Welcome to Growth is Madness!

Our finite Earth from space.Our earth is in trouble. And that means we’re in trouble. It’s no exaggeration today to say we face a looming global ecological collapse. Scientists have warned us of this for more than a decade. The warnings, from individual experts, and organizations grow more urgent.

Yet, most people’s attention is on other news. There is little awareness of the gravity of the environmental problem we face and the likely consequences if it is not vigorously addressed.

There is even less awareness of the root causes of our environmental plight. This is not too surprising as their role in creating the problems we face has been suppressed by those with vested interests in shielding us from the truth.

Simple truth

Let’s start with some truth right now. The root causes of the ecological collapse of which scientists are warning are:

  1. Global population growth to levels beyond the earth’s carrying capacity for humans.
  2. Excessive and growing per capita resource consumption rates.
  3. Economic growth (the product of #1 and #2), as defined by Herman Daly, in the form of increased physical throughput, from the extraction of raw materials, through their manufacture into commodities, to their output as wastes.
  4. Our reliance on nonrenewable resources such as fossil energy.

Those four elements are of course closely linked, with one affecting another. It takes only simple thought experiments to recognize their impacts. Imagine, for instance, that there were only one quarter as many human beings on earth as there are today (about equal to the global population of 1900!). Clearly, there would be be far less environmental degradation. We could quibble over whether or not it would be exactly one quarter the current amount. (We might speculate that the variables listed should interact differently at different levels.) But the basic idea is clear. Think similarly about the other factors, and their importance comes to light.

Room for hope!

But before you close this site in dismay at what, up to here, seems a profoundly pessimistic message, I’ll point out there is room for much hope! Experts who study the global ecological problem are clear in their assessments (pdf) that there are effective actions we can take to avert disaster or, at the least, to soften the landing. It will take serious commitments from many nations, intergovernmental cooperation, corporate and individual efforts. Part of those efforts needs to be the spreading of accurate information to inspire others to help, whether they encourage their elected representatives to take action, or they take action themselves.

Enter GIM

Thus, I launch Growth is Madness! (GIM) to help fill a void I can hardly believe exists. Relative to other issues in the news, there is a terrible dearth of information, readily available to the public, on the nature and causes of the most important problem of our time, the global environmental crisis. As far as I know, this is the only weblog currently devoted expressly to addressing the fundamental causes of this crisis. [1] In this unique role, GIM will provide key information, investigating and elaborating on the ideas mentioned above, examining counterarguments, and more.

Because they are especially ignored by the mainstream press, the population and economic growth will figure prominently here. We will, however, touch as well on other relevant topics including peak oil, per capita consumption, the political and social factors driving the areas of growth in question, various ecological topics, and actions which might ameliorate the problem. We need much more awareness, after all, of the ecological “big picture.”

In a way, I wish someone else were doing this. Though trained as a social scientist in the “scientist-practitioner” model, my academic background is in psychology. Here, I’m forced to grapple with topics from the natural sciences, economics, sociology, and anthropology among other disciplines. Others would have immediately at hand more technical knowledge. But they’re not doing this.

Starting, then, with the information I’ve gathered, I’ll continue to research as I go. And I invite you to join me, to participate in the discussion under every entry. I’m more than willing, as well, to post guest articles relevant to the site.

Finally, to anyone reading GIM, I make this pledge: I’ll always make the effort to seek the truth, to back my arguments with sound logic, and to source my information well. In addition, I want readers to feel comfortable commenting here, to know I’ll reply civilly. On the other hand, I hope the title of this weblog makes clear that I won’t mince words when it comes to stating the truth as I see it about the topics I discuss. Growth really is madness.

Welcome to GIM!
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[1] Update: Greater familiarity with the available resources requires me now to qualify that statement. As a class, the sites which come closest to sharing the themes here are those focused on peak oil. While they specialize in oil depletion, often touching on related ecological issues such as population, GIM specializes in those other ecological issues, increasingly touching on peak oil.

Since writing this post, a small number of other blogs sharing GIM’s concerns have come online. Some appear in the blogroll here.

Also overlapping somewhat with GIM’s themes are a few sites which promote a return to primitivism. These folks, as well as some of those studying oil depletion, have concluded that, owing to the interactions of issues such as population overshoot and peak oil, society is headed for collapse and it’s too late to stop it. If current trends continue, I agree collapse is inevitable. I part with these analysts only in that I believe it’s premature to conclude there is no possibility we can change course soon enough and substantially enough to avert complete collapse. I would concede, though, there may be less time remaining to do so than most of us would like to believe.

Even if my assessment is too optimistic, it’s worth noting that even those convinced of the inevitability of collapse would agree there are a number of positive actions we can take now to soften the landing. Much of the content of GIM is consistent with that thought. We need to increase awareness to avert collapse, or at least to soften the landing.

