Alice's Restaurant


Growth, growth, growth!  A chorus of economists, politicians, businesspeople and developers tell us we must have more of it.  And more.  And more.

Why?  When is enough enough?  And what, exactly, do those folks mean?

I’ll admit right off that I find economics daunting.  As a physician I think of constant, unconstrained growth as bad stuff.  Think cancer.

I’ll also admit that economic growth is something different.   Wikipedia, which has become my favorite reference, says:  “economic growth is the increase in the market value of the goods and services produced by an economy over time.” (italics mine)   On first reading, that sounds pretty reasonable.  But on second thought…….

Are there values other than market ones?   Well, I can think of several.   What about ethical values, spiritual values, cultural values, aesthetic values, family values, ideological values.  And anyone who feels those different kinds of values march lock step with market values might think about this.  According to USA Today, just two porn sites in this country generated $10 billion in 2003.  And the authors estimate that to be only 20% of the pornography market.  That’s its market value, but might that just possibly conflict with some family values – even if it does grow our GDP?

The trouble is, it’s so easy to measure market value.   Just count up the bottom lines of all those income and sales tax returns, add them together and there you have it – GDP.  Try doing that for spiritual or aesthetic values.  There’s a Nobel Prize waiting to happen for the person who untilts that playing field.

But I’m beating around the bush.  My real gripe with economic values trumping all others is that so much of what contributes to GDP growth is a direct attack on a lot of stuff that I value a lot.  Clean air for one thing. And clean water. Solitude.  Really dark skies at night. Oceans and streams brimming with fish. Huge stands of really big old trees. Vistas uncluttered by billboards urging me to buy stuff I don’t even know I want. A world in which there’s plenty of room left at the top of the food chain for lots of other species in addition to our own.

On the other hand, it’s not all doom and gloom.    After all, the manufacture of solar panels – provided it’s done in the US – does contribute to our GDP.  And there does seem to be a growing awareness of the GDP’s shortcomings.  In 2008 the NYTIMES reminded us that over forty years ago Robert F. Kennedy complained that the GDP was inadequate because it failed to measure “that which makes life worthwhile.”

The same article goes on to reference a number of respected economic thinkers now working to come up with improved measures of national well-being (, ( ),(  This Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare is calculated by the formula  ISEW = personal consumption + public non-defensive expenditures – private defensive expenditures + capital formation + services from domestic labour – costs of environmental degradation – depreciation of natural capital.  

Recently some academic economists calculated the ISWE and compared it to GDP.  Not surprisingly, they conclude that while the GDP since the 1970’s has registered almost steady growth (there’s that boogieman again!), the ISWE has remained essentially flat over that same period!

So….what’s to be done.?  Well, for one thing, at a personal level, whenever I hear some politician warning how this or that piece of legislation is going to hinder GROWTH, my early warning system lights flash and I take a close look at the legislation and think about writing him or her or sending a letter to the editor of our local newspaper.  And just a couple of minutes searching the web yields a number of organizations like the New American Dream  which are devoted to finding ways to implement just the kind of thing we are talking about.  It doesn’t cost a cent to sign up as a follower of their blog ( and if you like what they’re doing you can even donate whatever you wish.

It’s certainly no easy matter to change the deeply ingrained presumptions and habits of a culture like ours but sooner or later as more of the earth gets covered with asphalt, more species disappear, there are more climatic wobbles, etcetera, etcetera, and so forth, things will eventually change.   Surely if none of us works on curtailing growth now, that time may arrive when life is pretty miserable.  But, with apologies to Arlo Guthrie, “ You know, if one person, just one person, does it they may think he’s really sick and…..” they’ll pay no mind.”  “And if two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both….” weirdos and they won’t heed them either.  “And if three people do it!  Can you imagine three people…… They may think it’s an organization.  And can you imagine fifty  people a day? I said FIFTY people a day…….Friends they may think it’s a MOVEMENT, and that’s what it is…….” the ALICE’S RESTAURANT ANTI ECONOMIC CANCER MOVEMENT…….and instead of change coming when it is altogether too late, we can make it come just a bit earlier.

In medicine one learns early on that the first step in treating a problem is to find out what the root cause is.  And if you find that the root problem is uncontrolled growth, sometimes you just have to cut it out – and the earlier the better.



7 thoughts on “GROWTH !

  1. Curtailing growth, or should we say, converting our growth-based capitalist economic system to one which provides acceptable quality of life for most people over the long term without continuous growth, is indeed the fundamental problem.

    Check out George Monbiot’s column in the Guardian last spring: “The Impossibility of Growth”

    The challenge is, and has been for a long time, how to convert to an economic system which is “sustainable” or “steady-state” (and probably, at a level which consumes far less of the natural resource base of the planet). No one knows how such a change might be achieved, and few have any sense of what a more sustainable economy (and one with a relatively “fair” distribution of wealth) might require in terms of a sacrifice in our lifestyles.

    In 1998, a group of Swiss scientists proposed an analysis which has become known as the 2,000-Watt Society. They were mentioned by Elizabeth Kolbert in her recent review of Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything:…” in the New York Review of Books. (Dec. 4, p. 14) Briefly, the idea was to allot each person on earth the same quota of carbon emissions, or energy use, which figured at the time in 1998 to be about 2,000 watts or watt-hours (per ? – not given in the retelling). Americans now live in a 12,000-watt society, the Dutch in an 8,000-watt society, the Swiss in a 5,000-watt society, the Bangladeshis in a 300-watt society, etc. They experimented with what lifestyle changes might enable someone in Switzerland, for example, to gear down to a 2,000-watt existence, and found it would require giving up an uncomfortable amount of what all of us in the developed world take for granted as part of modern civilization–i.e., we would all find it virtually impossible to make such an adjustment.

