Now that growth is killing us…

It really doesn't buy happiness. The article I discussed last time, by New Zealander Allen Cookson, was a brief gem with an emphasis on population growth and some mention of the flaws, as well, in our economic model of continual growth. The same day I came across it, occasional GIM commenter, Tim Delaney, sent me a link to an article in Mother Jones by Bill McKibben. Reversal of Fortune, drawn from McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy gives us a more thorough look at the problems with our growth-based economy. McKibben suggests that while a focus on growth did serve us well for some time, now “growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous.” It’s an important article. Here are the Cliff’s Notes plus a little commentary:

It wasn’t always this way

The growth which most of us have come to assume to be necessary and good has its earliest roots in the industrial revolution, but really got cranking in the middle of the 20th century, in the post war boom. Prior to that, Mckibben tells us, “even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated.” I suspect most Americans and residents of other industrialized countries would find that historical tidbit surprising. No further expansion anticipated? Was FDR crazy or something? He wasn’t; the growth imperative, so pervasive today, simply hadn’t yet taken hold.

New problems, and happiness has flatlined

Among problems we face today which should prompt us to rethink our economic model, McKibben mentions three: First, there’s peak oil. Our economy, as dependent as it is on fossil fuel consumption, cannot be sustained in its ever-growing form as we pass the peak of oil extraction and enter a slow decline.

Then there’s the problem that despite a growing GNP in the US, for example, for most of us our wealth is not increasing. Instead, “The average wage in the United States is less now, in real dollars, than it was 30 years ago.”

Finally, there is simply no way we can keep growing toward worldwide consumption levels similar to the US’s. To do so, according to some reports based on the “ecological footprint” indicator, we’d need five earths to support ourselves. Nevertheless, as detailed in a post on Trinifar, the US Department of Energy projects a continued rise in energy consumption. (Given past trends, this is understandable. Still, it’s unsettling given data such as we see in the Ecological Footprint.)

More generally, McKibben points out, for all our economic growth, we’re no happier. This is backed up by surveys on life satisfaction in the US from the National Opinion Research Center, going back to 1972. I’ll add that, independently, the Redefining Progress group’s Genuine Progress Indicator reveals similar results on a more purely monetary level. Mckibben adds that people actually report experiencing more negative life events. And the results from other countries are similar.

Well, you didn’t think the old saw, “Money doesn’t buy happiness,” was wrong, did you? McKibben reports researchers have in fact identified the point beyond which the old wisdom kicks in. It’s at $10,000 income per capita. Below that modest level, an increase in income does bring increased satisfaction. It does help, after all, to have one’s basic life needs met. Beyond it, though, we find our happiness more in friendships and community. Consistent with that is the finding that “a sampling of Forbes magazine’s ‘richest Americans’ have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai.”

One wonders when we’ll begin to take these kinds of data more seriously than GNP or GDP, as we see in the adoption of the “Gross National Happiness” indicator by Bhutan. Despite its unfortunate linguistic echo of Western economics jargon, discussed by signature103 at sustainability theory dharma, it represents an attempt to put the focus on what matters.

Making matter worse is our growing isolation. Arguably as a result of the drive for economic growth, we spend more time at work, have fewer friends, spend less time with them, live more often behind walls, and spread ourselves over more land, out of proportion even with population growth. Thus, for many years, the economic growth imperative, built on Adam Smith’s notion of individual initiative, has not only been of no value in increasing satisfaction, but has eroded that which does bring satisfaction — our social connectedness.

In a strong statement that nevertheless sounds understated, Mckibben says of our growth obsession, “On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up.” It’s tough to think of one that should be listed higher.

Relocalize, and bring back a little of the ’60s

Part of the solution, Mckibben suggests, is to relocalize our economies and return, for example, to reliance on local, small farms. That small farms, using sustainable farming practices, produce more food per acre/hectare and are more efficient in their use of resources such as oil and water, makes this not just a swell idea, but a necessity as population continues to grow.

Our approach to economics won out over other systems, and served us well for some time, concludes McKibben. But we’ve passed the zone in which rewards were greater than costs, and are now paying a heavy price, both ecologically and emotionally, for our continued push for growth.

To put all of this in some recent historical context, I like Phalcon’s preface (scroll down), on Guerillas in the Matrix, to a post on the same article:

Back in the Sixties, we challenged the notion that More = Better, but as the counter-culture faded into the background somewhere along the way in the Seventies, our society’s thinking reverted back to the old Adam Smith model, and forgot all about the long-term consequences of such a formula in terms of economics, ecology, and human happiness.