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Updated: 8/24/07, 10/9/07
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13 responses to “Welcome to Growth is Madness!

  1. Timothy V. Delaney

    I am honored to be the first to leave a comment. I am so glad that you have gotten this up and running, John. I have no doubt that this site and the dialogue it is certain to generate will help these issues move to the forefront of the mainstream’s consciousness (and conscience, for that matter).

    Regards,
    Tim

  2. Hey, thanks Tim! I’m optimistic about it as well. I know from my prior blog, and others I read, that it will take some time to generate a readership and regular discussion. But this site should be of interest to a broader range of people, so all systems are “go.”

    Hope to see more of you ’round here!

    John

  3. Welcome John,

    Shake the foundations, rattle the cage. Hope to share in some interesting discussions.

  4. Thanks Verdurous. Just had a very nice time poking around your blog. Some good work there! Yes, I’ll see you around for sure.

    John

  5. Magne Karlsen

    http://www.state.gov/g/oes/rls/fs/2004/38641.htm

    “I’ve asked my advisors to consider approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including those that tap the power of markets, help realize the promise of technology and ensure the widest-possible global participation….Our actions should be measured as we learn more from science and build on it. Our approach must be flexible to adjust to new information and take advantage of new technology. We must always act to ensure continued economic growth and prosperity for our citizens and for citizens throughout the world.” – President George W. Bush

    – —

    Growth is madness. I totally agree. But the facts of modern life remains the same: all countries of this world, except, possibly, Bhutan (but I doubt it), pursue the same goals as all American presidents have always stated for themselves and all of us: “We must always act to ensure continued economic growth…”

    It seems to me like this growth ideology has become, by now, the ethos of modern human nature. If that is the case, I can only conclude: We’re dealing with a civilization that has gone mad. Or “Species Insane” – – ; )

    A nauseating thought, I know.

  6. Magne,

    Sadly, I have to agree. And I think a part of it is a growth in pure greed. (That’s something I want to look at in some future posts.) Someone mentioned to me recently that, historically, societies which have ended in collapse have tended to see an increase in greed as things got worse. It’s something I need to read about, but it it’s not a comforting thought. :-/

  7. Magne Karlsen

    It’s not a comforting thought, of course. But you know: I’ve heard the same thing. It’s not only about the growth in greed, though. Watch out as you’re recognising the rest of the human vices.

    It’s a mental / psycho-social reflex, I guess.

  8. I don’t remember now how I found your blog, but it gives me a little more sense of hope reading your posts. I worked in alternative energy development for a little bit back in 1979-80 at a company that was partially funded by Jimmy Carter’s energy initiatives. Almost 30 years ago and we were into co-generation, ethanol from corn, windmills, etc. Then Reagan pulled the rug from under it.

    The idea that Growth is Madness grabbed me as a teenager in the 1960’s and never let go, and it’s often depressing to think about what a hard sell the idea remains here in 2007. So I think I’ll hang around here a bit and see if I can contribute to what you are doing.

  9. Hi Trinifar,

    Thanks for stopping in. Your comment about the idea that growth is madness grabbing you in the ’60s reminds me of my own recollection. I remember, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, when I was in grade school, going around telling people, “The biggest problem in the world today is overpopulation.” This was at a time when Ehrlich and others were getting a lot of media play discussing the population problem. So it was kind of “in the air.”

    I don’t recall exactly what my thoughts were about it, but I believe I had thought a bit about various world problems and how it seemed most of them would be less serious if only world population were smaller. (Of course at that time it wasn’t much more than half of what it is today. :-/)

    Years later, I remember looking back on that early view I’d held and thinking, “Well, that was wrong. Population doesn’t seem to have turned out to be such a big deal after all.” By that time population had become a kind of taboo topic an had been somewhat squelched. So again, I think I was responding to what I heard or didn’t hear in the media and from others around me.

    I finally came back to thinking about it as a result of thinking a lot about urban growth in a small town were we lived for a couple of years. That plus having enough perspective, looking back, to be shocked at the levels of urban growth in places like Phoenix (where I grew up), sort of reawakened me to the population issue and an array of environmental issues, with a new appreciation for the role of economic growth in all of it.

    Anyway, I’ll see you around!

  10. Magne Karlsen

    That’s an interesting story, John. Here’s mine.

    I was born in 1971. I indicated this in a previous comment: I figured out the maths behind the population explosion on my own accord, at the age of twelve (1983). And I couldn’t believe my own eyes!

