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What's so good about growth?

It occurs to me that sometimes we confuse growth and development.

I have been reading Donella Meadows’ excellent book “Thinking in Systems“. In it she tells the tale of Jay Forrester, one of the early proponents of systems thinking, who when asked by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s to show how major problems of poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration and unemployment might be solved, alighted on a clear leverage point: growth.

Not just population growth, but economic growth. Growth clearly is the solution to many of these problems. What Forrester revealed was not that world leaders didn’t understand that growth was important. The problem was that they were pushing it in the wrong direction.

As has now become much more obvious than it was then there are limits to our resources, and growth has costs as well as benefits. For example, economic growth has led to increased CO2 emissions, and therefore risk to the climate.

So this raises a major question. Why in the face of knowledge about the dangers of rampant growth do we continue to push this lever in the wrong direction? Why are we so obsessed by getting back to rapid economic growth?

I’ll suggest a few reasons; you can probably offer more:

  • It has worked in the past. Economic growth has helped us reach the standard of living we now have in the developed world, and is helping raise living standards in the developing world. And, of course, we tend to think that if something has worked in the past that it must still be a good strategy.
  • Growth impresses us. When we see a sunflower shoot up or a child suddenly grow long legs it is impressive, and it does feel good. There’s something attractive about that power. We’re temporarily in awe.
  • We’re told again and again that we benefit from growth, and, of course, sometimes we do. Growth does have benefits.

But we need to be careful. Growth can mean a lot of different things. As Nassim Taleb has said there is something not quite right when growth leads to extreme imbalances – for example, in wealth. For example, randomly gathering 1000 people then adding the heaviest person on the planet would only add perhaps 0.3% to the total weight of the group.

But doing the same thing according to wealth and adding the richest person would lead to much great variance. The richest person would be worth some 50 billion dollars versus a total of 1 to 2 million for all the others put together. As Taleb suggests, and recents events seem to have shown, these imbalances can greatly affect us.

So we need a clearer a definition of growth. And different types of growth: slower growth. No growth. Negative growth. Progress towards goals that matter, rather than just growth for growth’s sake. Development, in the sense of gaining maturity, not growth.

Conscious growth?