Growth!

Growth!

Did you ever wonder why property values always (2008 aside) go up?

It just feels like one of those economic truths we imbibe at a young age, probably before we even take an Economics class, for those of us who are fortunate enough to grow up with educational opportunities. Cars will depreciate 50% when you drive them off the lot. You should save some of your money. The stock market’s long term trends are up (gulp). And housing and other land values will always rise over time.

In a world where the entire planet has been mapped and we haven’t started earnestly shipping people to Mars or Titan or Space Station XLVI, there’s really one fundamental reason for the value of property increasing. Overpopulation.

I guess one could say that it’s judgmental to call increases in population “overpopulation”. This is a touchy issue for a lot of people, not least of which are those who believe we are mandated to “be fruitful and multiply”. When I was younger, I was pretty convinced that overpopulation was the #2 moral issue in the world, behind violence, and I’d still probably put it in my top five. Most all of the direct causes of violence and injustice in our world derive from scarcity, and scarcity is directly related to overpopulation. No matter how equally we distributed resources and pooled efforts, we could not, tomorrow, support a planet of 100 billion people. And while that number seems utterly crazy, our current 7 billion would have seemed equally crazy to people a century ago.

I’m sure you’re all at least a little familiar with this chart:

World population, 0-2015

World population, 0-2015

That’s a terrifying growth rate. The acceleration of the human population on the world is pretty directly correlated to the overall negative impact our footprint is having on the planet. The first grips of the Industrial Revolution were dirty and destroyed certain regions (black moths, anyone?), but the full-scale acceleration of the size of the species has really started the wheels turning on some major devastation. I’m known among my peers for being a bit of a climate change skeptic (I just don’t believe we could possibly have enough data to be sure of the long-term trends), but I believe firmly that it’s good that people believe in climate change because it’s the first thing that’s been able to convince pretty much anyone to reconsider our obsession with growth and conquering nature. Somehow generating mass extinctions, dropping a miles-wide trash gyre into the Pacific, and slaughtering a healthy portion of the flora and fauna on the globe haven’t made anyone blink. I guess because the impact on us is less obvious. We have to believe that we will be uncomfortably hot or wet to start caring.

While I often go around lambasting human myopia, the swift upward trajectory of that chart at least explains our myopia a little bit. This sea change in growth and expansion of our planetary presence hit pretty recently and we weren’t prepared to think about it from a philosophical perspective. I’m being a bit charitable, of course, because the prevailing belief is that there are no philosophical perspectives to be had, full stop. Philosophy is a waste of time, they say, but science will cure all ills and answer all questions. This makes the desperation many scientists are expressing over climate change poignant almost to the point of humor – they keep banging the scientific drum, but a philosophical solution is their only hope. After all, science spends the rest of its time openly mocking and eschewing moral judgments or even ought statements whatsoever. Suddenly the scientific community is upset that no one is motivated by a moral judgment when they keep flinging sheets of data at people. It’s almost like we have to have a set of beliefs and principles and those will dictate our actions far better than any scientific “fact”.

I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all this destruction has ramped up while we’ve been openly wrecking our institutions of philosophy and morality. Sure, most organized religions are riddled with some level of hypocrisy and corruption at the top, which is why I shy away from them. But it’s insane to conclude that because some human efforts to interpret God and morality on the planet have gone sour that the whole enterprise is bogus. This is exactly like finding out that James Frey made up parts of A Million Little Pieces and swearing off reading or learning about the scientist who manipulated the vaccine/autism study and saying that all science is fabricated. And yet, aided by the pre-eminent belief structures of our day (science and capitalism), that’s exactly what most people have done with not only religion, but also philosophy and morality of any kind. And we’re surprised by the greed, selfishness, and devastation our species is unleashing? You first have to believe that something can be wrong to even be capable of engaging the question of whether your own actions are wrong and then get to the heavy business of self-improvement.

So what assumptions and implicit moral judgments are ordering our daily life if we’ve handed the reigns to science and, far more influentially, capitalism? Well, the main one is growth.

I’ve talked a bit before on this blog about our cancerous obsession with growth on this planet and its ill effects. But I’ve usually discussed it in terms of how illogical it is to believe in eternal growth, like some sort of perpetual motion machine, just spinning up and up and up forever. Only recently did I realize that the engine of that growth – and the thing that seems to mask its illogic – is overpopulation. And property is the easiest place to see this. If we have a fixed amount of land in our world (face it, no one’s moving to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), then it will only gain in real value if the population increases. If the population is stable, land values will be stable. And if the population decreases, land values will decrease.

No wonder it’s conventional wisdom of the capitalistic era to invest in land for a sure return! Just look at that spike in population, putting pressure on those land values. And sure, there’s a desirability cut to add in here, especially if we’re considering buildings on that land. People would rather live in New York City than rural Syria right now. People would rather live somewhere newly renovated than a jungled-over home in the Lower Ninth Ward. But those are only influences on the overall trend. Greater population, greater value.

