Coming to terms with growth

We have all bumped up against taboo topics in everyday conversation, at work, in public discourse, and in popular culture. Death is one obvious example. It is difficult for death to get the attention it deserves as a fact of life, so we create forums like “Death Cafés” to talk about it.

Ironically, taboo topics might be exactly the ones most in need of discussion, as we have learned recently when race, economic inequality, sexual harassment, and climate change have emerged from the shadows. Sometimes taboo topics are not “elephants in the room” but taken-for-granted creatures in the room that remain unmentioned.

A persistent but very troublesome taboo topic is growth. In U.S. politics, economics, and across the major sectors (business, government, and the “third” or non-profit sector), growth is part of the ideological fabric of the modern world. To speak of something other than growth is usually heard as a downer. As Australian social commentator Clive Hamilton explained in Growth Fetish in 2003, the obsession with growth, largely in the senses of market expansion and the accumulation of material goods, has led to environmental devastation; it has exacerbated social divides; and it has left many people alienated from each other, nature, and meaning. In short, our accustomed notions of growth are plainly not sustainable.

In President Jimmy Carter’s delayed Independence Day speech of 1979, he called for the nation to reflect on its own values, to confront what was then called the energy crisis, to be less materialistic and consumer-oriented, and to ground a new kind of confidence in a sense of common purpose. Carter was questioning parts of our shared culture and habits of doing business, asking the country to consider alternatives. Interestingly, the speech was first received with approving reviews, but very quickly media coverage and public opinion shifted. Carter was charged with condemning “the American way of life” because he raised the taboo topic of the nature of growth. The warning now seems prescient.

Today, the idea of endless growth, expansion and accumulation lives on, even against overwhelming evidence of the limitations of our familiar, and sometimes mindless, ways of living on this planet. The climate and therefore our civilization are in crisis. The spectacular successes of industrialization, capitalism, bureaucratization, mechanized agriculture, and technological development all are haunted by downsides that are becoming increasingly and dramatically apparent. Established ideas of success – and especially measures of growth – need to be rethought and put in an entirely new frame.

For 50 years the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has been recognized as a flawed measure of overall economic and social wellbeing because it adds rather than subtracts spending on many problems, such as rising cancer rates. The GDP also fails to take into account individual or group satisfaction and widening gaps in income and wealth. There are established alternatives to the GDP (called Genuine Progress Indicators) that broaden notions of progress to include a wide range of measures of wellbeing.

Now is the time to launch a discussion of how we might grow as humans and as humankind in ways that are more sustainable, satisfying, and meaningful. The most obvious way is to move beyond addiction to material growth to other forms of growth. After all, that’s what humans do as they stop growing physically but continue to develop socially, ethically, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, etc. In addition, research shows that people with materialistic value systems are less happy than those with less materialistic orientations.

Experts and citizens alike are considering what we might call “post-material growth.” We know from research on grief that people sometimes reformulate their world views after trauma and come to a deeper understanding of life. There is the promise that we can lead richer and more meaningful lives if we reorient from material growth to other forms of growth: spiritual, environmental, ethical, creative, and so forth.

Success should be measured in terms of progress towards longer-term goals, and this requires that we stretch the time horizons typically used in indicators and assessments. We must question whether our society can live, much less thrive, with planned obsolescence, rampant waste and widespread pollution.

The ideas of transforming energy, transportation, and connections to the land and water require complex and deep forms of collaboration, from the group decision-making level to imaginative cross-sector initiatives. Focusing on resilience, restoration and regeneration can help humans move towards a realistic understanding of their role in and dependence upon nature, as opposed to a worldview that places us outside and separate from it.

If there were ever a time for revisiting our goals and familiar practices, it is now. And that brings us back to what is not only acceptable but also essential to talk about. It is often said that proposals to transform our society and economy into more sustainable “projects” are unrealistic. But, is it realistic to pursue material growth as usual, knowing that untold suffering and unparalleled disaster are just beyond the reach of our headlights? A true embrace of sustainability and non-material growth might not only give us a fighting chance but help us lead richer lives as well.

Sally Planalp and George Cheney are residents of Moab and part-time professors of communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent those of the university or any other institution.