The Ideology of Growth

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The BRIC countries (Brasil, Rossiya, Bhārat (India) and Zhōngguó (China)) and their economic areas of influence.
Today I attended an invitation-only forum on the future of Canada. It was attended by many of Canada’s business and political leaders, and had a speaker’s roster so exceptional that one of the speakers (a household name) actually sponsored the event (apparently to ensure a seat on the podium).

Keynote speaker was Fareed Zakaria, one of my favourite political and economic commentators, despite his willingness to work with (and hence provide a bit of credibility to) mainstream media networks. I was impressed at his grasp of the current financial crisis (he blew away the rest of the speakers both in his eloquence and his imagination), a subject he has not talked or written about much.

He had five recommendations for Canada and Canadian business leaders:

  1. Manage for uncertainty and change: Nothing lasts forever, and trends tend to “regress to the mean”.
  2. Focus on opportunities, not threats: Canada is uniquely positioned today, strong in both natural and intellectual capital, with a better health system than Americans’ and the healthiest banking system in the world.
  3. Encourage your kids to learn a foreign language: English is not enough in the 21st century.
  4. Think laterally: Be agile, and innovative. The old solutions won’t work any more, if they ever did.
  5. Look to and listen to struggling nations for ideas: They’ve had to deal with problems we’re facing now, and without the resources we have at our disposal. And now that struggling nations make up half of the world’s productive capacity, they’re not going to just accept our models and rules anymore.

Some of his other key insights:

  • Brasil, India and China (and perhaps Russia) are the future world economic leaders, because their domestic markets alone are sufficient to sustain them, and because they’re surrounded by other countries that are now economically outperforming the affluent nations. China is no longer co-dependent on the US, and now they know it — despite the collapse of US orders in the last year, they will still grow by 6% this year. These countries have studied affluent nations’ economic systems and endured the rigors of IMF/World Bank scrutiny, and they know what they’re doing, perhaps better than we do.
  • The advice given by the IMF/World Bank to Asia on what to do when their economies imploded in the 1980s is the exact opposite of what affluent nations are now doing in the same situation. As a result the IMF/World Bank has lost the last of its credibility.
  • In North America, 60-75% of science program graduates are immigrants. Our future as innovators, and as countries that actually produce anything of value, is almost entirely dependent on generous immigration policy. 

What was sobering about all of the discussion of the day, including Fareed’s, was the assumption that the objective of all the current bailouts, interventions and government actions on the economy should be to stimulate rapid growth of consumer spending. The word ‘growth’ was mentioned by four panelists no fewer than 40 times in an hour-long discussion.

When will economic and political thinkers realize that growth is the problem, not the solution?

World population is still growing at a 50-year doubling rate, when we already have far more humans than the planet can sustainably support. These struggling nations, in order to have a reasonable quality of life, are aspiring to increase their per-capita wealth and consumption by a factor of ten, at which point we will be going through the Earth’s resources at twenty times sustainable level, like a horde of locusts stripping everything in sight bare. Yet all the economic thinking is aimed at bringing about precisely this outcome. This is short-termism carried to its extreme, and it’s exceedingly dangerous. The belief that it is somehow attainable is magical thinking, an ideology of growth.

Why is it that normally intelligent people are so stupid they don’t get this?

There seems to be several (lunatic) assumptions underlying this ideology:

  1. Human population will magically level off at the level of resources sustainably available on the planet. Daniel Quinn has shown the absurdity of this assumption, which is fueled by the fact that, in recent times, birth rates have fallen as wealth has risen. This has not been true throughout history and there is no basis to believe it will continue. In fact, most women in both affluent and struggling nations want more children than they’re actually having, and it is their relative poverty, not their wealth or education, that they cite as the reason for not having as many children as they want.
  2. Struggling nations, in the interest of preserving the planet, will give up their ambition to live at the same standard of living as affluent nations. The nonsensical assumption is baked into immigration forecasts and forecasts about what struggling nations will do to help combat climate change (i.e. much more than their share).
  3. We can live, forever, beyond our means. Our debt levels (expenditures over income, consumption over production, use and loss of resources over restoration and regeneration), debt levels in our personal and corporate and government accounts, debts at the expense of our environment and future generations, are at unprecedented levels and accelerating out of control. But still we think we can print more money, borrow more, spend more, consume more, use more, and never have to be accountable for the excess.
  4. Human ingenuity will always come up with ways to accommodate perpetual growth. This is the most fantastical assumption of all, since it runs counter to all evidence from history (civilizations always collapse, and usually collapse suddenly and spectacularly when they become unsustainable). This assumption runs counter to the laws of thermodynamics (somehow we’re going to be able to increase the total amount of energy on the planet, forever). It assumes that we will be able to produce more and more heat without ever changing the climate of the planet (when in fact evidence is the opposite). It assumes that problems of energy production and climate change that the most knowledgeable scientists on the planet virtually unanimously agree are beyond their wildest dreams to imagine and conceive of viable solutions to, will be solved, and soon, and without unforseen consequences.

