It is naïve in another sense to believe that because of its synergistic history, economic and technical development somehow occurs in a sealed vessel that is unaffected by the social, cultural, ecological and spiritual dimensions of livelihood. An excellent recent example of this principle is the report of the Royal Commission on Reproductive Technology, which recommended a number of constraints on the development and application of such technology based on social, psychological and moral considerations. While we may not be able to identify limiting factors within the process of technical creativity, we can certainly define some that characterize the living world as a whole. Our technical and economic system cannot continue producing ever-widening social inequities of power and privilege, or ever-widening chasms between the demand for resources and energy, without regard for the capacity of the planet to provide ecological services and resources.
Similarly, living simply can be an act of sustainable development. There has been much discussion, much of it confused, around the issue of “sustainable development,” which is often freely interchanged with “sustainable economic growth.”
Growth means quantitative expansion in scale, size or number. Northern, industrialized, “developed” nations cannot stand any more growth, nor can the planet support it. If human cultures everywhere on Earth are to sustain themselves over the long term, growth must cease and the pursuit of growth as a means to riches must cease.
Development refers to qualitative or functional improvement. It is an inherently value-laden concept. It refers to changes that are desired and valued. Development is clearly possible in a steady-state, non-growing system.
The confusion of growth with development provides fertile ground for sophistry and manipulation. Those who promote growth can easily confuse and discredit people who question growth as a good means of achieving development. They make their opponents appear to be against progress and development when they question the value of growth.
One way to expand the distinction between growth and development is to note that development usually works to the good of the whole, of all species, and all participants in the development process. Growth, on the other hand, always involves “trade offs,” finding a “balance,” which usually means everyone loses something, and “breaking eggs to make omelets,” which usually means degradation of ecosystems.
Growth degrades environments and communities. Development enhances and enriches them through an increase in variety, diversity, functional integration and interdependence, a deepening of relationships—but all of this without growth in scale, quantity or number.
Voluntary simplicity is all about sustainable development. That is, it is about long-term qualitative improvement in the human lot, which can be pursued indefinitely.
Simplicity is definitely not about growth for its own sake, sustainable economic growth, environmentally sustainable growth, sustainable wealth, or any other self-contradictory notion.