Growthism: Part 2


One of the notable features of Growthism is the way it takes growth to be entirely normal and, at the same time, understands it as the very recent triumph of humanity over the awful conditions it faced for the first two hundred thousand years of its existence as a species.  According to the groundbreaking, if also flawed, work of Angus Maddison that calculated the history of world GDP, until around 1820 per capita economic growth was minimal at best.  Prior to the nineteenth century, the standard of living for people across the globe was forever dodging Malthusian traps and progressed so slowly that it can only be visibly graphed according to multi-century chunks.  Then, rather suddenly, everything changed and the size of both the world’s economy and per capita GDP began to double many times each century.  In the minds of the world’s power-brokers and knowledge-makers, as well as most casual onlookers, this two-century growth spurt is expected to continue into perpetuity, its youthful exuberance adding little doubt as to its long-term staying power.  We have banked everything on it.

This sense of normalcy can be seen in the way journalists, academics, and politicians speak about economic growth.  An economy that is not growing, of course, in recession and has only “recovered” once it is growing again at an acceptable rate, around 3% per year, a rate often extolled with genetic metaphors—as if this sort of growth part of “the economy’s” DNA.  An economy that is not growing or not growing fast enough is, accordingly, referred to as “sluggish” or will be said to be “facing headwinds,” ones like insufficient consumer confidence, high energy prices, an international trade imbalance, or even demographic changes.  This is quite odd if considered outside the perspective of Growthism: the fact, say, that the population is growing older or that people are having fewer babies could be considered mainly as an economic challenge, never mind the more basic fact that an economy’s size and growth has to do with how much people are buying and selling and that people might someday decide they have everything they need.  That any pause in buying, selling, and of course disposing, is a condition from which we must recover is the most peculiar thing, yet it is accepted without thought.

Add to this the fact, mentioned above, that economic growth is such a recent phenomenon and it is quite impressive, if not surprising, the way the language of growth and the expectations surrounding it have come to be seen as completely ordinary.  How, one might ask (though one rarely does) could something so new and so utterly unique to most of human history at the same time be thought of as so normal, even permanent?  The answer to this question has to do with the story of progress used to narrate economic growth and the more general increase in standards of living since the Industrial Revolution, and before that the age of European global conquest.[i]

As the story normally goes, prior to the advent of massive international trade and economic growth humans lived in a shackled and repressed condition of general immiseration.  But then—whether it is attributed to Enlightenment philosophy, the scientific revolution, or the way explorers allowed Europeans to break free from their bounded geography and their dark ages—humans woke up, discovered the keys to freedom and prosperity, and began the march, or rather sprint, towards full human potential.  Our two hundred year growth spurt is normal because its prehistory was a history of the repression of true human nature and capacity.

A very striking, and in many ways well-conceived, example of this story has been provided by physician and investment banker William Bernstein, in his history of prosperity,  The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created.[ii]   But the same point, here, could be made with countless other examples. Bernstein’s purpose is to explain “how economic growth sprang to life after millennia of slumber” (4), in part because he wants to make sure we don’t engage in any backsliding.  For “beginning around 1820, the pace of economic advance picked up noticeably, making the world a better place to live in” (15).  By finally discovering the four main prerequisites for sustained economic growth—property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and fast and efficient communication and transportation (15-16)—humanity was jarred awake from this two hundred thousand year slumber.

The metaphorical drift is key to the story’s success. In addition to the metaphor of waking from a slumber, Bernstein carefully employs figurative language to paint a picture of the coming of humans into true being, of shaking free of old shackles.  Previous obstacles to economic development, he says, are like a dam that, once breached, can never be rebuilt, for the onrushing flow of prosperity that has built up behind it a part, we are to suppose, the innate potential of we ingenious humans.  He employs chapter headings like “The Premodern Absence of Property Rights,” “The Premodern Absence of Scientific Rationality,” “The Premodern Absence of Effective Capital Markets,” “The Premodern Absence of Effective Transport and Communications.” Prior to 1800, he notes, Europeans suffered from the “lack of adequate transport,” while hunter gatherer societies are “economically crippled, since they depend” excessively on land, “the least productive of the four inputs,” thus ignoring the more significant inputs of “labor, capital, and knowledge “(45).

With such metaphors illustrating his story of economic growth, and beyond the metaphors the outright declarations of premodern lack, Bernstein cements the notion of a universal and timeless human desire to be just like us, whose potential was yet to be unleashed in the dark and drowsy ages of old.  And only with this picture of us humans and our history, can he confidently conclude that economic growth is permanent.  It is, he says, “an unrelenting, never-ending engine—an economic perpetual motion machine showing no signs of fatigue, let alone stopping” (373).  Therefore, “a century from now, the world will be a far more prosperous place, and a thousand years hence, the earth’s inhabitants will judge the current century to have been an impoverished, cruel, and deprived Dark Age” (378).