The enemy, as always, is short-termism, the fact that it is in the nature of humans (and indeed all creatures) to be preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and leave ‘tomorrow’ to take care of itself.

So once again we are distracted by today’s crisis (Enron, 9/11, Katrina, and now the financial system meltdown) and our solution, in each case, is to do everything possible, at any cost, to restore things to the way they were before the crisis.

In the meantime, the debts mount up, the pressures on the systems wound ever tighter grow more intense and frequent, our whole way of life becomes more leveraged and more fragile, and we remain oblivious. There is no significant difference between the Ideology of Growth and the Ideology of the Rapture. Both are reckless, religious, fantastical, mythological, and ultimately nihilistic. They’re manifest in the acedia that Gene McCarthy warned about 40 years ago, and in the anomie of today’s young people that Michael Adams alerted us to three years ago.

It’s been going on for thirty thousand years. I guess we should be used to it by now.

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16 Responses to The Ideology of Growth

  1. Sarah says:

    I just got into it (politely) with my environmental economics professor about growth yesterday. It seems that among my grad school cohort, most of whom are in their mid-to-late-20s, it is assumed that perpetual growth isn’t possible (though I don’t know that any of them really see growth coming to a halt in the very near future), but my professor was absolutely shocked by the suggestion that our economy and GDP wouldn’t just continue to grow forever. Which I found incredibly frustrating, because if environmentalists who study things like market failure (his specialty) don’t even see through the growth myth, how many other people will?? He told me that we would “just have to agree to disagree”. So thank for posting this. It’s nice to know I’m not alone here.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hey Sarah:I find this again and again, with very bright people who just can’t see beyond this worldview/mindset. I was really unhappy to see The New Yorker this week do a hatchet job on Jim Kunstler (mostly ad hominem, trying to discredit him without really discussing what he talks about). Sad. But as Daniel Quinn says, we have to wait until people are ready to hear this — until then it’s largely wasting one’s breath and energy. Great new blog BTW!

  3. I thought it must be a ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, with no-one being willing to be the first to advocate zero growth. But from reading your post Dave and your comment Sarah, it appears even ‘intelligent’ experts are just as sucked into the hypnotic mantra of growth as much as your blue collar worker who wants a second or third car.The thing is, and you keep mentioning this Dave, there has to be a better alternative to growth, otherwise, why should anyone give it up? The alternative has to be ‘quality of life’ and ‘quality’ has to be interpreted as something independent from material wealth.When quality then becomes more desirable to growth, the hysterical battle cry of growth will reveal itself to be the outdated insanity that it is and intelligent people will feel embarrassed that they ever lent support to such a cause.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Ivor: I think it really comes down to imaginative poverty. Most North Americans have never experienced anything except the industrial growth economy at its best — not its first 150 years when it didn’t work well, and they know of no other economic models. We need to help them imagine a steady-state economy, with credible data that shows it can work, but only if we put a cap on unlimited and reckless consumption, make conspicuous consumption socially unacceptable, and accept that government has an important role in regulating oligopoly and other excesses.

  5. Paris says:

    I wonder if it’s not mostly ‘experts’ who want us to believe in the growth mantra…cause really even my neighbors are fully aware of environmental issues, and especially that we’re too many on the planet.

