Growth can include any augmentation, whether beneficial or detrimental.
Progress is defined as going forward or advancing, almost always towards
some better state.
Most people recognize a distinction between growth and progress. We readily
differentiate between pounds we gained in early years of our lives, and
those gained in adulthood. We are nearly unanimous that growing crime, pollution,
and mental illness evidence losses, while growth in literacy, in peacefulness,
and in healthfulness represent gains.
However, we are far from agreement about whether growth in human population
and in activities by which we divert Earth resource to our own ends represents
progress. In almost every city and town, there are some who assert that
more people, more building, more paving, will bring benefit. Others accurately
note that a consequence of unending growth in biological systems is collapse.
At some point, they say, growth ceases to be progress.
As we plan for development of where we live, how may we discover limits
to progressive growth and avoid transcending them?
A Common Myth About Growth
One area in which we consistently fail to acknowledge limits to growth is
human productivity. In the opinion of most contemporary Americans, human
capacity to produce wealth is limitless. This doctrine, which might be termed
an ‘infinitely expanding pie’ argument, is commonly used to explain how
socioeconomic stratification can endure, even as everyone enjoys greater
abundance. Those who embrace it characteristically discount the import of
large discrepancies in individual well-being, emphasizing instead the primacy
of all being able to improve our circumstances.
For at least several centuries skeptics have questioned the premise of an
‘infinitely expanding pie.’ They have noted that humans ‘produce’ nothing
in a strictly material sense. We merely convert natural resources into artifact-some
of it desirable, and some of it ‘waste.’ To sustain these activities, we
require steady supplies of certain kinds of matterenergy, as well as adequate
sinks for wastes. Foresighted biologists, geologists, and other scientists
have warned repeatedly that environmental constraints upon human endeavor
are becoming increasingly important.
As ecologists have developed their discipline over the past century, they
have generated robust theory and copious experimental evidence to support
these views. With each passing day, more and more of us are suffering for
our failure to respect boundary conditions inherent to the contents and
processes of the biosphere.
Clinging to Myth
Recently proponents of the ‘information revolution’ have attempted to salvage
expanding pie dogma by proclaiming that information is wealth, and that
human capacity to acquire and manipulate it is for all practical purposes
While information may indeed be valuable, the worth of any particular bits
of information to any specific individual varies. For example, if we assume
survival as a value, and identify food as a component of wealth supporting
that value, human access to food is frequently constrained by factors other
than quantity and quality of our information. A human locked in the Library
of Congress will soon starve, even though every book and periodical published
be dumped through a mail slot at her.
However clever we may become in altering or accessing genes or memes, natural
law and environmental quality will remain factors in determining whether
we are adequately nourished. Technology is but a single factor in ecological
On Being the Right Size
Eighty years ago, J.B.S. Haldane, a biologist renown for original and integrative
ideas, wrote an essay entitled, “On Being the Right Size.” In
it he explained how structural qualities of a life form-determined by genetic
and experiential information-coupled with laws of physical science, are
adequate to predict its size.
Haldane and others also have noted that growth is a juvenile phenomenon
in all vertebrates, including Homo sapiens. We normally grow rapidly in
early life, then stabilize in size throughout maturity.
Though this individual growth pattern characterized hundreds of thousands
of generations of our ancestors, and remains predominant among humans today,
people in the United States routinely ignore and violate it by continuing
to gain weight well into adulthood. Virtually all competent medical authorities
agree that we pay a monumental cost of morbidity and mortality for doing
More than any other living beings, humans have devised tools, and used them
to consciously alter the environment. These extensions of ourselves and
the artifacts we have fashioned with them lie at the very heart of our claims
to steadily rising productivity.
Just as we currently override hormonal and other physiological regulators
to grow larger throughout life, so do we now violate the integrity of long-standing
biospheric processes to fashion urban settlements ever more dense and extensive.
With our expanding inventory of artifact, as with our pathologically growing
selves, we pay a rising toll of sickness and death, measured in habitat
destruction, species extinction, and other degradations of natural capital.
Though we engage in ever more complex medical technologies to ameliorate
negative effects of our bodily growth, and in comparably elaborate engineering
to offset penalties of urban expansion, both somatic and extrasomatic elements
of human enterprise show signs of deterioration. Declining life expectancies
in large segments of humanity (e.g Russian men, Afro-American men), crumbling
artifact infrastructure (e.g. U.S. highway bridges), and growing ecosystem
volatility (e.g. climate change) bear witness to our failure.
Moving Towards Sustainability
As we have increased our ability to accumulate and apply lessons of experience,
we have embarked upon a seemingly endless series of novel exploitations
of the environment. In this process, elements of our surroundings previously
regarded as useless have become universally recognized as wealth. Those
of us who have seen one discovery follow another throughout our lives often
envision humanity continuing so forever. But anyone familiar with principles
of ecology recognizes such thinking as fantasy.
