Worshipping the False Idol of Growth

American culture worships at the feet of the great god Growth.  It becomes increasingly clear, though, what a false idol it is.  In practically every report of financial news the word Growth comes up, sooner or later.  Reporters use the word as if it is a given that profitability can only be achieved through Growth, and that prosperity, the lifestyles of the average people, and indeed the entire world economy, are dependent on it.  Is this really the case?  Are we lost without Growth?  What will happen when we have no more room to grow?

We in North America have painted ourselves into a corner.  The U.S. already has plenty of urban sprawl, making the average person feel they must own a car or truck to survive, and causing a great many to drive significant distances to work.  Public transportation is only useful to those who are in cities, and those systems vary widely in quality and effectiveness.  There is also a social stigma against public transportation, as it is seen as used only by the poorest people, and in some cities as having a crime problem.  Taxi rides are prohibitively expensive.  Distances to stores, restaurants, etc. for many are often far too great for walking or bicycling.  Strip malls and subdivisions have been springing up at ever greater rates, only slowed to a near-halt by the current credit crisis.  Personal debt has expanded radically, and continues to expand, as we struggle to afford the relatively luxurious cars and oversized houses.  Growth is king, if not a god.  How did we come to this state of affairs?

Times have been great, or at least good.  Growth is a cultural phenomenon in the U.S, where a culture of “more is better” and instant gratification has risen over the past century, but especially in the past 50 years, supported by abundant natural resources and a powerful capitalist system.  The urban/suburban sprawl and high consumption lifestyle have come about in times of great prosperity, extremely cheap energy, and little concern for air pollution.  Most people alive today have known little else, and few who remember the Great Depression are left to remind us what it was like in tougher times.

Change happens.  Now these factors are changing, however, and fuel costs are rising very rapidly.  Globalization is reducing our standard of living toward the world average, though it may be decades before we come close to that.  Slowly the consciousness is developing that we must inevitably find our way to a sustainable no-growth situation, that it will involve a lot less energy expended per person, that the average person will travel far less than today, and that we will eventually have to live and work much closer to our homes.  In short, the culture and language of Growth, and the very assumptions we have lived under, must and will change, but can we change quickly enough to minimize the inevitable hardships?

The sooner we adapt to the changes, the better.  In reality, the longer we keep our heads in the sand the worse things will be in the future. Growth must be deposed as the false god that it is, but it isn’t going to be easy, especially when our whole lifestyle and the profits of individuals and corporations hang in the balance. Still, what choice do we have? It is apparent there will be a lot of belt-tightening involved, but what can we do?  How can we move our lives in the direction of sustainability and creating a world in which our descendants can live happily, healthfully, and productively?

Start with the basics.  Write your representatives, for starters, and then study our situation hard and take action at every opportunity to raise the consciousness of those around you and across the world.  Get used to recycling and conservation, find ways to conserve and recycle more, and work on learning and inventing new ways to save money while preserving your lifestyle.  Think about what you can give up and what you can’t.  When humans number in the billions … well … a billion people can move mountains, but only if they all work together.  How well we work together, and where we put our concern and effort, will make a big difference to how our lives go in the future.  A sea change in corporate and political thinking is coming, and the average person is best served by being involved, not by “keeping one’s head down” or taking a “wait and see” attitude.

In the meantime there will be some very cheap deals on “McMansions” in the hinterlands as demand for them falls, also a continuance of the current hard times for builders, and rising energy prices will continue to eat up more and more of our income (and make it hard to afford to heat and cool that McMansion, but that’s why they’ll be relatively cheap).  Many of us will be looking for work closer to home, and homes near work, shopping, and schools will retain more value than those farther away. 

A question: By the way, do other developed countries buy into the idea that growth is necessary for prosperity and a comfortable lifestyle, as we do in North America?  Is this misconception less powerful, or even absent, in other developed countries?  (I hope so …)

As always, your comments are more than welcome.  — Tim

Interesting resources:
www.growthbusters.com, documentary film: Hooked on Growth, by Citizen-Powered Media


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