The Danger of Perpetual Growth

The world is dominated by a theory of perpetual economic growth. World economies are measured by its growth in GDP, among other metrics, to determine whether the economy is healthy or functioning. We might ask, what does it mean to be healthy? Does perpetual growth mean health, or does it mean excess, like a tumor? What is really driving our desire for perpetual growth in our economy, and what exactly is growing?

These questions are quite important if we consider them in the context of our lives, and the many crises we face as humanity: war, hunger, human-caused climate and natural disasters. These are real dangers that face human beings in the world, and what is their relationship to growth? Obviously, if we observe our life, things grow, and then they wither. Like any living organisms or inorganic forms, they exist, flourish, multiply, decrease, and die. This is something no one and nothing can escape, but is the idea of perpetual economic growth trying to escape that fact?

Growth in the material sense has meant the vast accumulations and production of things, and they are things produced specifically with human effort. Things produced without human effort all have their natural lifespan, but what human beings make has quite a different quality. We can think of cement, steel, glass, porcelain, plastic, and so on, and they all have something in common: durability. They are made specifically to endure the process of time so that they break down very slowly. This is humanity's maybe unconscious pursuit of permanence. Plastics do break down but in a very long period of time. And the existence of these materials means that the pre-existing natural rhythms of death and rebirth are influenced, and that influence will also influence humanity, and specifically our material bodies. And this has manifested in our material world as air, soil, water, light, and sound pollution. What really is growing isn't material per se, but the kinds of material humans want: durable materials. We could say that the sum total of matter or energy hasn't changed. It is simply the matter we like or the energy we can utilize changed. Growth, then, is a human-invented idea, which is obvious if we simply observe this idea.

Growth is made up of numbers and statistics, descriptions and reports. Without them, growth has no meaning. But, we are very invested in the numbers on paper and on screen, so we take them very seriously. This is not only true for national governments or world organizations, but also true for the so-called individuals in society. The stock market, the personal growth charts, the weights and muscle density of our bodies, and the times we spend on completing a specific task, can all be numerically represented in terms of growth. This growth paradigm shapes how we live, how we interact with each other, as in “I feel better today”. We are also keen on altering the chemical makeups of our brains, using either ancient techniques of fasting or meditation, or scientific techniques of medicine and surgery. We could say that the entire human civilization is built upon the manipulation of matter. The more likable matter one has, the more growth one thinks one has achieved.

Meanwhile, what human beings pursue isn't merely matter. It could be said that humans really want happiness, love, freedom, joy, God, and so on. Yet, these terms are not material in nature. They don't have real references in the material world. Maybe because of our inability to find the immaterial, we transfer our attention to something more tangible, like matter. We then attach these words to matter, to the amount of money, the memories of a good relationship, the experiences one has had, the visual and sonic beauty of paintings and architecture, the sanctity and piety of words, and so on. These are all material manifestations: money, possessions, memories, experiences, and languages. So, we have successfully made everything about matter, including the immaterial aspects of life. The danger of making everything about matter is that matter is limited. There isn't enough matter for everyone. This is true for anything, including fuels, energy, food, houses, money, experiences, and so on. To compete for the better matter, we then are in perpetual conflict. To desire growth, we must compete in a limited material world, because growth for us means the growth of matter. In reality, there is no growth in matter, but only the growth of matter we deem important, like GDP, good memories, stamp collections, and so on. Matter stays constantly limited, and growth means fighting each other for this limited matter.

Therefore, war is inevitable. Human cruelty is also inevitable, both in the large scene of national conflicts, and in the family, relationships, and communities. The growth paradigm is the fundamental cause of this conflict. If we see the danger of perpetual growth, then we understand that growth isn't at all necessary. All things in life have their ups and downs. We are simply unable to accept the downs and always want life to be the ups. This isn't possible, unless we are extremely determined and cruel, in ways of war and conquer, both in the political and the personal realms. And even in our cruelty, we cannot realize perpetual growth, as the kings and queens of old would testify. No matter how much power, money, memories, or knowledge one holds, death is the ultimate equalizer. No one escapes it. One might believe in the afterlife, in some places much more beautiful, but if that is the case, what is the point of accumulating matter in this life? There is no valid point, except for greed.

The moment that humanity faces at this juncture is quite interesting. It is filled with crises, and many people's way of dealing with crises is to deny their existence or to escape from them with comforting fantasies and dreams. Conspiracy and entertainment are rife in our world. However, denial and escape are futile, because they are only the product of the mind projecting onto reality. It is like someone who sees a deep hole and put a blindfold on, and saying the hole does not exist anymore. And when this person walks ahead, still with the blindfold on, falling into the hole might be the result. We are walking blindly into danger, if we do not face and recognize the danger. It is quite simple to avoid catastrophes that we know, because we simply would do everything to avoid them. It is another matter completely if we blind ourselves with the dream of perpetual growth, with the dream of unlimited resources, and still hope for a peaceful and happy world, a world where human self-destruction isn't possible. Human self-destruction is quite possible, and probably imminent. If we see the danger, we shall act, without any excuses or rhetorical niceties. If we see the danger, we are deadly serious about it, because it is a matter of life and death, and the matter of life and death is always deadly serious. When we see a snake, we jump out of the way. But when we see perpetual growth, we embrace it. Such is ignorance. Such is the tragedy of the travail of man. Doing everything in the world, suffering still in the end, yet not knowing why one suffers.


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Cover photo by Aman Upadhyay on Unsplash