unizeit Schriftzug

On the essence of the idea of growth

How do we as people deal with our finality? And what has that got to do with growth criticism? An interview with philosopher Professor Ludger Heidbrink.

Woodcut showing 4 riders and some people
© gemeinfrei

People have had visions of the end of the world or at least of civilisation for many centuries. Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, woodcut, 1498

unizeit: Your research project is called “Finite world and open future. Finality and growth criticism in contemporary political thought”. It began in the autumn and is set to run for three years. What is the idea behind it?

Professor Ludger Heidbrink: To be correct, I am not working on this alone, but in cooperation with my colleague, political scientist Tine Stein, who recently transferred to the University of Göttingen. Initially, what interested us here was this one question: what is the origin of the persistence of the idea of growth, which not only shapes the economy but also the whole of society and almost every individual? For at least 50 years – I will only name the Club of Rome report “Limits to Growth” of 1972 here – we have talked about the limits of growth. But still, we cannot get away from progress and augmentation of wealth. This almost bears the traits of an obsession.

How do you aim to approach the subject?

We are interested not in the economic, but in the mental side of growth. We want to know why it is so ingrained in our minds and whether that possibly has something to do with the originally religiously motivated idea of the end of history, which leads to the Last Judgement. It is clear to see that, with secularisation from the 18th century onwards, the Christian notion of salvation was replaced by the idea of progress and the idea of a growth of humanity.

Ludger Heidbrink in his office
© Martin Geist

Ludger Heidbrink considers the connection between belief in growth and finality.

What exactly does that mean?

Our approach is based on, among other things, the coincidence of life-time and world-time described by philosopher Hans Blumenberg. Given the immeasurable spatial and also temporal dimensions of the universe, our own life-time is so small that it actually has nothing to do with world-time. This changes with the start of the modern age: world-time overlaps life-time to a certain extent and merges with it. Hitler, for example, no longer made any distinction at all, in principle, between his life-time and world-time.

He believed that in his own life-time he had to bring the Third Reich as a comprehensive act of salvation across the whole globe. Thankfully, because people do not normally think in this way, they have to approach the matter in a different way. Salvation is no longer brought by the Last Judgement but by progress, the eternal pursuit of augmentation and improvement. Carpe diem as postulate of growth. Make the most out of the day as you do not have an endless supply of them.

This notional transformation has its origins in the Christian religion and its secularisation. In his work “The Protestant Ethic” (Die protestantische Ethik), Max Weber describes how the pursuit of material wealth combined with modest living was regarded as proof of godliness and contributed to the emergence of capitalism. This is the case in everyday life, too: we generally want to make the best out of our lives and no-one voluntarily goes without or makes their situation worse. Interestingly, even going without is done in order to have a better life, as in the motto “less is more”.

Nevertheless, there are many people who criticise the fetish for “more and more”.

This is what my colleague Tine Stein is focusing on in the second part of the project. She is looking at authors like Hans Jonas, Rudolf Bahro, Hoimar von Ditfurth or Carl Amery, i.e. people who have insistently warned against the consequences of endless growth for decades. The apocalyptic dimension inherent in these warnings is striking. In principle, the message is: if humanity does not make a radical reversal, earth is doomed. And following these lines of thought, too, we would again hit upon the secularised version of the Last Judgement.

It seems these end-of-time visions are all the rage again right now.

The climate movement has apocalyptic elements that assume dangerous dimensions at times. Talking about the climate emergency is ahistorical. It masks the fact that emergency regulations contributed to the fall of the Weimar Republic and that they can be used to interfere with the parliamentary constitution with the justification of wanting to prevent a disaster. With growth criticism since the 1970s, a rhetoric has been used that has the power to question our democratic foundations.

So is it all just scaremongering about climate matters?

No, of course not, the danger is real and cannot be denied. I am simply asking for a less extreme perspective. We have to find a solution to the growth problem in a liberal and democratic manner.

This interview was conducted by Martin Geist.

German Research Foundation (DFG) projects on “Politics and Ethics of Finality”

The project “Finite world and open future. Finality and growth criticism in contemporary political thought” by Professor Ludger Heidbrink and political scientist Professor Tine Stein of the University of Göttingen is part of a triple package of support provided to Kiel University by the German Research Foundation (DFG) for research on the subject of finality and growth criticism up to autumn 2022. This also includes a project by Kiel-based environmental ethicist Professor Konrad Ott on “Ethical Life and Sustainability in a Post-Growth Society”. Finally, in the third part of the project, Professor Stein is considering the possibilities of an ecological transformation of society.