BEYOND GROWTH TO MATURITY
PCDForum Column #60, Release Date Septemer 1, 1993
by Mike Nickerson
Economics has become a state religion based on the faith that growth, efficiency and competition will for ever improve the human condition. This faith was appropriate in days gone by when industrial humanity was young and had lots of room for growing. Now that room has been filled. The healthy human adolescent reaches full physical growth and turns to the social, intellectual, and spiritual growth that define adult maturity. Having reached its environmental limits, it is now time for humanity to take the step beyond physical growth to maturity. This step calls for a new faith in which sustainability, quality of life, and cooperation replace growth, efficiency and competition as defining values.
I have found the following insights useful in envisioning a new faith.
Our relationship with the Earth has changed.
Point #1: The current economic order is incompatible with sustainability. It is now widely accepted that the three R's Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are essential steps toward sustainability. Practice of these principles should be good for everyone. Right? Not necessarily.
Reducing and Reusing imply buying less, resulting in less paid work for other people. In the current economic order this means unemployment and hard times. The fact that the current economic order is unable to deal with reduced consumption means it is inadequate to meet the environmental challenge. It must be replaced by a system based on the principle that as long as there are people in need, or life processes in danger, there will be work to do. When there is no work to do, it will be time to celebrate.
Point #2: Growth is driven more by the demand of the rich for a return on capital than by a desire to eliminate poverty. Since charging interest became socially acceptable some where between 1000 and 1200 AD, it has been assumed that money saved/invested should earn interest, i.e., grow at an exponential rate. Since money itself has no intrinsic value, labor and natural wealth had to be converted into products with an ever larger market value to "back" the ever increasing money supply.
The forests, fields and fisheries that traditionally yielded much of the annual increase can no longer sustain this growth. To make up for the short fall, free trade agreements and structural adjustment programs now induce whole populations into working to create the wealth needed so that those with money can continue to collect interest. Nations are cutting back on education, health care and even the provision of food to honor the social convention that money must constantly grow.
Point #3: We have been playing Global Monopoly. In the board game of Monopoly when one player gains the advantage it is the nature of the game that their advantage increases. According to the rules, the game is not over until everyone but the winner is bankrupt. In reality most people concede the game when the final outcome is obvious. On the global scale there are big disadvantages to playing until everyone is bankrupt or starving. It is time to identify the winners, congratulate them, pass out some prizes, pack up the board and play a different game. How about one called Sustainability where the objective is to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity?
Point #4: Money is only an accounting tool by which people track their mutual obligations. There is a community in Canada where the people decided they didn't want to trade the forest cover of their valley for money. Without the input of dollars this sale would have provided, they were without cash to pass back and forth in exchange for their labors. Unemployment became a problem. Then someone asked: Why do we need money from elsewhere in order to work for one another? We have the skills and the need. So they created their own currency based on their mutual pledge to honor obligations to one another. People started working again.
From our earliest experience, getting bigger was important to us. For the first tens of thousands of years of our collective existence, we needed to get bigger as communities through population growth to secure our place on the planet. We then grounded our economic system in the belief that money must grow. If we accept the responsibilities of adulthood by embracing a moral discipline of sharing and cooperation, we will realize that while children still need to grow, money and population do not.
Mike Nickerson coordinates Guideposts for a Sustainable Future, P.O. Box 374, Merrickville, Ontario K0G 1N0, Canada preparing educational materials on sustainability for popular use. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on materials provided by the author. His new book Planning for Seven Generations, is available from Guideposts for $4.95.