Growth Is Not Just One Thing

If all growth is bad, what should we do with this immense human capacity to dream big?

Post Growth Institute
Jun 25 · 6 min read

By Ramla Akhtar

Casey Horner via Unsplash

How do we resolve this dilemma: the human spirit is tremendously expansive, potentially vast, greatly powerful — and yet the chorus of environmental consciousness these days is that growth is not good. That the concern with prosperity is flawed. That riches are bad.

Well, then, what must we do with this immense power and capacity and the imagination to dream that is a part of being human? What is the evolutionary purpose of our capacity? Certainly, it’s not laying waste, being idle, and singing songs of good times. These amusements have their purpose, time, and place, but these are certainly not the sole tasks we as a species are charged with.

So what is the matter? Why have we become, despite ourselves, such a terrifying source of violence and destruction? Or of creativity that is often inevitably tied with economic capacity and all the evil that comes on the heels of this concern with economic growth, such as the need to build and wield and thereafter sustain military power?

These may be simple questions, but these are not reductionist questions. Rather, this is a simple questioning of the construct we are dealing with, and the ways in which it has skewed and failed. Simple questions may lead to simple insights, and simple insights may be seeds for powerful ideas and actions.

It occurred to me one day that growth, which is held as such a concern and metric of well-being that we cannot even imagine considering an alternative, may be redefined. Why is growth only economic growth or monetary prosperity? Why are the capacities, contribution, and the work of people not considered in other-than-economic terms? Why is the definition of Growth a portfolio with its investment in only one metric-why are there not more dimensions such that growth is not a linear, mono-metric thing, but rather a lively, complex, and organic virtual entity that can shift its shape around the well-being of humans (and of societies) at any given time? Why is growth only MORE and FORWARD and BIGGER? Why is growth not, sometimes, defined as pausing and taking a breath? As holding hands and playing (literally or metaphorically)? As exhaling a sigh of relief after a great accomplishment? As giving someone or something else an opportunity to be active while one takes time out?

Why are nations, for instance, afraid to put a pause on their space missions and geographic expansion, and take time out to care for their own people, while letting another nation take up the task of imagining and inventing? Why are we afraid to make a necessary life shift, and humiliated with the prospect of doing the right thing at the right moment in our life just because it is not the thing that we have done for the past few years? Why do people get insane with fear and anger if their leaders determine, for instance, that for the next four or five years they will shift the focus from creating economic-military franchises around the globe, to simply taking care of the household? Why do we suddenly have nothing to do when a project for building and construction has been completed-why do we instantly feel the urge to do and make more, rather than realize that the natural and most simple human thing to do is to relax at the end of such accomplishment, and that in the age of nations and groups, this rest may take years or even a century?

Why, in short, are we holding on to one construct, a single construct, that happens to have only one dimension, too? Can we, for a start, rethink this very construct?

There is a deeper thing to be concerned with than just Growth. However, while we are on this terrain, can we at least re-imagine this?

I think we can. I propose that we should. Here is a poem that I was inspired with while I first wrangled with this question. Your thoughts are welcome (though as a poet who’s usually inspired, I cannot defend or explain what I write). Presented as is.

Growth is not just one thing.
It is not merely
chopping down whatever apple tree
occurs on your path
and turning it into jam and firewood.
Growth is also to plant the seed,
and to have the patience to cultivate it,
to watch it grow.

Growth is not merely
turning your life into dollars
and then attempt to turn the dollars back into
semblances and mere ghosts of life.
Growth is also to step beyond this idea
of necessarily putting the jingle of coins and pennies
into each and every rhythm of your life.
Growth is a kiss.
It is impregnation with the first child you’ll ever have,
it is to kindle the fire in the house,
and put a loving pot of soup to boil.
Staying quietly with it.
Inhaling its wafting smells and spice.

Growth is not just rushing onwards from your youth
and staying forever repelled from the old age that creeps upon you
when you are too busy to notice it,
submerged in your paper and red black ink.
Growth is to notice the hair you begin to grow in interesting places
and the fine wrinkles that shall begin to grace
your face one transitional winter morning.
Growth is that too.

Growth is not merely to constantly vie with your friend and neighbor,
or fear that they vie with you.
Growth is loyalty, too. It is to be with the weak in their sickness
and their wretchedness. It is to allow the heart to expand
and pour out as much love-as much love-as it always wanted to give.
Growth is to allow your heart the freedom it always wished
before it became trapped in the preconditions to joy
that you learned from dead books and sad people.
Growth is that. It is that expansion.

Growth is not — absolutely not! — your increasing ability
to quash your dreams so that you may
continue to feed the illusions of growth.
Growth is the ability to gently or firmly
put away the tendrils of pestilent ideas
that come to reside upon your soul.
Growth is that.

Growth is not simply your ability to walk and walk and walk
the earth. Growth is also your ability to stand firm,
hold your place, take roots, and grow branches. To touch the sky.
Growth is vertical. It is horizontal. It is diagonal, too.
It is more than you imagine, and less than you imprint.

Growth is not plainly
your relentless ability to conquer the Earth.
And its species and people and molecules.
Growth is also your ability to be fascinated.
Quiet, simply, fascinated.
It is your ability to wonder, to marvel, to rest.
To give the earth and its inhabitants -
your fellows souls and molecules -
their due. As they have, for eons and eons,
given you yours. More than.
Growth is that acknowledgement.

Growth is not your pomposity. Your ability to
bellow so frighteningly, your temptation to
walk with such arrogance and fury,
as if the earth will split open under your hands and feet.
Growth is your ability to heal the wound. To stitch together
that which is rended apart
from your countless centuries of plundering.

Growth is your ability to withhold, to be in peace,
to watch, reflect, know, and be in awe.
To open your mind such that
you will understand that growth is
beyond — far beyond — the limits
of your
hungry needs.

Growth is that understanding
that you are no longer that hungry, frightened, cold,
thunder-struck, hollering ape that you once were.
Growth is your awareness that you have travelled hundreds of thousands of miles
for millennia and millennia
to overcome your penury
only to know that you are, ever, confined in a relationship -
a loving, nurturing relationship, the love of existence for you -
that you cannot ever escape from.

Growth is not just to leave home, O human!
It is to come home too. It is to come home, too.

~ramla akhtar

A note on the image: Trees are what have inspired me to reconsider what growth means. I think even the tree gets to travel: it stands in one place on earth, and from that, it looks up into entire constellations towards which its branches ever reach out. It maintains a relationship of love and awe with the cosmos, ever conversing with the Sun and the stars while we humans, apparently smarter beings, frantically search for love and real peace.


Originally published in April 2013 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.

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