    I had been reading some science fiction books written by Norwegian author Jon Bing, about the starship Alexandria – a library ship that was travelling between different planets in different solar systems; planets that had been colonised by humans. I was Jon Bing’s biggest fan. I begun writing my own stories about planets colonised by humans, I drew maps and had a lot great time – until I started to wonder: “How big will the population of this planet be, after 1000 years of natural death and reproduction? Or say 1500 years? Hm. I wonder.”

    So I started to think. I thought that 3 children per women would be the norm. Then I decided how many people would colonize the planet of mine, and then I started to calculate. I was never so foolish as forget that people died. – Thinking that death quite naturally occured around the age of 80, I decided to substract people from my charts before they became great-grandparents.

    Generation to generation, I watched my numbers getting bigger and bigger. Until the most incredible thing happened as I reached the billion mark. From that moment the population growth was … tremendous! … before I knew it the planet’s population had reached 3 billion, 5 billion, 8 billion, 15 billion! …

    I was startled at the discovery. I thought that something had to be wrong. That I was making a mastake: this couldn’t be right.

    But it was.

    I stopped doing this kind of math. Then I got to hear about the scientific concept of “population explosion” – and this made me happy. As a kid I believed that since there was a scientific term to explain this, it also meant that grown-ups knew about it! So consequently: there should really be nothing more to worry about.

    I wasn’t worried until I turned 18. That was when my geography teacher (a father of five) was trying to explain the stastistical (and most problematic) population decline in Germany.

    I didn’t think it was a problem. –

    Er. ;(

    – —

    Now, here’s a gift. — 🙂

    http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/SHS-Web-links-all.html

    – —

    And here’s a 6-page newspaper article from 2003: it’s written by a highly critical British journalist on tour in the USA. I hope you don’t mind. Anyway: this is more than just America-bashing. You’ll find that out for yourself.

    http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/Engel2003.pdf

    Page 2 – 3:

    “Remember, this country is built very heavily on the frontier ethic,” says Clapp. “How America moved west was to exhaust the land and move on. The original settlers, such as the Jefferson family, moved westward because families like theirs planted tobacco in tidewater Virginia and exhausted the soil. My own ancestors did the same in Indiana.”

    Americans made crops grow in places that are entirely arid. They built dams – about 250.000 of them. They built great cities, with skyscrapers and symphony orchestras, in places that appeared barely habitable. They shifted rivers, even reversed their flow. “It’s the American belief that with enough hard work and perseverance anything – be it a force of nature, a country or a disease – can be vanquished,” says Clapp. “It’s a country founded on the idea of no limits. The essence of environmentalism is that there are indeed limits. It’s one of the reasons environmentalism is a stronger ethic in Europe than in the US.”

    There is a second reason: the staggering population growth of the US. It is approaching 300 million, having gone up from 200 million in 1970, which was around the time President Nixon set up a commission to consider the issue, the last time any US administration has dared think about it. A million new legal migrants are coming in every year (never mind illegals), and the US Census Bureau projections for 2050, merely half a lifetime away, is 420 million. This is a rate of increase far beyond anything else in the developed world, and not far behind Brazil, India, or indeed Mexico.

    The issue is political dynamite, although not for quite the same reasons as in Britain. Almost every political group is split on the issue, including the far right (torn between overt xenophobes such as Pat Buchanan and the free marketeers), the labour movement and the environmentalists. The belief that the US is the best country in the world is a cornerstone of national self-belief, and many Americans still, wholeheartedly, want others to share it. They also want cheap labour to cut the sugar cane, pluck the chickens, pick the oranges, mow the lawns and make the beds.

    – Matthew Engel, 2003

    – —

    Okay. Bye bye. And take care.

  11. John,

    Happened to come by you by way of Alternet and a recent discussion about world population. I am soon to turn 54 and can remember in my undergraduate studies reading Population Bomb with horror. And here we are……. It reminds me of a nightmare in had years ago that still hangs with me. I dreamed I had discovered the cause of cancer. Oddly enough, the cause was “overorganization.” I had discovered that our ability to organize the world around us in fact was unnatural and directly resulted in our developing cancer. I had a passion and an absolute certainty about my discovery and then was faced with the prospect of telling others. It was a huge dilemma. The discovery was of such major importance to humanity that I had a mission to let everyone know, yet who would bother to listen to the solution of telling others that they had to be “less organized” if they wanted to remain healthy. The angst I felt in the dream is the angst I feel about the illusion of a future in modern day life. We all must “betray the age.”

  12. Mike,

    Wonderfully well put. That’s an amazing dream, and on the second read-through was somehow quite moving for me. There’s a feeling of helplessness in calling out to others about something of profound importance, but being unable to get through to them.

    Yes, it’s like that. I just hope we can make some small dent. With some luck, maybe more.

    On a lighter note, I just looked around your blog a little. Very good, useful stuff!

    Thanks. I hope to hear more from you.

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