The limits on growth

Each of us can make a difference. We just need to stay aware of what’s important.


I had the good fortune to do philosophy at the university as an elective subject. I remember one evening our tutor posing a question. “If you were in a life boat in rough seas and there were so many people on the boat that it would sink and all would be drowned, what would you do and why?”

He then quickly explained that without a philosophy to guide you in difficult situations, you are likely to make dumb decisions. Having a philosophy in which you believe and to which you adhere in times of difficulties can make the difference between survival and extinction.

There is a story of a stranger in the back blocks of the US. He was trying to find his way to Wichita. He suddenly came across a fork in the road and the road sign was down. On the road sign was the name “Wichita”. However, as the sign post was lying on the ground it was unhelpful.

So this traveller sees a guy standing by a fence slicing a piece of wood with a knife. The traveller says to this guy “Does it matter which of these roads I take to get to Wichita?” To which the guy with the knife says “Not to me it don’t”. On the one hand we might think this humorous and on the other hand we might think the story sad, since that person obviously doesn’t give a damn about the circumstances of a fellow traveller in life?

The tragedy of the story is to do with the absence of a philosophy. To the extent that the man with the knife (and with the knowledge of how to get to Wichita) it was “if there is nothing in it for me then I don’t give a damn”.

Strangely enough, there was something in it for the man with the knife, and unfortunately he suffered by his lack of awareness. He could have strengthened the bonds between two inhabitants of this planet and by doing so made the planet less of a risk no matter how slightly.

You see, we are prisoners to some extent, as all life on the planet is caught by the same barrier of space. It is here we have to make the most of things because there’s no place else to go. Globalisation has demonstrated to us just how interdependent we are across the planet. We are in one planetary system and the action of any one of the billions of people in the system has an impact on the total system, albeit, slight. However, the collection of many slight impacts can become huge.

We are consuming energy as though there is no tomorrow even though we know that fossil fuel is a finite resource and that its consumption is having a serious and deleterious impact on this little prison we call “planet earth”. If we are like the man with the knife, we can ignore the consequences of our action; but can’t ignore the fact that our actions are damaging our environment and perhaps its sustainability.

In Western society management has become preoccupied with growth. When we exhaust our home markets we look for additional markets in global society and when we saturate that market we become dependent either on some new fangled thing to keep sales up; selling the latest model even if the previous one is still perfectly functional or buying out competitors so as to enlarge our customer base.

A friend of mine is a guy called Huw Evans Huw – a brilliant person and may be remembered by some as the person who conducted a popular national quiz program called “Mastermind”.

He said to me the other day “what happens when the world either runs out of people to sell to or we run out of resources to make things? Can we continue to grow?” It suddenly struck me that there are limits to everything, unless we live in fairy land.

Unless we discover the philosopher’s stone or perpetual motion, we will run out of some elements that are critical to growth, whatever they may prove to be, and we will stop growing both as a global population and as a commercial enterprise. We are unsure when this will happen but certain that it will. In the meantime, the question is, do we plan for a future that questions many of our current assumptions?

I have just been re reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, an ornithologist who has a wonderful ability to convert science into readable and understandable literature. He talks about a number of civilisations that have destroyed themselves including the Polynesian population of Easter Island.

He anticipates the criticism that people might level at him for even suggesting any comparison between what happened centuries ago on Easter Island with our own civilisation and summarises the criticism as follows:

“It is ridiculous to suppose that the collapse of all those ancient peoples could have broad relevance today, especially to the modern US. Those ancients didn’t enjoy the wonders of modern technology, which benefits us and lets us solve problems by inventing new environment-friendly technologies.

“Those ancients had the misfortune to suffer from the effects of climate change. They behaved stupidly and ruined their own environment by doing obviously dumb things. Like cutting down their forests, overharvesting wild animal sources of their protein, watching their topsoil erode away and building cities in dry areas likely to run out of water.

“They had foolish leaders who didn’t have books and so couldn’t learn from history and who embroiled them in expensive and destabilising wars, cared only about staying in power and didn’t pay attention to problems at home.

“They got overwhelmed by desperate starving immigrants, as one society after another collapsed, sending floods of economic refugees to tax the resources of the societies that weren’t collapsing. In all those respects we moderns are fundamentally different from those primitive ancients and there is nothing that we could learn from them.”

If we take the view that we are in fact perpetuating many of the mistakes of our ancestors, it is perhaps timely to take a minute to contemplate the consequences of what we are doing. Does the direction of global society mean anything to us? Perhaps not, but it does to our kids and their kids and so on. We are simply momentary inhabitants of this planet and we can ignore the fact that the road signs have fallen into disuse or we can perhaps engage in society in a way that makes the road signs clearer and the future safer for those who come after us.

As we contemplate going forward and growing, it is perhaps worthwhile to stop for a moment and reconcile what we are doing with our philosophy. If we don’t have a philosophy or if it is that of the man with the knife, then it may be worthwhile reflecting on whether the exigencies of today demand a fresh philosophic approach. Is the sustainability of our environment a responsibility that we assume will be discharged by others, or is does it matter to us as individuals and if there aren’t any road signs? Perhaps a little philosophy might help us find the way.



Louis Coutts left law and became a successful entrepreneur. His blog examines the mistakes, follies and strokes of genius that create bigger, better businesses. Click here to find out more.

To read more Louis Coutts blogs, click here .



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