Growth Fairy Tales
By Dave Gardner
Every night while you’re asleep, fairies enter your bedroom, put earphones on your head, and play a special endless-loop soundtrack. All night long, you hear, “Growth is good, growth is wonderful, growth is the path to prosperity, growth is success, there is a pot of gold at the end of the growth rainbow….”
From the day I decided to produce my first documentary film about our society’s pursuit of population and economic growth, I knew I was taking on the challenge of catalyzing an historic cultural shift. We live in a culture of growth. For our civilization to be sustainable, we need to adopt a culture of “enough.” Right now, growth is the dominant story of our time. So obsessed are we with growth, when I make a presentation to a group or speak with an interviewer on television or radio, the question almost always comes up is:
“Sure, you make a good case for ending our pursuit of economic and population growth, but aren’t there other kinds of growth that are desirable?”
Why would that matter? Isn’t it enough that I advocate an end to economic and population growth? The growth-worship coursing through our cultural veins is so pervasive that many of us feel we JUST HAVE TO HAVE SOME KIND OF GROWTH. Growth is, after all, good! Growth is apparently our reason for being. I don’t buy it, but that conversation underscores just how powerful our culture of growth is.
Of course audiences and interviewers push back on my “growthbusting” in many other ways:
“Aren’t there some good kinds of economic growth?”
“Don’t we want to grow some things?”
“Don’t we want economic growth for people in the developing world?”
Yes, there are some parts of our economy we want more of, but while we grow, say, the renewable energy sector, we need to be shrinking the filthy energy sector. We want to grow some durable goods businesses while we shrink the production of throwaway products. But at the end of the day, we do not want the overall economy to grow. So it’s okay to say we oppose economic growth.
We do want people in the developing world to have a healthy economy that meets their needs. That may require their economy to grow for a while, but the goal should not be economic growth. That was our mistake in the industrialized world. Initially what we really wanted was a chicken in every pot and a roof over every head, but as we became so accustomed to gauging our progress by measuring economic growth, we fell in love with that temporary state of moving from unmet needs to needs met (economic growth). Once our needs were met, we forgot that was our goal. So no, I do not want economic growth for anyone. I want needs met. I want sufficiency.
When I suggest to my local city council that it may not be in our city’s best interest to grow, most of them are stunned, baffled, befuddled. They cannot in their wildest dreams imagine a world in which our city is not growing. In individual conversations they will admit the city can’t grow forever, but the absence of growth is such an unfamiliar idea to them they are just certain it’s not scheduled to happen on their watch.
The late physics professor Al Bartlett told me a great story about this:
“I remember having (hearty laugh) a discussion many years ago with a Colorado state Senator and he said, ‘Well Al, we couldn’t stop population growth if we wanted to.’ And I said, ‘I agree. Therefore, let’s put a tax on the growth, so it pays for itself.’ And he almost shouted at me. He said, ‘You can’t do that. You’d slow down our growth!”
I think I’ve conveyed just how strong our attraction to growth is. It’s more than just the myth of prosperity from growth. It’s that children grow, flowers grow, we grow food, we grow a fledgling business until it is self-supporting, we seek spiritual growth, personal growth. Have you noticed that anything that grows seems to thrive? Based on frequency of use I am sure we should be able to find growandprosper, growandthrive and vibrantgrowing in the dictionary.
I don’t know whether our pervasive use of the word “growth” has given it its power, or whether its power in our culture has resulted in its widespread use. I do know we need to escape its clutches, and right now that is very difficult, because the joy of growth is the story our storytellers (news media and politicians) keep telling.
We need those fairies to bring this story into our bedroom every night: “The human enterprise has outgrown the planet. As a result, growth is no longer delivering good lives. Perpetual growth on the scale of the human enterprise is not sustainable. It’s not possible. And continued pursuit of that growth will cause an ever-increasing amount of harm. The good news is the ‘good life’ is not dependent on competing, winning, or having more stuff. The good life is learning, loving, laughing….”