Growth: Bad? Good? Necessary?
How about this idea—we absolutely want growth in well-being, happiness, thriving, social justice, equity, love. Growth in pollution, mining, and waste—not so much. Growth based on “borrowing” resources from future generations is neither sustainable nor moral. Building an economy and a culture on unsustainable practices is much like pulling too many blocks out of the bottom of the Jenga tower—there is no doubt that eventually it’s all going to fall apart. The only questions is when it will (although you know it will be before dinner).
Of course, the fact that we as a species are using resources much faster than they can be replaced is not new. The Global Footprint Network suggests that it takes 1.6 earths each year to provide the resources we use each year. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have any idea where we can find a 0.6 Earth at a reasonable price. Indeed, it seems that such a thing may be priceless.
Unfortunately, we are buying that 0.6 Earth on credit. Or, perhaps more accurately, plundering our children’s savings accounts. If we were using our resources on a cash basis, we would run out each year before the 4th of July fireworks are launched.
But this isn’t new information. We have had repeated warnings over the last three decades that we have overshot the earth’s capacity. In addition to ignoring this past-due bill, we have dumped, sprayed, and burnt toxins across the globe. For an examination of our recent state of resource depletion, check out The Limits of Earth by Ramez Naam.
Although we are good at distracting ourselves from action, the reality is that our timer has been buzzing for too long. Now smoke has turned to fire (much of it in California). Or, if you prefer, the tub has been overflowing for decades and the people in the basement are not only wet but drowning. Or we can shift our imagery outdoors and consider that the flood gate has been opened and the valley is already twelve feet underwater. We need to quit researching the possibility of a flood and start handing out life jackets.
Pick your metaphor of choice, but be clear—nature doesn’t really care about our preferences or our procrastinations. The question for us humans in the Anthropocene is whether we approach the near future with open eyes and strive to mitigate present damage and reduce our future pain or whether we continue to turn away from the challenge and buy another gadget? This may be the biggest marshmallow test humanity has ever undergone. A quick rush of artificial sweetness now or an improved, sustainable life later?
Personally I am voting, and working, for the latter. Sure, I want to see growth. We need growth. But I want growth in personal well being, social justice, equity, compassion, and love. We will require all of these to weather the oncoming storms. We can make the choice to attend to strengthening our capacity to deal with these challenges and with each other. In doing so I suspect we will learn that we are better off with cleaner energy sources, less stuff, and stronger personal networks, friendships, and communities.