The limits to growth

Global dissonance - Culture clash- Consumerism - Limits of consumerism - Non-market values - Marginal economic efficiencies
In Book One we identified some of the causes for rejection of authoritarian structures. We realized that our faith in national politics and representative democracy is misplaced, and, as the breakdown of sovereignty and the growth of economic blocs continues, we move towards smaller communities.
This breakdown has been accompanied by a crescendo of information. We are unable to process the thoughts and ideas that have entered global consciousness since 1945. Nuclear annihilation; the global village; man in space; the world's population increasing at a rate of 150 persons a minute; the stock of arable land going down by four hectares every minute; the Cold War; the breakdown of communist ideology; Japan's economic supremacy; Western high tech military supremacy; the ozone hole; global warming; this is future shock. An onrush of events that shocked our consciousness. Changes, thrust upon a world, unready to accept, or deal with, the sheer mass of change.
In Book Two, we must look at the effect of future shock. We must find out the responses to the rejection of old values. We must look at the new structures that arise from that rejection; to the attitudes that meet, and respond, to information overload.
Global dissonance
On leaving the security of the authoritarian system we are uneasy about the future. The entire global population, considered as a thought wave of five billion people, think about what is `real'. They exert pressure on the global brain. There are competing pressures on the global brain. Accordingly, there is considerable dissonance. Large blocs, composed of many people, naturally believe that their view is `right' and exert pressure on minorities and smaller nations to conform to their viewpoints.
Differences of viewpoint are still immense but the effects of the global market and telecommunications are narrowing that range. The collapse of communism in 1990 reflects the inability of the communist viewpoint of what is `right' to prevail against these forces. What we are witnessing is the breakdown of many of the organizing myths that have held societies together.
The following comment is appropriate:-
Images get worn out. Myths get worn out. We're in one of those periods between great formative myths. Joseph Campbell was saying that, and many other people have observed that one of the reasons we, as individuals, suffer big anxieties and feel troubled so often is because we're past the point where there is a great organizing myth that we all share in and we haven't reached the next time that there will be one. So we're exposed to the great forces of the world without an organizing imagination that we share about that.
Every time we meet someone we have to re-make the world with another person, because we don't know which god they're following. We don't know which part of the story they're in and which part of the story we're in. The great organizing vision of a culture is just not there any more.
The big trick now is to have an open vision that includes other cultures and other styles and other ways of being in the world and at the same time be rooted to the centre to where one is.1
This faltering of leadership or vision is not merely a problem of nations: it is an individual concern that affects us all. We are all incapacitated in our search for a new vision by the weight of our past. This is similar to the idea that life only begins at forty. Up to that age most individuals are operating on the basis of familial experiences and social expectations. After forty, the individual likely has the self confidence to live a life closer to personal self-knowledge.
In similar vein, we now mark the end of three thousand years of patriarchal authoritarian organizations. We are leaving a deterministic past, chosen for us by historical chance and entering a period of global choice about the environment, economic imbalances, governance, or stewardship. We are entering a global civilization that is a composite of universal human social structures untrammeled by the restrictions of national or societal pride.
The view of Americans as to what is `right' has been going through a particularly difficult period. They have been entranced by their past successes and belief in their own institutions. From 1945 to 1990 the United States believed itself the leader of modern civilization, and it has been unwilling to consider a lesser role. Global changes have now conspired to make the United States the victim, rather than the author, of events.
The increased growth of the underground economy in places like California and Italy is a direct reflection of this breakdown and the inability to respond to global change. These underground economies, variously estimated at between fifteen and thirty percent of the whole economy, are a statement of the disaffection of individuals with the chaos of the nation state. Individuals are seeking to create and control their own economy free of what they perceive to be government interference. There is a continual breaking away from authoritarian structures to more informal groupings.
A graphic example of this breakdown can be found in the writings of an economist and founder of the Institute of Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Hernando de Soto. His book, THE OTHER PATH: THE INFORMAL REVOLUTION is a scathing indictment of this gap between economic and political realities. The political structure of most Latin American nations is one that maintains the privileges and monopolies of an elite, and of the politicians who operate that structure. What de Soto points out is that the black market economy of Peru, operating outside the political structure, is enormously successful compared to the above ground economy. De Soto and his researchers tested the costs involved in setting up a business in the above ground economy and its likelihood of success, and the likelihood of success of a similar business in the black market economy. The result was overwhelmingly in favour of the black market economy business.

