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Whatcom Watch Online
Reclaiming Growth

December 2012

Cover Story

Reclaiming Growth

James Wells worked for 20 years developing information systems in support of environmental permitting and regulatory compliance, and now develops systems that support energy efficiency incentive programs. Recently he has been spending most of his spare time encouraging people to get involved and actively participate in the decision about whether to allow the Gateway Pacific coal-export terminal. His previous columns, on the coal terminal and other topics, are posted at

When you think of “growth,” what comes to mind? Progress? Improvement? Prosperity? Is the concept of growth a pleasing one?

For many people, it is all those things. But this pleasing image might pose a very serious problem, a mental and emotional obstacle to even considering whether traditional economic growth will be a good thing as we consider our future.

In Whatcom County, a series of meetings were conducted by the Whatcom Futures Project to examine how Whatcom County can most effectively plan for the next few decades. This ambitious and forward-looking project, is being spearheaded by the Northwest Council ( Since the future is a topic of keen interest here in the present, I decided to go to one of the meetings.

When I arrived at the Squalicum Boathouse, I recognized a city council member and some fellow anti-coal activists among the dozens of people present. We were directed to a set of tables, on which were large pieces of paper that had broadly-themed vision statements printed on them. We were each handed a pad of yellow sticky paper and a pen, with the invitation to add our comments on any of the vision statements.

It was clear that attendees expected something different, perhaps a presentation or a more formal meeting where everyone got to comment to the entire room. So, we milled around and read the vision statements. Unsure of how to approach this exercise, I read all of the statements first, before decorating any of them with yellow stickies. After a little while, people started breaking the ice and laying down their markers.

The provided Vision Statements can be found here:

Amid the copious statements about sustainability and all that good stuff, there was one striking pattern: the abject obeisance to the concept that economic growth is absolutely critical.

Perpetual Economic Growth

Consider this statement: “FOSTER ECONOMIC GROWTH AS THE FOUNDATION OF A LIVABLE, SUSTAINABLE WHATCOM COUNTY.” That’s the header of Part 2. Of particular interest is the idea that this is “THE FOUNDATION.” Not just a contributor to, or very important to, but economic growth accepted as the very foundation of sustainability, as if to imply that we cannot possibly have a livable, sustainable Whatcom County without some desired level of economic growth.

By extension, it also embraces the idea that we will have perpetual economic growth of the currently-understood type in our county and in our country. Indeed, it seems a given that without this kind of growth, we risk devolving to a Neolithic existence of the kind that existed before the invention of adjustable rate mortgages.

Anyone who has carefully looked at our world and environment is keenly aware that much of our economic growth to date has resulted from drawing on reserves of natural resources that accumulated over millions of years. If economic growth will persist for much more than a few years beyond the current, it will have to be of a form that is no longer based on the burn-rate at which resources are consumed and rendered nonrenewable waste, but based on outcomes such as improved health, safe and usable housing, declining violence and—most importantly—on the continuing availability of resources into the future.

Here’s the rub: however clearly we may see the problem of unending growth, we tend to express our concerns in the form of a prophecy of doom. As in: “Based on current trends, we are so screwed.”

But a prophecy of doom simply can’t be reconciled, practically or theoretically, with any kind of future planning or even our concept of the future, especially at a community level. If the future holds certain doom, what’s the point of doing anything in the short term other than eating more burgers and drinking more beer?

This fits into an overall pattern of how people think about these or any other issues. In most cases, people can only internally process a consistent narrative. If you introduce a contradiction or a jarringly different concern, it suddenly becomes a kind of indigestible cognitive lactose.

Even the most intelligent people rely on simple narratives, as offered in the remarkable book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). Through example after example, he shows how people will not only have trouble processing complex and internally-inconsistent situations, but they will even tend to disbelieve the element which introduces the contradiction.

In order to function in a complex world, where not all narratives are remotely consistent, our minds play a trick on us. We tend to substitute a simpler question for the more complex one. We answer the simple question and apply that answer to the more complex question. When we’re not sure what presidential candidate will apply the best policies for our country, we vote for the person we’d rather have a beer with. In that example, the substitution may be to our detriment.

This form of substitution, called an heuristic, is something we do all day, every day. It’s a necessary survival mechanism. Without doing these substitutions, we would be crushed by detail and irresolvable puzzles.

The simple, consistent narrative often wins, even if it may point us in very much the wrong direction.

So it is with economic growth. The conventional narrative of growth is particularly insidious, not just because it’s what we are accustomed to when we think of economics, but because it aligns in an emotionally pleasing way with the other images of growth we hold in our minds. When were we all growing in size each year? It was when we were young. When I was still growing, I didn’t have to consider the possibility of arthritis, or whether my 401(k) would ever amount to much of anything. I certainly did not have to worry about mortality.

Growth is also the classic image of things that feed and nurture us, such as plants growing out of the ground, turning by a miracle into food. Who could possibly be against that?

Perhaps it’s no wonder that it’s practically impossible to pry the narrative of unending economic growth from a central place in our hive-mind. As long as we grow, we are young. To stop growing is to start shriveling up and dying.

What to do about the power of such a simple narrative to mislead?

One part of the answer can be simply to push back, with education and facts, point by point. This is critically important, and it is a core part of the mission of Whatcom Watch, but ultimately it is not enough by itself.

