The Moral Dilemma of Growth

Bob Massie

My mother is Swiss, and a few years ago we paid a visit to an elegant old farmer in a village where our extended family now gathers in the summertime. He had a deep love of history and his chalet was filled with ancient Swiss woodworking tools and historical items. During our tour, he pointed to the distant mountain pastures where his cattle were grazing for the summer.

“How long has your family lived here?” I asked him.

“My grandfather was born in this house,”he replied.

“And how long has your family been sending your herds to those pastures?” I continued.

“About 700 years.”

The thought startled me. The stability and continuity of his experience contrasted sharply with my experiences as an American. Seven hundred years ago there were no Europeans in North America. None of the homes or towns that have shaped my life existed. My experience has largely been one of change, as communities and landscapes have been transformed by economic life.

Collision Course

This contrast between stability and change, or to put it another way, between sustainability and growth is one of the most important challenges in modern America. It represents a balance between values that people of faith must explore and understand – and on which they must lead – if they are to make a contribution to one of the great struggles facing humanity.

The impulse to grow is built into our fundamental identity as humans. We are born as powerless and unwitting infants. Our goal as children must be to grow and to master our surroundings, physically, mentally, and emotionally. In our youth we spend considerable time imagining what lives we want to build and how we want to shape our futures. I have two sons in their early twenties who are stepping forward into their lives as adults. They have few possessions but many aspirations. They are eager to move forward to define their own careers, create their own homes, and expand their horizons and domains.

Such restless yearning for growth and change has long defined American history and culture. Many came and still come to the United States because they were denied chances in their countries of origin. The apparent combination of unlimited opportunity and resources fed a particularly American enthusiasm for invention, expression, and expansion. These attributes, enshrined as the concept of “progress,” frame our politics, economics, and culture. America became famous and powerful for creating entrepreneurial businesses, perfecting new means of production, and expanding markets. Even now technology seems to promise limitless gains.

Only recently has the distinctly American dream of boundless freedom and uninterrupted growth begun to bump into social, physical, and economic limits. Similarly, Americans have correctly begun to question whether individual happiness is solely tied to increased material consumption. We have watched as our national values have pivoted away from equality, leaving some with far too little and others with grotesque excess. Still, the idea of materialism is so deeply ingrained in our self-definition that we have allowed indicators of economic performance – such as Gross Domestic Product per capita, which is an unrealistic average – to override all others as measures for national success.

The idea of materialism is so deeply ingrained in our self-definition that we have allowed indicators of economic performance to override all others as measures for national success.

Such enduring confidence in materialism has blinded us to new dangers that are emerging from compound growth. For decades, the population seemed small relative to our limitless country. When my grandmother was born in 1904 there were eighty million Americans. By the 1950s, that number had nearly doubled, to 150 million. By this decade it has doubled again, to nearly 310 million. This rate of population growth has been exceeded at the international level, with world population tripling from 2.5 billion fifty years ago to nearly 7.5 billion today.

Such growth – compounded by increased manufacturing capacity, improved productivity, rapid globalization, and skyrocketing consumer demand – has put humanity on a collision course with the planet. The world economy is now operating at a level of nearly $60 trillion a year, with a global growth rate of more than 3 percent. Almost all forms of resources – both renewable ones such as forests and fisheries, as well as extractive ones such as minerals and fuels – are being exploited at an unsustainable rate. As scientists have evaluated the ecological footprint of our accelerating industrial and consumer economy, they have come to conclusions that remain hard for both Americans and other citizens to accept. For example, if every person in the world were to consume the same number of resources required for an American lifestyle, we would need five planet earths to draw from.

Real-Life Travails

This message has largely been ignored, not because of the facts, but because our values have not evolved and our personal problems have increased. As inequality in the United States has grown, more and more Americans find the inherited dream of abundance receding. Many families are struggling so much with the complications of a recession – lost jobs, lower housing values, diminished opportunities, and other crippling damage caused by Wall Street speculation – that they have neither the capacity nor the inclination to ponder these difficult long-term trends. Struggling with these personal experiences, they long for more wealth, not less, and they measure wealth primarily in terms of ownership rather than stability. Fourteen million children live in poverty in the U.S., and one in fifty is homeless.

We are also experiencing a depressing failure of political leadership. Politicians continue to vie for votes by promising to restore the unlimited upward trend toward expansion. We must advocate for greater equality and prosperity in America, but our adolescent belief that our future has no physical boundaries must give way to something far deeper and more mature.

Fortunately, there are thousands of communities in America and around the world that are proposing new solutions at the local and regional levels, solutions that would create far more balance in our agricultural, educational, cultural, and communal lives. New and more sustainable patterns of distributed energy and regional food are rising up. Communities are experimenting with creating new capital for local business in the form of local currencies. Researchers are devising new economic measurements of prosperity that include health, independence, and well-bring – a modern take on “the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that the Declaration of Independence lists as among our inalienable rights.

Denying the Evidence

We must guide our natural and God-given desires into new ventures, so that we are growing not just objects but spirit.

