Growth seems to be an unquestionably positive concept in the zeitgeist of the 21st century. Not only is it thought of as positive, but also as a kind of a natural pattern that governs the universe and can be discovered in all domains of life. Not only can it be discovered, but growth is something to strive for, without which, human life or a society can’t be happy and fulfilled. Screw balance and harmony. We want growth. And we want it now.
As seeds grow into plants and as babies grow into children and then adults, so should you grow as a person in terms of wealth, expertise, wellbeing and so on. So should a company and the economy grow too, otherwise, if they stagnate, they die. There never seems to be an end to this idealized growth, only the sky is the limit.
Strangely enough, human health is the field, where limitless growth evidently leads to disaster. Just think cancer and obesity.
That should give us a hint. If it breaks down when it comes to our own physical health, are we sure that limitless growth is the idea we want to build our civilization around?
Is growth really such an essential building block of nature and human life?
We sure treat it that way. Growth has become a new religion, an axiom that need not and must not be questioned, and a dogma, which is used as a weapon to ridicule anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it.
Our growth fetish might have its origins in the economic boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a time marked by a modern wave of gold rush, made possible by the quantum leap in technological advancement, which lead to exponential growth in the wealth of a few people and in the number of products the conveyor belts shit out filling all our lives with crap, most of which we don’t actually need and most of which we can’t actually afford. But we got the growth we wanted.
The prominence of the GDP, as a measure of comparative wellbeing of a nation, in the media and in any kind of discourse that relates to the economy is the perfect symbol of how we got stuck in the gold rush and in the limitless, exponential growth idea of the 20th century without ever questioning its validity.
To this day, we use the GDP to measure the wellbeing of a country, despite the fact that what it actually measures is nothing, but the monetary value of all the products that have been produced and sold by the factories and corporations of a country in a year. It has nothing to do with the wellbeing of the people, who produced them, who bought them and their environment.
How could the GDP indicate the wellbeing of a country if it doesn’t measure it? It can’t. And we still use it for that purpose almost exclusively.
Nothing proves the twisted nature of the GDP as an indicator of wellbeing better than the fact that the production of weapons and the use of those weapons to kill people with, i.e. war, increases the GDP. The GDP is all about dollar value output and is completely blind to human suffering.
That is not to deny the correlation between wellbeing and higher GDP per capita in Scandinavian countries for instance, but we’ve made the fatal mistake of confusing correlation with causation again.
Our growth fetish assumes that more is better. More money, more products, better life, right? Wrong. More is only better of certain things and only to a certain point. Enough is surely better than not enough, but who would keep doing the rat race for 50 years for just enough? We want growth, not balance.
The growth fetish in business assumes that as a business you must keep growing endlessly, otherwise you die. Either you outgrow your competitors and eventually put them out of business or they’ll do the same to you. In business, more is not only better, but it is made to be seen as the very condition of survival.
Even if that were true, there is a logical contradiction hidden there. If competition is the driving force in business, which is measured by profit and growth and if the bigger fish eats the smaller fish, at the end of that road, there is only one gigantic fish. Where is the competition then? Inside the very big fish?
Growth absolutist will easily dismiss that and say: you can either face facts, compete, outgrow your competition or ignore the nature of reality and go out of business.
Fair enough, don’t build a car factory to supply a village or a computer factory for a small town. But, you can build any factory that measures its success by how its workers, customers and environment is impacted by its products. That factory may not produce the cheapest products, but the people willing to pay more for less exploitation is growing (wink) and we are entering an era where real social responsibility is actually going to be more profitable than the lack of it. The second part of the argument is: keep the unique flavor of a small town, city, region and even country by not flooding everything with the same cafes, restaurants, book stores etc. Airports are incredibly boring and for the same reason depressing or safe places depending on who you are. The same few global brands and stores across the globe. Do we really want the whole world to become uniflavoured and sterile like those airports?
So even in business we have a choice between, unquestioned, blind, limitless growth and catering for a select and loyal audience.
The idea of personal growth is just as widespread and toxic. While it doesn’t seem to be such a core guiding principle as growth in business is, if we look at its depth, what we see is just as, if not more disturbing. The personal growth dogma holds that you need to continuously grow as a person (life long learning and self help), you must better yourself all the time, otherwise you can’t be happy and complete. Doesn’t that sound like you are not good enough as you are to start with?
Personal growth is seemingly not about quantity. You can’t make more of yourself, there is only one of you. And you can only make that one better, right? But the flaw in the plan is that the potential to grow as a person is limitless or at least undefinable and so is the number of books and programs you can buy to make sure that you are on the path of growth as long as you live. Bettering yourself has no limits. Personal growth is all about quality, except it’s not. It’s all about not knowing that you are already complete and always expecting completion and happiness from the next course, the next book, the next seminar. How is that different from expecting happiness from the next piece of chocolate, the red dress that makes you look wow or the car that you feel you deserve? It’s not. It’s the same delusion: you are making your happiness conditional on something ephemeral and thus setting yourself up for disappointment.
