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Growth is killing us

Bill McKibben

As consumer economies stagger from crisis to crisis, the idol of perpetual growth has never seemed more dangerous. Bill McKibben calls for a sprint in the opposite direction.


We live in a flowering of a high consumer society the like of which has never been experienced before. Its benefits are obvious and often listed by its acolytes and exponents, yet these benefits are often tied to earlier periods in this consumer society.

Take life-expectancy: people live longer than they did in the past and this is often quoted as one of modernity's essential blessings. However, the most significant increases in life expectancy came in the late 19th century and early 20th century when we implemented basic improvements with regards to public sanitation and health. Now even those gains are very much in doubt. In my own nation of the US, for example, parts of the country are seeing life expectancy fall because we are consuming with such a great frenzy that we are becoming larger in physical terms than it is healthy to be.

What we are dealing with here is a threshold problem, not a binary one; it's not about choosing yes or no to a consumer society, but how far along that spectrum you want to go. The crucial point is this: consumption in the West has passed that tipping point and has become counter-productive. It's simply no longer producing enough benefit to outweigh the harm.

The first and most obvious kind of damage is ecological. The widespread use of fossil fuel, which more than anything else undergirds the consumer society, is producing massive and unprecedented ecological destruction. Ecological upheaval on this scale calls into question our willingness to follow God's request that we exercise careful dominion over this planet.

Furthermore, it raises ethical concerns as the economy we have built is generating inequality at massive levels. This seems to be a feature, not a bug, of the system, and that widening of inequality turns out to be a problem not just in terms of fairness but also in very practical ways. Recent work has shown that unequal societies generate many negative effects: violent crime, mental illness, drug addiction, illiteracy, among others are almost always higher in more unequal societies.  Even the affluent are adversely affected by inequality, though of course the most difficult and devastating effects are for those at the bottom.

It wasn't always thus - which is why the point about threshold is important. For the first few years after World War II, high consumer growth generated equality, not inequality, but past some threshold, the opposite effect begins to kick in.

The third thing that's being generated is economic instability. We see its ugliest form in the collapse of our financial system in 2008, the result of instability bought on by size. The most important phrase to come out that period was that some things were 'too big to fail', and so we were expected to bail them out. However, in some sense, anything that's 'too big to fail' is therefore just too big, and needs to be made smaller to avoid that kind of instability.

It is not just the financial system that falls into that category. We have other institutional arrangements that are oversized, top-heavy, and brittle. Take 'Big Energy', for example. It's enormously clear at this point that one of the things driving the whiplashing economic cycles is our reliance on a globally-traded pool of energy that comes from very few places.


Fourthly, there has been a rise during the last few decades of our consumer society in a certain kind of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is odd because you would think that an economic regime in theory devoted to our own happiness would be producing transports of ecstasy all the time. That turns out not to be true. In the US, an annual survey shows happiness peaking in 1956 then decreasing ever since. That's odd because our standard of living has trebled - we should be in a state of rapture! That we are not is an indication that there's something else going on here: that past a certain point, high consumption generates a severing of connectedness between human beings that erodes basic human pleasures and satisfactions.

Most prosperity that people in the USA enjoyed since World War II was dedicated to one project: building bigger houses further away from each other. A lot of money went to that particular project, one that came with ecological ruin, because of the increasing energy requirements. Social ruin is also attached to it past a certain point. The average American eats meals with friends and family half as often as they did in the 1950s, and has half as many close friends. That's a very large change for a socially-evolved primate to undergo, and it's no wonder it's not leaving us very happy.

These four things - the ecological damage, social inequality, economic instability, and loss of happiness - represent what economists call the 'declining utility' of this increase in consumption and poses ethical as well as practical challenges. Now how to respond to the change? It seems to me that we need to worry less about ideological issues, and more about scale, which has become the paramount variable. It's not that our arrangements are too big to fail; it's that they are too big to succeed. Our current fixation on growth is no longer useful, and a set of policies that would set us in a different direction might be the most useful thing we could engage in.

One idea is the regulation of capital markets in ways which restrain what is really just a pointless froth and churning at the top of all this, something that is making investment bankers ever richer and everyone else, ever poorer. A second is the regulation of the price of carbon because at the heart of our consumer society is the endless availability of cheap fossil fuel. Any regulation that restrained the availability of cheap fossil fuel would have enormous effects, wider than just about anything else we could do. There are real and powerful effects that could come with fairly small changes in variables, and would drastically alter what the future would look like.


