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Who Will Get This Economy Going? No One

by Dave Gardner

“We’ve got to get this economy going again!” Unless your cave lacks wifi, cable or satellite, you’ve heard this once or twice in the last four seconds.

Job creation and economic growth dominate the November election in the U.S. — perhaps more than any election in history. Campaign ads for local, state and national candidates all promise jobs. The presidential election this year has become a referendum on who can breathe new life into our economy.

News Flash: Neither presidential candidate will succeed.

What if our unexamined assumptions about the need and possibility of perpetual economic growth are wrong? What if robust economic growth is our civilization’s way of driving off a cliff? What if the planet is incapable of supporting continued increase in global economic throughput?

We’ll excuse almost anything if it happens in the name of jobs. At last count the U.S. Congress had passed 247 anti-environmental measures in its current term. The Republican Party wants to throw environmental regulations overboard because they throttle back the unfettered growth we must have. Across the aisle, many who normally exhibit a stronger environmental ethic are joining the massacre, so strong is the mandate to grow the economy and create jobs. Few, if any, are apologizing for sacrificing environmental protection on the altar of economic growth.

Our Democratic president, who four years ago promised to stop the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, is now approving drilling in the Arctic, promoting hydraulic fracturing, and bragging about his support for fossil fuel exploration in national debates. Climate change has not even been on the table this election year.

Social critic Noam Chomsky observes: “The two major parties both propose that the colossal machine of everyday life in America can not only run indefinitely, but continue expanding, and include ever more member people who trade ever more schwag. All that is required, they say, is twiddling the settings of the machine, to get it back to running smoothly as it did in the good old days before the mystifying crash of 2008. They disagree slightly on which dials to twiddle.”

Politicians are ignoring the cascade of environmental crises, all tied to the huge scale of the human enterprise (population and economy) on the planet:

  • Climate disruption;
  • Species extinctions;
  • Depletion of soil fertility;
  • Collapsing fisheries;
  • Air and water toxification;
  • Fresh water supply crises;
  • Deforestation and desertification.

No question many people are struggling and feeling true pain from this “great recession.” Everyone needs meaningful work, a roof overhead, and a chicken in the pot. Yet throwing our natural world under the bus in an attempt to restore the robust economic growth we knew during the last century is not an intelligent way to secure these things. We ought not burn down the house to keep warm. We must leave for the next generation a world worth inheriting.

What is the business case for destroying the planet?
–Ray Anderson, founder and chair of Interface, Inc.

It’s time to examine the unexamined assumptions, time to re-evaluate our goals, our metrics, and our definitions of success — including what we mean by “progress” and the “American Dream.” They don’t have to mean more stuff. We’ve reached a point where our quest for MORE is detracting from the quality of our lives. It’s time to acknowledge that quality is more important than quantity.

The definition of the American Dream got hijacked.

In my film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, calls our society’s infatuation with economic growth a “fetish.” He has many allies in suggesting that GDP growth is a poor measure of life satisfaction. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly tells us growth has become “uneconomic,” meaning its costs outweigh its benefits.

In an empty world, it was a safe bet that growth was making us richer, but we no longer live in an empty world. We live in a full world.
–Herman Daly, Former World Bank Economist

The evidence is compelling enough to convert smart people who spent much of their professional lives in pursuit of growth. Commentaries are appearing in major financial and global affairs publications questioning the possibility of perpetual growth. Financial gurus — Jeremy Grantham, Paul B. Farrell, Jeff Rubin, and John Fullerton, to name a few — are warning us we are hitting the wall of resource scarcity.

We are experiencing The End of Growth, as energy expert Richard Heinberg describes in his thought-provoking book. It’s a brutal truth we must face. We have hit peak oil, peak food, peak biodiversity and peak water. We had a good run, but the party’s over. The days of 3% annual GDP growth and ever-increasing material wealth are behind us. Stimulus packages, tax cuts, deficit spending, austerity — it doesn’t matter what we try, we cannot repeal the laws of physics.

 Yet the political climate demands that our representatives and candidates avoid telling us the truth. We don’t want to hear the truth. Recent history tells us we can have it all; that is all we’ve known for the past 300 years. Ronald Reagan swept into office telling us we could and would have more.

There are no limits to growth, because there are no limits of human intelligence, imaginations, and wonder.
–Ronald Reagan

Chomsky offers: “Reality knows we have entered a long-term compressive economic contraction; that there is no way we can persist in the current living arrangement; and that the necessary outcome to avoid immense human suffering can be described as the downscaling and re-localizing of everything we do.”