We need a simple narrative. Our own heuristic, if you will. An image that we can substitute for the complex realities that we may know so much about, but don’t typically get to bring into everyday conversation.

What is the simple message that may help counteract the narrative of unending economic growth?

There is no shortage of very well-researched work on what’s generally called “post-growth” or “steady state” economies. Try “Alternatives to Growth” on Google if you want to indulge in a few weeks of light reading.

The post-growth concept is pretty simple. Economic growth is great when you are a country that is climbing out of abject poverty. But beyond a certain point, adding stuff causes more harm than good, like food that once helped you to avoid starvation but is now making you fat. That kind of economic obesity is symbolized by—well, actual obesity, as described in the paper “Moving toward Sustainable Prosperity,” by Erik Assadourian, who offers:

The clearest indicator [of the harm posed by excessive economic growth] is the obesity epidemic now plaguing most industrial countries and developing-world elites. In the United States, two of every three adults are now overweight or obese, reducing their quality of life, shortening life spans, and costing the country an extra $270 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity due to early deaths and disabilities.

Obesity, unfortunately, is not the only side effect of overdevelopment. Increased debt burdens, long working hours, pharmaceutical dependence, time trapped in traffic, even increased levels of social isolation stem at least in part from high-consumption lifestyles.

Something Has to Give

The kicker, of course, is that there’s just no way that the world is going to support its entire population at an economic level matching that which the developed countries currently experience. Something has to give.

There is a lot of great research material on a potential post-growth world, and it makes a whole lot of sense, but the likely fact is that no plan labeled as zero-growth will ever gain popular acclaim until dire necessity causes it to be recognized as absolutely the only choice. The perceived imperative to grow is just too deep. People won’t accept the image that suggests shriveling up and dying, even in economic terms.

The only real alternative is to capture and redirect the term “growth” in a more positive direction. For example, consider:

• growth in our health and life expectancy

• growth in freedom from violence

• growth in rates of success in education

• growth in the percentage of people with decent nutrition

• growth in dignity and respectful treatment of everyone.

It takes real work to change the meaning of a word. One small step is to unfailingly question the commonly-accepted definition and its associations, whenever it may come up. “So — when you say growth, what is it that’s growing? Will it help my health, or the safety of my children?”

The next step is to actively use the term “growth” in its new and more appropriate sense. At an individual level, the term “growth” can mean an increase in awareness or wisdom. Consider this quote from the site

When we value growth, we are open and curious, and we appreciate constructive feedback even if it is awkward or painful to us. We recognize our imperfections, but work to forgive them and to move on. We seek to understand ourselves and others because understanding gives us choices. As we move through our day to day activities, we ask ourselves how those activities serve our dreams, our mission, or our sense of what matters most.

Wow. There’s nothing about making and buying more stuff in there. “Personal Growth” has a widely-accepted meaning, and it is a good one. There is a foundation available for us to apply this term, by analogy, to our entire society.

Making the leap from the personal to entire populations will be a tough road. Don’t for a moment expect that mainstream communication channels would even touch such an idea. Somehow it’s up to us.

Here’s the creative contest. Anyone who enters is a winner. What are the images of growth we can create, which don’t depend on using up stuff? This kind of understanding can only be spread by a collage of different messages, all linked by a theme. Growth in all that is good and decent, but losing the extra fries.

If we experience any success in redefining growth, there be will backlash, and it will be hard. The current model of economic growth is more than a lazy mental habit; it is foundational for those in power. Economic growth means the ability to sell, and thus make money from, ever-increasing mountains of cheap plastic crap. The growth narrative also gives the powerful a tool that can be used to string along any population that is currently getting screwed. Whatever the current problem is, and no matter what the actual cause, the promised solution is more economic growth.

This is described in magnificent detail in Naomi Klein’s article “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” from the November 28, 2011 issue of The Nation. The hardest of the hardcore deniers of global warming are not so much skeptics on the facts, but rather are people who realize that, in order to address global warming, the culture of endless growth (and with it their profits) will have to give way. That’s a good explanation for the well-funded campaigns—not just to deny climate science, but to promote the continuation and even expansion of the combustapalooza, the shopapalooza, and of course the profitpalooza.

To be aligned in such clear opposition to that kind of power is daunting, but we’re used to that around here. Who would have thought that, against an onslaught of full page ads and slick television and radio commercials, a community could muster 1,750 people on a rainy day in opposition to the latest big carbon plans for pillage?

There are many issues that will have to be addressed in order to move away from conventional economic growth. There is the drunken financial system, for which the next quarter of growth is the next shot of liquor required to stave off the DT’s. But as serious as issues like these may be, the first step is to create an alternate concept that people can relate to and make part of their picture of the world and of the future.

Someday perhaps we’ll get to read this:

“In the latest figures on economic growth, it’s all good news for the President as she approaches the midpoint of her second term. Life expectancy ticked up another 0.1 years over the last quarter and stands at its highest value ever. Sufficient child nutrition now stands at 99.3 percent, also an all-time high. And consumption of locally produced food is on a tear these days, up 12.4 percent in just the last year. Next week we’ll get the latest figures on the GINI index of inequality, which is expected to continue on its declining trend of the past six years.”

Languages often change over time, so that the same word has a new and more relevant meaning in the context of current times. It is time for us to give “growth” a push down that evolutionary path. That is, of course, if you believe in that evolution stuff.

I received significant help on revisions to this article from Stephan Michaels (

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