Slow economic growth is not just an after-effect of the Great Recession but part of a deeper malaise that predates, and indeed may have helped cause, the financial crisis. A number of narratives have emerged in recent years to try to explain this global dearth of growth, such as the ‘debt overhang’ narrative, which states that growth is primarily hampered by an excessive indebtedness of economic agents, or various versions of the ‘secular stagnation’ narrative, which sees the cause of slow growth in a chronic shortfall of demand resulting from population ageing and the rise of income and wealth inequality, and/or in the diminishing returns of technological innovation. These various narratives probably all have some degree of validity. However, they tend to focus on developments that, even if they act as mutually reinforcing drags on growth, are in fact symptoms of the world’s economic predicament rather its deeper root causes.
Even more than from what most economists usually look at, i.e. constraints on capital and labour and on the productivity of their use, the slowdown of global economic growth since before the financial crisis might be resulting from factors that they typically ignore, i.e. constraints on the supply of energy and other biophysical resources that feed into the economic process and impact its functioning. In fact, the world’s capacity to create additional wealth is getting increasingly eroded by biophysical boundaries that over time tend to raise the acquisition costs, constrain the quantity and degrade the quality of the flows of energy and natural resources that can be delivered to the economic process, as well as by the constantly increasing costs of some of the economic process’ side effects (i.e. ‘negative externalities’ including environmental degradation and climate change), and the growing need to ‘internalise’ them into the price system. These biophysical constraints, as they increase, tend to weigh more and more on the economy’s productive capacity, thus eroding the potential for productivity and output growth.