Of course the most significant problem with Bernstein’s account (as well as with our faith, hope, and assumptions about the future of our money) is that the economy cannot grow at the “normal” rate for another thousand years, never mind a single century, never mind another few decades.  Despite all the talk of a knowledge economy or “decoupling,” whether at stake is measurable GDP or a higher “standard” of living, economic activity requires raw materials and energy.  As a tour through Mark Zuckerberg’s home would surely reveal, people aren’t interested in buying and selling things that can be effortlessly materialized out of thin air for increasing sums of money[iii] (and there is a name for that: it’s called inflation!).

There are all sorts of material and resource constraints preventing continued economic growth, but consider thermodynamic limits like this: from 1650 to the present, U.S. energy consumption has grown at a rate of 3% per year.  As Physicist Tom Murphy had calculated it, if global energy use grew at a rate of 2.3% per year, the temperature of the Earth would reach the boiling point in four hundred years–not from global warming, but just from the spent energy.  This, Murphy adds, “is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.”  Continue this growth rate for 1400 years, Murphy adds, and we’re using an energy amount equal to the entire sun and in 2500 years an amount equivalent to the entire Milky Way galaxy.[iv]  Of course a mere 6 degrees rise in temperature—which, incidentally is not only possible, but the result of our current short-term trajectory of growth and “development”—wipes out life as we know it long before that.  Bernstein’s “economic perpetual motion machine” can expect a life that will be nasty, brutish, and short.  So can we.

But for the time being, I want to make a more subtle point.  Lost in the normalizing of economic growth, in addition to any awareness about its lethal outcome, is the sense that economic growth and modernity in general are part of a very specific historical conditions, and not the simple releasing of a dammed up river.  And because these conditions cannot last, as important as asserting this fact, unknown to most of the knowledge-makers and power-brokers in Liberal societies, is thinking about our present historical condition in ways that will help us choose, if that’s the right word, an alternative.

So here’s a claim that might be met with incredulity, and perhaps more so (I should admit up front) as the consequences of it are considered: most of human history was not a prequel, or lead-up, to us.  Hunters and gatherers were not “crippled” by a lack of economic development, or by the absence, even, of electricity.  They had everything they wanted and did not want from the lack of unfulfilled wants.  They pursued (probably the wrong word) a very different version of the good life and often thrived in it.  So also with Native Americans, Laplanders, even, dare I say, medieval peasants.  Do I romanticize the past, here, ignoring hunger, disease, cruelty and indifference to suffering?  No, this, merely, is what it looks like when one refuses to romanticize the present.

Once we’ve made the switch in perspective to seeing Growthism as a historical conditions, with its own specific challenges and justifying myths, we might also be better able to take a look at all the collateral damage and unique misery of our current way of life, of the cast-offs, the impoverished citizens of petro-states, the garbage pickers of the great Asian and African megacities, the dispossessed West Virginia coal miners suffering an epidemic of black-lung disease, the Bangladeshi garment workers and all the other sweatshops of the world, human trafficking and indentured sex-work, the shootings, the incarceration, the crippling want.  Do these just represent the incomplete acceptance of our ideals, or an inevitable dark side of a system set on growth?  And even among the elites of the United States we see an epidemic of teenage depression, of eating disorders indicative of children raised to hate their bodies and compare themselves into starvation.  We see the addiction, the obsession with trivial distractions, a people glued to hand-held computers as life and history go whizzing by, careening out of control.  We see people who give things to their children that they know they shouldn’t have, but cannot imagine an alternative to the onslaught of social pressure, hypertrophied norms, inflating demand and expectations.

This all is Growthist dis-ease, part of a Growthist historical condition—explained-away in terms of uneven development, of backwaters of retrograde ideology, as at least being “better than living on a farm without electricity”—all absent from premodern societies, whatever challenges and struggles they contained.  This is not to romanticize the past; it is to not romanticize the present.  It is to not cling to its fables out of fear and misunderstanding, and regardless of their deathly trajectory.  Indeed the first lesson taught to all students of modernity or modernism is the way modernization is always accompanied by a deeply unsettling breakdown of the traditions which provided meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, and orientation.  Such traditions–now despised by modern people as lacking opportunity, freedom, self-expression, perhaps even economic growth—nevertheless were often successful in guiding everyday people through life and death, sometimes in societies that sustained themselves over millennia—and might still be doing so today if that little white spot on the ocean horizon had never come closer and never spilled onto the beaches its pale, hairy, and hungry beasts.

