Growthism

overstuffed_sally I have just finished teaching a course to my peers at the Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement. My teaching brackets two widely separated age groups: my 70-80 year-old peers at HILR and the 25-year olds that typify my students at the Marlboro MBA program I often mention. The HILR course, Berry Picking, covered the writing of Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry with a few extras tossed in. I also finished a class at Marlboro covering much of the same kind of writing.

The Marlboro class centered on the spiritual ground for sustainability; the HILR was more contained, focusing on our (the US) relationship to the land. There is, not surprisingly, much convergence and parallelism between these two. Age did not make much difference. The responses to my questions and the discussion were much the same for both groups. My peers were able to recall more opportunities for appreciation simply out of our longer time on Earth. The student responses made me realize that, in not quite two generations, much has changed in our culture. Most of us could remember times spent much closer to the nature of Aldo Leopold, while the students have lived with more distance between them and that “natural” world. I use quotes because it is very difficult to define nature. All this is preface to the subject I want to discuss.

The last reading at HILR was an essay, “With New Eyes: Seeing the Environment as a Spiritual Issue,” by Paul Brockelman, taken from a collection of essays titled The Greening of Faith, edited by Brockelman and two others. It is an excellent selection of essays, all looking at environment and its predicament through a spiritual lens. His essay, like many in the collection, reminded the reader of the role of religious faith to “provide an overarching interpretive understanding of life as a meaningful whole, including our own role and destiny within it.” This is just one of many images of something whole of which we humans are just a part, but interconnected to everything there. Another essay by a native American spoke of the web of life as a metaphor for that whole. Having established the critical importance of understanding our place within and as a part of the whole, many mourned the loss of that sense in our modern, consumerist political economy, and explained its departure to the reductionist frame of modern thinking.

A key example is in the separation of ecology and economy, both having the same root, oikos, meaning house. Ecology means the study of that house, the whole Earth system that is our ultimate dwelling place, and smaller patches of it. Economy adds a suffix meaning the management of . . . It is easy to guess which is the more important today. Attention to ecology inside and outside of our academies is minuscule compared to economy. That is just the opposite of what it needs to be. Wendell Berry writes of Two Economies: The Great Economy and the little economy. The first is, in my reading, a metaphor for the ecology of the Earth--a description of all the processes of life that are always in motion. The other, the little or industrial economy, is a bit of a pejorative reference to the economy as economists describe the interactions of everything that can be monetized. The failure of the latter to recognize its place inside and tightly connected to the former is to some degree a result of the reductionist way we go about revealing how the world works and of the consequent dividing up the knowledge-creating universe into separate and distinct disciplines.

The failure to put things in the right order has, arguably, been the primary proximate cause of environmental unsustainability. I say only proximate because there are even deeper roots of the problems. Among these roots is the rise of ideologies--broad sets of beliefs about the world. Modern ideologies reflect the deeper worldview of reductionism and hone in one a part of the whole, inevitably causing unintended consequences arising from the omission of a part of the world system that has been either overlooked, ignored, or wished away. The failure to understand the Great Economy has led to a reliance on growth that cannot be sustained. This notion has become so engrained in conventional economics that it has attained, as Brockelman and others in the volume I referred to write, the ideological status of growthism. I hadn't thought about growth as an ideology before in this sense, but of course that is exactly what it has become in every industrial and industrializing economy.

Brockelman continues to explain why a discussion of growthism should appear in a set of essays, entitled, The Greening of Faith. He writes,

If, as Paul Tillich used to insist, religion means simply a group’s “ultimate concern,” then growthism would seem to be our religion and the gross national product our god. But all of that exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into nature [The Great Economy, my addition]. . . At any rate, it is this materialist vision of prosperity, progress, and the good life that seems so rampant in our culture and so destructive to the environment. It is surely unworthy of free men and women. But that religiously oriented and practicing free men and women have shown little interest in questioning such a collapsed spiritual point of view from the perspective of their faith traditions—at least until recently—seems absolutely astounding!

I find it astounding that Brockelman, now Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus, should find it so. These days, hedonic messages straight from the pulpit extol the virtues of wealth and spending it lavishly signal a deep incursion of growthism into the theology of those places of worship. Until the Great Economy replaces its much diminished version out of which growthism comes, I fear there will be no concerted effort to find ways to live within our only true means.

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