Reflections on Growth

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

Extrasomatic Morbidity

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
oth­er areas.

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