And to an extent, this principle is what influences and generates a belief in all of capitalism. Every company must not only profit each year, but increase profits. But as long as more people are being born than are dying, there are new target markets to be acquired and it’s feasible to sell more every single year. The total insanity of this obsession with endless growth, rather than maintenance, is completely hidden by the skyrocketing overpopulation that makes it seem contextually sane.

And I guess it would be sane, to an extent, if our planet were not shuddering under the weight of the impact of our growth. If we could guarantee infinite resources and the ecosystems of the world weren’t folding up shop and disappearing, then it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe this model even made sense when the planet’s population was 500 million people and had room for some more. But with the amount of understanding we’ve accumulated now, not to mention global connectedness, continuing on in this manner is criminal.

Obviously the solution to overpopulation is not some giant die-off. I do not wish to see a war or a plague or some kind of draconian set of death panels unleashed on the species. And, incidentally, I think this reality is an interesting refutation to that particular branch of conspiracy theories that hypothesizes that people will be slaughtered en masse after some kind of major round-up as the end-game of capitalism. To the extent that there might be a unified capitalist effort, it wants the opposite result. It needs a population of 10 billion, 20 billion to generate enough people in the lower class to keep the hierarchical structures intact. Slaughtering all those at the bottom would make the wheels fall off of capitalism because it would eliminate the scarcity that keeps people at the bottom hungry, afraid, and willing to work endlessly for virtually no remuneration.

But there must be a solution to overpopulation. Because we simply can’t go on like this. If anyone really examines and considers the implications of that chart sincerely, I think they’ll agree. Most people’s only alternative to limiting our growth trajectory is just hoping blindly that science figures out ways to solve problems faster than we generate them. That science will declare that food can be generated from air alone, or that we’re ready to terraform and colonize Mars tomorrow, opening up a whole new world to pillage and ruin, or that we have a fleet of space stations that can happily hold the extra 10 billion. This is what you get when you invest everything in science and ridicule philosophy – no one is really thinking about the long-term plan and everyone just hopes science invents some new piece of magic that makes the solution seem obvious and justifies not thinking about it creatively.

After all, what science rejects most heartily is the question why. Well, second most heartily, behind the question should. Science believes these inquiries are incoherent, replacing them wholly with what and how. But why is the question we need to be asking about infinite growth of the species. Do we really need to put 20 billion folks on this Earth? And won’t the scarcity that ensues be so devastating that we’ll have found a very ugly and deadly solution to the overpopulation problem by default?

I try to do a lot of thinking about what would steer the planetary course from a growth-oriented belief structure and system to a maintenance-oriented structure. The only people who have ever thought seriously about this and happened to have significant leadership positions are the Chinese government in the second half of the 20th century. Now I’m not here to defend all of their beliefs and decisions, but the one-child policy was a serious effort to curtail the wild endless growth of the population without resorting to a more dangerous solution to curb population growth. China, for the first time in human history, was willing to question the assumed absolute right to procreate as much as possible, and the results were quite positive for their society. And I think such a belief structure and willingness could only come from a society that favored communism to capitalism, because it stemmed from favoring equality and maintenance over inequality and growth.

Of course, all of that has now been lost and discarded. China has gotten in the growth game and is doing it better and faster than anyone, embracing capitalism and easing the one-child policy and its egalitarian roots. So it goes. But it does at least leave us with one piece of the blueprint for how to, eventually, build the maintenance-society.

But even if the planet weren’t about to start coughing and spluttering under the weight of all this human growth, I think shifting to a maintenance-society would still be a moral issue we must embrace. The byproduct of the growth-obsessed society is the accumulation of wealth at the top and poverty in the long, long tail of the plurality of society at the bottom. You want to know why the middle-class rhetoric of the last sixty years in America is so appealing? Because it’s where most people want to be. Even though we are taught to dream of riches and wealth and being able to figuratively or literally own our fellow person, the intuitive home for most folks is to be in the middle of the pack. The problem is that capitalism is constantly threshing most people in the middle of the pack downward and anointing a few people up to the top, constantly striving to stratify harder and harder as pressure is applied on everyone to work harder, faster, longer for less pay.

This is not some anomaly of the last few years in a down economy. It is happening everywhere and for good reason. It is the natural design of capitalism. It solves itself as a wealth accumulation and stratification system.

And even if we can hack back the worst effects of that to constantly alter it at the margins, why do we embrace such a system in the first place? The justification given is always growth. Look at how much we’ve grown under capitalism! Look at all the shiny new buildings! Look at all the people laboring harder than ever! Look at our stock portfolios! This engine is just going going going going going forever! Hooray!

