31 December 2005

Growth vs development

By Rupert Read

Often, we think of growth as a positive thing. But picture the following:

A child who grows to be 1m tall. Then 2m Then 4m Then 8m… That's growth!

A child who becomes better and better at maths, at running, or at understanding other people. That's development.

A cancer or parasite that spreads - until it overwhelms the organism which it inhabits. That's growth!

A cancer that is treated; and an organism that finds ways of living which make it is less likely to contract cancer again. That's development.

As 2005 comes to an end, humanity is burning fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow. We are told that this is essential for economic growth.

Surely everyone agrees that economic growth is a good thing?

But, when you stop to think about it, what's really so great about (economic) growth? The burning of fossil fuels in record quantities is producing pollution (especially, greenhouse gases such as CO2) in record quantities. As our economy grows, the remaining capacity of our environment to absorb these wastes shrinks.

Something to think about, as you watch those Christmas light-displays burning.

Meanwhile, 'Peak Oil' is fast approaching. What's 'Peak Oil'? It's the year in which the amount of oil produced worldwide reaches its peak – and starts, inevitably, to decline. Because resources are, of course, finite. Their use cannot keep growing forever.

The Peak Oil year may well turn out to be 2006. In fact, it may well turn out to have been 2005. Once oil production starts to decline, get ready for some real 'oil shocks'. Fuel prices will go through the roof, making the price increases of recent years look insignificantly small, by comparison.

Another reason why we should remember the old wartime slogan, "Is your journey really necessary?" We need to think of the onset of 'Peak Oil', and the increasing risk of catastrophic climate change also consequent upon the burning of so much oil etc, as putting us on a kind of war-footing. No-one questioned the need for rationing, in the Second World War, nor the need for voluntary blackouts. Likewise: we need a system of rationing of fossil fuel use. 'Carbon rationing', it's called. It's the only fair way to deal with the long energy-and-pollution crisis for humankind which is commencing.

And perhaps we should voluntarily black out some of those light-shows! Ask the supermarket, the motel, the ice-rink: are all those lights really necessary? Can we afford them, if we start thinking long-term? If we think like there's always – or should be, always – a tomorrow, for us and our children?

The holiday period and the New Year is a chance to slow down, and to reflect on whether the growth in our economy, which has brought us to the onset of this crisis-situation, is really what we want. Have the changes in our lives over the last generation improved things? Are families closer? Are you less stressed, and sleeping better? Do you feel more fulfilled, relaxed and confident, in your job? Is the local community stronger? Do you have a stronger sense of your life having a point? Are you less worried about the future?

My own answers to these questions are decidedly mixed. And that brings home to me that growth just ain't necessarily a good thing. It's a means to an end, at best. The real goal is the satisfaction of needs, and a worthwhile existence. So: when growth doesn't lead to needs being satisfied, and doesn't contribute to a meaningful life for all, it should be stopped. We should stop growth that is not helping us be happier, not merely because such growth can't go on indefinitely, but because it is pointless.

Whereas development, in its true sense, is always a good thing. We are all, I hope, part of the developing world, in this sense.

An economy in which ever more people are rushing around ever faster clocking up ever higher wages (and debts!)and not feeling any more happy at the end of the day. That's growth.

A society in which people are doing less, slower, but what they are doing is increasingly satisfying to them; a society in which people's real needs are satisfied. That's development.

A world in which our use of resources (and our wasting them) spreads until it finally overwhelms the life-supporting capacity of our planet.

That's growth – to the point of collapse.

A world whose limited capacities to provide us with resources and to absorb our pollution we recognise, and live within.

Such recognition, such 'living lightly on the Earth', would show that the human race had really learned, really developed, really made progress.