Is ‘growth’ a positive force? Part One

Over the next few articles I post, I am going to put forward some ideas about several of the predicaments the human species may be facing in the not-too-distant future (Note that I may veer from this somewhat circumscribed topic as I consider and respond to comments/ideas/challenges that force me to explore my own thinking about this and related topics).

As my commentary develops, I am going to try to be very careful with my wording because I believe it is impossible to make accurate predictions about the future of complex systems, particularly when they involve human behaviour. There are just too many non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena to be able to predict with 100% accuracy the future state of complex human systems. I am going to try and avoid any firm prognostications about the future of such systems. What I think may happen is probably going to be very different from what may actually happen years, decades, centuries, or millennia from now. It is purely speculation — I don’t care how much data one has or how ‘sophisticated’ one’s model might be. And I will tend to rely upon pre/historical examples to bolster ideas about what might greet us down the road as we stumble towards the unknowable future.

I am also mindful of Nassim Taleb’s argument regarding prediction. He argues that we form our guesses about the future (and associated risks) based upon the scientific notion of normal distributions but the really impactful events in life are those that lay outside these ‘bell curve’ estimates and create what he termed ‘Black Swan Events’. Any number of Black Swan Events could send the variables that make up the complex systems I will be discussing sideways in totally unexpected ways.1

I am going to start by asking a ‘simple’ question that I’d like the reader to consider: is ‘growth’ of human sociocultural phenomena a positive force or not? This is where I want to start because I am increasingly convinced that most of the dilemmas we are encountering are a result of this particular phenomenon. I realize that this is a fairly broad swath of concepts to consider but, in general, what do you believe?

As with most things, there are both pro and cons to growth, depending on your perspective. There is evidence that could be used to argue either side fairly well. Your immediate judgement may come down on one side of the fence here or the other. Or, perhaps you’re not sure; you see both sides and view the world more gray than black and white (something that I am personally finding with more and more issues). If you feel relatively strongly about one side of this debate, you likely orient towards evidence that supports and reaffirms your personal preference/bias. I am aware of my personal bias and answer to the question, but shall leave that opinion aside for now and do my best to not let it overly influence my attempt at a balanced rendering of the subject matter.

First, let me talk a little bit about how we form our knowledge/ideas/opinions/worldview/schema, whatever you wish to call it, about the world. While there is a physiological/biological underpinning to how our brains function, the field of study that attempts to understand how we perceive the workings of the world and form our models/understanding of such a world is psychology. And it suggests that there are a variety of phenomena that work to form our view of the world. As the American Psychological Association asserts: “The way we perceive ourselves in relation to the rest of the world influences our behaviors and our beliefs. The dynamics of psychology — cognition, perception, learning, emotion, attitudes and relationships — all play a significant role in how humans see themselves and the many elements in their environment.”2

Some of these processes can prevent us from accepting or viewing information that challenges our core beliefs and/or assumptions. I believe the most powerful is one called ‘cognitive dissonance’. Simply put, humans tend to strive for internal consistency in their belief systems by reducing the cognitive dissonance that arises when information threatens their beliefs. To this end, there is a tendency to dismiss or ignore evidence or ideas that challenge their core beliefs. So, for example, if we firmly hold the belief that growth is positive, then any facts or information that contradicts this belief will tend to be dismissed or interpreted in a way to maintain our prior beliefs. On the flip side, there is a tendency to orient towards and overemphasise evidence that supports or provides affirmation for our core beliefs. In brief, we will see the information that suggests growth is a positive force while we don’t see that which points to growth being a negative force.

There are numerous mechanisms that perform in this manner to affirm our core beliefs regardless of data or evidence that might challenge them. Confirmation bias. Salience. Anchoring bias. Selective perception. Blind-spot bias. And others.3 This lends credence to the quote attributed to author Robert Heinlein that “man is not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one”. The twists of logic our minds will engage in to maintain our belief system can be astounding at times.

Given such phenomena, it is easy to see why it is often so difficult to shift people’s opinion on issues, especially if their belief system is well-ingrained and widely held. Edward Bernays–often referred to as the father of propaganda–understood these qualities of the human mind and leveraged them for various corporations and governments to assist them in framing important narratives and I would recommend his 1920 book, Propaganda, for anyone interested in the subject.

But before I get into my personal bias regarding the growth of human sociocultural phenomena, let’s deconstruct the concept of growth a bit.

The first definition of the online Oxford Dictionary states it is simply “the process of increasing in physical size”. As stated above, there are pros and cons to this depending on one’s perspective. For example, setting aside medical ‘anomalies’ a person’s weight grows as they mature until the body reaches a certain sustainable, mature level. Too much growth may lead to certain physical ailments, but the same can be said of too little growth. As long as a person’s caloric intake and physical activity remains relatively constant, the person’s stops ‘growing’.

But ‘growth’ can also be interpreted as ‘progress’. For many, this concept of growth is primarily a positive attribute. It is a “development towards a more improved or advanced condition”. I won’t explore the conflation of ‘progress’ with ‘growth’ too much in this first article except to say this is perhaps where the rubber meets the road in deciding if growth is a positive force or not. If you are in favour of ‘progress’, then it is likely that you perceive ‘growth’ as positive.

Listen to any politician or economist and implicit in their discussion of growth is the idea that growth has primarily, if not solely, positive attributes. It is something they both seek and encourage. There are a variety of reasons people do this. The cynic in me believes that economic growth, for example, is pursued by particular segments of society because it benefits them directly (in terms of power, prestige, influence, and/or monetarily), but perhaps they do truly believe that growth is only a positive force that benefits us all. This belief is repeated so often that the vast majority of people accept it as a given without the slightest challenge to its veracity. I’m also coming to a better appreciation of the argument that our credit/debt-based monetary system requires perpetual economic growth in order to meet the servicing requirements of interest-bearing money; otherwise the system could collapse — and, of course, politicians don’t usually want such a collapse to occur on their watch as it’s bad for any hope of re-election or avoiding a domestic revolution; as a result, they pursue growth most vigourously.

One of the steps I believe we need to take to avoid, or at least mitigate (if it’s not too late), some of the predicaments we are likely going to have to face in the not-too-distant future is to challenge the ‘growth is progress’ mindset that I’ve just outlined and scale back on the pursuit of growth at all costs. In fact, as these articles evolve my hope is that readers will come to appreciate that ‘growth’ is not just a positive force but has negative attributes as well that we tend to ignore or downplay.

Some of this is due to the cognitive biases discussed above, but some of this is also due to lack of information in the marketing of growth and the lag-time that occurs between the onset of growth and the negative consequences that arise. For example, we can all see and acknowledge the nuclear power plant that has been constructed to power our businesses and homes. What’s not to be positive about with regard to green, carbon-free, too-cheap-to-meter energy? (yes, I’m being just a bit sarcastic here). What we often don’t consider are the negative environmental/ecological/economic impacts of this construction as they are in the shadows, left out of the marketing propaganda, or delayed — sometimes for years/decades.

1. See Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, Anti-Fragile.

2. See the American Psychological Association.

3. See Medical Daily.

A great site that explores the conflict or cognitive dissonance we experience in trying to make sense of our world is Two Ice Floes.

Also, you can check out my personal website that shares daily news & views on various topics, but particularly economics, liberty, energy, geopolitics, the environment, and survival skills. You can also learn more about my fictional novel trilogy…