By Donella Meadows
–January 23, 1992–
“Growth!” promised the president when he showed up in depressed New Hampshire last week and posed for a photo-op with a cow.
“Growth!” commands Alan Greenspan, as he cranks interest rates down by a whole percent at a time, hoping the economy will turn around before he hits zero.
“Growth!” chants every Congressperson, CEO, and business publication, offering yet another plan for how to create it. Tax cuts for the middle class or for the capital-gainers. More free trade, less free trade. A moratorium on government regulation. More borrowing, more budget-balancing, more money for Head Start. Do something, anything to prime the pump of growth.
Some of these growth ideas may be worthy for other reasons, but I haven’t met anyone who believes they will “jump start” the economy. It’s not even clear that jump-starting is a good idea. Deep down inside, in an honest place some of us would prefer not to consult, everyone knows that our recent history of cranking up growth at any cost is what got us into this economic pickle in the first place. More of that kind of growth won’t get us out.
Take New Hampshire, for example. The last time George Bush paid attention to us, four years ago, our economy was in a wild boom. Property values were rising 25 percent per year, drawing in speculators from the whole Eastern seaboard. Banks were lending full-out; developers were carving up forests and fields; the jazzed-up construction industry was building condominiums and up-market malls full of stores with cute names selling trinkets of use only to impress someone, or to relieve, for a moment, the boredom of a purposeless affluence.
It took nothing more than common sense to ask, back then: Who will live in these condos? How many people will shop in those stores? What will happen when real estate prices grow slower than the stock market and the smart money drains back south? How will the bank loans be paid? How will this army of construction workers stay employed?
Even those who trumpeted denial must have known that the castles of the 80s were built on sand. Hundreds of people were pointing out then, loudly and publicly, that the good times were sustained only by government debt, corporate debt, consumer debt. Anybody who runs a household or a business knows the difference between borrowing for future productivity and borrowing for temporary high living. Everyone knew there would be a price to pay.
Now the condos stand unsold, the banks totter, the unemployed move out of New Hampshire in droves, and I am looking for just one candidate among those prowling the state looking for my vote, who will call for smart development rather than more dumb growth.
Smart development builds on the unique skills and resources and needs of a region. It encourages solid local businesses, built to last. Dumb growth entices in the big corporation, which brings money from outside, exerts control from outside, drains the profits back outside, undercuts local businesses, and can lay off hundreds without warning.
Recession-resistant development produces things ordinary people actually need, and does so with high quality. Unsustainable growth produces a tinsel product people have to be seduced into thinking they need, until times get tough, when it’s the first thing they stop buying.
Sustainable development means using investment money and construction skills to maintain and upgrade the roads, bridges, and buildings you already have. It means educating people and protecting their health. Flimflam growth means regarding those kinds of investments as nonproductive, because they don’t pay off soon enough. It looks better on the short-term accounts to build new buildings, build them badly, subsidize them with publicly funded roads and sewers, lower their taxes, cut the school budgets, and hey, if you need educated workers and managers, bring them in from somewhere else, maybe Japan.
Long-term development ensures that forests and fields continue to produce wood, paper, syrup, and food, recharge wells and control floods, attract tourists and please residents. Fly-by-night growth harvests mature trees in fast clearcuts to keep loggers and sawmills going just a few more years until the trees run out. It waives environmental regulations, as long as the cleanup costs can be put off on the public or into the long term. It covers the landscape the tourists come to see with the same kind of honkytonk ugliness they leave home to escape.
Smart development invests in insulation and efficient cars and sustainable sources of energy. Dumb growth crashes around looking for more oil. I could go on with this list, and so could you. To draw a distinction between sustainable development and disastrous growth isn’t to be soft-headed or anti-economic. It’s to be hard-headed and sane, to look for an economy of security and stability, one that doesn’t delude itself with booms that create their own busts.
Of all the candidates cruising this battered state, chanting to the great god of growth, there must be just one who has the sense to ask: What ought to grow, for how long, who will benefit, who will pay, and what will last?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992