Growthbusters – Hooked on Growth

“Growthbusters – Hooked on Growth” is a 90 minute documentary film made in 2011 with the help on non-profit organisation Citizen-Powered Media. It is certainly very citizen-powered being largely produced, written and directed by campaigner Dave Gardner. He also appears in most of the film and narrates it. It is largely his story. He is quite a find: media-friendly and passionate about his subject. The movie’s strength is in its strong central narrative and use of humour. It is highly watchable, playful, fun and not at all grim. If it has one weakness it is its pre-occupation with busting growth without delivering a strong enough message about what will replace growth.

Dave is an anti-growth campaigner in Colorado Springs south of Denver in Colorado, USA. We learn a lot about the predicament of the Springs through the movie as we follow Dave’s attempts to get elected to the city council. He is a brave soul. He explains how his work can leave him isolated – a “black sheep” – even his supporters wish he would moderate his message (something we agree with). Still, he polled 47% of the vote which, by the standards of modern democracy, makes him a successful Politician, even if he came second. There is not much not to like about our Dave. Of course, if the film was just 90 minutes of him then it would be a bit of a turn off. So we also have a cavalcade of expert talking heads to carry the argument through.

This impressive list includes Bill McKibben, Gus Speth, Chris Martenson, William Rees (originator of the ecological footprint idea), Al Bartlett, Dr Paul Ehrlich, Dennis Meadows, Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Robert Solow, Raj Patel, Peter Victor, Mike Nickerson, Juliet Schor, Sarah Susanko, Jerry Mander, Saleem Ali, Robert Engelman, Jane Goodall, Phillip Longman, Tom Horton, Lisa Hymas, Katie Elmore, Erich Pice and Mark Anielski (author of “The Economics of Happiness”). Most are published authors, university professors, journalists, economists, mayors, governors, advisers to US Presidents, NGO Presidents and so on. Quite a creditable crowd and all stitched together to tell the story: growth is bad.

We were most impressed by the 1972 film footage of the press conference launching the original “Limits to Growth” report. Alexander King, co-founder of The Club of Rome says:

“From a very large number of computer runs, making various assumptions, adopting various maxima and minima, there is (in fact) a general forecast of a breakdown in world society in the first decades of the next century.”

This is certainly important as it puts our world of today (2012) firmly at the beginning of that projected breakdown period. It is also undermines the myth that the Club of Rome “got it wrong” in their predictions. We will not know the accuracy of the forecasts for another fifty years! It is way too early to know.

This film exposes the religious zeal in which we pursue the impossible dream of infinite growth on a finite planet. It shows the damage done and makes good use of Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course” to show why it is happening. The benefits of growth are exaggerated or non-existent. We have manufactured “consumers” but none of us are happier for it. Growth forces Governments to out compete each other with corporate welfare. One of the talking heads even asks “where is the outrage?” Bill McKibben adds:

“…just what are people FOR?”

We have built our own mythology around growth but now have exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. We no longer live within our means so we steal from our children and the vulnerable in poor countries. We all dream of a technological solution but the old solutions of “bigger” won’t work any more. There is no rabbit to be pulled out of this hat. It is a message that make politicians uncomfortable. It makes the corporations, of the conventional economy, uncomfortable. They have convinced themselves that the end of growth is the end of profit. No wonder the forecasts were not believed. It is as Dennis Meadows says:

“It isn’t ME. I am not against growth. The planet is against it.”

Growthbusters features the lovely story of Australian electronics millionaire Dick Smith and his crusade to expose the emporer’s new clothes of growth in his country’s economy. (There may be an unintended moment of humour during Dick’s Press Conference when he is upstaged by the five blond dolly-birds standing behind him wearing T-Shirts with the words “Constant Growth = Doom”.) He injects the single moment of raw emotion as he appears moved to tears in describing his work (growth-busting) as being the “most important thing” he has ever done. He then flies off in a helicopter…

So, it is a great movie. What’s the problem?  Important topics & solutions get glossed over. For example Peter Victor enters the movie (very briefly) to present his economic model projecting that it is possible to have full employment in a non-growing economy. We would work less and have more leisure. But who would believe it? How does it work? Who would pay my mortgage? It leaves so many unanswered questions. The movie is also way too brief in its discussion on the measurements of economic progress. Just how should we replace GDP?

There is also one BIG nagging doubt: what good will it do to be told all of this by white, affluent, middle-class, liberal Americans (or Australians)? The featured communities of Colorado Springs and Albemarle & Charlottesville do not appear to be suffering from high growth rates stemming from high birth rates. They are suffering from high inward migration. This implies that people move to these areas in the USA FROM other areas of the USA. So, somewhere, we must assume, there are communities dying for lack of population. Hence the issues of these communities appear to be driven by more narrow NIMBY-perspective. It doesn’t make Dave Gardner wrong, it just undermines his argument. His personal experiences appear largely unrelated to global population matters. A cynic would say that these are just a bunch of unhappy people getting all upset because their scenic views of nature have been spoilt.

