Take a college course in starting your own business and you will likely find the instructor emphasizing “growing your business”, without ever mentioning why that would be necessary or desirable. It is an unquestioned given that making your business larger will be the determining factor defining your success. Employing other people for your business makes you a “job creator”, though you could be someone who seeks to exploit the labor of others in order to boost yourself higher on the economic pyramid. It’s possible to be an ethical job creator, but unfortunately too many business owners lose sight of that in the daily struggle to grow their business and be seen as successful.
The economist Kate Raworth talks about growth in this animated short for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). She doesn’t use the term “cancer”, but the effects of out of control economic growth brings the term to mind.
The economic model that said the world’s resources were boundless was always a fantasy, but people were able to ignore that for many centuries while the population stayed well within the earth’s capacity to sustain it. Now we are pushing against those limits, yet the business owners at the top continue to insist there are no limits, because it suits their self-interest. In the natural world, populations of animals and insects boom and bust depending on the capacity of their habitat, which is in all cases more narrowly defined than it is for humans. Because humans have adapted to the widest array of habitats on the planet, it does not follow that our expansion can be limitless. The physical problem is population growth pushing earth’s resources to the breaking point, but there is also a mindset problem caused by those at the top of the economic pyramid pushing the snake oil of limitless growth.
Native Americans have called this spirit of cannibalistic greed and lust for dominion wetiko, or wendigo. Their culture recognized it, but was not consumed by it, at least not from within. They recognized it in its most rapacious form in many of the white Europeans who started pushing into North America five centuries ago. The white Europeans came from a culture where being fruitful and multiplying was the means to have dominion over the earth and all creation, goals which they saw as not only morally sound, but their religious right and duty. When there were only tens of millions of humans spread out across the entire continent of North America, those beliefs were more defensible than now.
Dole corporate person parody in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2011, marking the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court Citizens United decision; photo by Flickr user palnatoke.
In the eighteenth century, a white settler family huddled in their isolated cabin in the vast woodlands covering what would eventually become the eastern United States could hardly be blamed for feeling that nature was hostile, red in tooth and claw, and that a competitive, fighting spirit was the way to eat and not be eaten. Now there are hundreds of millions of us in North America, and billions across the earth, and the technological powers available to us for taking advantage of nature’s resources are well beyond even the imaginings of those early inhabitants. Yet many people cling to the old beliefs, ignoring how destructive they have become, and always were. Some people cling out of ignorance, and there is hope that their minds can be changed; but there are others, often wearing suits and making greedy, amoral decisions in corporate boardrooms, who are possessed by the spirit of wetiko and whose minds either cannot or will not be changed. The rest of us can recognize that on a finite Earth growth has limits, and work to lessen our impact before the Earth takes care of that for us.