The Growing Insanity of Growth

As the ingenuity of humankind ushered in the Industrial Revolution, no one bothered to consider the limitations of our natural resources. Excited as we were over the possibilities of increasing our manufacturing and the number of things we could produce, there was no question over the wisdom of extracting as many fossil fuels and other natural capital as we could in order to propagate what we had come to consider as wealth. However, we are now at a state where we must question it.

While the last two hundred years of industrialism is only a small fraction of our history, the explosion in our population and the trend of making so many of our commodities disposable have created deleterious consequences that could not have been imagined when we began the process, but have now created a very stark reality. With eighty percent of the Earth’s forests now destroyed, most of our oil reserves having been sucked dry, our topsoil left largely unfertile, and our use of water being more than can be replaced by rainfall, we face some dire ramifications from our shortsightedness. Yet even more damaging than our rampant squandering of resources in the past is our current trajectory of continuing on in our reckless behaviors. 

“Across Florida too, developers put up new condos and communities seemingly on every available acre,” says Richard Florida in The Great Reset. “Rather than being built for workers employed in growing industries, housing became the central industry itself. At the height of the boom, the combination of real estate, housing, and the construction-related industries accounted for more than a quarter of the entire economies of Las Vegas, Miami, and Phoenix; more than 30 percent of Orlando’s; and upward of 40 percent of that of Naples, Florida. In these places, real estate, mortgage finance, and construction literally became the economy, making up a bigger piece of it and employing more workers than manufacturing, government, health care, and education combined.”

While the ability to manufacturer society through development offers a charming facade of harmony with our meticulously manicured landscapes and plastic affection, this illusion usually keeps us largely unaware of the impact we inflict upon the environment and the rest of the earthly community beyond our scope of vision. Because we have been raised in a corporate world, indoctrinated to be good consumers so that we may assist in the process of turning all things to garbage so that our resources can be reduced to an ever-growing number that is ultimately divided among the owners of industry, we rarely stop to question the ideology we have been taught or the effect that our continued exponential growth for the sake of corporations and their masters might have on the rest of the world.

“Given current corporate practices,” says Paul Hawken in The Ecology of Commerce, “not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.” 

Given how much we have come to honor the tenets of capitalism and the growth of what we consider to be wealth under that construct, it may seem blasphemous to condemn the merits of business and the work ethic it has helped to cultivate. And while we have come to embrace the axiom of working smarter and not harder by using the most immediate sources of energy to fuel our growing industrialism, by relying so heavily upon our technologies and taking the easiest path, we have actually found ourselves working harder than is necessary and forcing the source of our resources to do the same. Although our technology has increased exponentially, producing a number of supposedly “labor-saving” devices, the work required to maintain this momentum has grown as well, along with our need to burn up our natural resources in order to fuel it.

“Only in the last 200 years have we become dependent on nonrenewable minerals,” writes Herman E. Daly in Steady-State Economics. “Modern industry runs on the scarcest of the available forms of low entropy. Traditional technology (windmills, waterwheels, etc.) runs on the more abundant solar source. How ironic, therefore, to be told by technological optimists that modern technology is freeing man from dependence on resources. The very opposite is true.” 

While it may indeed be impressive how quickly we have utilized our technologies to turn so much of our natural capital into man-made capital, we would be wise to consider the true costs. If the labor of all 7 billion of us is being used to transmogrify our planet’s natural capital into the measurable human capital of money, real estate, and business ownership, we should give some thought to the true value of our endeavors. With half of all human wealth now owned by only 1% of the population, the rest of us have had some trickle-down effects of material well-being, but considering how much of the natural world has been decimated in the process, is it in our best interest to continue on this course in order to enable the inequality it produces?

“The industrial revolution that gave rise to modern capitalism greatly expanded the possibilities for the material development of humankind,” Paul Hawken and L. Hunter Lovins remind us in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. “It continues to do so today, but at a severe price. Since the mid-eighteenth century, more of nature has been destroyed than in all prior history. While industrial systems have reached pinnacles of success, able to muster and accumulate human-made capital on vast levels, natural capital, on which civilization depends to create economic prosperity, is rapidly declining, and the rate of loss is increasing proportionate to gains in material well-being.”   

After all, with OxFam reporting that the wealthiest 1% of the American population is receiving 82% of the annual profits created, it would seem that the bulk of our endeavors are aimed at creating more for those who already have more than enough. While the majority of us are prompted to continue giving our time and energy to this activity of turning natural capital into man-made capital so that we can benefit from the material well-being that trickles down from their growing fortunes, our best interests truly lie in questioning the wisdom in supporting the continued growth for growth’s sake. For although our culture has come to regard our system of wealth development as largely sacrosanct, it may very well be based on one of the most dangerous and devious forms of mental disease.

“Corporations are portrayed in the media as models of efficiency producing a stream of goods and services,” Paul Hawken points out in The Ecology of Commerce. “But compelling evidence suggests that the behavior of many individuals in the modern corporation is remarkably similar to that of addicts. The parallels between the way addicts organize their lives and the lives business encourages suggest that there are many aspects to addiction we may not have recognized before – and many ways to define it.”   

Although our current system has idealized the notion of selfishness as the engine that makes progress possible, egalitarian societies have historically seen it as an abomination and a transgression against the population. While these communities would respond to hoarding with excommunication and banishment, we have come to revere it, venerate it, allowing it to become the highest ideal if our society. Moving forward, as we continue to sacrifice our time, talent, and labor to the activities of turning our natural wealth into man-made wealth so that it can be absorbed by the ostentatious few, let us consider that pandering to growth for the sake of growth may just be the greatest insanity to ever face humanity. 

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