Certainly quality of life is an issue for many people in the developed world. But what of the very poor both in the USA and in the majority south? Growth is good IF it means you can feed your children, educate your daughters and lower your fertility rate. There are all kinds of very good positive growth. What we need in the minority affluent north is less economic growth for-its-own-sake. We do need “smart growth” which we can define as the flourishing of human wellbeing be it through education, leisure, time with family, less work, better food, cleaner environments, green energy, and so on… These aspects do get mentioned briefly in the film but they don’t shine through in Dave’s political campaign. He even chides his supporters for wanting him to moderate his message. Can he really speak to the global south and be respected? Or would they laugh at him?

There was one point in the movie that we strongly objected to. Lisa Hymes (Senior Editor of Grist) is proud of her stance that she will remain childless. All well and good. Very rational. But we are not rational creatures and the desire to have children is driven by biology, not ideology. She moves on to say that her reasoning is based upon the statistic that each child you have increases your carbon footprint by 570% (because your children will have children and so on..) This sounds like a logical fallacy. On this basis the carbon footprint of the entire human race, since pre-history, belongs to Adam and Eve. I think we would have to draw a line somewhere otherwise we start to classify people = problem and deny our own responsibility. Who on earth says that they didn’t want to be born? It is left to Katie Elmore (Vice President of the Population Media Center) to inject some commonsense when she says population growth concern doesn’t mean the solution is “population control”. It means talking about it and making informed decisions.

Chris Martenson provides another example of how Growthbusters can go so subtly wrong. Chris, his kids & wife Becca retreated to their cabin in the woods to live the simple life. All very laudable until you see just how enormous their house is. This kind of retreat looks attractive if you have the space but it says nothing to the people who live in Europe or Japan for example. These aspects of the documentary do not travel well. Chris Martenson got out of the rat-race at the top of his game. He was the VP of a Fortune 500 company. Behind him there are 500 million people queuing for his job. Is he REALLY the right person to tell THEM to get out of the rate race? You cannot doubt the sincerity of his message; downsizing is great. If you can afford it, but it is not a compelling message for most.

Yet there is a compelling message buried here – somewhere. We need a better narrative if we truly are to get our feet out of the last century. The Transition movement gets a few minutes of coverage just ten minutes before the end. Compare this to the appearance of David Paxson (President of World Population Balance) who appears 50 minutes in. The entire population issue over-dominates large chunks of the film. It may well be the elephant in the room but, in my experience, any discussion about sustainability ends with one bright-spark asking the open-ended question “What about over-population?” It rather closes down the conversation. People liven-up when they can talk about local solutions that they can make happen with their own two hands.

Talking population is such a downer because it is largely intractable for individuals – it is a policy matter. Ironically current population growth is a matter largely driven by poverty and lack of good economic growth in the majority south. In the meantime the rich industrialised north is already grossly over the carrying capacity of the land in which it lives. It is US (not the poor) who are the problem as we are living beyond our means and stealing from unborn generations and from the poor countries with very low population densities. We seem to be appealing to poor countries to keep their populations down so that ours can remain high. It is the sort of brinkmanship that you see in climate change negotiations: it only leads to deadlock. We know what the population problem is and how to solve it. But if you want some satisfying local solutions to creating a sustainable community then you will need to turn to Transition – else you would go mad.

The other elephant in the room is only raised ONCE in the movie. It is briefly mentioned in footage of Chris Martenson presenting the Crash Course. It is the role of interest and fractional reserve banking. Certainly population is a growing problem but our financial system is a weapon of mass destruction and needs to be taken far more seriously than Dave Gardner gives it credit for. It is the mechanism that ENFORCES economic growth. Population growth is encouraged in order to keep up the interest payments through ever-growing economic activity. This is not clear in this film. There is even one slightly disturbing moment when the movie talks about using the current economic-depression as a way of shoe-horning in anti-growth policies. This is exactly the sort of thinking used by “disaster capitalists” as exposed by Naomi Klein in “Shock Doctrine“. Is this the right way of proceeding? Do we need a disaster? Maybe… But that would be sad. In a disaster politicians & corporations would make every attempt to force through pro-growth policies (as long as that god is worshipped by our economists). We need a change of heart.

All in all, we still loved this move. A flawed jewel it may be, but it is no pebble. We just loved the references to the Hollywood movies “Ghostbusters”, “Avatar”, “Wall Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It was simply adorable when Dave dons his Growthbusters boiler suit and dreams of the day when he is given a ticker-tape parade through town. Who hasn’t felt that way? We need people like Dave to be the heroes. It needs to be OK to be this kind of iconoclast. It needs to be cool. Dave gets so close to making it cool that we just loved him to bits.

Maybe he can go onto produce Growthbusters II and refine his arguments? He needs the killer-compelling argument that matches his passion. All he has is reason. If reason was enough he would have won this battle long ago. We live in an age of unreason. Growth is the god of this religion. As was pointed out we have, for so long, conflated growth with prosperity that we can no longer untangle our own myth. Commonsense will not prevail because our system benefits a minority and that minority perpetuate the system. (This very truism is explained in Growthbusters.) The problem in communicating it is that there is a thin line between this observation and sounding like a whinging anti-capitalist. This is highly unpalatable to conservative north American audiences for whom growth is the American Dream. This is the strength of Transition. If Dave could only convince his fellow affluent Americans that Transition is the new American Dream then he could change the world. He used the phrase “true prosperity” in his political campaign. Maybe THAT should be the name of his next movie? We wish him luck.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

Comments are closed.