This guest post comes from James Wells.
While the example is local to a single county here in Washington state, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that some of the systematic issues here are applicable all the way across the country, and also exist at state and national levels.
In Whatcom County, Washington, a series of meetings were conducted by the Whatcom Futures Project to examine how Whatcom County can most effectively plan for the next few decades. This project is being spearheaded by the Northwest Economic Council
This project has gone through prior drafts and public meetings, and a latest draft was published in November.
Amid the copious statements about sustainability and all that good stuff, there is a striking pattern:
the abject obeisance to the concept that economic growth is absolutely critical.
Perpetual Economic Growth
You might be thinking of this
Consider this statement: “The health and well-being of all Whatcom residents depend on sustained economic growth.”? That’??s a leadoff item in the very first Vision Statement in the draft (PDF Page 22 for you home gamers).By extension, it embraces the idea that we must have perpetual economic growth of the currently-understood type in our county and in our country, or we risk devolving to a Neolithic existence of the kind that existed before the invention of adjustable rate mortgages.
Anyone who has carefully looked at our world and environment is keenly aware that much of our economic growth to date has resulted from drawing on reserves of natural resources that accumulated over millions of years. Once those reserves are gone, they will be gone.
We Are So Screwed
Here’s the rub: however clearly we may see the problem of unending growth, we tend to express our concerns in the form of a prophecy of doom. As in: “Based on current trends, we are so screwed.”But a prophecy of doom simply can’t be reconciled, practically or theoretically, with any kind of future planning or even our concept of the future, especially at a community level. If the future holds certain doom, what’??s the point of doing anything in the short term other than eating more burgers and drinking more beer?
This fits into an overall pattern of how people think about these or any other issues. In most cases, people can only internally process a consistent narrative. If you introduce a contradiction or a jarringly different concern, it suddenly becomes a kind of indigestible cognitive lactose.
Even the most intelligent people rely on simple narratives, as offered in the remarkable book “Thinking Fast and Slow,”? by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). Through example after example, he shows how people will not only have trouble processing complex and internally-inconsistent situations, but they will even tend to disbelieve the element which introduces the contradiction.In order to function in a complex world, where not all narratives are remotely consistent, our minds play a trick on us. We tend to substitute a simpler question for the more complex one. We answer the simple question and apply that answer to the more complex question. When we’??re not sure what presidential candidate will apply the best policies for our country, we vote for the person we’??d rather have a beer with. Sometimes that’s a bad idea.
This form of substitution, called an heuristic, is something we do all day, every day. It’??s a necessary survival mechanism. Without doing these substitutions, we would be crushed by detail and irresolvable puzzles.
The simple, consistent narrative often wins, even if it may point us in very much the wrong direction.
Economic “growth” doesn’t include health, nor quality
The Siren SongSo it is with economic growth. The conventional narrative of growth is particularly insidious, not just because it’s what we are accustomed to when we think of economics, but because it aligns in an emotionally pleasing way with the other images of growth we hold in our minds. When were we all growing in size each year? It was when we were young. When I was still growing, I didn’??t have to consider the possibility of arthritis, or whether my 401(k) would ever amount to much of anything. I certainly did not have to worry about mortality.
Growth is also the classic image of things that feed and nurture us, such as plants growing out of the ground, turning by a miracle into food. Who could possibly be against that?
Perhaps it’??s no wonder that it’??s practically impossible to pry the narrative of unending economic growth from a central place in our hive-mind. As long as we grow, we are young. To stop growing is to start shriveling up and dying.
What to do about the power of such a simple narrative to mislead?
One part of the answer can be simply to push back, with education and facts, point by point. This is critically important, but ultimately it is not enough by itself.
Our NarrativeWe need a simple narrative. Our own heuristic, if you will. An image that we can substitute for the complex realities that we may know so much about, but don’??t typically get to bring into everyday conversation.
What is the simple message that may help counteract the narrative of unending economic growth?
There is no shortage of very well-researched work on what’??s generally called “??post-growth”? or “steady state”? economies. Try “Alternatives to Growth” on Google if you want to indulge in a few weeks of light reading.
The post-growth concept is pretty simple. Economic growth is great when you are a country that is climbing out of abject poverty. But beyond a certain point, adding stuff causes more harm than good, like food that once helped you to avoid starvation but is now making you fat. That kind of economic obesity is symbolized by, ??well, actual obesity, as described in the paper “Moving toward Sustainable Prosperity,”? by Erik Assadourian, who offers:
The clearest indicator [of the harm posed by excessive economic growth] is the obesity epidemic now plaguing most industrial countries and developing-world elites. In the United States, two of every three adults are now overweight or obese, reducing their quality of life, shortening life spans, and costing the country an extra $270 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity due to early deaths and disabilities.Obesity, unfortunately, is not the only side effect of overdevelopment. Increased debt burdens, long working hours, pharmaceutical dependence, time trapped in traffic, even increased levels of social isolation stem at least in part from high-consumption lifestyles.
Something Has to Give: The kicker, of course, is that there’??s just no way that the world is going to support its entire population at an economic level matching that which the developed countries currently experience. Something has to give.
