Growth Will Kill Us If We Don’t Grow Up

A year ending in two or three zeros is the occasion for drinking extra champagne. Hence we made this last New Year’s a big deal, although not an especially joyful one. Prosperity has made us anything but lighthearted. The vogue word for the decade just past is “edgy,” which is close to nervous, tense and anxious. Nonetheless, as all the magazine covers exemplify, we see 2000 as a line of demarcation into the land of the future, a door to be walked through, a portal to a new place or so we’d like to imagine because, with all the novelties around us, we still are starved for new things. In fact, there are very few sharp, 90-degree turns in human history and Jan. 1, 2000, wasn’t one of them. We are going the same way at the same speed as we were back in the 20th century. What way that may be is easily enough shown if we use a hundred years ago as the line for our observations.

On June 1, 1900, the resident population of the United States was 75,994,575. The Census Bureau estimates that the resident population of the United States on April 1 of this year will be about 275,000,000, an increase of more than 300 percent. The Bureau projects that 50 years from now the population will have grown to about 400 million. Thus, trends holding to what they have been, we can anticipate that the children of today’s younger children will be living in a United States with a population moving up toward the vicinity of a billion people.

If America grows as did during the last 100 years, it will not be a pleasant place 50 years from now. Ignoring the unintended, unforeseen and unwelcome climatic changes brought on by human activity and their effects on daily life, earth, air and water will be almost as stressed out as the people gasping and gulping and competing for same. A Malthusian nightmare is out there waiting at some point on the population graph.

Not a few people believe that the great Technology god will save us from being buried alive in the various forms of filth with which we poison nature. They point to accomplishments like the electronic controls that are now standard in our cars and that have diminished the volume of air pollutants expelled through the exhaust pipes or the improvement in the quality of water in some of our rivers, lakes and estuaries. This is heartening, if still far from adequate, but technology can’t save us if the problems are made larger by the hour. The new equipment on automobiles reduces air pollution, it doesn’t eliminate it, and, as we continue to put more cars, more lawn mowers and other poison spewing vehicles into service, the improvements made by technology are canceled out. We are acting as though we can be as inconsiderately heedless, as mindlessly gluttonous as our appetites demand, and some technological deus ex machina will whir down from above to protect us from the damage we have caused.

That is a risky bet. The men and women in the laboratories aren’t predicting that they can invent something that will save us from mass piggeries. Scale alone will destroy everything, and science can’t stop it. The 75 million people of 1900 could befoul the land without being punished; we, with a quarter of a billion in population, can’t.

Scale makes all the difference in the world. A small population can spread itself out as it pleases through suburb and exurb, but a large population that does so threatens the food supply by taking the best agricultural land out of production. Pouring some cement for roads and parking lots causes minor damage to plants, animals and landscape; pouring cement over hundreds of square miles destroys water tables, causes droughts and floods and mudslide and fires, not to mention destroying entire phyla of animal and plant life. Scale is crucial.

Such thoughts are offensive to the American soul. Since the first settlements by Europeans 400 years ago, it has been taken for granted that North Americans will never run out of space, out of game, out of fish, iron ore, crude oil or anything else. That we have begun to run out of all sorts of things, by exhausting the known deposits and by ruining the sources of their renewal, is a statement of fact that millions of Americans will not accept. Those who do often refuse to see the inevitable consequences.

For centuries, we have been using and abandoning, moving on, using and abandoning and moving on, as our played-out farmland, our deserted central cities and our derelict suburban commercial strips stand as evidence. Leave it and let somebody else worry about it-that has been and is the American approach.

Our willful blindness at the destruction we wreak on our own country is but one obstacle in meeting the realities of our new century. A second, equally large one, is our unshakable conviction that growth solves all difficulties. It is culturally, socially and economically impossible for us to entertain the thought that growth may be the death of us all. Not only is that accursed American Dream to be obtained by growth, but every definable social problem and individual ambition will be resolved through growth. Growth is our God, growth is our touchstone, our religion, our national superstition, our happy bugbear, our salvation, growth is the ever-receding light toward which the nation always steers. It is unthinkable that growth could be the instrument of our destruction. Unless it’s cancer, everything on earth that gets better does so because it gets bigger. Bigger is better and biggest is best. That self-evident truth comes before the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Bible. It’s the founding verity. As politicians, ministers, journalists and professors tell us, and then tell us again, a rising tide lifts all boats. That’s not all it does. If it rises high enough it causes floods and massive destruction, but our ears are not attuned to hearing messages on that frequency. So the first question for the new century is: Do we continue in the old way? Do we stick with growth, gambling that “science” and “technology” will cover us? That the people in the white smocks will find a way to grow food when we’ve run out of land, a way to make potable water after we’ve fouled every lake and water table, a way to filter the air and stave off the melting of the polar caps after we’ve made sure that every citizen, regardless of sexual preference or elemental intelligence, has been equipped with a gigantic sport utility vehicle?

The Census Bureau’s medium estimate of population is, as said above, about 400 million by 2050; its high estimate is 500 million. Some number like these will, if we keep going as we are, be attained within the lifetime of people now in high school or college. This is not a far-off future that we, the living, will not see. This is a subject that must be addressed now. We’ve not thought about throwing the big switch and limiting growth. We’ve not discussed what is enough for the nation to live on comfortably, happily, in health, tranquility and wisdom. As of now, no science exists that can redeem the earth from the depredations of limitless growth, but as of now, even if we agreed to limit growth to what the land and the water and air can tolerate, we don’t know how to do it. Our leading people want to slow growth, not for ecological but economical reasons, for fear of inflation, but we don’t even know how to do that. So the 21st century is off and running, and so are we.