Sunday, April 22, 2012


Is growth necessary? I've long thought of the growth economy as a problem, summed up so succinctly by Edward Abbey: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." But I wonder, is there any other kind of economy? At least in a civilization? Sure, hunter-gatherers are extremely stable, but if you look at things historically, once agriculture began, and thereby this project of civilization, that is when change began. Change and growth. Earlier societies were largely changeless, in that they changed so slowly that it was imperceptible to a people with no memory storage devices besides their elders. If something took longer than a few generations to happen, it didn't happen at all, it was always so.

But with agriculture, now things start to move. Slowly at first, because there is less to build on. The wheel, domestic animals, new ways of building houses, the first villages, towns, cities, new forms of governance. But there is a definite movement of change, the civilizations, the cultures, the empires, always expanded, either into the wilderness or into neighboring tribes, and either by assimilation or by conquest. And of course recent history has shown an explosion in innovation, starting in the 1850s or so. Along with this, human populations are growing all the while. Now, I'm not saying it was a smooth increase for the last 10,000 years; obviously it was not. There were discrete civilizations all that time, which rose and fell and birthed the next.

But that's sort of my point. The rise and fall of civilizations: they form, expand, maybe plateau a while, then decline. It seems a natural pattern, and one senses that civilizations are almost living organisms themselves. Most things behave this way. Water rises and falls in waves, continents rise as mountains and fall with erosion (imagine watching that in a sort of geological time lapse, that'd be incredible!).

Certainly most life follows the growth/decline cycle, with the exception of bacteria, and maybe single-celled life, which seem to divide, grow to normal size, and divide again. Bacteria don't decline or die of old age, only from predation and environmental constraints. But higher life seems to embody this rhythm. Remember the cycles of population booms and bust in the lynx/rabbit relationship? The rabbits produce more young, and a few years later that change is embodied in a growth in the lynx population, which eventually eats up more of the rabbits, leading to their decline, then eventually the lynx decline as well... and on and on. Nature is stable, but in a dynamic way. They call it dynamic equilibrium, in that nothing ever gets an upper hand for good, but maybe for a while.

Boom and bust, the way of the world? That is my question. It seems to be an inherent feature of nature-- nature meaning the process of existence, not some "thing" apart from mankind, a usage I am more and more switching to. You can appeal to the concept of yin and yang and be done with it. So you can see my concern. I've long been interested in and read much about sustainability-- though often what is to be sustained is not specified by such speakers and writers. For myself, I'm about sustaining not the current mode of civilization, complete with superhighways and space shuttles, but some mode of life that keeps alive and well human happiness and wellbeing, meaning of course living in tune with the rest of our environment. I for one do not see "subsistence" as inherently negative, as if we always need to be in a state of progress, though again, to what we are to progress towards is never defined-- therefore we are a ship without a port to sail for, eternally lost and merely thrashing about the planet in a gluttonous, terrified rage. But I digress.

Can we have sustainability? Is stasis always to be in the backwaters, the stagnant pools far from the main flow of Life? Is it inherent in all Being to expand and contract? If one culture decides to go the sustainable route, is it then doomed to be overrun by the cultures that do not so choose? Is there a way off this treadmill? I mean, we can't simply forget the last 10,000 years' worth of knowledge. We aren't simple hunter-gatherers anymore, we know farming on vast scales, transportation at incredible speeds, mass communication all around the globe. We can't simply go back, if only for the simple fact that there's too many of us. We're stuck working within the constraints of what we know, i.e., civilization, lest we perish.

Yet to continue with civilization is to perish as well, as we seem to be on a collision course. I've long thought of nuclear weapons as an opportunity, a litmus test for humanity: either control our violent streak, or die. It is far beyond such simple concepts now, as we threaten to topple the entire biosphere. We hack at mountains for the coal, we drill deep into the crust for the creamy nougat center of oil, we burn, burn, burn everything in sight, swallowing everything in our path towards progress: forests, cultures, oceans of fish, entire rivers, and millions of lives in our wars. Extinctions are peaking at a frightening rate. Horrifying.

A lot of times you'll hear from the environmental crowd, especially some of the Deep Ecologists, that humans are a disease, a cancer. I think that is ridiculous, and am in line with Daniel Quinn and others who see that it is civilization that is the problem. And perhaps it is only our concept of being separate from the rest of the world, the ego divide, dualism of city and country. The concept of civilization itself, and its counterpart "nature." Dualism everywhere destroys a clear understanding of reality: look at the Occupy movement. I sympathize with it and I'll explain why in a moment, but clearly the evil and greed in the 1% is present in the 99% just as much. The only difference is, in the 1% it is magnified by sums of money and power far above what the 99% has access to when we try to put our schemes into effect. In the end, the world can never be saved by political action, only by everyone killing their ego and opening their eyes in an enlightened state. But, as this will never happen, I must support this movement that at least tries for evenness and fairness. Yet therefore also do I dwell in despair. A corrupted means will never attain an uncorrupted end, and we are all corrupt. This is why communism failed, and why capitalism also failed.

