A fresh look: Growth in our economy
Can we shift from life-destroying growth to life-enhancing growth?
It seems to me that in our world right now, we’ve adopted a very distorted view of what growth is. More specifically, we’ve placed our sense of value on markets and goods, and focused on growing these numbers in an isolated context; typically to the detriment of genuine growth and well-being for the living systems of this planet on the whole. It is more crucial than ever that we resolve this distortion to prevent the continued destruction of life on this planet.
What is this distortion and how did it come about? The best way I can point to it is that we’ve created an erroneous association where we think the market is the world. I doubt we often do this consciously, but I think if we look honestly, we will see that it is what we are doing. We are so obsessed with market conditions, in an economy emphasizing isolation and division rather than connectivity and interaction, that we have become blind to what is actually happening on our planet and in our own lives.
This distortion, perpetuating disconnection over connection, is impacting every level of our society; nations, states, communities, families; and is also causing tremendous damage to the health of the whole biosphere of the planet. Once we see this, it should be obvious the necessity of clearing up this distortion, for each of us as individuals and for our society at large. I propose that doing so will require us to look honestly, within our own lives and relationships, at what it is to be alive within this interconnected web of life, and begin to re-orient ourselves towards a way of growing that is in harmony with life rather than in conflict with it.
So, how can we recognize this distortion and how it has influenced our economy? I think we might start by looking at the effect this distortion has on our decision making. In her book “Doughnut Economics”, Kate Raworth describes many of the issues with present economic thinking and presents a new model for how we can think about the market. In pointing to some of the issues, she describes a conference of world leaders in which “the summit’s Australian host, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, had been determined to stop the meeting’s agenda from being ‘cluttered’ by climate change and other issues that could distract from his top priority of economic growth, otherwise known as GDP growth”. Examples such as this are not hard to find, in which issues facing the health of the planet as a whole are considered unimportant compared to the state of the market.
To bring forward another clear example of this distortion, we might look at two different metrics for the health and growth of a system. Ecologists have come up with a measurement called the Living Planet Index (LPI) which measures wildlife populations and global biodiversity. Most people are also familiar with GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which is the common measurement for the scale of an economy, measuring how much it produces. Over the last 50 years, global GDP has increased by 3100%, and if you ask many people in this technological society, they will say that humanity continues to grow, and metrics such as this will be an example. However, in those same last 50 years, LPI has dropped by 69%, demonstrating a drastic loss to the health of our biosphere as a whole.
The major issue I see with this distortion is that it is self-validating and self-reinforcing. In this industrial growth society, the quickest way to profit has been to extract and destroy. This is evident by looking at the mass profits gained by cutting down old growth forests for timber, extracting oil from the ground for fuel, and destroying large swaths of natural growth to raise cattle for meat. With GDP as our primary metric for success, and money as our primary metric for value, we have been incentivizing a worldview that sees ourselves as isolated from our environment, and this worldview has led to a continual increase in GDP, continual destruction of the environment, and a further reinforcement of this distortion.
As we’ve demonstrated with the increasing GDP and decreasing LPI, this distortion has continued to cause tremendous damage to the living systems of the planet. However, the damage is not limited to the health of the biosphere alone. This distortion in our worldview is affecting every aspect of our lives and society. When we are incentivizing disconnection and isolation, we are becoming more and more disconnected from ourselves, from our families, from our communities, and from our society as a whole.
What does associating growth with profit, extraction, and isolation do to ourselves as humans? How does it move us to participate in our lives, in our work, and in our relationships? It seems that if we have been conditioned to value isolation and division, then we will tend towards living our lives in isolated and divided ways, missing out on the intimacy and connection that is all around us. Not only does this leave our own lives lacking in quality, but it causes us to miss out on caring for one another, and now more than ever, we need each other. Not only are we seeing suffering from the multitude of wildlife on the planet, we as humanity are experiencing tremendous suffering. Inequality is rampant, and billions of humans around this world are lacking in having basic food, water, and shelter. Even in so-called developed countries such as America, we still see so many struggling not just with basic needs, but also with feeling a sense of connection and belonging.
The destruction of life, directly threatening the well-being of the biosphere and the well-being of its inhabitants, continues to be perpetuated by the distortion that we are separate and isolated from the world around us. If we are to heal, as people, and as a planet, we have to re-orient ourselves to a genuine understanding of what it is to be alive within this interconnected world. We have to look honestly at what kind of growth we want to participate in, and we have to choose to grow in a way that is not contradictory to the growth of life on the whole, but rather intimately and integrally interconnected with it. So… how do we do that?
It seems to me that our task now is one of discernment. We need to be able to recognize the distortion for what it is, and also to be able to recognize the natural processes of life and evolution that are all around us. We are surrounded with examples of growth as it actually is. An old growth forest, a mycelial network, even our house plants are examples of growth. Perhaps we see our pet cat or dog growing, not just in size but in personality and maturity. And I can think of no greater gift than being a parent or an aunt or uncle and getting to watch a little one grow into who they are. Growth is abundant all around us. But when it comes to relationships and society, we are often starved of good examples. Our task then is to lean into what nature is revealing to us, and to begin to understand these same patterns as they play out in our relationships, in our communities, and in our workplaces.
Let’s look specifically at a business organization, as it is not only a context that almost all of us experience on a very regular basis, it is also directly connected to the economic context that is the source of our discussion. Within a business how does the distortion play itself out? It seems that in many businesses, we see a person as a cog in a machine, and we are more concerned about their performance than we are their well-being. When the business structures relate to us this way, we may be likely to believe it about ourselves, and consequently we deprioritize our well-being and we prioritize our performance. If we can see this, not only can we begin to correct our priorities, but as leaders in an organization, we can help support others in doing the same. To extend this metaphor further, we might also recognize that with the incentivization of isolation and division leads our business to operate in increasing silos, with different parts of the business competing for resources and not being in clear communication with other parts of the business. Seeing this, and understanding that living systems in nature thrive through connection, we can look to foster more collaboration and communication throughout the organization, supporting not just the individual parts thriving, but the organization as a whole.
Growth is a natural emergent property of any healthy living system. As we come to understand this, we might recognize that we don’t need to force ourselves to grow, but rather we can look to cultivate a healthy and well-connected organization, from which growth can naturally emerge. Doing so will require us to recognize the distortions that are present in how we view the world, and adjust our approach accordingly, modeling ourselves on the natural systems of life that are present all around us.
The predominant worldview of humanity has become increasingly distorted, amplified by an industrial growth society spread through global networks of capitalism. This distortion has led to an increasing disconnect between the metrics of growth popularized by the global economy, and the health and well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Our values have become misaligned with life as a whole as we continue to incentivize a worldview of isolation and division, focusing on profit and extraction while excluding genuine connection.
This distortion in our worldview has led to a misunderstanding of what growth actually means, which has in turn created a self-reinforcing feedback cycle, perpetuating the distortion while causing increasing damage to the living systems of the earth. One living system that has been increasingly affected is the living system of humanity, as we have become increasingly disconnected from ourselves and our relationships.
Addressing this damage will require an attentive look at the distortion as it presents itself throughout society. We have to look to re-orient ourselves towards natural ways of growing and being alive and we have to bring this understanding into our communities and into our workplaces. This shift is not only necessary if we are to avert further global destruction, but it also contains within the potential to radically transform our society and the way we live. It’s now our task to go forth into the world, to reorient our own lives in the direction of life as it is, and to do what we can to help society around us do the same.
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