We need a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr., a true leader with the integrity and courage to tell us the truth, and the charisma to inspire us to follow. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • The pie isn’t getting bigger, and over 7 billion of us want a slice.
  • We do not get to be materially richer next year than we are this year.
  • Our children don’t get to have more money and more stuff than we had.
  • That’s okay, because money and stuff are not what really matter in life.

Not one of the candidates on the ballot for U.S. President is telling us this. The most hopeful sign in the political landscape is a write-in campaign for two steady-state economics candidates, Rob Dietz (editor of the Daly News) and Bill Ryerson (CEO of The Population Institute and President of Population Media Center). The centerpiece of their platform is to transition the U.S. to a steady-state economy. Of course, this ticket is a few hundred million dollars shy of being a contender. And it’s a cold political reality that today no candidate can win election on a platform that respects the laws of physics on a finite planet.

Regardless of whom we elect as the next U.S. President, in four years we’ll still be in the great recession. The only difference between the two major candidates is how much damage we’ll have wreaked on the environment in our futile efforts to restore growth, and how much the rich will profit while we waste precious time.

We can live sustainably, practicing the intergenerational golden rule, and — in so doing — live good and happy lives. But this requires us to recognize growth is no longer delivering the goods, and it can’t continue anyway. It requires that we seek not a growing economy, but a healthy economy — one that is not liquidating the planet’s resources. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can enter the next phase of true human progress.

Dave Gardner’s documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, includes interviews with Brian Czech, Herman Daly, and Peter Victor. The film is being rereleased this week in a special edition. The “Final Cut” is a lean 54 minutes and includes new bonus features, some previously unseen. For more information, visit www.growthbusters.org.

The Titanic Code

by Dave Gardner

One hundred years ago April 15, the Titanic disappeared beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Several have marked this anniversary by noting the similarities between the Titanic and human civilization. In Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, on the National Geographic channel, James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film, Titanic, aptly turned the event into metaphor:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.  We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum.*

The metaphor is remarkably apt, as the size of the Titanic meant it was not nimble. It could not stop or turn on a dime. The captain needed to look far ahead on the horizon and plan ahead. Doesn’t that sound like the predicament in which civilization finds itself? We have built up an increasingly complex system, and it is a ginormous one (7 billion served), touching all corners of the planet. It’s impossible to change overnight. And looking ahead with only a short time-horizon serves it very poorly.

There’s something else keeping us from changing course, however. It is lack of desire. Our culture is not interested in a course correction because we’re distracted. We don’t see the iceberg ahead because we’re fixated on a cultural story that defines progress as growth, and growth as progress. This worldview has led us to develop a system that depends on everlasting growth.

Fortunately, when Mother Nature says, “enough,” key parts of the system begin to fail. I say fortunately because it’s hard to argue with success. As long as this system appears to be serving most of us well, we are not likely to throw it out. The failure of the system, which we’ve begun to experience, is our best hope for motivation to get moving toward a more enlightened arrangement.

“We’ve written a narrative that was fine in the nineteenth century.  It served us well through much of the twentieth century… but it’s outdated.  And we now need a new cultural narrative.”

— William Rees, ecological economist, in GrowthBusters

In the documentary, GrowthBusters, I refer to perpetual growth as our “operating system,” comparing it to Windows or Mac OS. The belief, the dependence on, and the pursuit of growth are what we’re all about. It’s the computer code that manages everything we do. Many call it our cultural narrative. If we were on the bridge of the Titanic, it would be in our charts, affecting our compass, on our radar. It informs (or misinforms) everything we do.

Without a doubt there are economists, sociologists and activists developing patches for this growth-based operating system. There are also scientists and activists developing apps that help us lighten our load on the planet. Renewable energy, water and land conservation, permaculture, and transit-oriented development are all examples of what I would call improved software applications, but they are still written to run on our old, growth-based operating system. With a system committed to everlasting growth, they will not keep our civilization from running off a cliff.

This is not to disparage them; it is to keep us from relaxing, thinking they will enable our civilization to become sustainable. They can be meaningful parts of a completely new system. But we do have to throw out the old system and start with fresh computer code. Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 2013 won’t do — Windows has to go.

“Only the prospect of worldwide mind-change gives me hope for the future.”

— Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael

Changing our cultural narrative is a tall order. In my film, Paul Ehrlich says, “We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for, either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.” I believe it’s the biggest challenge our civilization has ever faced. Who can we call? I’d love to say, just call GrowthBusters. After all, the film is my biggest contribution to the change we need to make.

