“… growth is also an addiction. And, like most addictions, it threatens to destroy us. Not only does it clog our freeways, but it also paves farmland, wipes out open spaces, saddles taxpayers with ruinous development costs and crushes the quality of life that attracted us to our communities in the first place. Growth sucks irreplaceable resources out of the earth. It dumps poisonous pollution into our environment. It crowds out the planet’s other species and utterly fails to deliver the human happiness it promises.” Fallacy of Growth, posted below
I read this great “Fallacy of Growth in a Finite World” op-ed last August and wrote a letter to the Oregonian which was published the following Sunday. It is time to re-visit both the letter and the op-ed in honor of Molalla’s going down for the count failure at the County for the ridiculous urban reserves (first my letter, followed by the op-ed and, as an added bonus, “Salem’s march toward sprawl”):
“After watching the tragic, unsustainable real estate “boom” from a front-row seat on a rural property near the failed timber town of Molalla, it is easy to say “The fallacy of growth in a finite world” was exactly on target.
The “boom” produced cheap houses in Molalla without proper system-development charges to fund needed infrastructure, such as parks, roads and sidewalks. The local “planner” has no education in planning. Jobs never arrived to balance Molalla’s suburban-sprawl residential growth.
Sadly, with the real estate “bust,” shrinking Molalla is now nothing but a textbook case of how not to do it: When quality-of-life needs are set aside in favor of the “quick and dirty” agenda of greedy land speculators, ill-planned towns are left as instant ghettos with little hope for recovery.
Shortsighted towns like Molalla won’t ever be able to “grow” their way out of the low-quality, expensive-to-remedy holes they have dug for unfortunate citizen “investors.”
The fallacy of growth in a finite world
Published: Saturday, July 31, 2010, 8:20 AM Updated: Monday, August 02, 2010, 8:03 AM
By JACK HART
The headline on Page One of The Oregonian said it all: “Portland gridlock creeping back, and that’s good news.” The point? The return of bad traffic signals economic growth. And growth is good news, regardless of the consequences.
During these days of economic gloom, growth is especially good news. A hundred and seventy-five new NOAA jobs in Newport? Hooray! A new plan for vastly expanding Portland’s urban growth boundary? Fabulous! Boeing plans for a $120 million investment and 152 new jobs in Gresham? Yippee!
The boosterism is understandable. In the short term, growth supports families, relieves social pressures that produce conflict and crime, pays for amenities such as the arts, offers opportunities for entrepreneurs and makes some of us exceedingly wealthy.
But growth is also an addiction. And, like most addictions, it threatens to destroy us. Not only does it clog our freeways, but it also paves farmland, wipes out open spaces, saddles taxpayers with ruinous development costs and crushes the quality of life that attracted us to our communities in the first place. Growth sucks irreplaceable resources out of the earth. It dumps poisonous pollution into our environment. It crowds out the planet’s other species and utterly fails to deliver the human happiness it promises.
Not that any of that stops a bipartisan allegiance to growth from dominating national and local policy. Sen. John McCain said, “In war, there is no substitute for victory; in peace, there is no substitute for growth.” President Barack Obama justified expanded offshore drilling “in order to sustain economic growth.” And in Portland, city and state officials hope to build an Oregon Sustainability Center aimed at encouraging “sustainable growth.”
Hardly anyone, it appears, stops to think that “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. Combine constant economic growth with a constantly growing human population, place them on a finite world with finite resources, and you have a recipe for unsustainability. Traffic snarls. Carbon dioxide levels soar. Oil companies, eager to serve an insatiable appetite for ever more energy, sink wells at ocean depths where they have no hope of controlling catastrophic accidents.
Not everyone thinks all this is a good idea. A small but growing contingent of “steady-state” economists and activists is arguing that humanity needs to find a better way. But addictions, as we all know, are hard to kick. Especially one as well established as our growth jones.
Our damage to the planet follows from a simple equation: population x consumption = environmental impact. Two hundred and fifty years ago the Industrial Revolution tapped the concentrated energy stored in fossil fuels and ignited the growth of both population and consumption.
World population passed 1 billion in 1804, and then took 123 years to add 1 billion more. By the 1980s we were adding a billion every 12 years. We’ll hit 7 billion next year and 9 billion by midcentury. The United States alone will grow by 100 million over the next four decades.
Meanwhile, consumption is soaring. When the Industrial Revolution began, total world production per year, in 1990 dollars, was about $129 billion. In 1970, year of the first Earth Day, it hit $12.1 trillion. Since then it has more than quadrupled, to $58.1 trillion. The results are ruinous. Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions have surged 80 percent since that first Earth Day, leaving our crusade for “sustainability” looking like a bug that tries to stop a runaway truck by smacking into its windshield.
And CO2 pollution is just the tip of a melting iceberg. Endless growth sucks up more and more of the available energy, food, nutrients and everything else it takes to sustain life. Bill McKibben, perhaps the leading American environmentalist, says we’ve used more natural resources since World War II than in all previous human history. Small wonder that we’ve set off the largest mass extinction since the passing of the dinosaurs.
Growth promoters assure us that new technology will accommodate all the unrestrained growth we care to generate. But the scale of our meddling with the planet has reached levels that dwarf anything that came before. The Global Footprint Network, a scientific think tank that promotes sustainability, reports that the results of unrestrained growth “exceeded the biological capacity of the planet in the mid- to late 1980s.” We’ve passed the peak of our oil production, and from here on out the flow of petroleum will decline ever more steeply as we exhaust the remaining supplies. Last year Nature, one of the world’s most respected scientific journals, published research on the limits we dare not cross without “catastrophic environmental change.” The results suggest that we’re already over the line when it comes to climate change and the Earth’s nitrogen cycle. On other counts — fresh water, land use, biodiversity, ozone depletion, ocean acidification — we’re in imminent peril.
