Sunday, September 4, 2011

All right for some?

"It's all very well for you to talk about the end of growth" said my friend. "You are comfortable enough.  Growth has been good to you and perhaps you don't need any more of it.  But who are you to deny to others the opportunities that you have had?  There are billions living in poverty.  Do you want to kick away the ladder that they are climbing up?"

It is a sharp critique, one that I need to take to heart.    But at bottom, I think it rests on a confusion - what Ehrenfeld would call a "humanist" assumption - that what I want to happen and what I think will happen are the same.

When overall growth comes to a halt, this won't be because some comfortably situated math professor (or some policy elite) does not want it to continue.   It will be because the growth imperative has collided with the non-negotiable realities of life on a finite planet - realities that are independent of what anybody wants or does not want.

This collision can't be averted (though it may be postponed) just by "greening" parts of the growth machine while leaving its basic structure untouched.  As Richard Heinberg writes, "Many people assume that solving our problems means being able to continue doing what we are doing now. Yet it is what we are doing now that is creating our problems."  

If we reduce our personal energy and water use, or grow our own vegetables, or cycle rather than drive to work, that won't allow the growth agenda to continue unimpeded - in fact, nothing that we can do will allow that.  What it will do, though, is to begin to make visible the structure of a different kind of society, one that can be sustained beyond our present age of ever-growing consumption.

My friend's critique reminds me that the rich blessings I have received are not for me to hoard, but to share.  And one way I can share them is to participate in this "making visible" - to move from worryism to activism.  I am sure that the GreenFaith program will be challenging me to do this in practical ways.  I'll keep you posted.


byron smith said...

I think it is important to say that the goal is ecological justice, not simply de-growth per se. That is, the argument against growth is that growth pursued for growth's sake is a perversion, but in certain circumstances growth is good. We want children to grow into adults, but if they keep growing, then they either have a tumour or a hormone imbalance. Further growth for those in absolute poverty is a good thing. This is a very different thing from growth for those who already have three cars and four plasma TVs and so on.

And what this means is that it is also important to seek a level of consumption that can responsibly be shared with all the world's inhabitants (including having ample room for other species, and for future generations). And from this perspective, most economies do not require further growth, and those who have much may well require repentance and the pursuit of things that are better than growth.

John Roe said...

Well said, Byron... I started this post because I felt that I was too busy talking about an abstraction (an occupational hazard for mathematicians) rather than about concrete actions. And I think you made the point much better than I did that justice calls for concrete, localized response - not just abstract worry (or, worse, denunciation).