Indeed, had we managed to hold on to the counter-culture ethos of the ’60s, might we have moved beyond our growth obsession already and averted the crisis we now face?
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Image source: joni, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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19 responses to “Now that growth is killing us…

  1. I say ‘yes’ to relocalizing the economies. And that goes for trade too.

    Without knowing who your neighbours are there can be no trust, responsibility or integrity.

    And please bring back that ‘let’s work together’ ethic that does not work on monetary values but on valuing each other and the environment which provides for us.

  2. Magne Karlsen

    – Mckibben says about our growth obsession, “On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up.”

    – —

    http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/features/aoc/aoc.deng.htm

    http://www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/97/0307/cs5.html

    “TO GET RICH IS GLORIOUS” –
    With those words, Deng Xiaoping ignited China’s boom …

    http://www.olemiss.edu/courses/pol324/dengxp92.htm

    “If we are to seize opportunities to promote China’s all-round development, it is crucial to expand the economy. The economies of some of our neighbouring countries and regions are growing faster than ours. If our economy stagnates or develops only slowly, the people will make comparisons and ask why. Therefore, those areas that are in a position to develop should not be obstructed. Where local conditions permit, development should proceed as fast as possible. There is nothing to worry about so long as we stress efficiency and quality and develop an export-oriented economy. Slow growth equals stagnation and even retrogression. We must grasp opportunities; the present offers an excellent one. The only thing I worry about is that we may lose opportunities. If we don’t seize them, they will slip through our fingers as time speeds by.” ~ Deng Xiaoping (1992)

    – —

    I post this comment for one reason, only: to prove to you that the ethos of growth is a world-wide phenomenon, that really has nothing to do with political-cum-ideological jargon.

    The point is: In the post cold war era, the growth culture of the western world very quickly became the order of the day. It is, I believe, what really puts a mark on our times. A “trade mark”, so to speak. One on which a global political consensus has been reached.

    As a political slogan, “Growth is madness!” is insane.

  3. Magne Karlsen

    – Mckibben says about our growth obsesssion, “On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up.”

    – —

    We’ve made so many mistakes! Oh, I wish we could form a new culture; one in which all the people of this world can readily – and smilingly – admit to the apparent fact that the consumption of fossil-fuels was a grave mistake! And what’s more: a culture that admits to the undisputable fact that standing up for the biodiversity of the Earth, must be the norm; because such a move would be the exact recipe for leading a life that is sound, healthy, pure. –

    I mean: for starters! And if not “for God’s sake”, then – to the very least – for future generations’ sake!

    Hmm? 🙂

  4. It will prove interesting to see how we, socially and culturally embrace Darwin’s Other Idea— the idea that human progress ought to be self-organized more by “love” and “sympathy” than by natural selection. Darwin’s other idea is interrelated with McKibben’s and others’ ideas on restoring ecological sanity.
    I shudder, though, to think that all of us are going to become “subsistence farmers” anytime soon. There are too many of us, and we are too ignorant in terms of the mechanics and organics of farming to have it make sense to me. Still, I do admire those who are pioneering what at some point in the future “should” become a viable means to help us re-connect to the land, to Nature, and to each other as “community”.
    I’m not as concerned about Peak Oil as some, although maybe I should be, still hoping that we can bootstrap our way beyond the Peak. I do, however, keep a close watch on that arena.
    Right now my focus seems to be mostly on two things, that interrelate: 1) Are we nearing the next great economics crash?, and 2) How are we doing on efforts like this blog to reconnect people one to another and to the land as Aldo Leopold hoped?
    I track question 1) on my Economic Dreams-Nightmares blog. In dealing with question 2), I’m anxiously awaiting Raine Eisler’s new book: The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics. “A Caring Economics,” wouldn’t that be a nice idea!

  5. Sorry for the multiple comments. I thought, mistakenly I could get it “right” on the second try.

    Until John gets us a “preview window” I’ll try not to get fancy in posting — only to prove my incompetence.

    I’ve asked John to delete the duplicates.

  6. My sympathies, Dave. I’m not sure there is anyway to get a “preview window” on a wordpress.com blog given their business model. I think John would have to move to another hosting service and install/manage the wordpress software himself.

  7. Great article!

    The notion of endless economic and population growth is just crazy, but this is inherent in the capitalist thinking and system.

    We cannot survive as a species if we do not control our growth and activities, and the effects on the planet.

    In the Sixties, we began to look at alternate models for economics, and socialism presented possibilites for radical change and experimentation.

    I think we must be willing to experiment, and not be locked too much in dogmatic formulas. In doing so, we might literally fail to see the forest for the trees, or, worse yet, we might kill the forest!

  8. For thousands of years religious leaders and philosophers have written about how “less is more” when it comes to personal happiness — yet here we are floating aimlessly in an endless sea of consumption.

