It has always amazed me how our culture seems to have immense difficulty in accepting one very simple fact: that the Earth is a finite sphere which cannot suffer our depredations without limit. Or, to put it differently, that our planet simply cannot sustain our obsession with converting more and more of her ‘resources’ into accumulating legions of shiny, mostly useless, over-packaged products. One instance of this lack of comprehension haunts me still: a chance meeting in a railway carriage with the bursar of one of the Oxford colleges some thirty years ago when I was a young undergraduate at Durham University. Wechatted on amiably enough until, discovering that he was an economist, I casually mentioned the notion of limits to growth. I shall never forget the vehement, almost apoplectic objections that he sputtered out in an admirably English display of controlled anger and fury. Clearly, I had threatened perhaps the most dearly held but unexaminedassumption that lies like a sleeping dragon at the core of our rapidly spreading Western worldview – namely that Nature’s seemingly infinite storehouse is there for us to use without let or hindrance for whatever purposes we see fit.
Perhaps I could have persuaded my fellow-passenger had I only known then what we know now about the alarming and increasing scarcity of raw materials. How very pertinent it would have been then to have known, as has been recently shown by the New Economics Foundation, that it would require five extra planets to supply the raw materials if everyone on Earth were to consume as much as the average contemporary US citizen. Would the distinguished bursar have seen reason with such a fact staring him in the face?
Sadly, perhaps not. Since then, I have spoken with many individuals and groups from a whole host of organisations about the need to implement limits to growth. I have tried to convince them that we will seriously destabilise the Earth by continuing to increase the flow of her wild molecules through our economic machine at rates that she simplycannot cope with. For the most part my words have met with a stony reception, for the notion of endless growth is so deeply engrained into our way of thinking that it seems virtually impossible to uproot.
Recently, in desperation, I have hit upon a different strategy – a sort of intellectual aikido that seems to be bearing fruitful results. Now, instead of speaking about limits to growth, I make a distinction between two contrasting kinds of growth: suicidal growth and intelligent growth. Suicidal growth is the growth mode that we are engaged in now. It involves the conversion of Nature’s highly ordered surface with its rich, deeply convoluted geological domain and its teeming biosphere into the appalling disorder of a destabilised atmosphere and the piles of rusting, discarded industrial products that are accumulating on our landfill sites and waste dumps. Think only of how the world of living beings, once a great sink for our carbon emissions, is now slowly turning into a deeply perilous source of these same gases as we extinguish species, burn forests, warm the seas and air, plough up soils and melt the permafrost.
Suicidal growth creates its fair share of human tragedy too, as more and more people are forced to abandon calm, peaceful livelihoods on the land in extended families and networks of mutual support to look for tedious, meaningless and dangerous work in newly burgeoning cities that expose them to despair and alienation from each other and from the world of Nature. In contrast, intelligent growth recognises that there are many good things that must grow – and quickly: some material, some social and others spiritual. As climate change and peak oil begin to bite we need to rapidly grow ecologically knowledgeable industries such as ones that generate renewable energy; we need to exploit geothermal power (a recent MIT study has shown that a large-scale deployment of current technological know-how could allow the US to meet its energy needs for thousands of years via this route). We will need more wave power, more wind power and more solar power, and we will also need to grow our skills in saving energy and in using it more efficiently, just as long as the growth of these various industries and technologies does not result in increasing rates of extraction of Earth’s wild atoms and molecules.
Furthermore, intelligent growth requires the growth of equity and social justice: the poor in the South must have access to better material living standards, whilst we in the affluent North must grow our abilities for living simply – we need to learn to do well with less. Intelligent growth also involves the growth and recovery of the soil. We need to allow soil to thicken wherever it has been depleted by the depredations of the agribusiness farmers and their corporate overlords. Inorder to achieve this we will need to adopt ways of farming that meld the latest insights from the science of ecology with the traditional wisdom of pre-industrial farmers. Both have shown that diversity leads to stability – that planting many edible, usable species together generates synergies that increase crop yields, improve food quality, enhance pest resistance and build up humus: the rich tumult of microbes, fungi, invertebrates and bedrock pulverised by these same organisms through their various subtle influences. But at the same time we will need to allow free Nature to grow back over vast tracts of land and in amongst our fields, for our latest science shows us that it provides vital services such as climate stabilisation, soil retention and the recycling of nutrients.
Growth of the soil and the restoration of free Nature cannot happen without the growth of profoundly localised human communities bonded in love to their local bioregions. We must grow our abilities to inspire each other face to face with music, art and poetry, and we must grow our capacities for experiencing the profound mysteries of the cosmos through the appreciation of the subtle qualities of the locality that enfolds us. Even as we rekindle our love of where we live, we must, in these very places, restore therich social networks and the vibrant local economies that suicidal growth has rent asunder. Finally, counteracting the suicidal growth imperative requires us to grow a global movement dedicated to intelligent growth by fostering communication and collaboration amongst local communities all over the world.
Now you know – if you ever meet an economist on the train, forget the old anti-growth arguments; simply ask whether intelligence is preferable to suicide, and watch a piece of old paradigm crumble.