It’s not as if nobody saw this coming. “The increase of wealth is not boundless,” wrote John Stuart Mill in the mid-19th century. “The end of growth leads to a stationary state.”
If not now, when? We’re awash in goods, surrounded by what not so long ago would have been unimagined wealth. But we can’t shake the addiction that drives us to lust for more, more, more. When Apple released its iPad in Portland, hundreds lined up — some of them at 4 a.m. — to buy, buy, buy.
The irony is that none of this consumption seems to make us any happier. Nigerians report about the same level of happiness as the Japanese, who have a per-capita domestic product 25 times as high. Other studies show that growth may actually reduce happiness.
In “The Politics of Happiness,” former Harvard President Derek Bok traced the American experience with growth and happiness. Over the past 35 years in this country our per capita income increased by nearly 60 percent, he reported, the average new home got 50 percent larger, the number of cars grew by 120 million, and the proportion of families owning personal computers grew from zero to 70 percent, But the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as either “very happy” or “pretty happy” remained virtually unchanged, continuing a pattern that reaches back to the 1950s. If “rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last fifty years,” Bok asks, “what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?”
What is the point, indeed? John Stuart Mill looked forward to the day when we’d turn from acquisition to the true sources of happiness — friends, creativity, satisfying work and community.
But first we have to get off the growth treadmill. The American private sector added 83,000 jobs in June. What almost nobody pointed out was that we have to add 125,000 jobs a month just to keep up with our growing work force. At last count, Oregon had added 27,000 jobs since December. Oops. At the same time, the labor force grew by 30,000.
Some economists have looked for another way. E.F. Schumacher’s “Small Is Beautiful” (1973) made the case for reasonable consumption combined with fulfilling work and community life. Kenneth Boulding’s “Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” (1966) argued for truly sustainable consumption. Herman Daly brought those and other ideas together in a field he called “steady-state economics.” The goal is prosperity without growth.
Britain’s New Economics Foundation, which promotes such ideas, publishes a “Happy Planet Index,” which “shows that it’s possible for a nation to have high well-being with a low ecological footprint.” The New Economics Institute pursues a similar agenda from its Massachusetts headquarters. And the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit, organizes its mission around the idea that “continuous economic growth on a finite planet is wishful thinking.”
“If no one else is willing to speak that truth,” says Rob Dietz, the center’s executive director, “certainly we can. Our goal is to open up a space where politicians and others can at least talk about limits to growth.”
Some worried academics and environmentalists think steady state is not enough. Three hundred of them met this spring for the first North American “de-growth” conference in Vancouver, B.C. The tenor of the conference, as one observer summarized it, was that “if everyone consumed even as much as Europeans, much less North Americans, it would take three to eight planet Earths to do it. Billions want more, and we still want more. A collision of unimaginable proportions is coming.”
Despite the alarms, even the de-growth people seem to realize that practical solutions for heading off that collision don’t include economic collapse, joblessness and the kind of chaos that would keep us from solving the very problems that got us into this fix. Millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed, and no politician will get far arguing that we ought to keep it that way.
But maybe it’s possible to get growth under control while keeping families fed and communities intact. The goal of steady-state economics is, after all, reasonable incomes for all human beings in a more humane society that preserves the planet and promotes human happiness. That’s a tall order. But we’ve satisfied tall orders before.
We can start on this one by questioning our near-universal assumption that growth is always good. And the next time a candidate promises unending growth, it wouldn’t hurt if somebody in the audience asked, “What for?”
After all, as Edward Abbey long ago pointed out, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Jack Hart is a former managing editor at The Oregonian who now works as an author, teacher and writing coach.
Read the related article “Salem’s march toward sprawl”
Salem’s march toward sprawl
Published: Saturday, July 31, 2010, 8:15 AM
Swaim moved his family-law practice and plunged into Salem community life. But by the 1990s, he was seeing ominous signs that the cancer he’d fled in Southern California had metastasized to his new home. “Houses seemed to spring up everywhere overnight. Our streets began suffering from much heavier traffic. Heavy equipment knocked down trees in every direction and gouged heavy scars into the hills in west and south Salem. Acre after acre of agricultural land succumbed to new subdivisions and industrial parks. I had seen it all before.”
By 1997 he was mayor of Oregon’s capital city, making land-use decisions and worrying about the consequences of endless growth. Oregon’s state land-use planning system “made growth more efficient,” he concluded. But “the ultimate result was still the same” — a Southern California-style sprawl of strip malls, pavement and pollution. And the folks who already lived in Salem would pay most of the costs — new streets, sewers, water systems — of supporting growth in their community. “I was convinced that most of us didn’t want to end up looking like Los Angeles,” Swaim says.
If he couldn’t stop growth entirely, Swaim decided, at least he could advocate “smart growth.” Following the principles of Eugene urban planner Eben Foder’s book, “Better, Not Bigger,” he pushed to make developers pay more of growth’s costs. And he helped launch “Salem Futures,” a communitywide planning process aimed at envisioning the kind of city residents wanted decades down the road. “With every day that passes without such an end plan in place,” Swaim wrote, “we irreversibly commit more of our land, water and air resources to the kind of future that defines Southern California communities today.”
The planners completed the plan. Swaim left office in 2002. The composition of the City Council changed, influenced by what Swaim calls pro-growth forces. The “Salem Futures” plan went on the shelf. A new mayor pursued her own visions.
Last year Salem’s population reached 157,000 and the city covered 46 square miles. The population of its metropolitan area — defined by the Census Bureau as Marion and Polk counties — was 396,000.
— Jack Hart
© 2011 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.
© 2011 OregonLive.com. All rights reserved.