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What Exactly is Sustainable Growth?

Wednesday Aug. 4th, 2010

Bill Stoddart

Everything in the world may be endured except continual prosperity.  ~Goethe

There is a bit of a paradox in thinking endless growth can be sustainable. After all, the idea of something growing forever suggests it will inevitably become all-encompassing and all-consuming. Low-budget horror flicks come to mind, like Independence Day 2026: The Hibiscus That Ate the UN.
There are some who would scoff at the notion of sustainable growth. This derision is not new. Thomas Malthus, the 18th century paragon of overpopulation, mused that the human species will eventually outgrow its resources. And today, many would argue we are already seeing the negative effects of unbridled growth through global climate change, the great Pacific Garbage Patch (See Charles Moore: Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on YouTube for a reality check) the rise of “super bugs” which cannot be destroyed, and many other examples. To think we can endlessly consume all we desire to satisfy our every earthly pleasure without any cost to future generations is perhaps the ultimate in hubris.

If we continue to claim it is our God-given right for each of us to pursue our materialistic ambitions to their full glory, we haven’t much of a chance. Sure, those with enough money or a permanent underground structure that is self-sustaining may make it a bit longer than the rest of us, but biological and genetic limitations will prevent them from gaining immortality either. We will be the first species with the ability to prevent its own demise but end up going the way of the dodo.
We simply cannot continue in the same vein – we must change how we go about our daily lives. But if we pull our heads out of the dark abyss, we may actually be able to save ourselves from ourselves. I believe the key will be to channel some of our ancestors’ values.

The first value I would encourage us to resurrect is simplicity. Rather than fill our lives with poorly-made, cheap junk likely to end up in the local landfill within six days but live there forever, perhaps we could enjoy some of what we have: family, friends and the world around us. This is not necessarily an easy thing to do. We are constantly barraged by messages telling us to go out and get things. Gadget X will make life easier, Thingamajig Y will improve efficiency, and Doohickey Z will provide limitless pleasure. How can one resist the power of suggestion when, without a hint of irony, the esteemed leader of the free world suggested retail therapy was the answer to 9/11?

As with simplicity, frugality just doesn’t really accommodate the generally accepted notion of our “need” for limitless growth. Neither value encourages the rampant consumption we’ve all come to rely upon as a way to build up our retirement portfolios. But growth doesn’t have to equal consumption. The essence of our prosperity is not awash in a tide of throwaway items. We may have come to think of it that way, but it is not a foregone conclusion. We need to do more with less. After all, isn’t that the corporate mantra – less is more. The less in the equation will simply be the many things we’ve purchased or gifted that end up in the garbage within a few days, weeks or months. We need to focus on investing in quality goods and activities with meaning that will last lifetimes, including education and community.

Which brings me to the third value I’d encourage us to become reacquainted with: self-reliance. This doesn’t mean everyone should grow all their own food, make their own clothes, forge their own tools, etc; however, buying local and regional food, repairing instead of replacing damaged goods, and working toward a goal of investing money and energy locally will result in a greater degree of self-satisfaction, community involvement, and economic independence.

The final value, and one of my favorites, is virtue. We often think of virtue in the Aristotelian sense: self-righteous morality. But virtue in the writings of the Enlightenment, which provides the underpinnings of our society (at least until we decide to give up reason as a basis for discovering truth), suggests we are bound together by our condition as humans on planet Earth. Each of us must recognize we don’t exist in isolation from one another.

While some take umbrage at the thought of giving up anything they claim is rightly theirs, the bottom line is we all exist because nothing is truly “ours” to claim, except our own bodies, and those are only rented. We cannot have clean air or water without everyone recognizing we all have an obligation to keep it that way. We can only own property because we all agree it will be protected by an entity larger than ourselves. We may have rights that are ordained, but they only survive because we understand they only reach as far as our neighbor’s nose. The essence of virtue is that each of us must accept the reality that we do not exist alone in a vacuum, and as a result, we have an obligation to preserve some basic common threads of human existence. Virtue is taking responsibility for our actions – it is the glue that holds our society together.

We are in for a tough fight. We know in our hearts we cannot continue in the same vein indefinitely. Unlimited growth, unmanaged and poorly considered, is a recipe for economic, social and environmental collapse – it is simply a matter of time. But if we make the effort to truly consider our actions in light of their immediate and long-term consequences and in light of their impacts on the lives of future generations, perhaps we will endure.

Bill Stoddart is a Financial Consultant with D.A. Davidson & Co who focuses on sustainable investing.  He can be reached at bstoddart@dadco.com