    This appears to be the BOTTOM LINE, if the modern world is to save itself. Yet it is safe to say that at this point virtually no one in the developed world would be willing to make such an adjustment voluntarily. Assuming there will be no international agreements to bring such a condition about, it seems that the likely scenario will be (1) those with the most power will continue to live privileged high-watt lifestyles, but their numbers will steadily shrink; (2) those without power will never attain high-watt lifestyles and will on the contrary gradually experience a degradation in even the modest lifestyle improvements they have recently come to enjoy; (3) the numbers of those without power and suffering impoverished lifestyles will steadily increase.

    Bill Whitson

  2. Perceptions about resources and crowding and commercialization and happiness well expressed. I think that old people feel these aspects of our surroundings more acutely than the young do. The old have, after all, experienced a different world and found it good. The young have experienced only the present. It was, of course, true of me when I was young – the pine forests of Michigan, remember by the old ones as The North Woods, had already been cut. I never saw them and don”t miss them. It may be so with each successive loss.

    John Stuart Mill, in 1848 wrote, in “Principles of Political Economy”, “A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment. It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation of of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could do ill without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food…”

    These are just blunt assertions on the part of Mill, but I feel them to be true.

    • Oh, Robley how true! Your point about each generation making note of the changes over its span of time leads one to realize that although each generation regrets what has been lost since they were young, the loss over multiple generations is, well, many multiples of that. This point is driven home with great force and some pretty good data in a recent book by Jeffry Bolster called The Mortal Sea – – In it he documents the progressive decline in fish yields in the North Atlantic since the 1600’s in spite of dramatic increasing in the efficiency of fishing methods

      And it really is amazing that our species has changed its behavior so little since John Stuart Mill described the aesthetic/”spiritual” dimension of the problem so eloquently!

  3. Despite the assumption across the spectrum of political and economic opinion from Rand Paul to Paul Krugman that economic growth is the obvious goal of any civilization, sustainability, not growth, is the only viable long-term aim. Zero population growth, zero GDP growth, zero consumption growth. This is a mathematical necessity, not a nostalgic sentiment. This was brought home to me some years ago by the remarks the investor Jeremy Grantham which I quote at length below:

    “Failure to Appreciate the Impossibility of Sustained Compound Growth
    I briefly referred to our lack of numeracy as a species, and I would like to look at one aspect of this in greater detail: our inability to understand and internalize the effects of compound growth. This incapacity has played a large role in our willingness to ignore the effects of our compounding growth in demand on limited resources. Four years ago I was talking to a group of super quants, mostly PhDs in mathematics, about finance and the environment. I used the growth rate of the global economy back then – 4.5% for two years, back to back – and I argued that it was the growth rate to which we now aspired. To point to the ludicrous unsustainability of this compound growth I suggested that we imagine the Ancient Egyptians (an example I had offered in my July 2008 Letter) whose gods, pharaohs, language, and general culture lasted for well over 3,000 years. Starting with only a cubic meter of physical possessions (to make calculations easy), I asked how much physical wealth they would have had 3,000 years later at 4.5% compounded growth. Now, these were trained mathematicians, so I teased them: “Come on, make a guess. Internalize the general idea. You know it’s a very big number.” And the answers came back: “Miles deep around the planet,” “No, it’s much bigger than that, from here to the moon.” Big quantities to be sure, but no one came close. In fact, not one of these potential experts came within one billionth of 1% of the actual number, which is approximately 10 to the 57th power, a number so vast that it could not be squeezed into a billion of our Solar Systems. Go on, check it. If trained mathematicians get it so wrong, how can an ordinary specimen of Homo Sapiens have a clue? Well, he doesn’t. So, I then went on. “Let’s try 1% compound growth in either their wealth or their population,” (for comparison, 1% since Malthus’ time is less than the population growth in England). In 3,000 years the original population of Egypt – let’s say 3 million – would have been multiplied 9 trillion times! There would be nowhere to park the people, let alone the wealth. Even at a lowly 0.1% compound growth, their population or wealth would have multiplied by 20 times, or about 10 times more than actually happened. And this 0.1% rate is probably the highest compound growth that could be maintained for a few thousand years, and even that rate would sometimes break the system. The bottom line really, though, is that no compound growth can be sustainable. Yet, how far this reality is from the way we live today, with our unrealistic levels of expectations and, above all, the optimistic outcomes that are simply assumed by our leaders. Now no one, in round numbers, wants to buy into the implication that we must rescale our collective growth ambitions.
    I was once invited to a monthly discussion held by a very diverse, very smart group, at which it slowly dawned on my jet-lagged brain that I was expected to contribute. So finally, in desperation, I gave my first-ever “running out of everything” harangue (off topic as usual). Not one solitary soul agreed. What they did agree on was that the human mind is – unlike resources – infinite and, consequently, the intellectual cavalry would always ride to the rescue. I was too tired to argue that the infinite brains present in Mayan civilization after Mayan civilization could not stop them from imploding as weather (mainly) moved against them. Many other civilizations, despite being armed with the same brains as we have, bit the dust or just faded away after the misuse of their resources. This faith in the human brain is just human exceptionalism and is not justified either by our past disasters, the accumulated damage we have done to the planet, or the frozen-in-the-headlights response we are showing right now in the face of the distant locomotive quite rapidly approaching and, thoughtfully enough, whistling loudly.”

  4. Thank you Doug. So powerfully put! Our species should be called Homo hubris rather than Homo sapiens. Despite the awkwardness we owe it to all the poor souls who don’t get it to keep up the conversation.

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