The restructuring of nations and cultures has been succinctly described by social anthropologist Leslie A. White in, THE CONCEPT OF CULTURAL SYSTEMS, A KEY TO UNDERSTANDING TRIBES AND NATIONS.
Cultural systems, like other kinds of material systems, exist in an environment; in actuality, no system exists in complete isolation. The interaction between a system and its environment affects the system in greater or lesser degree. The environment may hamper the functioning of a system; it may even destroy it. Or the environment may foster the functioning of the system. Or, finally, the environment may be neutral in its influence, tending neither to impede nor foster the system's proper functions....
Cultural systems act and react upon one another, band with band, tribe with tribe, nations with tribes, and nations with nations. This interaction affects the systems themselves and tends to form new kinds of systems, such as tribal confederacies, nations, coalitions of nations, and world organizations.2
The hippie era may well have been the watershed from the old authoritarian values to the new values of personal choice. Timothy Leary's aphorism of "turn on, tune in and drop out," signalled to an entire generation that the times (they) were a'changing. It was a turning to a new direction for humanity. It was, then, mostly a blind protest, summed up in the war cry of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. It was a tuning in or belonging to a life style that would eventually lead to a search for personal authenticity. It was a dropping out or leaving of authoritarian structures.

Culture clash
The global market has brought the West into a cultural clash with the East. The entire Western world, one-tenth of the world's population, is being penetrated by, and assimilating Eastern ideas. The East, with Japan in the lead, has shown that humans acting in consensus are the most powerful manufacturing `tool' in the world. Japan, through its Mitsuis, Hondas, and Sonys, has become the dominant power and driving force of world economic change.
It is a culture clash that is every bit as powerful as the introduction of metal and the collapse of the stone age culture. This time, it is not a `hard' substance, like iron, but a `soft' idea.
In the 1800's it was the West that forcefully penetrated the East. Now matters are being equalized. The importation of Eastern products and the acceptance of global products by consumers causes a culture clash. Consumerism is global, and with the purchase of global products comes the ideas of Japanese interdependence, consensus building, and others. The medium, the products, becomes the message.
Consumerism is an all embracing term, to be sure, but its root is that one sees the world as a consumer. There is a `consumption' of government services, a `consumption' of security from illness and death, a `consumption' of happiness and freedom, a `consumption' of knowledge, and even a `consumption' of a sense of self worth. Shopping has become society's principal cultural activity. It is a belief that most aspects of temporal life can be bought.

Christoper Lasch, in THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM, has described consumerism as the propaganda of commodities. He points out that advertising is used to promote a consumption lifestyle as an alternative to protest.
Is your life empty? Consumption promises to fill the aching void; hence the attempt to surround commodities with an aura of romance; with allusions to exotic places and vivid experiences; and with images of female breasts from which all blessings flow.3
The belief that all blessings flow from the ability to consume can best be described as an allegiance, a loyalty to a belief. It is not an ethic, a moral belief, but it is sufficiently pervasive to be the chief guiding light of individuals, nations, and global entities such as G.A.T.T.. It has become an economic imperative that drives individual decisions, national politics, and the global market.
There are of course individual exceptions, people who follow a purely religious path, and even nations, such as Iran, which are not primarily guided by the forces of consumerism.
Consumerism is a social, psychological, political, and economic force determining, in varying degree, the decisions of individuals and groups. Its intensity ranges from an expectation that `things' will be made available, to a consuming desire that demands that the `thing' must be acquired. Those who are driven by the fear that their survival is threatened tend to grasp for material assurance and that fear becomes the determining factor for all major decisions. At the other end of the spectrum there is a casual acceptance that `God will provide' or `the Universe will take care of me' and decisions are made on other grounds.

