The religion of growth

We like to cover a lot of ground at this blog from the conservation-conservative perspective. Recent history in the western nations has shown a pattern of novelty seeking type behaviour that has reached into almost every part of civilization today. Modern economics, called a social science, is little different.

nature_winsNovelty seeking is a better description than experimentation. With the latter, we would pick the best results from a set. If new options are added to the experiment, a new round of trials takes place. The old options are still retained if they prove the better and the new options are only adopted if they are a superior replacement.

But with the former, the goal is change for the sake of change itself, with actual betterment as no more than rhetorical garnish to keep any skeptics guessing. Change for its own sake is justified on the grounds that change is inevitable because it is inherent to the natural order regardless of our wishes. This becomes a form of rationalized submission to fatalism.

Skeptics are treated to what clearly amounts to a strawman rebuttal. This is because skeptics aren’t arguing against change itself as our high priests of growth would have us believe. Instead, they draw into question the nature of a particular set of changes we are all expected to go along with.

Our high priests of growth treat this as a heresy. Resistance to the change for the sake of change process is itself fiercely resisted. The reactionary label is swapped from right to left and it is the conservation-conservatives who begin to take the progressive outlook:

Serge Latouche: Degrowth does not mean negative growth. Negative growth is a self-contradictory expression, which just proves the domination of the collective imaginary by the idea of growth. A better term to use is a-growth, in the same way that we say atheism, because it means precisely that, giving up a faith — in the economy, in growth, in progress and in development. On the other hand, degrowth is not the alternative to growth, but rather, a matrix of alternatives which would open up the space for human creativity again, once the cast of economist totalitarianism is removed.


We can think of the mainstream value of growth as someone buying a car. They will take into account how much they will pay plus interest and come to some value, say $25,000. Our buyer may also consider the cost of maintenance and replacement parts over ten years for another $5,000. They will then conclude that over ten years, they will have acquired reliable transportation for about $30,000 and assess if the investment is probably going to be worthwhile.

But something is missing. Our buyer conveniently excluded considering a periodic refueling expense. If for over the course of ten years, the car would need to be refueled about 320 times at an average of $30 a stop, our savvy buyer would have a more realistic estimate. They may realize a better estimate for the cost of this growth, reliable transportation for ten years, is more in the area of $40,000 – possibly no longer a worthwhile pursuit.

Present assumptions about economics, development, and the place of human beings in the natural order must be reevaluated. If we are to achieve ecological sustainability, Nature can no longer be viewed only as a commodity; it must be seen as a partner and model in all human enterprise.


One of the problems with our economists, the car buyers in this analogy, is that many dimly understand that refueling is also an expense but they are unable or unwilling to add this value to the equation. Whichever the case, the cost is treated as if it were magically absorbed by an act of divine providence and therefore we probably need not trouble ourselves with it.

effluentThe economic outlook reported to the public would end up gloomier than by those competing analysts who omitted this inconvenient third factor. If the people know tougher times are coming, they might be less willing to spend. Through distorting the true cost of growth, they can keep everyone spending themselves deeper into debt and modern life stumbling along a while longer.

It was Garret Hardin who best explained the fantasy of divine providence. Handicapped economics, lobotimized by neglecting vital factors, nonetheless informs a policy that we are assured achieves a gradual utopia yet consistently delivers bust cycles instead.

Perhaps this becomes more obvious when we rewrite the equation in the following form:

(Tom + 3) + (Jerry – 3) = (Tom + Jerry) + O

Now we see where the name “zero-sum game” comes from. Wealth, in a two-member, Montaignesque, system, is conserved. The sum of personal gains is matched by the sum of personal losses.

Our anthropocentric economic philosophy encapsulates human society as a complete system in itself. The problem with this approach is that human society is just a part of and a child of the larger pre-existing parent system that it depends upon.

When error corrections or act of god events from the parent master system kick in, our baffled modern economist priesthood cannot help us. Hardin attempted to correct this blind spot:

For a long time human beings were either unaware of the role of nature in the increase in human well-being, or they thought of it as a providence-like entity that bestowed blessings-without-loss on humanity. In the late twentieth century the movement labeled “environmentalism” has corrected the historical errors in this way:

(before) (after)
Tom + Jerry + Nature = (Tom + 4) + (Jerry + 2) + (Nature – 6)

Thus can we formally depict the environmentalist’s version of the game of life as a zero-sum game.

garretthardinsociety | Hardin: Living Within Limits Ch 8 [PDF]

Somewhere between the greens and yellows, as I’ve cryptically labeled the new breed of eco-progressives, are various steady state and transition town efforts. These updated offshoots of 1970s permaculture and other sustainable living models are poised to compete with established assumptions in the years ahead.

Serge Latouche, quoted above, has an interesting viewpoint. He moves the goal posts from perpetual growth to a sustainability model combined with unexplored forms of innovation toward that end. These new forms of innovation then become both economic activity and progress in better understanding ourselves and our world.

The alternative to continued economic growth is a non-growing or steady state economy. Modern societies have not undertaken efforts to establish steady state economies – the goal has consistently been growth, especially since the dawn of the industrial revolution.


This would overturn the old notion of progress as an endless lateral intrusion of human space into undeveloped wilderness and turn us toward seeking out knowledge for a self-disciplined future. Compared to our history since Adam Smith’s time, a more self-disciplined future, taking nature into consideration as a new partner in our mutual interactions, is after all an implicitly conservative-progressive proposal for us.

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