I suspect the reason life without economic growth is currently so unthinkable to so many—or at best leads to a curiously circular variety of debate—is that growth effectively amounts to a continual bribing of the population, whereby a degree of social stability is purchased through an implicit promise of general enrichment—the “rising tide that lifts all boats”.
In short, the prospect of growth says to elites and general public alike: “stay with the system more or less the way it is, don’t make too many waves, just behave yourself—and I promise every year you’ll be on average 3-5% better off.”
There is no point denying that assured enrichment, even at a modest pace, has its charms. Presented with such an offer—so long as it seems credible—few people will prefer rolling the dice on a re-structuring of society, way of life, and energy use that, likely as not, could involve major sacrifice and raise the specter of chaos. (Put another way: climbing aboard the “growth-wagon” seems to promise a far more pleasant ride than the “revolution-wagon”.)
On the other hand, once the offer ceases to be credible—that is, once resource degradation, technological stagnation, extreme upward wealth-transfer, or all of the above make growth impracticable or imperceptible to most citizens—then, of course, stability can no longer be purchased in this way.
An important feature of the “endlessly-expanding payoff” way of securing stability is that it is psychologically oriented almost entirely towards pure, short-term self-enrichment. Any failure of growth in such a system is therefore likely to fall upon a population with a considerably weakened grasp of self-discipline, shared goals, community, foresight, and sacrifice—values that are intangible and almost anathema under growth, but likely essential for decent civil order in non-growth conditions.
Most economists, when questioned on the matter, will point out that most problems in society and government are made almost automatically easier to handle as long as growth continues robustly; conversely, poor growth or de-growth makes these problems more intractable. In short, bribery-through-growth is a kind of governmental shortcut that allows us to simply overlook or discount what are, in many ways, the true challenges of governance—including the civic, social, and environmental virtues instrumental to it.
So here is the supremely uncomfortable question, the one we nervously circle around when we dare approach it at all: in a society that has downplayed values in favor of bribery, what happens if the bribes stop coming?