Globally, the vast majority of individuals demand a comfortable living. Mere survival, for benefit of a religion, or a political creed, or a nation, or a race, is no longer acceptable. Consumerism, despite its overtones of personal indulgence, is a clear indication that an equitable and comfortable standard of living is a global imperative.
The limits of consumerism
The expectation of reasonable comfort is firmly established in the world's thought wave. However, reasonable comforts include clean air, fresh water, and access to natural surroundings, thus setting inherent environmental limits.
There is also a psychological rejection. The desire for something unique and expensive which later becomes an item owned by many, swiftly blunts that desire. A certain level of material comfort or standard of living is expected but beyond that, the pursuit of material wealth for no reason other than acquisition, is hollow. Polls by Chicago's National Opinion Research Center show Americans are no more satisfied with their lot in 1991 than they were in 1957.
Psychological data from several nations gathered by World Watch shows that satisfaction is relative to one's neighbors, and not to a global standard. Even more striking is that the main determinants of happiness is not related to consumerism but to relationships in love, work, leisure, and friendship. For example, in the twenty years (1950-70) that the United States increased its standard of living by 60%, there was not an increase of 60% in feelings of happiness by the populace. This disillusionment with the comparative benefits of economic prosperity and continued growth causes grave doubts and a decline in economic efficiency. Everyone may be better off, but relative to their neighbors their position, and their feelings of prosperity and happiness, were unchanged.
Allegiance to consumerism succeeds in a public expectation of material comfort but fails as an ideology. Fails with the acceptance of environmental limits, fails as a substantial ideology, and fails when it is based on fear of losing material security.
Non-market values
A common saying in industrialized nations is, "I don't do it for the money alone", which is another way of saying that the cost of increased acquisition exceeds other, more personal, values.
This increased emphasis on non-market values is moving vast numbers of people to a larger concern for the quality of life. A 1985 West German poll revealed that 67% of Germans thought spiritual happiness was more important in their future life than economic affluence4. The Japanese were asked in 1984 whether material satisfaction or spiritual fulfillment was the most important: 81% chose spiritual fulfillment; 12% chose material satisfaction; and 7% had no answer5. A German poll in 1985 requesting Germans to state what they dreamed of in the future had figures of: 23% preferring good health; 18% travel; 15% advancement in their profession; 10% winning the lottery; 9% acquiring wealth; and 9% for a better home6. Increasingly, it is realized that it is the quality of life that matters, not the quantity of goods. It is an emphasis quite different from our recent past.
Material accumulation, as a survival mechanism, was used to create nationalistic societies. This was equally true of capitalistic or communistic societies. With the end of the Cold War capitalism emerged as the more successful system in the creation of material accumulation. The communist system might, theoretically, have been more successful for equitable distribution. The communist system was too early in time as concerns for equitable distribution occurs after the wave of material accumulation has peaked.
There is a gradual erosion of the belief in industrialised nations that more toys will make life more enjoyable. A new car or larger home no longer reflects in an increased status a person might have enjoyed fifty years ago. In the 1950’s to be a millionaire in North America was a dream shared by a few –in the beginning of the new millenium a million dollars is commonplace and would represent a reasonable home. Status in the beginning of the new millenium goes to those who live in Mexico part of the year, or run a small winery, or are engaged in a creative endeavour.

Marginal economic efficiencies
Another limiting factor of continued growth is the number of industries reaching marginal economic efficiency. A prime example is the airline industry where faster and faster aircraft was the goal until they reached the sonic barrier. The Concorde takes two hours flying time from London to New York as opposed to the five hours by subsonic aircraft. The Concord was phased out in 2005 and it is unlikely that more supersonic commercial aircraft will be built. The preference now is fuel economy and the type of aircraft, its seating capacity and the services provided has stabilised.
The automobile industry faces a similar trend. Major economic efficiencies are a thing of the past. Higher speed or greater comfort is a marginal pleasure. Motorists now seek greater fuel efficiency and major technological breakthroughs such as the automatic transmission are unlikely to occur.
Fred Hirsch in the Social Limits to Growth has suggested there is a plateau to economic growth brought about by the rising social costs of urbanisation, pollution and ecological challenges. The suggestion of a plateau in consumption is not misplaced. The suggestion would be that individually we are no better off socially than we were a hundred years ago and our enjoyment of life is unchanged. We now have the ability to look back at movies, documentaries, or news events of fifty years past and realise that the people of that age had different concerns and challenges but their humanity is essentially unchanged.
The belief that material progress actually benefits the happiness of the majority has been further undermined by ecological disasters. The Brundtland Report to the U.N. clearly indicates ecological limits to growth. T. Goldsmith in The Great U Turn, describes the process as the de-industrialisation of society. Allen Gregg and Michael Posner in The Big Picture, have described it as an environmental consciousness where a so-called improvement in the quality of life at the expense of the quantity of things is accepted.
That a reasonable standard of living must be achieved permeates all cultures. Responsible consumerism, constrained by environmental considerations and limited by the enjoyment of non-market values – you don’t have to have two cars – is possible and desired. Mindless consumerism must diminish. With six billion people on the planet and the number increasing a re-adjustment in the standard of living is inevitable. There has been an estimate that one billion can afford the lifestyle of the industrialised nations. Globalisation spreads industrial production world wide and the numbers enjoying a similar standard of living will soon overtake that one billion figure. A global standard of living that harmonises societal desires and the natural environment appears inevitable.

1. A conversation with Michael Meade. Reported in the Common Ground Magazine, Winter issue #29, ‘89/90.
2. Pp. 16-7, The Concept of Cultural Systems. A key to understanding tribes and nations. Leslie A. White. Columbia University Press.
3. The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Leach, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. N.Y. P. 72.
4. 1985-6 International Public Opinion, Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, Westport, Conn. 06881.
5. World Opinion, S.R.C.I., Inc., P.O. Box 25, Williamstown Mass. 01267.
6. 1985-6 Index to International Public Opinion, Greenwood Press, 88 Post Road West, Westport, Conn. 06881.