Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's Growth Got To Do With It?

In biological growth, living cells multiply by dividing their genetic material in two and then splitting into two distinct cells. Each cell is then free to divide in two again indefinitely, providing conditions are favourable. But at some point growth gets limited, either because the food supply runs out or because production of waste interferes with the consumption of food.

That's where variety or biodiversity comes in – because what is one creature's waste is always food for another. Everything is connected. Living things are never isolated, but are always part of what we call “ecosystems”.

When people think of a jungle, they often think of competition of many creatures eating each other up in a race for survival. But actually, a jungle is made up of a huge diversity of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria – that, although partly competing , on the whole are cooperating with each other to form a vast interconnected web of life that supports the growth of all the countless individual species.

If one invasive species were to grow to fast and take over everything else it would eventually run out of food or end up suffocating in its own waste. That's why diversity supports biological growth – animals breathe out carbon dioxide as waste and plants take it in as food and produce oxygen as waste which animals take in as food.

Think of a cancer cell. A cancer cell is a cell in our body that's just like other cells except for one thing. Healthy cells are programmed to stop dividing after a time, which means that eventually they will die. If not for the sacrifice of healthy cells the body would not survive long. But a cancerous cell keeps multiplying and making millions of copies of itself without end.

And all this cancer cell growth consumes valuable nourishment and creates excessive waste products, both of which puts stress on the body's organ systems. At some point this excessive growth destroys the functioning of the organ systems and the body dies.

Economic growth is analogous to biological growth. Here's how Herman Daly and Joshua Farley define it in their book, Ecological Economics: “We define growth as an increase in throughput, which is the flow of natural resources from the environment, through the economy, and back to the environment as waste. It is a quantitative increase in the physical dimensions of the economy and/or the waste stream produced by the economy.”

Economic growth cannot continue indefinitely because, like a cancer, the consumption of too much resources and the production of too much waste will eventually over-stress living systems and cause breakdown of ecosystem support, which will then compromise human survival.

There is no question that economic growth has pulled human society out of mere surviving and into a world of comfort and abundance. But growth has become a secular religion. Instead of seeing it as a tool that may be close to reaching the end of its useful life, we have ended up worshipping it in a reckless and unquestioning manner.

Our task today is to convert endless economic growth into endless human development. Right now, in the developed world, we are producing more and more stuff, but not necessarily improving human life. We need to learn how to increase the meaning and quality of life without increasing material throughput.

In the old days, when a person was diagnosed with cancer, his doctor would often lie about it in order to spare his patient's suffering mental anguish. In those days, there weren't many useful treatments available.

In some ways we are in an analogous situation with regard to economic growth. Politicians and economists are denying there's a problem with unlimited growth because they haven't got the guts to try alternative solutions. Just as there are now plenty of chemotherapy treatments for cancer, there are solutions to economic growth for those who have the imagination and courage to try.

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