When is growth damaging?
“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” ~Kenneth Boulding
It takes one to know one, as the old saying goes. Kenneth Boulding was indeed an economist, but he was also, according to Wikipedia, a “peace activist, poet, religious mystic, devoted Quaker, systems scientist, and interdisciplinary philosopher.” He was even the co-founder of General Systems Theory—but more on this later.
We hear a lot about growth these days. We have to grow the economy, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the military. We’ve been hearing this for a long time; much longer than Ronald Reagan’s 1980s quote, “There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder.” I must admit, this sounds inspiring, and it’s practically a tenet of faith for many economists that economic growth—expansion—is good, contraction, bad. But as nice as this sounds, we must ask ourselves: Is it true? Are there limits to growth? Or are we all mad?
There is a fun little movie from 1963 called It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It’s a fast-paced farce about a dying man who reveals to multiple witnesses of his accident that he has hidden $350,000 and provides a few details as to its general location. The resulting madcap, cut-throat, disaster-laden cross-country chase to see which of the witnesses can claim the loot first is not only hilarious, it’s an apt economic analogy. Each individual madly seeking to put his or her own interests first does not automatically result in an efficient, equitable, or even safe distribution of resources. The movie mirrors humanity’s own mad race to claim the finite resources of the planet, its air, water, and mineral stores, and turn them into things that we can purchase, use until a newer model arrives, and then discard as trash. Exponential growth, but finite world.
In the 1970s, “The Limits to Growth” was published by The Club of Rome. This little book summarized the results of a two-year study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The study utilized General Systems Theory—there’s that phrase again—to map trends in our use of non-renewable resources, food per capita, industrial output, and pollution. The model extended these trends as far as the year 2100 under various scenarios. As the chart above, featured in the April, 2012 Smithsonian magazine shows, we are tracking right along the model’s “standard run.” When we extract nonrenewable resources, erode agricultural soils, and create waste and pollution within the finite confines of a “spaceship”—even one as large as our planet—you eventually hit some hard limits. The resulting contractions can be very bad, indeed.
In late 2011, Business Insider featured an article, The Limits to Growth and Beyond, which not only delved further into the history of The Limits to Growth and its many detractors—it also featured the marvelous “Impossible Hamster” video, which very effectively communicates the message to our attention-deficit generation in one minute, ten seconds.
As Edward Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” So if our current economic paradigm is based on growth, it’s time for a new economic paradigm. Thankfully, economists are working with natural scientists and systems theorists to develop just such a new paradigm. Hopefully, it will be just in time.
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” ~Henry David Thoreau
Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ecotech Institute or Education Corporation of America. Email Kyle at email@example.com
image: Ruben Alexander via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)