There is a lot of great research material on a potential post-growth world, and it makes a whole lot of sense, but the likely fact is that no plan labeled as zero-growth will ever gain popular acclaim until dire necessity causes it to be recognized as absolutely the only choice. The perceived imperative to grow is just too deep. People won’t accept the image that suggests shriveling up and dying, even in economic terms.
Reclaiming GrowthThe only real alternative is to capture and redirect the term “growth”? in a more positive direction. For example, consider:
- Growth in our health and life expectancy
- Growth in freedom from violence
- Growth in rates of success in education
- Growth in the percentage of people with decent nutrition
- Growth in dignity and respectful treatment of everyone.
It takes real work to change the meaning of a word. One small step is to unfailingly question the commonly-accepted definition and its associations, whenever it may come up. ??”So,?? when you say growth, what is it that’??s growing? Will it help my health, or the safety of my children?”
The next step is to actively use the term “??growth”? in its new and more appropriate sense. At an individual level, the term “growth” can mean an increase in awareness or wisdom. Consider this quote from the site wisdomcommons.org:
When we value growth, we are open and curious, and we appreciate constructive feedback even if it is awkward or painful to us. We recognize our imperfections, but work to forgive them and to move on. We seek to understand ourselves and others because understanding gives us choices. As we move through our day to day activities, we ask ourselves how those activities serve our dreams, our mission, or our sense of what matters most.
Wow. There’??s nothing about making and buying more stuff in there. “??Personal Growth”? has a widely-accepted meaning, and it is a good one. There is a foundation available for us to apply this term, by analogy, to our entire society.Making the leap from the personal to entire populations will be a tough road. Don’t for a moment expect that mainstream communication channels would even touch such an idea. Somehow it’??s up to us.
Here’??s the creative contest. Anyone who enters is a winner. What are the images of growth we can create, which don’??t depend on using up stuff? This kind of understanding can only be spread by a collage of different messages, all linked by a theme. Growth in all that is good and decent, but losing the extra fries.
Shields Up, Captain!
If we experience any success in redefining growth, there be will backlash, and it will be hard. The current model of economic growth is more than a lazy mental habit; it is foundational for those in power. Economic growth means the ability to sell, and thus make money from, ever-increasing mountains of cheap plastic crap. The growth narrative also gives the powerful a tool that can be used to string along any population that is currently getting screwed. Whatever the current problem is, and no matter what the actual cause, the promised solution is more economic growth.
This is described in magnificent detail in Naomi Klein’s article “??Capitalism vs. the Climate,”? from the November 28, 2011 issue of The Nation. The hardest of the hardcore deniers of global warming are not so much skeptics on the facts, but rather are people who realize that, in order to address global warming, the culture of endless growth (and with it their profits) will have to give way. That’??s a good explanation for the well-funded campaigns, not just to deny climate science, but to promote the continuation and even expansion of the combustapalooza, the shopapalooza, and of course the profitpalooza.To be aligned in such clear opposition to that kind of power is daunting, but we’??re used to that around here. Who would have thought that, against an onslaught of full page ads and slick television and radio commercials, a community could muster 1,750 people on a rainy day in opposition to the latest big carbon plans for pillage?
Some Fine Day
There are many issues that will have to be addressed in order to move away from conventional economic growth. There is the drunken financial system, for which the next quarter of growth is the next shot of liquor required to stave off the DT’??s. But as serious as issues like these may be, the first step is to create an alternate concept that people can relate to and make part of their picture of the world and of the future.
Someday perhaps we’??ll get to read this:
“??In the latest figures on economic growth, it’??s all good news for the President as she approaches the midpoint of her second term. Life expectancy ticked up another 0.1 years over the last quarter and stands at its highest value ever. Sufficient child nutrition now stands at 99.3 percent, also an all-time high. And consumption of locally produced food is on a tear these days, up 12.4 percent in just the last year. Next week we’??ll get the latest figures on the GINI index of inequality, which is expected to continue on its declining trend of the past six years.”?
Languages often change over time, so that the same word has a new and more relevant meaning in the context of current times. It is time for us to give “?growth”? a push down that evolutionary path. That is, of course, if you believe in that evolution stuff.
Any time you think that you don’t have a choice, you actually do.
Any time you think you have to do something that’s wrong, you don’t.
Not Any More
We shall not participate in our own destruction.
ReferencesI received significant help on revisions to this article fromStephan Michaels
A version of this article was originally published in Whatcom Watch, December 2012 issue.
Mine and coal terminal photos courtesy of Paul Anderson.
For some great examples of the kind of growth we love to have around here, check out:
Uprising Seeds - Provides open-pollinated Certified Organic seeds, grown at Uprising Organics in Acme, Washington and other growers in the region.
ACME Farm and Kitchen is a Community Supported Agriculture service, featuring produce from Moondance Farm in Acme, Washington as well as other local providers.
If you are against the wrong kind of growth, Comment Here about the scope of the EIS for the proposed coal export fiasco - comments close at 5 PM Pacific Time on January 22nd.