But this challenge is too big. The film takes only the first step, which is to raise awareness that we have a culture that worships growth everlasting, and to help audiences realize it’s not delivering on its promise. I see the role of storytellers like Daniel Quinn, Dave Foreman, Richard Heinberg and myself as one of preparing our fellow human beings to be receptive to the completely new computer code that steady staters, transitioners, de-growthers and others are developing.

The time is now. The pieces are falling into place. The old system is crashing. We’re not able to reboot and get back to the business of robust growth. It will be key that we don’t rush in with patches or rely only on new apps. We must be relentless in our insistence on adopting a new operating system.

*Thanks to Joe Romm of ThinkProgress for alerting me to Cameron’s words.

Dave Gardner is the director of the non-profit documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, currently screening around the world. CASSE executive board members Brian Czech, Herman Daly and Peter Victor appear in the film. This commentary was published simultaneously here, as part of a series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth. Dave asks that you take his Pledge to Think Small to help speed adoption of a new operating system.

¡Buenas noticias! ¡La recuperación económica se frena!

Publicado por Dave Gardner, director del documental de próximo estreno GrowthBusters

Artículo original traducido del Inglés al Español por Bosco Gámiz.

Las noticias económicas del pasado viernes fueron bastante positivas. El crecimiento anual del PIB de EE.UU. fue inferior al uno por ciento en el primer semestre de 2011.

Sin embargo, me atrevería a decir que …ehmm, un 99,9 por ciento de todo el mundo considera esto una mala noticia. El New York Times [1] lo calificó como “paso de tortuga”. Periodistas y comentaristas de todo el mundo con toda probabilidad están escribiendo palabras como debilidad, anemia, malestar general, sombrío, triste, abatimiento, y el estancamiento.

Entonces ¿qué tiene de bueno? ¿Acaso me produce un placer perverso y morboso ver a mis compañeros humanos desempleados, ahogados en sus hipotecas, o comiendo en comedores de beneficencia? No, no me lo produce. Las consecuencias de la recesión son reales; es doloroso, y es triste. Sin embargo, que el PIB sea constante o que baje un poco, no es una mala noticia. Tampoco es la caída en el gasto de los consumidores [2] que se dio a conocer el martes.

Aunque muchos de los impactos de la recesión son trágicos, son la cara negativa de adaptación a una nueva realidad: el fin del crecimiento. Son una parte necesaria de una fase temporal. Podríamos llamarlo la fase de crisálida, hasta que nos transformamos en algo más bello.

Considere estos titulares de los últimos dos años. ¿Son buenas o malas noticias?

  • La recesión pone a los bebés en espera
  • Movimiento por casas pequeñas prospera en medio de crisis inmobiliaria
  • Se construyen menos casas durante el frenazo de la economía
  • El uso mundial de carbón se estanca a pesar del creciente mercado chino e indio
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Caída de la generación residuos en el municipio
  • La contaminación por carbono de la UE cae
  • GM cierra la fábrica donde se producen los Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • La subida de gasolina en EE.UU. aumenta las ventas de bicicletas
  • El tamaño medio las casas en EEUU se estanca tras 30 años de continuo crecimiento
  • El gasto en publicidad disminuye
  • Las aerolíneas dejan en tierra más del 11% de sus aviones
  • Los implantes mamarios se desinflan junto con la economía
  • Más de 400 de congresos cancelados en Las Vegas
  • El mercado de segunda vivienda cae un 30%

Si leemos estos titulares a través de una lente arcaica – la visión del mundo propia del siglo pasado en el que el crecimiento es el Santo Grial – estas historias parecen malas noticias. Pero a través de una lente más moderna, del siglo 21, que valora la verdadera sostenibilidad, son el anuncio de un mundo que se ralentiza hacia un nivel responsable de actividad humana.

Piensen en ello. Casas más pequeñas significa menos deforestación, menos hábitat partido en subdivisiones, menos hormigón (cuya producción emite mucho CO2, y menos espacios vitales que calentar o enfriar (una vez más, reducción de emisiones de CO2). Un menor uso del carbón es una buena noticia en el aprtado de gases de efecto invernadero – como lo son los aviones en tierra, no más Hummers y el cambio a favor de las bicicletas. Curiosamente no vemos señales de que los políticos, los expertos y los periodistas estén pensando tan en serio acerca de los temas.