Optimum size for any artifact or accumulation of artifact‑a city, for example-may
be difficult to determine. Still, the fact that such an optimum exists is
sufficient reason to question, as we contemplate each increment of growth,
whether it represents a step towards or or away from progress.
We will be prudent to carry our analysis beyond the realm of political economy,
and to assess the full ecological consequences of our actions. To comply
with land use regulations and succeed in the marketplace is merely to come
to terms with our fellow humans. To progress we will come to terms with
nature as well, and this will entail evolving values, technologies, and
social systems adequate to discern biospheric limits to sustainability and
to hold human population, buildings, pavement, and machinery within them.
City as Matterenergy in Flux
ealth from a surrounding environment, we approach growth with a different
set of questions. First, we determine a planning horizon by deciding how
many humans, for how long, converting matterenergy from what sources into
what sinks, we intend to accommodate within an area. This accomplished,
we may examine availability of resources, both in terms of proven supplies
and sink capacities, and in terms of the actions necessary to secure access
to them for inhabitants of our planning area.
Coercion a Factor
Without doubt, cities are power centers. The elites within them act with
enormous leverage upon the rest of the world, and human-directed matterenergy
flows through them in prodigious quantity. One might argue that the concentration
of power that is a city has since early times been a tool for dominating
rural peoples. Weapons of pyrotechnology, from metal blade to nuclear missile,
are invented, manufactured, and directed from cities.
If we contemplate a world in which the desires and visions of all are equally
weighed in determining ends and means of matterenergy conversion, we will
perhaps secure a better idea of how thoroughly city-dwellers rely upon coercion
of others. As we hear talk of further urban growth, we may ask whether
such will be attended by growth of coercion as well.
Institutions and Individuals
We live in a culture in which ideas of growth have been common, and those
who espouse them have been dominant for several centuries. People who advocate
establishment of limits to urban growth confront many adversaries. Perhaps
one of the most disconcerting aspects of our situation is the frequency
with which we are told, “You can’t stop it. It’s inevitable.”
The ideology of growth is something which is embodied in many of our institutions.
Laws, private contracts, and diverse other documents set forth a vision
of metropolitan growth, even while purporting to deal with other subjects.
Against such odds, all but the most stubborn and confident retreat.
Yet we as individuals create and recreate institutions with each act. Unless
we acknowledge this power, and carefully scrutinize our choices with an
eye to values we are promoting and institutions we are perpetuating, we
will be reinforcing prevailing attitudes towards growth, even as we bemoan
consequences of acting upon them.
Abandoning the Illusion of Free Lunch
Throughout human history, people have been relying more and more upon planetary
dowry, in the form of resources put in place before even our ape ancestors
appeared. Because we seemed always able to migrate to new lands where we
might find yet unexploited resource, and to invent substitutes for those
which we expended, we lived with the illusion that dowry was to be always
available. In our institutions and our settlement patterns we evidence this
consciousness. Drawing upon dowry, with expectations that, “There’s
more where this came from,” we imagined difference between labor we
put into a project and benefits we derived from it to be wealth created
by humans. This was often a substantial sum, apparently a ‘free lunch.’
As we become more aware of depleting natural capital, both source and sink,
we are accounting differently. Slowly, we are coming to admit that what
once passed for human capacity to create wealth may be more accurately described
as an ability to transfer it, and that even this modest talent is imperfect,
in the sense that we lose something in the process.
Applying such thinking to a city, we look at new construction and ask, “From
where and to where are transfers occurring?” Those who intensify land
use-often termed developers-may be more accurately described as expropriators,
and a central issue is necessarily: from whom? Previously sacrosanct right
to serve narrow self-interest and sacrifice broad human interest by making
a city grow seems less worthy of defense.
Thinking as Stewards
If we are to retreat from mutual plunder, we will restructure our institutions
to reward stewardship. As individuals, we may learn and draw attention to
ecological consequences of growth. We may voluntarily forego things to which
we might once have felt entitled, once we understand that they are contrary
to common good. On a foundation of such behaviors we may build consensus
for land planning legislation and regulation aimed at keeping Earth capable
of supporting diverse and abundant life well into the future.
A Caution Regarding Planners
Lest we imagine that professional planners will accomplish these objectives
for us, we may benefit by examining the record of urban planning. Despite
a steady increase in the number of planners and the amount of resource devoted
to planning, patterns of settlement in the United States and around the
world have become progressively more destructive. Growth has been favored
without regard to progress.
Planning for Progress Without Growth
Our settlements reflect and are reflected in our world-views. Land use planning
is integrated with every other aspect of our lives. The evolution of ecologically-based
community planning is being accompanied by a rise of ecological ideas in
Each of us can influence whether life-supporting qualities of land and other
resources will be protected. By shaping the places we live to be sustainable
we can achieve progress within a framework of stability, as befits mature