  6. dave – great as always and much appreciated that you share what you learn and hear in what are often ‘closed’ / private meetings attended by x people…specifically on your growth comment: “When will economic and political thinkers realize that growth is the problem, not the solution?”- I have been thinking a lot about this lately. About obsession with growth…a few weeks ago however I had an insight about myself: I also value growth eg personal growth etc. I too can become obsessed / frustrated with growth / lack of… how big how much how long…how little I have progressed and so I suppose while I don’t have an answer I am sitting with the question quite consciously the last month or so, and one thing that has emerged is only when I, yes I, redefine, what growth means and how much I need it in my life as a defining quality…and what type of growth. And…also, the idea of growth and it’s compliment, rest. growth is healthy, but only when it is balanced sufficiently with rest. Again I am reminded of cancer. A common disease / dis-ease, it too seems to have risen significantly…I am not suggesting that anyone deserves diseases or I understand cancer but I do believe that illness has something to teach us and our bodies. And I do wonder if cancer’s lesson is the importance of rest. Afterall what is cancer if not a cell that know’s how to grow – and grow and grow and grow. And not how to stop…the scary part about cancer as a disease, unlike many other’s, is that it continues to grow to the point that it kills it’s host, and thus itself. It is growth seeking, but not necessarily life seeking. And that is a dangerous position for any living system.I am concerned about the world, and myself, because I see that with whatever ‘crisis’ we are in I don’t see the rest, the ‘stop’. I keep wondering when I, or the world, will say – I need a rest. How much more could be achived if we say, close all the stock markets for a week, a month, andgive the the numbers a good long rest. turn of the cars for a week and give them a good long rest. And then from that position of rest attempt to make decisions and have new thoughts.Bringing it back to myself, the word that comes up for me is balance. I like to grow and learn, and if I push too hard things get stressful, I get stressed and tired or sick or cranky or…my body will do a lot simply to make me REST. Sometimes I push it, but I’ve been getting better at accepting that I need rest too. And there isn’t much ‘super’ in superhuman. This is a long lesson for me – I can still recall my grandparent’s warning me to slow down “the slower you walk the further you get”…Growth is not a problem in and of itself. Nothing is, growth without it’s antynom, say rest, however, is. That and I sometimes convince myself that growth is only possible in doing…not in resting. Which I can see to be a flawed ‘knowing’.I think that a lot of the ‘crisis’ we see and sadly, or perhaps, realistically, we will continue to see is simply a system seeking balance. I will leave with a final thought I heard from someone else (but sadly can’t remember who! apologies if you are reading this!): I used to worry that the world would end, now I realise the world can look after itself. But that’s no guarantee it will look after us.with warmth, and now, off to restNatalie

  7. John Graham says:

    I think one reason for the treadmill is an addiction to jobs. It could well be true that without GDP growth, you get massive unemployment. Ideally, not having to waste time being employed would unleash energy for valuable non-market activity (and inactivity), but the reality of unemployment on a planet with nothing much left but the market is pretty ugly.Another reason I suspect is national self-interest. If we’re in a lolly scramble for the world’s remaining resources, growing your nation’s economy probably increases your country-people’s share of those resources.

  8. I disagree. There may or may not be some absolute limits to sustainable growth, but we are far from them now.Think about a rainforest – resources are continually reused, and so they support an extraordinary richness of life. We will get better at reusing our resources, and recognizing that there is “no such thing as waste” (Google “no such thing as waste” Appropedia) and finding ever better ways of improving our quality of life while using less resources on each cycle.For now though, we are in crisis. Proclaiming – even looking forward to – some sort of inevitable coming collapse does not strike me as helpful. (Warning of a likely collapse if we don’t take drastic action is different, and well justified.) A more constructive approach is to move towards a philosophy of collaboration, of co-creating solutions to our mess. That’s what I’m working on – it’s the only real path forward I can see.

  9. Amanda says:

    “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”–Edward Abbey

  10. Another thought: simply condemning “growth” is too vague (as is simply praising growth). Are we talking about oil drilling? The expenditure on a cleanup after a chemical spill? Or the transaction between a massage therapist and their client? The massage therapist buying a bicycle to visit their clients? The first 2 are unsustainable growth. I can’t see any unavoidable negative impact from the 3rd, and only a very small impact from the fourth. Distinguish these, or any analysis is meaningless.

  11. Willa says:

    Hello Dave, first of all my congratulations for your very interesting blog, and the last post on this conference in Canada. However although I very much agree in spirit, I would like to disagree with some of the specifics. I don’t think growth itself is the problem. Growth is a natural human drive, and evolutionary and creative drive, that in my view can’t be reverted without denying our deepest drive to not only exist, but become. I think the question is more: Growth of what? Growth to what? In the last 30 thousand years of growth it has been in a limited dimension – mainly material/physical/intellectual. We are now finding the painful limit of that, realising we are about to destroy ourselves. So that material growth needs to be transformed into higher dimensions, which luckily we now have access to. Humanity has cultivated higher levels of consciousness for thousands of years however this has always been in opposition to our practical, material evolution. But now is the time to make it all one, create a truly integral view on everything. Never have had such a highly developed consciousness to work with – those of us at the leading edge (and that includes Canada, the US, most parts of Europe) are at a worldcentric, pluralistic, and if we’re lucky, the beginnings of a kosmocentric level of consciousness. We’ve never been at such an interesting and challenging place. Growth is natural, but we must radically change it, now, in order to save ourselves from disaster. Given the tools we have at our disposition I feel optimistic – however it needs each and everyone of us to develop that in ourselves as well as together. Curious to hear what you think about this.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    There seems to be a disturbing conflation of the meaning of the word “growth” in the views of some apologists for the industrial economy, and in the minds of the “innovation and ingenuity will save us” technophiles. My definition of Growth is simple: the consumption of more and more natural resources and energy to produce more and more ‘stuff’ (and in the process, more and more pollution and waste) for more and more humans living on this planet. By that definition, growth is unsustainable, period. There is only so much “more-with-less” wizardry you can squeeze out of a system. This increased “efficiency” is in fact the opposite of how nature works — nature is inherently inefficient and redundant, so that when sudden changes occur, natural systems are resilient and adaptive. Resilience and adaptation needs room, and that means supporting fewer creatures at a lower level of per capita consumption than is “technically” feasible. It’s why birds have multiple backup and redundant sources of food so that when a blizzard occurs, or when you go away on holiday and leave the bird-feeder empty, they don’t even come close to starving. So, please, let’s not conflate “spiritual” growth or “personal” growth with the kind that is dangerous and unsustainable — simply using up too much stuff by too many of one species when there is only a finite amount of it, and that amount is running low, and when the consequences of that consumption has already triggered the start of the sixth great extinction. As for the beginnings of an emergent global level of human consciousness and other Wilberian psychobabble, don’t even get me started on that New Age Rapture crap.

