What is uneconomic growth? Definition and examples

Uneconomic growth exists when the benefits of economic growth are less than the negative consequences of that economic expansion. Uneconomic growth may occur when the growth in the economy leads to negative environmental, economic, or social consequences. It may also occur when that level of GDP growth is not sustainable and eventually results in future problems.

GDP stands for gross domestic product, i.e., all the goods and services that the economy produces.

Steady State Revolution says the following regarding uneconomic growth:

“When social or environment costs become larger than the benefits of more production and consumption growth is no longer economic.”


Uneconomic growth – asset bubbles

Dramatic increases in the price of real estate, investments, or other assets may boost economic growth in the short term.

For example, a fast-moving real estate market, i.e., houses selling rapidly, can generate lots of taxable income. It is great for sellers because prices keep rising. However, the boom is not producing real economic value.

These asset bubbles invariably damage the economy when they burst.


Uneconomic growth

Sometimes we need to take our foot off the accelerator. Otherwise, we could be undermining our future, or perhaps the future of generations to come.


Uneconomic growth – ecology

Sometimes, economic growth may reach a point in which its benefits are less than its harms to the environment. In other words, there is too much ecological damage. Ecological damage means damage to our physical surroundings, i.e., our environment.

Concerns about possible detrimental effects of GDP growth on the environment lead some people to advocate for slower growth.

Many green parties across the world argue that our economies form part of a global society. They also say that a global society and a global ecology cannot outstrip their natural growth without causing harm.

Ecological damage – example

Let’s imagine that John Doe Widgets Inc. opens a giant factory near a medium-sized town. John Doe produces small plastic widgets. The new factory is great for the economy because it creates jobs and additional revenue for the government.

However, it also dumps toxins into the town’s water supply. The consequences of this damage are greater than the economic benefits.

Water pollution is a problem that has been getting worse across the world.

Nineteenth-century British political economist, David Ricardo, worried about population growth. He said that the human population would eventually exceed nature’s capacity to provide for much more than subsistence.

Ricardo, a believer in free trade and a free market economy, continues influencing economic thinking today.


Video – Uneconomic Growth

In this Right Livelihood Award Foundation video, Prof. Herman Daly talks about uneconomic growth.

Prof. Daly is an American ecologist and Georgist economist. He is an emeritus professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, United States.

Economists and ecologists attribute the concept of uneconomic growth to Prof. Daly.