Addicted To Growth

The subprime mortgage debacle. The Great Recession. Derivatives and hedge funds. The effective bankruptcy of Greece and the subsequent collapse of the euro. China’s imminent bubble. The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Weeds resistant to glyphosate. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Global climate change. The common factor? Humans want too much. Too many humans are greedy to the point of madness, and neither the global economy nor the global environment can withstand the onslaught of our greed. Our greed, however, isn’t the root cause of the problems we face. Our greed is a symptom of a far more fundamental flaw in the way humans organize their societies and their economies: We are addicted to growth. That addiction to growth stokes the greed that drives the endless and often pointless consumption that we have defined as economic success. The problem with being addicted to growth is that we live on a finite planet. No matter what growth’s apologists claim about finding more resources or harnessing new technology, an addiction to growth, by definition, must at some point collide with reality. Proponents of endless growth insist that humans have always in the past overcome perceived resource limitations. This is a silly argument. We have been burning fossil fuels, the resources that underpin modern civilization, for a mere two centuries, a period of time that hardly qualifies as “always.” In the new book “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, argues that anthropogenic climate change/global warming is already well advanced. It is not a problem for future generations. It is a problem for us. McKibben makes a persuasive argument that humans must begin, right now, to adapt to a radically changed planet. Earth, the planet that humans evolved on and which gave birth to human civilization, no longer exists. In its place is a radically changed place, “with melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat. An inhospitable place.” Most important, though, McKibben writes, is that it is a planet that will no longer tolerate growth. “Of all the things I’ve told you about our new planet … the most terrifying and strangest change would be the end of growth. Growth is what we do. Who ever dreamed it might come to an end?” he writes. The first half of “Eaarth” is devoted to making the case that humans have already irrevocably changed the planet and that life in the future will have to be different because of those changes. The second half of the book focuses on what humans might do to achieve a good, sustainable existence on this new planet, as opposed to facing catastrophic collapse. “The trouble with obsessing over collapse,” he writes, “is that it keeps you from considering other possibilities. Either you’ve got your fingers stuck firmly in your ears, or you’re down in the basement oiling your guns. There’s no real room for creative thinking. To its theologians, collapse is as automatic and involuntary as growth has been to its acolytes.” McKibben insists that there is another possibility, that we should be able to create social structures and an economic system that do not depend on growth. Near the end of “Eaarth,” McKibben writes: “My point throughout this book has been that we’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created. We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed.” “Eaarth” is a manifesto, one that delivers a message that many people won’t want to hear and that many will dismiss out of hand. Growth is a religion, and I think McKibben underestimates how fervently many humans cling to that religion. It is a religion, however, that flies in the face of physical reality, and as such, cannot be maintained.

Author: Rudy Baum

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  1. Dear Mr. Baum,

    After reading your editorial in the June 28 issue of C&EN entitled “Addicted to Growth”, I am appalled! “Earth…no longer exists”? This is a CHEMISTRY magazine and such editorials have no place within its pages. Furthermore, if you are not living on an Amish farm and riding to work on horseback, you are a complete hypocrite.

    “Growth is a religion”? So is environmentalism!

    Jerry P. Byers
    Cincinnati, Ohio

  2. I strongly agree with both McKibben’s sentiments and the Editor’s post, but I fear that humankind may prove incapable of implementing and accommodating a ‘controlled decline’.

    Instead, I often hear business and political spokespersons, developers, and engineers voice their earnest conviction that ‘when the economy recovers’, jobs, economic growth and construction will return to previous levels.

    If responsible leadership cannot envision and acknowledge a progressively resource-limited and ecosystem-damaged world, how can we plan for a controlled decline in growth — and wealth?

  3. My, my. Two comments, and we’ve pretty much defined the boundaries of this discussion.
    @johntoconnor: I’m not optimistic. We need a new economic paradigm that defines “success” very differently from its current definition.
    @jerrypaulbyers: It’s not a CHEMISTRY magazine. It’s a news magazine written for chemists. As chemists, I think we should be concerned about the future of the environment.

  4. I would really like to know how you square this article where you state that “That addiction to growth stokes the greed that drives the endless and often pointless consumption that we have defined as economic success” with what you did just short two months ago, endulging yourself in your “passionate” hobby, scuba diving in the Caymans. Couldn’t scuba diving in far away places be deemed as pointless consumption? And don’t you believe that the massive amounts of CO2 that you emitted on your trip is contributing to the destruction of the environment?

  5. The argument that “there is no point in addressing the situation since everyone is participating” is at the root of the problem. Unless we begin to change our underlying philosophy we will sooner or later hit a wall.

    Nobody can deny being part of the consumer culture unless perhaps they are living off the land. Even then, living primitively isn’t necessarily less of an environmental impact than modern technology. So striking back and saying that one is a hypocrite because they drive a car or flew in an airplane is counter-productive.

    I think the point is that, rather than having a philosphy of growth, a philosophy of sustainability should drive our decisions. If everyone embraced such a philosophy, the world would look quite different 100 years from now. Radically different.

    An interesting book to read related to this post is “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn.

  6. @nonluddite: Sure, scuba diving in the Caymans can be deemed pointless consumption, although I don’t think of it that way. I admit that traveling has a significant carbon footprint. I would prefer not to live in a world where all travel for pleasure was off limits, but we may be creating a world where that ends up being the case. What I would like to see is a real effort to head off that eventuality.
    @mattj63: That’s my point–a philosophy of growth cannot be sustainable. It’s just a physical impossibility. So we have to find a new way to organize ourselves and define what it means to be successful.

  7. Rudy,

    perpetual growth is not a physical impossibility, as long as we manage to decouple that growth from resource extraction. In some areas this works rather well (microcomputers, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, entertainment), in others it doesn’t (energy, transport, plastics.) The latter pose grave problems, but a priori there is no reason to believe that human ingenuity won’t help us solve these dilemmas.

    Sustainable growth can be achieved by recycling our limited resources and putting them to ever higher-value uses.