And yet, personal growth is not the problem. Anything, including personal growth in order to be happy is the problem.
Learning new skills can be fun and useful at the same time if you already feel complete. But just like eating a thousand doughnuts would not make anyone feel happy or complete, learning a thousand skills will not either.
The word can be deconstructed to trans, going beyond and form. Going beyond the current form. To form is to give shape, to create. Transformation is creation by going beyond. Changing the quality of what there is and creating new substance, new quality as a result.
Transformation is all about changing the quality of something, not making more of the same thing. There is no such thing as excess transformation (vs. limitless growth), because it happens as an organic co-emergence of actor and environment who impact one another in uncountable ways.
The quality of the new form is not necessarily better than that of the previous form. When the body of an animal dies, the new form it takes as earth could be seen as less complex or lower quality. But if we zoom out and notice that in the next cycle of transformation, earth may become human life through intermediary plant foods, then we realize that it’s all one process of endless transformation. Human life would not exist without earth, so saying that human life is more valuable than earth doesn’t make sense.
Human life is obviously a lot more complex than earth and therefore more fun and exciting for us. And if we had to chose between saving a 100,000 buckets of earth or a human life, it would be an easy choice to make. And yet, failing to see the inseparability of human life and earth is a mistake we can keep making for a long time, but definitely not for ever.
Growth is nothing, but a mirage after all.
Growth is transformation seen through a narrow, human perspective. When a huge tree grows out of a tiny seed, we see growth. But what actually happens is that the energy that’s been there all the time in the form of sun light, air, water and earth come together, go beyond their existing form and take the new shape of a tree.
Nothing grows out of thin air. Energy simply takes different shapes. That’s the natural phenomenon of transformation that we misinterpret as growth and when we try to mimic it, we create havoc in the world.
If the economies of the 20th century followed a transformation principle rather than the growth fetish, we’d live in a very different world today. With each technological innovation, we’d have transformed our lives to the extent that made sense and that actually made our lives better instead of turning it upside down.
We would not have built concrete jungles to live in just because we could and to make the GDP look better. We would not have bread so many people that we’d actually end up having to live in those concrete jungles for the lack of space and to have to rely on chemical agriculture for the same reason. We would not have built washing machines and dishwashers by the millions so that we can work and produce more GDP in the time saved by the machines. We’d play around, dance, make art or just do fuck all in the time we don’t have to spend working for our survival. Like we did, before we got obsessed with growth all over.
If a company were to follow the transformation principle instead of growth, it would measure its success not by profit alone, but by the impact it had in the world, which includes the people who work there, the people, who it serves and the environment. For such a company the idea of “externalities” would be nonsensical and for a government that wanted to see such companies arise and thrive, legislation that would internalize “externalities” would be a fundamental economic policy.
Easier said than done. Why is it so damn difficult to come up with ways of measuring how well we actually are? Sure, wellbeing is terribly subjective and subjective experiences are difficult to measure in an objective manner. But shouldn’t we have this figured out before we actually shoot people to Mars?
As a matter of fact, some attempts have been made. The most well known, HDI (Human Development Index) looks at life expectancy, years of education and GNI per capita. A step in the right direction, but still too monetary oriented. Perhaps Bhutan’s GNH (Gross National Happiness Index) is a better basis for comparison. It observes 33 indicators across 9 domains such as
- Psychological wellbeing
- Time use
- Cultural diversity and resilience
- Good governance
- Community vitality
- Ecological diversity and resilience
- Living standards
As difficult as it seems to measure time use for instance, which is comprised of two indicators, time spent working and sleeping, GNH is much less money oriented than HDI, making income only one of 9 factors that determine one’s happiness. As good as the idea of the GNH may be, the actual values the Bhutanese officials publish are best taken with a pinch of salt, given the fact that a semi democratic government rarely shies away from using such numbers to make itself look better.
The point is though, none of these indexes took on. GDP is still the rage. We still want exponential growth measured in dollars and nothing else.
Our GDP and growth fetish will only disappear when we, the people go beyond the quality which characterizes the way we currently look at the world and ourselves in it. We need to be transformed as individuals. The energy that keeps us chasing for more and more needs to shift shape and appear as an attitude of knowing what’s enough. We need to optimize, rather than maximise. We need to be transformed rather than grow. When enough of us, the individuals are transformed, the transformation of how governments measure human wellbeing, how the media reports it and how companies are serving our preferences is inevitable.
Some of us naively thought the COVID experience would push us into that direction sooner than later, but it didn’t. We need a much bigger slap in the face.
By replacing growth with transformation in any domain, the paradigm shifts from result oriented to process oriented. With growth, you need something to happen for you to feel complete. With transformation, you are complete start with and change happens for its own sake, for fun, spontaneously, as the flow of life, not because you need it to happen.
Shifting to transformation from growth removes the contraction from our attitude to life, like a good massage removes a painful cramp.
Let it happen.
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