29 May 2006

(the) GROWTH

Let’s start off traditionally with this tiny iceberg tip of a discussion on growth with a selection from a definition (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition):


3. An increase, as in size, number, value, or strength; extension or expansion.

To our civilization, growth in this sense of the word is something to strive for. Certainly, in terms of our stock portfolios, growth is always looked upon as a fine thing. Our money must grow. Our worth must grow. Our status must grow. Our possessions must grow. Our economy must grow. These are absolute musts in our society. No one wants the economy to stagnate. Share holders of a corporation expect capital growth, and CEOs are hired to make this happen. It is their legal responsibility to do so.

Is it right, though, to expect growth to be something that should last forever? Currently, no corporation in the world would ever be content with zero growth. Negative growth would be a cause for great concern. Perhaps, though, we ought to ask the unspeakable question: Should we allow growth to go unchecked? Any growth?

We certainly have something to say about the growth of animal populations, and we apply “conservation” efforts to keep numbers down when this kind of growth reaches, in our view, an unsustainable level.

Should we not apply that to economic growth, as well?

When we wish to curb animal populations, deer, for example, because they are “too plentiful” or when we allow grizzlies to be hunted again because they are no longer “endangered” in our view, we are applying a cost-benefit analysis to these issues. We are claiming that the burgeoning deer population will affect the environment, at least in our view, in such a way that their population, their growth, must be checked. This is what we call “balance.”

Since we consider balance only when other species or other peoples are concerned, and rarely if ever apply this sort of analysis to our own economic system (and if someone does try to apply it, they are labeled as crackpots and dismissed) it is necessary to spell out the frightfully simple parallels.

When our money grows in, say, a stock fund from Fidelity, we are benefiting directly from the growth of that company. In order for a company to grow, it must increase its revenue. In order to do that, it must use up more of the natural world than it did before it grew. If this kind of growth continues, as our civilization believes it should, all resources will eventually be used up, since all resources are finite.

With me so far?

Before anyone tries to argue that some companies don’t use up more of the natural world to grow, please find evidence of any company that is able to do this. Something must have been stolen or used from somewhere to increase profitability. More oil might have been used to create more plastic or pesticide or to move goods further. Raw materials from somewhere had to be obtained by taking something from land somewhere that was, before, used for something else (such as deer or grizzly habitat, for example). Maybe profits increased by reducing costs of production through cheaper labor. This could be accomplished through slavery of children (and this is especially true of the chocolate industry—so your sweet tooth is most likely assuaged by child slavery) or by forcing indigenous people to work for three cents per hour in a factory in Indian or China or Honduras that was built upon land that was, before, used by them to plant crops. Once the factory or damn or multinational water installation is built, no crops can be grown, so the people there become poor and have to work for slave wages to survive. Any economic growth requires the taking of something from somewhere else. This is just fact. Sorry about that.

Ah, but isn’t all this growth natural? Animals do it. Plants do it. We all must grow. Growth is the stuff of life.

Let’s take a look at that straw man in order to refute it. Let’s liken all this economic growth to the growth our bodies go through as children. Our parents lovingly drew pencil lines on the wood (now PVC) of the door frame in their kitchens every few months to gauge the growth of their offspring. They encouraged their children to eat more and more because they are “growing boys/girls.”

Here’s where it breaks down: this fond memory of growth ended when we matured. I suppose there may still be a few mothers and fathers out there who still measure the growth of their forty year old children, but they would be, of course, insane, and even insane people might stop such irrational behavior once they see that their “little” boy or girl hasn’t grown in the last twenty-two years. In nature, growth ceases upon maturity.

So the obvious question is: when will our civilization mature enough to stop demanding growth of its economy? When the planet is completely depleted of what we so arrogantly call “resources”? What exactly is it we want our economies to grow into, anyway? I am imagining right now a boy growing right through his maturity, getting bigger and bigger, till he can’t fit in his home anymore, till his head reaches up hundreds of feet, eating tons of grain or beef or whatever per day so he can continue growing incessantly, till the very air around his face is too thin to breathe, so he lies down to survive, eating and eating more and more, like the world serpent, eventually nibbling at his own feet as his huge body encircles the planet.

Or perhaps you believe we will all be saved by technology. Unfortunately, that child-like hope dies rather quickly if one spends any time at all pondering what technology has done for us so far. Even ignoring that, the absurdity of this notion becomes laughable as soon as one puts it into actual examples: one day, we will make huge machines that suck all the pollution out of the sky; one day, we will figure out how to transmute seawater into oil through a process that requires no energy to operate it; one day, a man will come who can change water into wine (wait a minute, that one might not be original).

Rather than assuming economic growth is good, I offer another definition of “growth” that seems more appropriate, from the same dictionary:

5. Pathology. An abnormal mass of tissue, such as a tumor, growing in or on a living organism.

That organism is the planet, by the way, and our way of life is the growth. I feel that I must explain everything, is all, because we are so stubbornly resistant (expressed through denial and through lashing out at the messenger) to any suggestion of changing how we live.

So what am I saying? Stop economic growth!? But wouldn’t that lead to a downfall of our civilization? Wouldn’t all life as we know it cease!?

Well, yes, strictly. As we know it.

But another way to look at it is this: would you rather be part of the growth, or part of the organism?

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