  13. Amanda says:

    Environmentally speaking, the world will right itself and always has. Before the foremost glacial periods, (the history of Earth has gone through more than one ice age period) there were the “hot ages,” if you will. When cosmic and chemical interactions collaborated in such a way that was possible to create a protective UV barrier around the Earth the ozone layer was formed. From there, the simplest and most primitive of single-celled organisms dwelling in the coolest and darkest depths of the oceans were finally able to make that fateful step onto land without being singed on the spot. Growth for the sake of growth is literally what fueled the dinosaurs. They were the first of their kind able to sustain life on land. They grew to monumental proportions because they were the first organisms subsisting on oxygen, and in this newly formed environment oxygen was rich and plant life was plentiful. It took them a comparatively short while to deplete nearly all of the Earth’s natural resources, thus hastening their own demise. Sound familiar? Bottom line is: Humans are animals with too many tools. I’m reminded of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which encompasses theories central to psychology and sociology. Willa avers that for the past 30,000 years we humans have cultivated a higher level of consciousness, to which I must rebut: We have done no conscious cultivation to alter or change our futures. The most distinguishing traits that separate humans from our fellow creatures is the endowment of consciousness and self-reflection in conjunction with an ability express. The top tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy is self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, and acceptance of facts. To attest that a collectively integral human consciousness is attainable is at best absurd, and at worst dehumanizing. It contradicts the ideal of living and coexisting without prejudices. It’s an affront to the notion of being citizens of the planet.

  14. Dave: I thought *you* were conflating types of growth in your original post, actually – Willa actually raises valid questions, though it needs to be more specific. (A lot of the things we believe in are often labeled as spiritual values, such as community, friendship, personal fulfillment, but I prefer talking in specifics than referring to spirituality.)Re “using up too much stuff by too many of one species” – nothing is used up, only changed in form (conservation of matter and energy). To understand our resource use we have to look at the whole cycle, and realize that the same resource can be used once, or many times.Re nature, efficiency and redundancy: Redundancy is indeed important, and is one of the keys to a resilience – but it is not the opposite of efficiency. Efficiency and redundancy complement each other, and both are essential in resilience.So there are no fixed numbers of people or creatures that the earth can support, or levels of consumption that are “technically” feasible. Controlling population and consumption are important, but it’s not true to suggest that there is a certain “carrying capacity” and that we are over it. The more we improve things technically, as well as in policies and our culture of consumption, the more room and the more resilience we have, for a given population and level of consumption. In other words, the more resilience we have.So it looks like I’m siding with the “innovation and ingenuity will save us” technophiles that you disparage. But what else has ever saved us?

  15. vera says:

    “But what else has ever saved us?”Well! How about the repeated crashes of civilization that finally ushered a time our savants choose to call Dark Ages, a time when humans went back to living in community, the forests and the fish had a chance to regenerate, and sanity could be restored… although in some cases, the deserts created have been permanent. Just think, if Rome continued to plunder all throughout, all the way to our time… what a hideous thought.Why is it that folks have such a hard time facing the end of growth? Nothing grows forever. NOTHING! Not organisms, not civilizations, not economic systems. It was all a deception to start with. But we just can’t let go. There MUST be a savior! Man, the effing tedium of it. If we can’t agree on the obvious, what chance is there for anything more complex?!

  16. Vera: A crash of civilization (and the crash of population, i.e. many dying, or else being forced to a massively reduced standard of living, with an accompanying loss of resources for medicine and science) – not quite what I had in mind by “saving us” :-/.

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