The issues re: hyper-growth and over-development

Leftists will tend to say: What’s problematic is capitalism’s impetus re: the “grow or die” dynamic that each private enterprise faces in the market. So: It’s capitalism that produces hyper-growth (and: an anarchic, socially and ecologically irresponsible kind of growth).

There is considerable perceptiveness in this viewpoint; and yet … I think the problem goes deeper.

I think there’s a psychological dimension. It seems that more, bigger, farther, faster gives people (in general, not just capitalists) a sense of power, control, and security.

* * * *

Consider something of minor importance but indicative: It was gratifying and pleasurable when reasonably-priced cameras became available to the masses circa 1950 … enabling valued or interesting photographic memories to be collected. Pictures of Grandma! To buy and then have processed a roll of film was not terribly expensive, but neither was it cheap, nor was it facile. You had to be careful of the handling of the roll after removal from the camera, you had to take it to a photo processing outlet, you had to wait a week or two for development and printing; and then pay a not-trivial amount to get your sleeve of a dozen finished photos.

By 1960 most families had an album or two of special-to-keep pictures, which might have numbered in the hundreds.

We’re now overwhelmed with pictures. Technology has “advanced” in such a way as to enable us to capture, store, circulate thousands of pictures a year. From the standpoint of what we can consume, can really appreciate, can actually keep track of … a veritably infinite number of pictures.

This is not a function of capitalism. It’s a function of something else, something psychological. When technology enables surfeit, we tend to strive … toward surfeit.

* * * *

For tribal peoples population growth was a vital issue. Avoiding it was critical for maintaining balance with available resources. It nonetheless happened to some extent as humans overcame predation constraints. Early on, a population over-growth problem could be resolved through tribal hiving, i.e., some members of the tribe could leave and establish themselves elsewhere, often within a virgin territory.

So the overall aboriginal human community did tend to expand, both in numbers and geographically, but that process occurred very gradually, over hundreds of thousands of years. For most tribal groups in most places at most times population control was a priority; and population numbers were essentially stable. Overall, a sensibility of limits and balances was intuitive and endemic … and communitarian. The value system of the community influenced and encouraged (even: enforced) it.

Minimal population growth was a characteristic of the original, sane lifeways. That was lost with the radical transformation to the New Ways. Sensibility re: limits and balances waned with the increasing predominance of mass society, states, and empires, with their valuation of expansionism, developmentalism, and wealth accumulation. Local community life withered. Communitarian norms, mores, covenants, and strictures were lost.

The facility of industrialism accelerated the problematic trajectories that had developed over millennia. “More, bigger, farther, faster” became the cultural touchstone. The resultant condition of hypertrophy in all aspects of life has now become ecologically unsustainable (as well as sociologically insane, as Erich Fromm asserted).

* * * *

A goal of eco-socialism should be to attempt to restore the sensibility re: limits and balances … while appreciating the challenge of doing so within the context of modern mass society. In order to transition from the latter toward a renewed communitarianism, socialism must embrace degrowth. “From Red to Green” involves a much different mindset from what Marx termed the “unfettering of the productive powers of industrialism” (i.e., more growth and development, but for the benefit of all). Rather: rein in industrial over-development in order to decrease the human ecological footprint. With gradualism, incrementalism, and sensitivity: downscale, decentralize, and democratize; devolve power to communities and bioregional polities. Foster lifeways characterized by technological simplification, re-stabilization, re-localization, and renewal of the human relationship to the land and to nature.

Of course we can’t and won’t want to “go back.” What we can do is appreciate what aboriginal societies were doing right and what we have been doing wrong.

Consider the indigenous of the Americas. They started to arrive here about forty thousand years ago. Not every tribe, individually, lived well within ecological limits, but their lifeways, generally were sustainable. They could not have flourished if their lives were all so “nasty, brutish, and short” — if they suffered from a sense of continual scarcity and misery — as Hobbes conjectured. There is every evidence, rather, that they lived satisfactorily, with adequate resources, appropriate technology, extensive cultural enrichment; and likely could have continued to do so into the indefinite future. Having ways of dealing with the challenges of being human, they treaded lightly, avoided hyper-growth, and disdained Power run amok.

David Watson writes: “When the Lakota medicine man Black Elk said ‘we should be as water, which is lower than all things yet stronger than the rocks,’ he wasn’t counseling servility. He was telling us something valuable about strength — not as force, but as endurance — about radiating power rather than possessing or controlling it; about listening to nature instead of fantasizing about mastering it; all evocative of the kind of character change that will be necessary to sustain us.”


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Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).