We must accept and then share the hard reality that a pursuit of unlimited growth – particularly by populations with very high standards of living – would mean to press down on the accelerator toward greater global misery and climate disruption. Our planet is a gift, and its bounty must be understood and protected. Few of us have really absorbed just how small the planet really is. If you were to bore through the core of the earth, you would come out on the other side after less than eight thousand miles. The atmosphere of the planet, into which we are pouring tens of millions of tons of damaging greenhouse gases a day, is proportionally thinner than a coat of shellac on a classroom globe. And we know from history that any system, even a planetary one, can reach its capacity abruptly. As scientist Jared Diamond noted in his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – which studied the extinction of various island societies that maintained old practices despite accumulating dangerous new evidence – the end stages of a profligate culture can be convulsive, painful, and swift.

The industrial world’s continued obsession with unlimited growth also raises profound questions of social justice. For nearly seventy years economic and development policy has focused on helping countries to establish productive industries, higher levels of employment and wages, and thus become more expansive consumer societies. For the developed world to turn around and announce that the poorer countries, for the sake of the planet, must no longer seek to advance would be seen as kicking the ladder out of the hands of the poor. It pits two of our most deeply held values – justice and sustainability – into false conflict with each other. This has been one of the major political and cultural tensions looming over the negotiations around climate change.

In sum, if the United States is to lead, it must lead by example, and to do so it must learn to define our national future – and indeed the entire concept of growth – in terms of different values. In one sense, this is and should be a natural step in the evolution of capitalism. Right now there already is a massive global effort known as the International Integrated Reporting Council, on which I serve, which is rethinking the fundamental way in which business models transform capital stocks of kinds – natural, human, social, and financial – into value. For too long we have simply assumed that more is better. We have reached the point where many American households are drowning in clutter and overwork while they are worrying about basic elements of economic security such as jobs, retirement, and health care. We need more peace, more calm, and more time.

A Word to the Economic World

To create such a transition in our personal and communal identities will require the active engagement and wisdom of communities of faith who must ask, deeply and pointedly, whether our economy really serves humanity. For decades many churches have been driven to address highly personal questions of sexuality, identity, and inclusion. It is now time for religious leaders from across denominations and faiths to step boldly and unapologetically into the world of economics.

Religious leaders must state that it is an illusion that happiness is primarily tied to the size of one’s bank account. They must advocate for economic fairness rather than unlimited expansion. They must point out that in the era of inequality, extinction, and climate change it is a deadly mistake for nations to define their futures around their GDPs. They are uniquely responsible for pointing out that market values often undermine spiritual values.

As Robert F. Kennedy said presciently in a 1968 speech in Kansas just three weeks before he was killed, our conventional economic measurements conceal and disrupt our deepest values:

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Change is possible. In the years after Kennedy’s words, Americans realized that the natural environment was being sacrificed and laid down new guidelines protecting our health and heritage. But these are not enough. Despite increasing attention by companies, communities, and countries to the doctrine of sustainability, despite global meetings of the United Nations and thousands of other parties, we are not moving fast enough to avoid the collision ahead.

To solve this problem, we need not only candid leaders promoting wise policies; we also need to go straight to the emotional and moral conundrum of growth. And this duty naturally rests on those in America’s faith communities and seminaries, who have committed their lives to expressing and living through shared values.

On the one hand, we, as biological and spiritual beings, are designed to grow, to expand our capacities and our horizons. On the other hand, the industrial forms in which these energies have taken us are now leading us toward destruction. The solution must be to redirect our positive attributes away from the simplistic accumulation of more consumer goods and toward what we truly value and love. We must guide our natural and God-given desires into new ventures, so that we are growing not just objects but spirit. We need to apply our talents to the creation of more beauty, knowledge, wisdom, and compassion.

If every person in the world were to consume the same number of resources required for an American lifestyle, we would need five planet earths to draw from.

In this there is a word of hope and of responsibility for all citizens, especially those who call themselves people of faith. After years of seeing ourselves marginalized in what seemed like a rapidly growing global economy indifferent to the deeper matters of the spirit, people must lead the evolution of our values toward the genuine substance of life. We must learn to embrace sustainability – like the Swiss community tending cows in the same pastures for seven centuries – and innovation. We must affirm and control our desire to grow. We must apply our intellects and our values to designing a just, safe, and livable planet.

Few seminaries and religious communities have caught up with this reality, and few religious leaders have embraced it, but every young person – especially in America – who longs to build a life of meaning and purpose in the twenty-first century knows that it must happen. Our prayer and our work now must be to make it so.

Bob Massie ’82 M.Div. is an Episcopal priest and a member of the YDS Board of Advisors. Over a long career of fusing environmental and economic ideas and action, he conceived or led three major global sustainability organizations: Ceres, the Global Reporting Initiative, and the Investor Network on Climate Risk. He is now president of the New Economics Institute, which supports the evolution of more just and sustainable economic practices, particularly at the regional level. His new book, A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience, was published in May by Nan Talese/Doubleday.

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