But it’s pretty empty, especially when real quality of life is diminishing for most everyone. And the breakthroughs in technology and replacement of work are making people more desperate to work for less, rather than improving leisure and relaxation. We are reaching a horizon where, despite our perilously swift growth rate in population, if work and effort were equally distributed, most people would not have to work all that hard. The payment? We’d have to accept maintenance instead of growth. We’d have to have fewer children and accept that they will have lives that are more or less like our own, maybe slightly better or slightly worse. We’d have to get comfortable with a world where that goes on forever.

The problem is that we’ve conflated economic growth with all other kinds of progress. Making this declaration does not mean we’d stop researching science or inventing technology or curing diseases, let alone creating art or entertainment or social advancement. It means, in fact, that the focus would be on those endeavors for their own sake rather than as a means of economic advancement. Which mostly just means we’d lose the worst renditions of all those efforts. Gone would be the lousy mass-market paperback, the blockbuster action movie, Viagra for dogs, and anything else that exists merely because an army of marketing geniuses can convince you to buy it when it serves no purpose. Instead, we’d only have room and time for the truly inspired art, the worthwhile science, because these efforts would be made for communal benefit and their own inspiration instead of a cutthroat game of accumulation and self-advancement.

It may sound dreamily utopian, but it’s really the immediate natural consequence of a philosophical shift from growth to maintenance. The profit motive has happened to inspire some incredible things, it’s true. But those things did not require the profit motive to motivate them. People still want to make art and cure diseases even if no one is going to pay them for it. But the worst science and creativity we’ve seen is entirely motivated by making quick cash. And that’s what we need to eliminate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the bloated legal and financial architectures that are, to date, swallowing most of the best young minds I know. There is nothing gained from a society that invests most of its energies and prestige into these institutions. Law should be a technical thing that guides behavior quietly in the background, not that generates an entire industry that is constantly growing and consuming swaths of the society, putting more people in prison than in any other realm and making everyone fear for their endeavors and hire their own team of lawyers to read the fine print. Financial instruments, if we are to have them at all, should gently enable people to maintain their holdings so they can subsist at a reasonable quality of life, not gamble to be able to bow out of life artificially early or take advantage of others in society and leave them destitute. These things are crazy. No one would design a society willfully, philosophically, from the ground up, and include American legal and financial systems.

And yet the high remuneration and the twin pressures of a student debt machine and a terrible economy are funneling the best and brightest into these worlds, ensuring they do very little good for the world. The best among them promise that they will donate their riches someday to efforts that are actually producing something good for the world (or more often just trying to bail water from the negative byproducts), but this is much like nobly promising to repair a house after spending a life ransacking it. Isn’t it just better to do upkeep on what is, frankly, a pretty decent house in the first place?

All any of this takes to change is changing how we think about the world, our values, and what is good. Capitalism has taken an infectious and dangerous hold on our world outlook and it’s about to bring us all to the brink of ruin. Maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in yours, but if we don’t start thinking about the 2150 world now, we’re being grossly irresponsible. It’s no coincidence that janitors and maintenance folks are the people we revere the least in our society. We have to flip our values, and fast, if we’re going to avoid the doomsday scenarios of slaughter, plague, or just barrenness on this planet.

They made a movie about a lot of this stuff last year, a movie that critics loved and no one wanted to see. It was really unnecessarily violent and brought me to the edge of walking out on those grounds alone, but the point it was making was excellent. It was called Snowpiercer and it modeled our planet as a perpetual-motion train, tiered by rigidly-enforced classes, and running literally on the sweat and toil of the torture of the children of the underclass. Periodically, a certain portion of the underclass would be slaughtered to maintain a safe number of people living on the train so that the little world did not grow beyond its means.

This movie got almost everything right with a grand metaphor about human structures. Where it failed, though, was limiting the size of the train. We don’t have some maniacal person at the top orchestrating the slaughter of the lower classes. We just add more and more people at every level and institute systems that wherever most of them are born, they will eventually die at the back of the train. And we hold up the few people who jump cars as models for everyone to show how fair and great this class struggle is.

The problem is that we have the resources to put everyone on the train in the middle of the pack. They’d just have to be okay with the train stopping. With us appreciating exactly what we have, exactly what we’ve been given. With striving and struggling to create new ideas and inventions for their own sake rather than to be better than our neighbor. With choosing to be a basketball player or a musician or a president because those are our true calling, not because they come with extra pay. With choosing to be a janitor, maybe, because maintenance is noble and true and what we should actually aspire to.

You may call me a dreamer. But there are alternatives to the nightmare train we’re on. And we can either choose to get off or watch the train, eventually, go over the side of a cliff. Sometimes it takes radical change that’s voluntary to avoid much more devastating, involuntary radical change.