Dave Gardner is a gutsy guy. Gardner, who is 56, a former corporate filmmaker, set his career aside a few years ago to run for office in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO, and make a documentary film called Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth that puts forth an unpopular idea–that economic growth is bad for the environment and bad for human happiness.
“I want to make it OK for people to be against growth,” Dave says, when asked why he ran for office and made the movie.
Dave and I fundamentally disagree. I think economic growth is vital, not just to lift billions of people out of poverty–global per capita income is currently about $10,700, if Wikipedia is to be believed–but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.
Nevertheless, I would urge you to see Dave’s film (screenings are listed here, or you can buy the DVD) both because he raises a number of important questions and and because, to his credit, has managed to capture on film some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the topic of growth–Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor and author of the controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, sociologist Juliet Schor, whose books include The Overworked American, the heretical economist Herman Daly, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and the charismatic political economist and author Raj Patel.
Here are some of the arguments in Dave’s film that I find persuasive:
Cities and states shouldn’t compete against one another to lure businesses. Dave got involved with the growth issue because his hometown, Colorado Springs, was growing fast. Like many cities and states, Colorado Springs offered tax and other incentives to keep its best-known employer–the U.S. Olympic Committee-in the city. The package of incentives was worth $53 million, Dave says, and it’s an expenditure of public money that”is completely unproductive from a national or global standpoint.”
Consumption is a big environmental problem–and it doesn’t make us happy. True enough, yet there’s very little conversation about this in the environmental movement. In the film, Dave says:
We’ve become like rats running in a cage. For too many it’s drudgery, but we are driven by the quest for the good life. What’s worse, most of us never get to the cheese. We’ve all become slaves to a system we created.
Overconsumption, however we choose to define it, is making the planet unhealthier. I have a bumper sticker in my office with a slogan from a small NGO called the Center for the New American Dream: “More fun, less stuff.”
Population is a major environmental issue. This may seem obvious, but it’s not a topic that the big environmental groups (Sierra Club, NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, etc.) talk about much. “It has so much baggage attached to it,” Dave says. OK, but isn’t it likely that a world with 8 billion people will be healthier and more prosperous than one with 9 billion people? Making birth control universally available might be a more cost-effective way of dealing with the climate crisis than subsidizing solar panels or wind turbines.
Here are arguments in the film that lead Dave and I to part ways.
We’re running out of resources. As Matt Ridley notes in The Rational Optimist, we’ve run out of some resources–whale oil, Lebanon cedars and guano, all of which were thought to be “renewable.” But we haven’t run out of oil, coal, gas, copper, uranium, etc. For better or worse, there are not fixed amounts of these resources; their availability depends on the price people are willing to pay, and the technology available to harvest them. As Ridley writes:
We now know, as we did not in the 1960s, that more than six bullion people can live upon the planet in improving health, food security and life expectancy, and that this is compatible with cleaner air, increasing forest cover and some booming populations of elephants. The resources and technologies of 1960 could not have support six billion — but the technologies changed and so the resources change.
Paul Ehrlich lost a famous bet with the economist Julian Simon (who’s dissed in this movie) about whether the prices of five metals chosen by Ehrlich would rise or fall during the 1980s. Naturally, Ehrlich said the prices would rise; in fact, they dropped.
Economic growth is unsustainable. Uh, no–business as usual is unsustainable but the film does not take into account the ability of people to innovate. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, but it’s safe to say that 2111 will be less like 2011 than 2011 is like 1911 — before highways, radio, TV, the Internet, mobile phones, air travel, nuclear power, etc. If the costs of raw materials rise, it’s not a great leap to envision a world where everything is powered with renewable energy and everything we no longer need is made into something else.
Finally, and perhaps most important, there’s a group of 1 or 2 billion people who don’t get much attention in the film–the world’s very poor. I also wonder how many of the 14 million unemployed Americans believe economic growth is a problem. I asked Dave about this and, to his credit, he said the answer is redistribution.
“We, in the rich nations, overdid it,” he told me. “We have got to really contract our economies out of fairness to allow those other economies to have their fair shake.”
But it’s unlikely that Americans will ever b persuaded to make sacrifices so that people in China and India can live better. Better to find ways to prudently expand the pie than to fight over who gets which piece. Put bluntly, economic growth isn’t the problem. It’s the solution.