    As a participant in the later part of the 60’s counter-culture I admit to missing it terribly, not the silliness or the excesses (well, some of them) but, as you put it, the ethos. The sense of connectedness, openness, and caring for each other and the planet was far more tangible than it is today in spite of the increase in gross “wealth.” Even if this is a classic example of me nostalgically rewriting the past, the idea is still sound.

    Consuming and accumulating more stuff is such an addiction. With the variety available today, if you actually do notice the diminishing returns related to acquiring or using one thing, you can easily switch to another. (In fact the overwhelming “excellence” of marketing these days will demand it of you.) It’s very difficult for most of us to realize that the law of diminishing returns applies to all things.

    Supposedly the Buddha said (circa 500 BCE) it would take about 2,500 years before people in mass came to such a realization. That would be about now.

  9. Magne,

    “that the ethos of growth is a world-wide phenomenon, that really has nothing to do with political-cum-ideological jargon.”

    Definitely.

    “the growth culture of the western world very quickly became the order of the day. It is, I believe, what really puts a mark on our times. A “trade mark”, so to speak. One on which a global political consensus has been reached.”

    Goos point. It’ one of the few things on which there’s consensus even across very different political lines. That makes for a tough obstacle to overcome.

    “As a political slogan, “Growth is madness!” is insane.”

    Heh, yeah, I probably won’t be winning many elections right now.

    “in which all the people of this world can readily – and smilingly – admit to the apparent fact that the consumption of fossil-fuels was a grave mistake!”

    It seems rare for anyone to acknowledge that even modest consumption of fossil fuels is unsustainable. But that is so.

    As for future generations, thinking of the long run like that will not be tolerated! ;-/

  10. Dave,

    I’ve read a portion of your post on “Darwin’s Other Idea,” and need to read the rest, but it’s perfect that the guy who brought us survival of the fittest promoted, on the other hand, a system of compassion, love, and the like. I wonder if that can be packaged to gain any traction.

    Eisler’s book looks good. Right now I’m reading Molly Scott Cato’s book, Market, Schmarket, which seems to provide a good, clear introduction to the view that capitalism is broken. I’ll be interested to compare her alternatives to those of Eisler and McKibben.

    Not sure I really want to be a farmer either, but it does sound like there may be more of a market for them in the future. 🙂

    Oh, and no problem on the multiple posts. I think I left the right one. 🙂 I did inquire about the preview window, btw. The admin people at wordpress.com said it would be a feature the “theme” designer would have to build in. I asked about it on the blog of the designer of the theme I’m using, but didn’t get a reply. He does put out upgrades of the theme from time to time, so if he builds in a preview window it would be a matter of getting the wordpress people to make the upgraqde available, which can be problematic as they then get people complaining about changes. Time will tell, I guess.

  11. Bobby,

    I think you’re right about experimentation. It seems the powers that be resist it if it suggests any threat to profits. Dave Iverson has a post up about Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, which talks about short term, reactive decision making on the part of politicians:

    http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/ecoecon/2007/03/jared_diamond_o.html

    That’s closely related, I think, as a part of the reluctance to experiment when an idea might involve considering the long term. i.e., the emphasis is usually on relatively short term profits, I think.

  12. Trinifar,

    “For thousands of years religious leaders and philosophers have written about how “less is more” when it comes to personal happiness — yet here we are floating aimlessly in an endless sea of consumption.”

    Heh, that hits the nail on the head. I wonder if people think those religious leaders and philosophers are just wrong, or just kidding, or what? Well, I suppose it’s the difficulty in resisting immediate gratification, even though it’s really not very gratifying after a time (as the McKibben article shows).

    “Supposedly the Buddha said (circa 500 BCE) it would take about 2,500 years before people in mass came to such a realization. That would be about now.”

    Hmmm…

  13. Magne Karlsen

    Dave: “I shudder, though, to think that all of us are going to become “subsistence farmers” anytime soon.”

    I recently read a short article in a Norwegian newspaper, saying that the CO2 emissions from individuals living in the Norwegian countryside was higher on average than the emissions from urban dwellers.

    Here’s an American example of the same trend.

  14. Magne Karlsen

    Uhmmm. I lost the link. Here.

    http://energybulletin.net/3757.html

  15. Magne Karlsen

    John. “It seems rare for anyone to acknowledge that even modest consumption of fossil fuels is unsustainable. But that is so.”

    We’re fossil-fuels addicts, that’s all. And it is becoming very clear to me that no human society on this planet is prepared to quit the habit. Take a look around, what do you see? A society that is becoming more and more car-friendly? A planet that is becoming more and more aeroplane dependent? I think so.

    As for future generations: well, these people are being raised and bred by the worst polluters of all times. In terms of simple sustainability skills, we’re teaching our children nothing. Our present generation of children and youth have learnt to take a variety of eco-destructive activities and practices for granted.

