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Might As Well Face It: We’re Addicted to Growth

Presidio Economics | Thursday May 5th, 2011 | 0 Comments

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.
By Adrian Assassi

That’s right, addicted. In our recent and current times, we as a species have witnessed population growth, economic growth, and technological growth at a rate that is mind boggling. Huge swathes of populations in the America’s, Europe, and Asia have gone from scratching a living out of the land to being high-tech, global citizens in less than one hundred years. This is especially astounding given that over our entire existence as a species, which is about 200,000 years, almost all of this growth has happened in the last two to three generations!

But, as we all know, people have short memories and this sort of context is largely forgotten when it comes to one of our favorite pastimes: increasing prosperity. This has led to a culture of expectance that explosive growth is the only growth. Merely maintaining the status quo of the economy, population, and technological development is a huge “no-no.” Even “slow” growth, like what we’ve seen in the U.S.’s GDP in the last few years seems unacceptable, especially when contrasted with China’s sustained annual 10% growth in GDP. We as a 21st century species have gotten used to the idea that things like populations, investments, and outputs should be doubling multiple times per generation.

All of this of course brings up questions like: how far can we grow? How many times can our population and output double before we hit the….gulp….end? Well, it depends on who you ask. But according to the contributors of Valuing the Earth, coal, crude oil, and iron ore will easily be exhausted in the next several generations, which would spell certain doom for a global society based on the foundational building blocks of steel and energy. Keep in mind that this isn’t even taking into consideration our food supplies, which are expected to only be able to support a maximum population of around 10.5 billion people. Simple math reveals that it only took 36 years for the world population to double from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 5 billion in 1986. Recent data have shown that this growth rate has not significantly slowed and at a current population of almost 7 billion, we are on track to hit our maximum possible population size in the next 25 to 50 years.

Yikes.

Why are we letting this happen? Why are we knowingly plunging headlong into the wall of exhausted resources and arable land? Because we’re addicted. We’re addicted to our own success and are willing to move forward with the same growth strategies that have worked in the last 100 years, consequences be damned! Which is exactly what addiction is: the inability to alter one’s behavior even in the light of negative consequences. So, what is the cure for this? Everyone knows that the best way to help someone kick an addiction is to let them hit “rock-bottom” so they can finally see the devastation they have caused for themselves and everyone else around them. But, what would “rock-bottom” mean for us as a species? Would it be blowing through our natural capital like an addict would with their savings? Starving? Crippling ourselves with irreparable physical and mental damage?
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see us head into treatment and kick this addiction before all of that. Does Dr. Drew take entire planets as patients? I sure hope so.


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