Why we can’t ‘grow’ our way out of the mess we’re in
By Michael Mountain
Forty years ago, a ground-breaking publication called The Limits to Growth concluded that by the middle of the 21st Century the Earth would no longer be able to sustain our escalating obsession with growth.
That time has now come.
The “limits to growth” referred to the future of an economic system that depended on us buying more and more goods so we could keep employing more people to produce those goods – more cars, more food, more clothes, more stocks, more things from China, more anything from anywhere.
But we can’t keep doing that forever. We’ve cut down the forests, fished out the oceans, caused a mass extinction of animals, burned up fossil fuels that took millions of years to create, and poured the waste gases into the atmosphere. The Earth’s bounty, which seemed limitless, turns out to be finite after all. It simply cannot sustain limitless growth.
Back in 1776, Adam Smith, who’s generally considered the father of modern economics, said that all economies would eventually reach the point of having “acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its soil and climate and its situation with respect to other societies allowed it to acquire.”
And as the Industrial Revolution was gaining speed, John Stuart Mill wrote that “the increase of wealth is not boundless” and that we would reach a time when striving for more material wealth would need to be replaced by “improving the Art of Living, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.”
So here we are, as predicted. And while our leaders will doubtless keep flogging the tired, old economic horse to get it back on its feet, all they can really grow now is more debt. The global Ponzi scheme of borrowing from the Earth, from our children and from the future is over.
But if today’s politicians still won’t dare to question the sacred cow of growth-at-all-costs, there’s a chorus of other voices who are urgently warning of the consequences of business-as-usual. One of those is Paul Gilding, a former head of Greenpeace International who went on to become an entrepreneur and advisor to many Fortune 500 companies. His book The Great Disruptionoutlines how we got to this point and what’s going to unfold over the coming years:
“The problem is the delusion that we can have infinite quantitative economic growth, that we can keep having more and more stuff, on a finite planet. We cannot, and that is just a fact . . . Our current model of social and economic progress is now in the messy and painful process of dying. The only choices we get to make are how and when we change, not whether.”
One of those who have been persuaded by Gilding is New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who, after reading a draft of his book two years ago, wrote:
“What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically, and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more.’”
Today, the economic and ecological crisis is only accelerating. One of the major indicators, climate change, is now in runaway mode as we keep pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A level of 350 parts per million of CO2 is considered as high as we can go before climate change goes into overdrive. But for several years now, the actual level has been around 390. In other words, we’re already way over the tipping point.
What to do about it?
You and I cannot single-handedly steer the world in a new direction. We’re already living on a different kind of planet from the one we grew up on, and there will be more and greater changes in years to come.
But if we can’t turn back the tide ourselves, we can at least be prepared for what’s to come, especially if we understand how the unfolding “Great Disruption” is going to impact our lives.
Happiness is not achieved by gathering more stuff and exploiting other living beings, but by living in harmony with the rest of nature.
And if there’s a silver lining to the growing storm, it is that the transition to a new way of living will probably be the biggest learning experience in human history. We will emerge from it with a deep, foundational understanding that pillaging the Earth for more stuff was not just a losing economic strategy but an empty way of living, too.
When our Founding Fathers launched their new nation, they began with the premise that we humans had certain “inalienable rights,” including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the world that our children will be inheriting, we will have learned some critical lessons about the pursuit of happiness. We’ll understand that once our basic physical needs are met, happiness is not achieved by gathering more stuff and exploiting other living beings, but by living in harmony with the rest of nature.
And the most important lesson we’ll have absorbed is that the planet does not belong to us, and that whatever we do to it, for better or worse, we’re basically doing to ourselves.
What do you say? How do you see the future unfolding over the coming years? Do you already see changes for animals and the environment where you live? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.
What you can do? Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption is good and readable. So is Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. Both of them offer practical advice on how to prepare for the coming changes.