    Now, I wonder: what will be the most probable outcome of this?

  16. The article Magne links to mentions the Lama Foundation, an “intentional community”.

    In1970 Ram Dass engaged in collaboration with Lama to produce the book “Be Here Now”, and later served as a trustee for several years as well as hosting many summer retreats. Over the years, many have served Lama as teachers, guides, trustees and elders. Along with Ram Dass, they include Murshid Samuel Lewis of the Chisti order of Sufis who is buried at Lama, Stephen Levine, Jack Kornfield, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Father Thomas Keating, Robert Bly, Baba Hari Dass, Natalie Goldberg, Bhante Gunaratana, Rabbi Zalman Schachter and Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

    Most of these people I’ve read, some I’ve heard talk, and one, Kornfield, is the teacher of several of the people I’ve studied with. (Yeah, been through the chasing the guru period — turns out they are everywhere.) All these folks are products of the 1960’s, and a central point of what they teach is that satisfaction, happiness, and “the good life” is not to be found in material consumption beyond what you need to get by.

    Ram Das said it in a very 60’s style in Be Here Now, “an early Bible of the Hippie generation.” Jack Kornfield uses more modern language in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (simply a great title).

    To me, what might be called the “deeper learning” people like this teach is a large part of the solution to world’s ills.

  17. “To me, what might be called the “deeper learning” people like this teach is a large part of the solution to world’s ills.”

    Hmmm, yes, very possibly so. I hope somehow people are growing in receptiveness to some of the fundamentals. (e.g., “Happiness does not come from material consumption…”) I hope it doesn’t take an all out crisis to engender such receptivity. Interesting references. I think I have some new reading material for my ever expanding list. 🙂

  18. I often think that teaching young people the heart-felt lessons of life is far more effective than anything we can do to change the minds and understanding of people my own age. Absent any good data either way, however, I’m up for doing both. 🙂

  19. Susan Caring

    If you think any action is going to come out of the realm of politics, you are mistaken. It will be the same old smokescreen until doomsday, same old tired discussions, same old problem-reaction-solution scenarios designed to placate the masses.

    If you are seeing the truth about what is occurring on this planet, in whatever sphere (political, corporate, economic, climate change), than the only thing is to take individual action such that there is no longer a psychological split between what is true and what you would like to believe is true. We can’t keep backing up media lies by sitting on our hands waiting for another Daddy to come along and make everything OK. No guru, no politician, no organization, no belief system of any kind is going to change the simple fact that only those individuals who see what’s up and act outside of what is generally acceptable, taking a flying leap into the unknown and attempting to live what they know is true, are going to survive this disaster known as the human experiment.

    We are designed to evolve, just like all species, but the programming we receive from cradle to grave has us all thinking in looping video/audio tracks that spell out how we are to live in society, and it is enslavement to being a cog in the machine. How to get out of the machine? How to no longer be a mind-numbed robot? It’s a radical step that’s needed, and it is too scary for most to contemplate. It brings up too much fear for most. But every great teacher has said that though we live in the world, we must not be it’s slave, so gotta step out of the box and be free.

    My partner an I are attempting to contact like-minded others who are ready to act, whose highest priority is to be the awakening necessary. And to ride out the current changes, which are coming no matter what at this stage, survival is key. So where?

    After much research it seems that the most severe cataclysms are occurring in the areas towards the poles. New Zealand and Australia, Indonesia and Japan, India and China, all are experiencing drought, earthquakes, floods, and all types of extreme weather. In the states, it’s either water shortages and hurricanes in the south and west, or frigid cold, blizzards, and tornadoes across the mid-west and east. And it’s getting more extreme.

    Though there seems no areas immune to the possibility of radiation from increasing solar flares, it seems mid to high elevations in tropical climates with old growth rain forest near the equator are the best bets. So we are looking for land in the highlands of Costa Rica and want to attract others who are ready to hunker down and build a sustainable life. We intend for the focus to be awakening, using silent sitting as the only reasonable method. We do not have a teaching, just an understanding that only through silence can the original blueprint of a real human being come forth from the veil of sleep created by the decades of programming by our social systems and governments. Unless one gets a glimpse outside the program (some liken it to the Matrix as illustrated in the movie by the same name), one will think, speak, and act within it’s influence, not realizing how pervasive it is in the consciousness of mankind as a whole. Until the bubble pops, the illusion is perceived as real and governs our course of action.

    Ready to pop the bubble? We figure if just a handful of people come forward who are serious about getting out of the system, we can pool our energies and create a model of what is possible for others. So if you are REALLY serious about taking action, contact us at swaminow@yahoo.com, sell your objects, and get your buns down here to Costa Rica. Time is of the essence.