The end of the growth-mindset

The limits to growth

I recently re-read the 1972 book The Limits to Growth. The book was published by the think tank The Club of Rome and has since its publication been sold in more than 30 million copies and translated to 30 languages. In other words, there has been an immense interest in the topic, and there still is; the message seems to be successively timely despite its data being decades old.

The researchers behind the book examine five basic factors: population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation, and demonstrated that the interaction between these factors limit growth. Furthermore they demonstrate that unless we take seriously that there are indeed limits to growth the development will end up with a collapse before 2070. A collapse of our economy, our environment as well as a population collapse. They call this scenario the “business as usual” scenario.

Population cannot grow without food, food production is increased by growth of capital, more capital requires more resources, discarded resources become pollution, pollution interferes with the growth of both population and food.

The Limits to Growth, 1972

If we keep drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, we will reach a point of shortage and collapse. But fortunately, the “business as usual” scenario is not the only plausible scenario presented in the book. The researchers also line up other scenarios; twelve different ones actually, which demonstrate different possible patterns as well as environmental outcomes of world-development over two centuries from 1900 to 2100. And, they reach the conclusion that there (at their present time) is still room to grow safely whilst examining longer-term options.

However, in 1992 a 20-year update was made to the book and the book Beyond the Limits was published. And, a rather different plot was presented here: humanity is moving deeper and deeper into unsustainable territory, the researchers stated. There is no longer space to grow safely. And then, 10 years later the study Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update was published and the researchers conclude that humanity is now dangerously in a state of overshoot.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that try to keep the system within its limits. The delays can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from momentum  that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

In the 30-year update the previous twelve scenarios are reduced to ten, and most of these scenarios result in overshoot and collapse. The world as we know it will cave in to pollution, food shortage, over-population, and economic inequality, and eventually collapse.

Now in year 2020 it is nearly 50 years ago that Limits to Growth was published. And where are we now? In a state of overshoot overdrive?

The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update suggests three different ways to respond to over-usage of ressources and pollution emissions beyond sustainable limits.
The first one involves disguising and denying the signals of overshoot; by for example making use of air conditioners to bring relief from global warming, or to ship toxic waste for disposal in distant regions (which is obviously already being done on a large scale). The second way is to make use of technical fixes like the development of less polluting cars, electric vehicles or carbon filters (this is also a common current way of eradicating guilt-feelings from consumers by encouraging green consumption, and hence for legitimising continuous growth). However, this way doesn’t eliminate the cause of the problem either.
The third way of dealing with over-pollution and shortage of natural ressources is the only one that looks into the underlying cause of the state of affairs in stead of just treating the symptoms. This way involves acknowledging that our current socioeconomic system has overshot its limits, and hence that it must be altered. This scenario involves a rise of a societal need to pursue goals that are more satisfying and sustainable than perpetual material growth. In other words, what would really make a difference and what could change the path towards overshoot and ecological collapse would be if everybody decided to moderate their material lifestyles! It is our culture and our mindset that constitute the biggest obstacle when it comes to turning around the state of affairs.

Now, this last very important take-away reminds me of two things: 1. of degrowth, and 2. of the importance of reducing consumption, and not only reducing it a little bit, but reducing it radically (which I normally preach, when I talk about aesthetic sustainability).

A secondhand market in Denpasar, Bali. Overflowing with unwanted, yet perfectly fine discarded clothes and accessories.

Freedom and diversity

I will never forget listening to a radio show once about freedom and cultural differences on which an elderly, wise-sounding indian man stated that to him freedom is the freedom from ambitions. That was the weirdest thing I had ever heard! Freedom from ambitions?! The core of the societal norms and cultural consensus that I am a part of and have grown up with is that one should be ambitious and always strive for more; more succes, more money, more acknowledgment, more material belongings. And that being ambitious is an important drive and the antithesis of being lazy and lethargic. So, how could this man say this? What exactly did he mean? I could feel that the statement provoked me slightly, but that it also made me curious; what did he know that I wasn’t aware of? How could he sound so certain? Could feeling truly free really involve being freed from ambitions? What if the antithesis to being ambitious was not lethargy, but fulfilment and purpose?

