It has always amazed me how our culture seems to have immense difficulty in accepting one very simple fact—that the Earth is a finite sphere that cannot suffer our depredations without limit. Or, to put it differently, that our planet simply cannot sustain our obsession with converting more and more of her ‘resources’ into accumulating legions of shiny, mostly useless, over-packaged products.
One instance of this lack of comprehension haunts me still—a chance meeting in a railway carriage with the bursar of one of the Oxford Colleges some thirty years ago when I was a young undergraduate at Durham University. We chatted on amiably enough until, discovering that he was an economist, I casually mentioned the notion of limits to growth. I shall never forget the vehement, almost apoplectic objections that he sputtered out in an admirably English display of controlled anger and fury.
Clearly, I had threatened perhaps the most dearly held, but unexamined, assumption that lies like a sleeping dragon at the core of our rapidly spreading Western worldview—namely, that nature’s seemingly infinite storehouse is there for us to use without any hindrance for whatever purposes we see fit.
Perhaps I could have persuaded my fellow passenger, had I only known then what we know now about the alarming and increasing scarcity of raw materials. How very pertinent it would have been then to have known, as has been recently shown by the New Economics Foundation, that it would require five extra planets to supply the raw materials were everyone on Earth to consume as much as the average contemporary American citizen. Would the distinguished bursar have seen reason with such a fact staring him in the face?
Sadly, perhaps not. Since then, I have spoken with many individuals and groups from a host of organisations about the need to implement limits to growth. I have tried to convince them that we will seriously destabilise the Earth by continuing to increase the flow of her wild atoms and molecules through our economic machine at rates with which she simply cannot cope. For the most part, my words have met with a stony reception—for the notion of endless growth is so deeply engrained into our thinking that it seems virtually impossible to uproot.
Recently, in desperation, I have hit upon a different strategy—a sort of intellectual aikido that seems to be bearing fruitful results. Now, instead of speaking about limits to growth, I make a distinction between two contrasting kinds of growth—suicidal growth and intelligent growth.
Suicidal growth is the growth mode that we are engaged in now. It involves the conversion of nature’s highly ordered surface, with its rich, deeply convoluted geological domain, and its teeming biosphere, into the appalling disorder of a destabilised atmosphere and the piles of rusting, discarded industrial products that are accumulating in our waste dumps.
It involves the saturation and degradation of the Earth’s generous, but limited, capacities for cleaning and sequestering the polluting effluents of our industrial processes, driven to a fever pitch by the maddening pace of the global economy, with its emphasis on deregulation, free trade, and the unrestricted movement of capital.
Think only of how the world of living beings, once a great sink for our carbon emissions, is now slowly turning into a deeply perilous source of these same gases as we extinguish species, burn forests, warm the seas and air, plough up soils and melt the permafrost.
Suicidal growth creates its fair share of human tragedy, too, as more and more people are forced to abandon calm, peaceful livelihoods on the land, in extended families and networks of mutual support, to look for tedious, meaningless, and dangerous work in newly burgeoning cities that expose them to despair and alienation from each other and from the world of nature.
In contrast, intelligent growth recognises that there are many good things that must grow—and quickly: some material, some social, and others spiritual. As climate change and peak oil begin to bite, we need to rapidly grow ecologically savvy industries such as ones that generate energy renewably. We need to exploit geothermal power (a recent MIT study has shown that a large-scale deployment of current technological know-how could allow the US to meet its energy needs for thousands of years via this route).
We will need more wave power, more wind power and more solar power, and we will also need to grow our skills in saving energy and in using it more efficiently, just as long as the growth of these various industries and technologies does not result in increasing rates of extraction of the Earth’s riches.
Furthermore, intelligent growth requires an increase of equity and social justice—the poor in the South must have access to better material living standards, whilst we in the affluent North must grow our abilities for living simply—we need to learn to do well with less.
Intelligent growth also involves the re-growth and recovery of the soil. We need to allow soil to thicken wherever it has been depleted by the depredations of the agribusiness farmers and their corporate overlords. In order to achieve this, we will need to adopt ways of farming that meld together the latest insights from the science of ecology with the traditional wisdom of pre-industrial farmers.
Both have shown that diversity leads to stability—that planting many edible, usable species together generates synergies that increase crop yields, improve food quality, enhance pest resistance and build up humus—the rich tumult of microbes, fungi, invertebrates, and the bedrock that is pulverised by these same organisms through their various subtle influences.
But at the same time we will need to allow free nature to grow back over vast tracts of land and in amongst our fields, for our latest science shows us that it provides vital services such as climate stabilisation, soil retention, and the recycling of nutrients.
Growth of the soil and the restoration of free nature cannot happen without the growth of profoundly localised human communities, bonded in love to their local bioregions. We must grow our abilities to inspire each other face-to-face with music, art, and poetry, and we must grow our capacities for experiencing the profound mysteries of the cosmos through the
appreciation of the subtle qualities of the locality that enfolds us.
Even as we rekindle our love of where we live, we must, in these very places, restore the rich social networks and the vibrant local economies that suicidal growth has rent asunder. Finally, counteracting the suicidal growth imperative requires us to grow a global movement dedicated to intelligent growth by fostering communication and collaboration amongst local communities all over the world.
No doubt, as a Kindred reader, none of this is news to you. But now you know—so if you ever meet an economist on the train, forget the old anti-growth arguments; simply ask her whether she prefers intelligence to suicide, and watch a piece of the old paradigm crumble.
This article was first published in Resurgence Magazine.
Published in Kindred, Issue 27, Sept ’08