No soy el primero en reconocer la recesión como una oportunidad. Grandes mentes como Gus Speth y David Korten están haciendo todo lo posible para convertir esta recesión en una corrección del rumbo. “¿Por qué esta crisis puede ser nuestra mejor oportunidad para construir una nueva economía” de Korten [3], y “Hacia una nueva economía y una nueva política” de Speth [4] son buenos ejemplos de esto. Incluso Jay Leno se ha apuntado, felicitando al Presidente George W. Bush por frenar la economía en 2008 y por tanto hacer más a favor de la lucha contra el cambio climático que Al Gore. Por supuesto que los impactos del crecimiento económico afectan a mucho más que el clima. Nuestra actividad económica en aumento está causando la destrucción del hábitat, la extinción de especies y contaminación [5], y está liquidando recursos críticos como el suelo fértil.

No conozco a ningún periodista que buscase a Speth, a Korten, a Daly, a Czech, a Victor o a Heinberg para contrastar una visión alternativa de las noticias del viernes. Una historia sobre la fusión de los hielos incluiría comentarios de parte de auténticos científicos del clima y de parte de negacionistas del cambio climático. Pero en la historia que conocemos sobre el PIB no hay discusiones en las redacciones para garantizar todos los puntos de vista – nadie que dijera lo buena noticia que es que el producto interior bruto se pueda estar acercando a un estado estacionario. Se supone que crecimiento del PIB es una buena noticia y la contracción económica es una mala noticia – para todo el mundo. Ni siquiera se les ocurre cuestionar esa suposición. La fe ciega en la antigua visión del mundo todavía tiene un férreo agarre sobre los periodistas y editores. Esto tiene que cambiar.

¡Quiero ver la mariposa!

Dave Gardner es el realizador del documental, GrowthBusters, que se estrena a finales de octubre. La campaña de esta película sin ánimo de lucro en Kickstarter [6] para recaudar fondos se encuentra en su última semana. Para más información sobre la película o para organizar una proyección, visite www.growthbusters.org [7]. David puede ser contactado en dave@growthbusters.org.

Enlaces:

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/business/economy/us-economy-worse-than-expected-in-second-quarter.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2

[2] https://steadystate.orgdrop in consumer spending

[3] http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-new-economy/why-this-crisis-may-be-our-best-chance-to-build-a-new-economy

[4] http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/619

[5] http://www.worldwildlife.org/sites/living-planet-report/

[6] http://tinyurl.com/kickstartGbusters

[7] www.growthbusters.org: http://www.growthbusters.org/

 

Good News: Economic Recovery Stalls!

by Dave Gardner, director of the upcoming documentary GrowthBusters

Economic news last Friday was quite positive. Annualized U.S. GDP growth was less than one percent in the first half of 2011.

However, I would hazard a guess that, oh, some 99.9 percent of the world considered this bad news. It was characterized in the New York Times as a “snail’s pace.” Journalists and commentators around the world are predictably typing out words like weak, anemic, malaise, gloomy, bleak, doldrums and stagnation.

So why would I celebrate? Do I get perverse, morbid pleasure at seeing my fellow humans unemployed, upside down in their mortgages, or dining at soup kitchens? I do not. The fallout of the recession is real, it’s painful, and it’s sad. But steady or declining GDP is not bad news. Nor is the drop in consumer spending reported Tuesday.

While many impacts of the recession are tragic, these are the pains of adjusting to a new reality: the end of growth. They are a necessary part of a temporary phase. We might call it the cocoon phase, as we metamorphose into something more beautiful.

Consider these headlines from the past two years. Are they good news or bad?

  • Recession Puts Babies on Hold
  • Tiny House Movement Thrives Amid Real Estate Bust
  • Home Production Falls as Economy Languishes
  • Global Coal Use Stagnates Despite Growing Chinese and Indian Markets
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Home Depot Calls a Halt to Rapid Expansion
  • European Union Carbon Pollution Drops
  • GM to Close Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • Bottled Water Consumption Growth Slows
  • 30-Year Growth Spurt Ends for Average American House Size
  • Ad Spending Down
  • Airlines Ground More Than 11% of Their Jets
  • Breast Implants are Deflating Along With the Economy
  • More Than 400 Meetings in Las Vegas Recently Cancelled
  • 2nd Home Market Declined 30%

Looking at these headlines through an archaic lens, last century’s worldview that growth is the Holy Grail, these stories seemed like bad news. But through a more modern, 21st century lens that values true sustainability, they herald a world slowing down toward a responsible level of human activity.