Many years later I stumbled upon degrowth, and this term made me think of what the old man said.
The degrowth movement constitutes a reaction towards the unsustainable growth or “more wants more” model that governs our post-modern capitalistic reality. And, degrowth involves an important concept that is very aligned with the old man’s statement, namely voluntary simplicity.

“In other words, voluntary simplicity involves embracing a minimal “sufficient” material standard of living, in exchange for more time and freedom to pursue other life goals, such as community or social engagements, more time with family, artistic or intellectual projects, home-based production, more fulfilling employment, political participation, spiritual exploration, relaxation, pleasure-seeking, and so on – none of which need to rely on money, or much money.”

Giacomo et al (2015). Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a new Era

Perhaps, being on the constant chase for more and better burdens our individual wellbeing and inner ecosystem in a similar way that economic growth-models overwhelm the natural environment and put colossal strain on our natural ressources. And furthermore, perhaps the growth-mindset fosters homogeneity.
Let me elaborate. Exponential growth destroys biodiversity: for example, when wild nature is transformed into homogenous farmland with the purpose of effectively producing more crops diverse species of insects, animals and plants suffer and disappear. And similarly, our cultural focus on growth and efficiency, on wanting more (for less), and on optimising value chains and production models have led to a homogenous, globalised world, in which traditional crafts-traditions are suffering due to the fact that they cannot compete with cheap mass-produced things, and in which your can buy everything everywhere and at any time of the year which is devaluating and makes nothing feel truly special (and which obviously strains the ecosystem).

Fortunately though, as previously written about, the number one rule of thumb when working with cultural tendencies is the following: if there is an overload of something the need or longing for the opposite will arise, so that a balancing point can be established. And the need for degrowth and for diversity is definitely present. And henceforth the book on the limits of growth written in the 70’s is still relevant and timely, as it stirs up our bsic assumptions that might seem fundamental, but nevertheless are changeable and fluid.

Importantly though, as this very recommendable article points out; we are not at all headed towards an end to economic growth, on the contrary actually:

While we in the west talk about the limits of growth, those in Asia, Latin America and Africa are attempting to realise their dreams of a better life – modern homes, sufficient food, televisions, computers, telephones, fashionable clothes and the freedom to travel both at home and abroad. Nothing and no one will persuade them to abandon these goals. The question is whether this enormous drive for more goods and services will end in an environmental collapse or whether it can be guided into a more sustainable track.

And how can you blame people of dreaming of comfort, fashion and consumer-luxury? After all, exactly that; i.e. the joy and satisfaction of consumption and of filling your home-box with lots and lots of things is what we are being told again and again by the entertainment industry is the path to happiness.

The last sentence of the above quote contains a bit of hope though. Maybe things could still be turned around if only mass-consumption was guided towards a more sustainable track. But it requires a fundamental change in the characteristics of mass-produced products, and importantly, it requires a radical alteration of mainstream statussymbols — an alteration headed towards the values of creativity, mending-mentalities and the beauty of simplicity.

A beautiful kingfisher, killed by our cat Eddie

One of the main problems with the way we are currently consuming (which is excessive and gratuitous) and the way the things we consume are designed is the amount of waste it produces.

In nature there is no waste. Leaves that fall from a tree nourish the soil that they fall into, an animal that dies turns into food for another animal or it deteriorates and fertilizes the earth, decomposing fruit is eaten by ants and other insects etc. etc. In a natural circular system everything is always altering, always in flux, and nothing is wasted, nothing is superfluous. In our “circular” systems we are told that something similar to nature’s ingenious “waste-management” is happening. But the truth is that static things made to fulfil a temporary consumer-need to fit in, to feel trendy or admired, or to be pampered are not reusable; they turn into the trash the second they are casted off by the owner. They are by definition superfluous.

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