The Dark Side of Economic Growth

The challenge of global warming has brought us face to face with a stark reality. Economic growth is exploitative of nature and unless we make some fundamental changes we could be headed for an environmental catastrophe from which there might be no recovery.

Thinking about this issue has revived a concern that is even more problematic: Is economic growth exploitative only of nature or is it exploitative in general? In this post we will examine the historical record to seek some answers to this question.

The relationship of economic growth to nature is fairly simple. Starting with the post-industrial era (which is not much more than a quarter of a millennium old at most) economic growth has relied upon the use of fossil fuels and the rate at which greenhouse gasses have been discharged into the atmosphere, we now find, is environmentally unsustainable.

Now that we know what the problem is many hope that we will be able to find the technological solutions (renewable sources of affordable energy) and the political will (a global accord to phase out fossil fuel use) to attain a sustainable pattern of economic growth before it is too late.

This issue is complex but not conceptually problematic. We have been exploiting nature, we need to stop doing so, and it is difficult but possible to find an alternative trajectory of economic growth that is environmentally sustainable. What has conceptually become much more obscure is the potentially problematic relationship of economic growth to the exploitation of human beings.

Let us oversimplify a little to argue that right up to the time of hunting and gathering societies human life was in harmony with economic growth simply because there was no accumulation. This is true by definition since without accumulation there can be no economic growth in the way growth is traditionally defined.

It was with the advent of settled agriculture that the notion of accumulation became relevant. At the same time there was the emergence of hierarchical societies. And just as immediately one saw the foundation of economic growth resting on the institution of coerced or slave labor. Here we have the first manifestation of the exploitative nature of economic growth – the exploitation of some human beings by other human beings for the accumulation of economic surplus.

While slave labor continued in one form or another from the beginning of the agricultural age right up to the nineteenth century, in some places it took other forms that were just as exploitative. The best known of these is serfdom in Europe; the caste system of India could also be considered a variant. In this perspective we can conclude that economic growth has been exploitative of human beings for most of human history.

With the emergence of representative governments of one form or another one would have expected an end to such exploitation given that these forms of governance were based on the notion of human equality. This did not turn out to be the case. Equality, to the extent it mattered, remained confined within national borders while those outside remained fair game for exploitation.

It was in this era that countries with representative systems of governance became the leading colonialists and went on a massive land grab over the rest of the globe. It can be said that their economic growth was greatly spurred by the exploitation of human beings outside their borders. The major colonialists were the European countries while Japan played a similar role in Asia.

We are now ostensibly in the post-colonial age and without their colonies countries like England, Spain, Holland and Portugal have reverted to the status of so-called second-rate powers. However, neo-colonialism is alive and well: the waging of wars by the US and its support of dictatorships around the world in defense of  “our” oil and living standards suggests that the relationship between economic growth and exploitation of human beings remains very much alive.

The US provides the stark illustration that enables us to see this phenomenon with ease. However, if we look more closely, we find that the exploitation of human beings is not uncommon accompaniment of economic growth – it is just not readily obvious. For example, economic growth in England at one time was based on the exploitation of child labor; China’s recent growth has exploited the ‘floating population’ that is made up of peasants with less rights that urbanites; Thailand has cashed in on the bodies of rural women sacrificed to the entertainment and tourism industries; Pakistan failed in the attempt to exploit its eastern wing but has been more successful in its one-sided extraction of resources from Balochistan.

In this perspective we can once again comprehend the realities that must have exercised the minds of Marx and Engels. The exploitation of human beings must have been much more obvious at that time in order to trigger their intellectual challenge. The Marxian analyses of the consequences and the prescriptions for solutions were flawed but the phenomena that attracted attention were no doubt very real.

This reality remains with us although it is now masked in many ways. Economic growth remains exploitative – the exploitation of human beings began with the onset of agriculture and the exploitation of nature was added with the onset of industry. Both continue in various forms. If this is true what are likely to be consequences of trying to overcome the present economic crisis with yet more economic growth based on financial stimuli?

The irony in this issue is that much less attention has been given to the exploitation of human beings than to the exploitation of nature. There is no doubt that this reflects the fact that the consequences of the exploitation of human beings are much more selective than the likely consequences of the exploitation of nature. It is sobering to realize that thousands of years of such exploitative economic growth has left almost half of humanity with less than a tenth of global wealth – this disparity exists both across countries and within many countries. Is the rise of various puzzling reactions to economic globalization a part of the process we are trying to understand?

Clearly such a pattern of economic growth cannot be justified on ethical grounds. And, if not, do we need to think about the essential characteristics of a pattern of economic growth that could be considered non-exploitative? Is it possible to imagine such a possibility? What would it take to achieve it?


  • Vinod
    Posted at 10:35h, 09 March Reply

    Is it possible to imagine such a possibility? What would it take to achieve it?

    I believe in that spiritual message of all religions that answers this question – man has to learn contentment! Resources will always be limited to satisfy all his needs.

    I think a course in ‘Happiness’ has to be introduced into education everywhere, which will take into account the religious teachings on happiness.


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:25h, 09 March

      Vinod: Religions are compatible with very different life styles – from the ascetic to the opulent; and people adopting very different styles feel equally religious. So, I don’t think religion can provide an operational guide for this aspect of private behavior. At the same time, it would be very risky to get the state involved in inferring an allowable lifestyle from a religious code and imposing it upon all citizens many of whom would not agree with the interpretation.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 14:51h, 10 March

      SA, religions that have had mass appeal cutting across class and caste barriers and stood the tests of time tend to be more similar to each other. Any quasi-religious movements that have, for example, supported materialism as an end in itself, has usually tended to be a fringe movement in a society.

      While it is risky to bring religion into the picture, I believe that in the long term a steep price is being paid by trying to exclude religon as well. The risk has to be taken along with steps to mitigate the cancerous growth of anything fanatic. Hard to do, but not impossible.

      Every religion has humanistic streams of thought in it that can be used for this purpose.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:13h, 10 March

      Vinod: We can disregard quasi-religious movements and focus just on the mainstream religions. All mainstream religions contain a very diverse variety of thoughts some of which are humanistic and some not. Which of these gets highlighted at the collective level at any particular time is more a function of politics than anything else. There is a long history that led to the separation of church and state but that should not exclude religion from the personal sphere.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 07:34h, 12 March Reply

    Some evidence provided by Kuldip Nayar on the nature of exploitation in the pursuit of economic growth in India should help move this discussion further and relate it more to South Asia:

    I met in Raipur recently many tribals who had been ousted from their land and villages to make room for industrialists, Indian and foreigner industrialists are out to exploit natural resources. The ragtag Salwa Judum force is an armed private outfit that the government has constituted to drive out tribals by force…

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:35h, 19 November Reply

    An interesting discussion with the philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the future of capitalism and liberalism:

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:26h, 11 March Reply

    Why is the world’s largest democracy “killing its own children”? Madhusree Mukerjee argues that “the real reason behind India’s worsening human rights record could be the investment boom and resource rush that underpin its explosive economic growth.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:36h, 20 July Reply

    The recent Supreme Court judgment on the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh is a scathing indictment of the model of growth being pursued in India. Effectively this judgment endorses what Arundhati Roy has been claiming all along.

    Excerpt: Chhattisgarh reminds the judges of novelist Joseph Conrad’s depiction of late 19th century Africa in his Heart of Darkness, where colonialists indulged in “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”. The worst darkness is “represented by inhumanity and evil, to which individual human beings are capable of descending, when supreme and unaccounted force is vested …”.

    This calls for questioning the model of economic development we have taken for granted.

    The complete Supreme Court judgment is here:

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