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What Is the End of Growth?

I recently slogged through the extreme future by James Canton, a somewhat outdated tract fitting the Thomas Friedman-style, “Wowsers trousers, just think of the future!” that we are all too familiar with. Across three hundred or so pages he lays out projections about the next twenty years (speaking from the ancient milestone of 2007), and warns actors both private and public of the risks entailed by failure to abide by the horizon march. Towards the end of the screed, he conjures up startling visions of what might occur if states fail to ensure streamlined business processes, access to education, and open borders. The greatest casualty according to Canton will be the mystical rocket of economic growth, which exists like a sacred idol in the bonobo village.

Canton’s fixation upon this concept made be pause, as I have many times before, trying to understand what the genuine motivation is behind it. Growth has always ebbed and flowed over time, yet the neoliberal order seems to think perpetual upward movement, whether in stocks, home building, or population expansion, is as important as the Fatherland for a Fuehrer, or the Virgin for a Catholic. Nothing else factors in this calculation, because its girth transcends and drowns the very possibility. Failure to agree and accede is portrayed not as an opposing view, but the laurels of a death cult dedicated to seismic decline, or traditional socialism.

But of course we must question the underlying merits of such a worldview. Growth may increase wealth, but it also contributes to the planet’s destruction, to the wisp of the air and the spill of green landscape where virtue finds rebirth. Expansion widens the collective GDP, while also defying intent for culture and legacy, letting purpose devolve between the anarchic barbs of nihilism, itself directed towards the accumulation of more, if by less legal means.  Liberal economic ascension permeates and fills all places, but leaves them emptier than before, embittered by the absence of nothing, by the tragic search for meaning.  

Even dismissing the philosophical considerations, what can this “growth” really provide to humanity? The effervescent obsession with mass migration and diversity—whether to fill underpaid jobs or pay our pensions—does it have any limit? If ten million souls skip from one imaginary line to the next, occupying and developing increasingly-scarcer territory, does their family left behind cease to replenish the human stores? At any point might the Salvadoran population decline, or is that nation destined to eternally reproduce—simply to keep the Stars and Stripes at maximum GDP? Might there be an hour when they wish for fatter pension pots, and tire of serving our own, turning to demand the same econo-destiny shackles be placed on the eager Guatemalan, or perhaps the souls of Congo? Per chance those new selections are expected to fill their role, because otherwise the chattering national product stats might drop.

What growth actually leaves in its wake is a rancid and soulless question; an ode to the unending desire to subjugate and own, if merely for the extent of the taskmaster’s life and pocketbook. The yolk today is not based on the simplicity of race, nor religious divergence, but rather the dibbling spots of numerals on a digitized trading screen.  The worth of man, computed by ones and zeroes, in offices he yearns to escape.

But where can he run?     

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