So we seem to be doomed, and our happy talk about sustainable civilization is a sad joke, an oxymoron gone unrecognized. Growth and expansion seem inherent, and of course that means decline and collapse. I know I harp on this a bit, but it is obvious that we have overshot certain limits and are basically in the position of the Coyote: we have run over the cliff but haven't looked down yet, floating on a fading illusion and moments away from a fall. And there's nothing we can do; like Wiley E., technology isn't going to save us, and it's actually part of what put us here. Or our misuse of it, based on our clouded worldview.

I welcome your thoughts on all this: the concept of growth vs. stasis, as well as what I consider the imminent collapse of [our] civilization. This is something I'd love a discussion over. Also, as I've changed the blog around a bit, feel free to comment and critique the design as well. Note also that I've added some links there on the right: especially relevant to this post is The Dark Mountain Project, which I will hopefully talk about in an upcoming post.


  1. I like the new look; the saguaro is cool. Any special significance to it?

    Your penultimate paragraph pretty much sums up the sorry un-fixable predicament we're in. I dunno about "imminent collapse", though. I think we'll keep revving up the engines of growth faster and faster until we hit some hard limit that no combination of new technology and can-do attitude will be able to overcome. But that could be a long way off as we've gotten pretty good at this particular game of techno-fix whack-a-mole.

    I assume you mention Dark Mountain because of co-founder Paul Kingsnorth's "confessions" essay in Orion magazine. An interesting read. He's taking a lot of heat over it.

  2. Thanks; last time I changed the background it was, I was told, unreadable. As for why I changed it? Well, this is Notes from the Outside, and the dark-brown-old-map theme felt too nineteenth century, some staid, wood-paneled study. I felt it needed something open and airy. And I like the colors.

    I suppose I overstated things with my Coyote reference. I'm not saying we're seconds away from a straight-down free-fall collapse, as seen in post-apocalyptic movies. But we are on the downward side. I think we are hitting the limits, and that techno-fixes can soften the descent, sure, but things just can't continue on this way. We're already farming most marginal land, we're wiping out ecosystems at an ever accelerated and unprecedented rate, the oceans are collapsing, rivers running dry, we use more resources than the Earth can produce or maintain. How many species can go extinct before we find out we've exterminated one too many? How long can this go on? Complicating it, of course, are our economic and political problems, not to mention social issues, which make real progress and "solutions" harder to actually implement.

    As for Kingsnorth's essay, I found it today and read it, and do agree. I'd seen it, but didn't read it, on the Orion site a while back. I did read an article about his confessions in, and found Dark Mountain that way. I didn't really read all of that article either; what I did read, well...I didn't think he was saying anything that extreme or unusual, which I suppose just shows that I'm also out of the "mainstream environmental movement" that want's sustainability for modern civilization as much as or more than it wants it for the planet. The way the green movement has become so abstract, philosophical, and general is a problem. Climate change, corporate pollution, energy efficiency and so on are all things to worry about, but there's far less talk about specific places worth saving. It's an urban movement now, in the sense that the advocates have little real connection to the natural world they purportedly wish to protect, so of course it is doomed to abstraction and philosophical drift.

  3. Oh, yeah, we're definitely on the downhill side of things now. This business with wind turbines, deep ocean drilling, and gas fracking has a pathetically desperate quality to it, like digging around the couch cushions for lost coins as one blogger I sometimes read puts it. It also shows a lack of imagination on the part of the powers-that-be, which is kind of scary as they're supposedly running things. In any case, as you said, things definitely can't continue on this way -- we're burning through non-renewable resources too quickly and something *will* break sooner or later. Just a question of when and how it happens. My guess is we'll bump along with increasingly more desperate techno-fixes for a (possibly long) while longer and then have a rapid and brutal collapse, probably sometime later in the century when climate change really starts to draw blood.

    I'm kind of thinking Kingsnorth's essay may be the first early signs of an attitude shift in the core enviro community. People finally beginning to realize that writing letters and clicking the 'like' button on facebook isn't going to get the job done when push comes to shove. Methinks things could get interesting. ;-)