In the film “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” we witness just this sort of disruption, but on an extremely limited scale, when a coke bottle is dropped from a plane into the world of a nomadic hunter and gatherer society, causing sudden disruption, conflict, and acrimony within the tribe and a general threat to social cohesion.  Prior to the age of Columbus, similarly, Europe had a relatively bounded geography.  This is not to ignore the Crusades, the conquests, or the awareness about the riches of Asia and the existence of an Africa beyond the Arab part with which Europeans traded.  Rather, and more significantly, its scientific, cosmological, economic, and moral orders reflected, perhaps in an idealized sense, a closed geographical space in which various sorts of order might be imagined and maintained.  One of the more powerful illustrations of this old order, and its change to a new one, is provided by Andre Koyre and his groundbreaking book on the sixteenth and seventeenth century Scientific Revolution, From a Closed World to an Infinite Universe.  Within the closed world, Europeans enjoyed stable categories and hierarchies, represented, for instance, by the Great Chain of Being, or the table of virtues.  As C.S. Lewis explained it in The Discarded Image,[v] “At his most characteristic medieval man is not as wanderer.  He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems.  He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in its right place’”(10).  In its science, as in Koyre’s closed world of harmony, perfection, and purpose, “the fundamental concept was that of certain sympathies, antipathies, and strivings inherent in matter itself.  Everything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct” (92).

Upon the voyages of Columbus, all such homing instinct was cast aside.  Word spread like wild fire and everyone wanted in on the race.  Within a few decades, the Columbian Exchange submitted Europe to this same sort of sudden disruption on a scale that is difficult for us to imagine, as it was flooded with new images of entirely unknown worlds, and the sudden promise of great riches.  Silk, gold, silver, tobacco, new foods and spices, came pouring in.  People suddenly had to have what a year before they had not known even to exist.  And they were willing to do anything to get it, unconcerned as the bodies piled up and the enthralled torture of self and other was taken to a global scale.  In a great act of misapprehension, we praise the Renaissance for the birth of humanism and the emergence of the sovereign individual.  But this humanism was not humanitarian.  Its “I” is a wanting and craving self, never satisfied, obsessive, always on the run in pursuit of more and ever more than that.  No fashion was too new, no rival too distant, no novelty too sacred, no life indisposable.

About this change and this new condition, Marx’s description in The Communist Manifesto remains unmatched:

The bourgeoisie, whenever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.  It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and left remaining no other  nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payments.’  It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy waters of egotistical calculation. . . . Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois [Growthist] epoch from all other ones.  All fixed and fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.   All that is solid melts into air.

The closed and purposeful world with its sense of harmony and proportion, or proper place described by Lewis or Koyre could not, of course, survive the sudden onslaught of growth, as the European world was cracked open and turned upside down, much as Marx describes it.  We moderns are Growthists through and through and are thus apt to see this opening as the triumph of humanity, as did the New Science and Enlightenment philosophy—and as do Growthist cheerleaders like Bernstein, or the New York Times, or NPR, or the BBC, or the United Nations, or Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton.

Is the universe not, we might ask, really infinite, are we moderns not empirically correct?  Did we not replace myth with truth as we discarded this old image?  If, as Francis Bacon was to put it, “knowledge is power” (and therefore what is not powerful is not knowledge), then a strong case can be made.  But a cautionary thought: when they imagined a closed world, the medieval mind had, for whatever reasons, a far better intuitive grasp than we on the limits of the world that actually sustains us.  The universe may be infinite but our biosphere is not.   Innovation may be able to stretch our biosphere’s carrying capacity, but it cannot breach its limits without dire consequences.  And as the cosmology that carried humanity to the brink of extinction (if, indeed, it does not), our present faith in the infinite universe, or in knowledge as power, as controlling metaphors for human behavior will someday be viewed with as much contempt and derision as we direct toward pre-modern, pre-Growthist thought today.  School children will stand agape, wondering how?—how people once believed that there were no thermodynamic or biological limits to how much they might have and do.

Read Grothism-Part I

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

[i] Maddison measures GDP prior to modern records by looking at the size of cities and the percentage of the population engaged in (subsistence) farming.  While this tells us a lot about society, it doesn’t measure substantial increases in the wealth of the elites who already lived off the farm.  Maddison may be correct that the Columbian Exchange did not affect the affluence of European peasants, it does mark the beginning of growth and the rather sudden increase in global trade and the drastic transfer of wealth to Europe.

[ii] Bernstein, William J.  The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004).

[iii] Said Mark Zuckerberg: “The economy of the last century was primarily based on natural resources, industrial machines and manual labor. . . . Today’s economy is very different. It is based primarily on knowledge and ideas — resources that are renewable and available to everyone.”  It is worth remembering that Facebook gets its revenue from advertisers who are working to move material objects around the globe only by using energy and raw materials, beaten into shape by a global lumpen worker, who in turn wants to eat and have their own material objects.


[v] Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).


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