We could go further down this path if we were able to get around the psychological barrier that keeps us from thinking about things other than growth. Growth has always been a particularly attractive thing for humans to think about, at least for the last couple of hundred years of our economy.

However, there are other goals that turn out to be as important that we could prioritise in the same way: security - that is stability, resilience, durability, fellowship. These are all things that we could explicitly aim policy at producing and if we did this, I suggest that we would be better off because these are things that our consumer society is no longer generating in useful quantities. What is interesting to see is that these are starting to happen in parts of our economic life even in the absence of explicit policy choices partly because the benefits are so obvious and overwhelming.

One example in the US is in our food sector. After a very long period of the consolidation, centralization and industrialization of our food supply, there's been something of a backlash. A renewed local food system has really begun to catch hold. It's the fastest growing part of our food sector now for a decade, and to the extent that it's having real effects on the landscape. The US department of agriculture said last year that for the first time in 150 years, there were more farms in the USA instead of fewer.


Fgrowth3.jpgThis has good effects in a number of ways, but one of the most important is the social benefits of this change. A farmer's market is a different social construct than a supermarket, and the former is doing the work of knitting back together some of that lost social connection that 50 years of a high consuming society had built up. The average shopper at a farmers' market has ten times as many conversations per visit as the average shopper at a supermarket. That's very important work.

One of the reasons for our political powerlessness in the US and the kind of problems that we've wandered into is that three quarters of Americans no longer know their next door neighbour. They may know their name but they have no relationship with them. That is a very new event in human history and it is a recipe for human powerlessness.

One can see how that logic is spreading to other sectors too. The energy world that we are moving towards will not be that of centralized fossil fuel production concentrated in a few places and easy to transport. The logic of such a system was to build a few huge power stations and connect the rest of us up to the grid. However, for renewable energy sources like sun and wind a different arrangement is needed. These are omnipresent but diffuse, hence it makes sense to have what the engineers call distributive generation: solar panels on as many roof tops as possible all linked together in some way - a farmers' market in electrons as it were.

Capital is starting to follow the same trends. The rise of things like local currencies in place after place is at the very least a symptom of our discomfort with the financial arrangements we've got at the moment and at best a real alternative to that. It was remarkable to watch what happened to the small, local banks in the financial crash in the States. They emerged largely unscathed by the whole thing, as they were still at a stage where they were capable of assessing whether individual loans made sense. They actually knew the people to whom they were loaning and understood what it would be used for.

A wise policy would be to allow and encourage these localizing trends to happen gradually over time. That's how human beings best adapt to things. Unfortunately, a wiser policy at this time would be to go in an all-out sprint in the same direction, as the window of time allowed by climate change is closing fast. You can have the most beautifully designed local agricultural system in the world, but if it rains 30 percent more than it's ever rained before, or doesn't rain at all, you're still not going to grow anything.

Hence if we have to have any hope of getting beyond this physical damage that we're doing to the planet, we are going to have to move more swiftly than would otherwise be recommended. We're going to have make change at a pace that will be difficult at best for our systems and our economies and our societies to tolerate. We're going to have to change our political and economic arrangements at least as quickly as we changed our technological ones in the last century - and that will cause all kinds of stress. It may not even be possible.

The wild card, and one of the things that gives me a certain amount of hope, is the advent of the internet. The internet makes it possible to imagine a world where we live far more local economic lives, where we live our lives in a particular place without having to suffer what was always the biggest drawback of that way of doing things - the stifling parochialism! It's now possible to imagine living your whole life in a small ambit but with a window open to the world for the old prejudices to flow out and new ideas to flow in. If we are smart we will find a way of making that work so this transition can happen as quickly as possible.

A high consumer society professes to make each one of us the centre of the world. This turns out to be, for all the reasons I have described, problematic, but particularly ethically and religiously problematic. The idea of the elevation of all of us to the position of deity helps to explain why consumer societies have been so corrosive to faith; we are idolatrous.

Hence it makes real sense to pay close attention to these questions, and to begin to back away just as fast as we possibly can. That transition will be extremely difficult but it is the work to which we are called and we need to figure out how not to just talk about it but how to do it, and do it as quickly as we can.

This article is adapted from a lecture given at Sustainability in Crisis, a conference organized jointly by the Faraday Institute and the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics.


Rick Greenough

I heard Bill give this talk and it was the highlight of an excellent conference. The transition to a low carbon society that consumes far less than we currently do is the key issue of our times. Many of the key thinkers and activists in this area are Christians, which is as it should be. However far more of us (including me) need to work out how to back away from a lifestyle that requires high levels of resource consumption, for the benefit of us all.

Posted: 28 February 2012