What haunts me greatly…
….and what I have not been able to confront boldly.
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
Dave Pollard writes
What gets rewarded gets done. That’s an old business and HR management maxim, but it’s also one of the pivotal messages of The Growth Illusion, Richard Douthwaite’s thoughtful review of economic history and the paradoxical consequences of economic growth, published in 1992 and updated in 1999. The “what gets rewarded gets done” principle states that if you want to motivate people to change their behaviour, use a reward. Since the Industrial Revolution, and to a lesser extent since the Agricultural Revolution, those with disproportionate wealth and power have learned that the best way to protect and increase that wealth and power is to get the population addicted to growth — growth in numbers, growth in consumption, growth in debt to pay for even more consumption, and tolerant of the enormous waste and inefficiency such extravagant consumption necessitates. As Douthwaite shows by drawing on the lessons of history and a mountain of data on the lack of correlation between growth, production, consumption, health and well-being, the consequences of all this growth are:
– an economic system so dependent on continued growth that when it falters, it quickly slides into deep recession or even crippling depression
– increasing unemployment — an inevitable consequence of the unquenchable need to cut costs
– decreases in 11 of the 12 major indicators of human well-being, as the numerous negative impacts of growth (pollution, stress, traffic congestion, etc.) take their toll
– enormous economic fragility as that growth relies on innovation to compensate for the resource scarcities it is continually creating
growing inequality of economic resources between rich and poor at every level of aggregation
inability of local communities to be self-sufficient especially in times of economic or natural disaster
– higher levels of crime, social disintegration and physical and mental illness
– more and more economic power and wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer massive, grossly inefficient and bureaucratic large corporations
– the need for ever-greater government subsidies and bureaucracies to compensate for the dislocation, damage and inequities created by growth economics
– a severely damaged and depleted ecosystem, which requires more and more resource subsidies to keep productive, and which as it becomes more homogeneous, fragile and stressed, becomes vulnerable to sudden, potentially catastrophic changes that it can no longer compensate for
Ultimately such a system is unsustainable, even pathological. As Edward Abbey said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Yet today the rewards for participating enthusiastically in the growth economy are manifold: higher salaries, more senior jobs, more material wealth, economic and political support, political funding and kickbacks, and with all these things, greater personal ‘popularity’. These are powerful rewards and incentives for trying to perpetuate this bankrupt system, and for denying its negative consequences and its unsustainability. Furthermore, these days it’s the only game in town: Alternative economic systems either have been discredited or are untested.
In the absence of better economic models, what are we to do? Douthwaite starts by laying out several social principles that must be accepted as the foundation for any truly sustainable economic system:
* the need to end or reverse human population increase
* acceptance of a responsibility to leave as healthy an environment with as many resources for future generations, as we inherited from past generations
* valuation of other people’s interest equally with our own
* acceptance that some things are priceless’ and hence off-limits to economic development — they must not be sold, bartered, destroyed or used up regardless of the economic ‘value’ this might bring
The new economy, he suggests, must be built bottom-up. It starts with
….”sustainable local economies that would produce the essentials of life from the resources in their areas and thus be largely self-sufficient and independent of each other. This is not to say that they would not trade. They would, but never out of necessity”. A local economy that needs to trade is an indication that it is, or will become in time, unsustainable….
…..Douthwaite sidesteps as political the issue of self-defence: How a self-sufficient and sustainable economy can defend itself from a covetous unsustainable one, without itself becoming unsustainable in the process.
…This is of necessity a highly oversimplified summary of Douthwaite’s arguments and the solutions he espouses. In addition to reading the book I would recommend the Sustainable Territories online dialogue that accompanied his online seminar on the book. His follow-up book on building strong local economies is called Short Circuit.
Much of the public discourse on the benefits of globalization as espoused by leading economic thinkers worldwide, that globalization will increase economic equality around the world, is centred around an implicit faith in the free market capitalist strucuture (with a little bit of Keynesian style Govt. interventions thrown in), that they believe that “tomorrow’s problems can be handled tomorrow, that something will come up that will fix things”. They are almost obssessed with this sudden opportunity that developing countries (primarily China & India) have for moving up the economic value chain that they refuse to acknowledge that a system that is so predicated on “global trade & a movement up the next productivity frontier” for even the most insignificant of things simply cannot be right long-term. Sometimes, I get the feeling that the world waits with almost orgasmic anticipation for the US to move the productivity frontier yet another notch, that next new disruptive innovation, as some would call it.
I grow increasingly convinced that what we are building in India today is an unsustainable model of growth. We are lucky in that we are a very strong domestic economy, though not many people seem to acknowledge the importance of that. One of the reasons we have been largely immune from external shocks is not because we are an economically poor country(which we are), but rather that we have a strong domestic economy in place, unlike say East Asia, and probably China as well. But what I also know is that, in the absence of extremely severe domestic shocks or external shocks(i.e. involving the US significantly), globalization driven growth is unsustainable only in the medium to long term (i.e. > 40-50 years), and sustainable over the short/medium term. In fact, ironically, to state the obvious, the Growth Fetish, from a purely economic standpoint, (and if we are lucky in the governance we get, even from a poverty reduction standpoint) is very beneficial for us in the short-to-medium run, probably more beneficial to us than to any other country in the world. Our strong domestic economy will not disappear overnight, in fact, it can hardly ever disappear given our sheer numbers. But beyond any doubt, Growth Fetish will increase economic instability considerably.
But beyond all that, what the tendency to continuous growth does is this: It changes the lens through which we view the world, what our priorities are, what our consumption patterns are, what cultural traditions we pass on, and the things we value.
I suppose I would put it this way – Our economic models today are a perversion of what growth is meant to be. It is the individual who is meant to grow, emotionally and spiritually. What we have instead today is an economy that has become a living, breathing entity in itself, independent of the people comprising it. It grows incessantly, individual growth be damned. It takes a rich man to even consider thinking about spirituality in a consumption driven society. Of course, if you think spirituality is nonsense, we can never ever see eye-to-eye.