Think about it. Smaller houses mean less deforestation, less habitat converted to subdivisions, less concrete (production of which emits significant CO2), and less living space to heat or cool (again reducing CO2 emissions). Less coal use is also good news in the greenhouse gas department — as are grounded jets, no more Hummers and a switch to bicycles. Strangely we see no signs that politicians, pundits or journalists are thinking this deeply about the subjects.

I’m not the first to recognize this recession as an opportunity. Great minds like Gus Speth and David Korten are doing their best to turn this recession into a course correction. Korten’s Why This Crisis May Be Our Best Chance to Build a New Economy, and Speth’s Towards a New Economy and a New Politics are good examples of this. Even Jay Leno got into the act, congratulating President George W. Bush in 2008 for doing more to fight climate change than Al Gore — by slowing the economy. Of course the impacts of economic growth reach far beyond the climate. Our increasing economic activity is causing habitat destruction, species extinction and pollution; and it is liquidating critical resources like fertile soil.

I’m aware of no journalist who sought out Speth, Korten, Daly, Czech, Victor or Heinberg for an alternative view on Friday’s news. A story about ice melting would include comments from both real climate scientists and climate change deniers. But for this GDP story there was no discussion in the newsrooms about getting the other side — a quote about how terrific it is that gross domestic product may be settling toward a steady state. They assume GDP growth is good news and economic contraction is bad news — for everyone. It doesn’t even occur to them to question that assumption. Blind faith in the old worldview still has a tight grip on the reporters and editors. This needs to change.

I look forward to seeing the butterfly!

Dave Gardner is the filmmaker behind the documentary, GrowthBusters, which premieres in late October. The nonprofit film’s final fundraising campaign on Kickstarter is in its last week. For more information about the film or to organize a screening, visit www.growthbusters.org. Dave can be reached at dave@growthbusters.org.

Might As Well Face It, We’re Addicted to Growth

by Dave Gardner

Recently I ventured to Toronto to interview Peter Victor, author of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, for my GrowthBusters documentary. Victor has done some impressive modeling to show wealthy nations can reduce their pace of economic growth toward a steady state without a lot of pain. Of course those unfamiliar with limits to growth might asky why we should do that. Victor writes (and many agree) that rich nations need to give up economic growth so poor nations have room to grow on this finite planet. I’ll be the first to say that is only fair.

But I have to wonder, do we really want to recommend economic growth as a policy goal for any nation? The success of modern nations in our quest for unending economic growth is largely responsible for the ecological crises we face. We’ve taken a detour off the path to true happiness and fulfillment; why encourage others to follow? If we work to enable populations to have “their fair share” of economic growth, aren’t we just like a drug-pusher? “Come on. Give it a try. It’ll blow your mind. Everyone’s doing it!” It seems Peter Victor (and many others) would have us use less of the drug so we can distribute it more widely and get others hooked.

Maybe “economic growth” isn’t the right goal for the nations who aren’t already addicted. Certainly their people are entitled to have a good life – to have needs met and live happy, fulfilled lives. And conventional wisdom is that economic growth lifts people out of poverty. In my view, there are just two problems with hanging your hat on that concept. First, there is a growing body of evidence that economic growth does not correlate strongly with better lives. Second, we’ve now proven economic growth is not a sound long-term strategy. We in the richer world are struggling mightily to get unhooked from our dependence on economic growth, which, as ecological economist Herman Daly likes to remind us, has become “uneconomic.” So, can we do the rest of the world a favor and not entice them to become fellow addicts, setting them up to go down a difficult and destructive path?

I’m not denying that increasing income, up to a point, does have an impact on happiness. And I’m not denying the current arrangement between haves and have-nots is inequitable. It is a sad truth that the rich world has already commandeered the lion’s share of Earth’s resources. The developing world is too late to the party and can’t join the dance. But it turns out the dance we’ve been tripping out to is not the answer. So I’m suggesting we recommend a dance that is not the dance of death, a dance that will bring real fulfillment and happiness, not the hedonic treadmill and empty illusion of prosperity from increasing material consumption.

Even if developing nations temporarily require some components of economic growth to reduce hunger, disease and poverty, let’s not brand it “economic growth.” Let’s at least change the vocabulary. Let’s more narrowly define what we recommend to them. Rather than the open-ended term, “growth,” let’s opt for “sufficiency.” Otherwise we’ll greatly increase the population of growth addicts struggling to get into a recovery program.

Dave Gardner is currently finishing up the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, and is a founding member of Growthbusters, a global network inspiring and equipping people everywhere to make the wellbeing of people and the planet our most urgent priority, without relying on growth to make it happen. For more information on the movement or the film, visit www.growthbusters.org.