Is economic growth in direct conflict with personal growth?
I said this would come on Tuesday. It’s Monday. Sorry if that messes you up.
(5 minute read followed by some picks below)
“… by considering goods as more important than people and consumption more important than creative activity, it means shifting the emphasis from the worker to the product of work, that is from the human to the subhuman…”
‘Small Is Beautiful’ - E.F. Schumacher, 1973.
On a night back in October, I found myself lying awake, unable to sleep. This is a regular occurrence for me. I was in Maine, in bed, staring out an open window into blackness. It often seems like the more I wish I could drift off, the more impossible it is to sleep. It drives me crazy.
It’s in these hours that I find myself reaching conclusions about things I have to do with a level of clarity unattainable during normal working hours: problems to solve, businesses to start, people I should apologize to.
I tell myself I should get up and write these things down, but I never do. Most of whatever was keeping me up escapes me before I wake up the next day, cranky because I barely slept.
But, I do remember what kept me awake that night: ‘economic growth’ (Not in a ‘this is something I regularly think about’ kind of way, because I do not). Broad concepts like ‘growth’ are funny to me; that on some level, we simply assume we can and we will just keep growing, no questions asked. I’m far from an expert. Frankly, if you’re above average at managing your personal finances, there’s a very real chance you have a deeper understanding of economics than I do.
So why was I thinking about economic growth? It had something to do with having just finished a book about the impending climate crisis (as if it hasn’t already started) called The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells; 384 pages dedicated to telling us how fucked we are with meticulous detail. (For a few days, everyone I talked to had to listen to me tell them how bad this whole carbon thing is. Did you know there’s a direct correlation between increased air pollution and lower IQs?!)
I started thinking about all of us humans, on Earth, because let’s be honest: global warming isn’t so much of a problem for the planet as it is for us. Earth isn’t going anywhere. When we talk about ‘saving the planet’, what we’re really saying is: Save us. And while drawing a link between the climate crisis and economics isn’t so challenging, I started to have questions about what seemed like very basic assumptions about the global economy.
My education (one high school class) on the subject taught me that we pay attention to GDP & GNP, that a rate of 2-3% growth annually is considered ‘healthy’. Year after year, politicians and bankers point society in a direction such that we can achieve these targets. Yet, it occurred to me that infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world can’t be possible.
Am I missing something?
We might still be an unforeseeable number years away from this (as some friends have assured me - or - we might be a lot closer than we want to admit), but presumably, there will come a day where ‘growth’ is no longer attainable. Whether due to too many people or too few resources, one day there will be no room to grow.
Assuming we haven’t rendered our planet ‘uninhabitable’ (thanks for the mental picture, David.) by the time we get there, maybe it’s more important to ask: what does ‘growth’, as we know it, actually accomplish? What about the fact that, to-date, the more ‘growth’ we experience, the wider the gap between haves and have-nots becomes? Specifically when it comes to the United States, how much more can we even consume? Are we better for having more?
Suppose we do ever reach this point of saturated growth, will we have achieved a sort of societal enlightenment? If this is a simulation, will we have won the game? Will balloons and confetti fall from the atmosphere? Will we be happy?
Vegas odds say: Not a chance.
Since then, I’ve asked a handful of my more economically-minded friends about striving for infinite ‘growth’ in a finite world, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago , when I discovered Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, that it was clear that at least one person had spent a lot of time thinking about all of this.
For what it’s worth, E.F. Schumacher has been dead since 1977, and this book was first published in 1973.
Schumacher was a Rhodes Scholar in economics, a protégé of Keynes, and a professor at Oxford (so I think we can call him ‘legit’). He dedicated his career to the idea of building our economies around the needs of communities, not corporations, and coined this ‘Buddhist Economics’. Maybe this sounds like utopian bullshit, but his ability to comprehensively identify how and why our current system is failing just about everyone (even rich people) might blow the minds of even the most pro-capitalist among us.
Reading his work today is at once inspiring and totally depressing since we have clearly only moved further away from considering things such as ‘happiness’, ’fulfillment’, ‘health’, and arguably most importantly: ‘permanence’, when designing massive global structures.
We are awful at building things to last.
In a world where everyone seems to be a ‘Creative Director’, we’re suffering from a major void of creativity (and willingness to change) when it comes to many of our most vital systems.
We’ve become avoidant of that which we’re unable to quantify and ironically, these metaphysical aspects of our existence are what connect us all, what push us to tap into our ‘higher minds’, what give us a sense of purpose. (Not that those things matter.)
In a nutshell, the modern economy is propelled by a model built on human selfishness, and it’s not an accident. It is what makes the system work.
“The trouble about valuing means above ends - which as confirmed by Keynes, is the attitude of modern economics - is that it destroys man’s freedom and power to choose the ends he really favors.”
We wonder why we haven’t been able to implement meaningful solutions to huge problems, like climate change (see also: health care, eroding trust in government), but it seems to boil down to it being ‘uneconomic’ (although only in the short term, which is the most frustrating part). We haven’t figured out how to get out of our own way, even if we desperately need to.
“At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom.”
Just like re-usable grocery bags and pasta straws won’t stop global warming, the assumption that we can just grow our way to prosperity, and that prosperity will inherently create solutions is not a thing.
This is all to say: If there’s anything we humans are terrible at, it’s admitting that we might be wrong. It’s not that wealth is bad, but that the system depends on us to continue wanting and accumulating even if it leaves us feeling empty, increasingly anxious and distracted from the existential problems we aren’t solving.
Yet, it is worth remembering that the systems we’ve been using to construct our global economy aren’t very old and it shouldn’t be such a radical idea to consider a different path.
It might be as simple as listening to E.F. Schumacher fifty years later.
Read the Books:
‘The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming’ - David Wallace-Wells
‘Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered’ - E.F. Schumacher
This Week’s Picks:
Can’t Get You Out of My Head (Episode 1), a new BBC Documentary series by Adam Curtis. Curtis, as much as anyone, is thinking about ‘Individualism’. We live in a world where we see ourselves as independent individuals. We think only in terms of our own influence on the world, but we’re missing that power often lies in ‘groups’ and that hyper-individualism feeds the paralysis that stops us from progressing. His new series examines the history how how we got to where we are today, and why those in power, and the rest of us find it so difficult to move on. Also read a conversation between Curtis and Black Mirror director, Charlie Booker, on Vice.
Nomadland. Chloé Zhao’s new film, staring Frances McDormand, turns the spotlight toward Americans ‘left behind’ by the Great Recession. Viewed by society as too old to start over, but with too little to retire comfortably, these people are challenging the system by heading West, living out of vans, surviving on part-time work. A modern-day ‘Grapes of Wrath’, many of the ‘nomads’ featured in the movie are real people who share glimpses into their lived stories. Watch on Hulu.
Record High. A friend sent me this piece that was featured in AirMail last week. It’s a refreshing reminder that patience and breaking away from the status quo can pay off.
See you next week!