Questions on growth
We know the world's economies are currently experiencing hard economic times. Yet I wonder if thinking of this in terms of business cycles is the best way today. Jay Forrester has written, "Our greatest challenge now is handling the transition from growth to equilibrium".
If you think of the world in terms of business cycles, getting from bad times to good is a largely waiting game, assuming you've saved enough in the good times to carry you through the bad. Before refrigeration and long-distance transportation of food, that happened on an annual basis, too: you had to save enough food from this year's harvest to survive to next year's. Admittedly, some organizations are good at gaining ground during these periodic "yellow flag" situations, but many of us will just try to survive until the good times return.
If Forrester and others are correct and we're really moving from a long period of growth into an even longer period (possibly forever, at least in practical terms) of relative equilibrium, then dealing with those (equilibrium) times may require a fundamentally different mindset (as Cynthia McEwen and John Schmidt would remind us), not just a changed process.
- What if (aggregate) growth went to 0% forevermore? What would it mean to you, to your business, and to your personal life?
- Do you think there's reason to believe growth could stay at 0% or below for a very long time? Is that of necessity either good or bad, or does its value depend upon our reaction?
- Is it a good idea to try to keep growth positive? Why? Are there any downsides? Are there indeed any limits to growth, either in terms of annual growth rates or the overall size of anything?
- As attractive as growth may be in the current worldview, systems ideas would indicate that the longer we try to keep growth going once we've exceeded the carrying capacity of the system (the planet), the worse the eventual and inexorable fall and the lower the eventual sustainable standard of living. If you favor continued growth, how will you overcome those seemingly inviolate systems limitations?
- If the systems theories play out in the real world, how do we reasonably make the transition from our current state to a new, equilibrium state in ways that attend to people (social justice, the ability to procure what we need for life, the ability to make a difference or find purpose, etc.) and the natural environment (sustainability, the depletion of nonrenewable resources)?
- Can we make such a transition a good thing and not a painful thing?
- What do we owe our descendants? For how far into the future do we bear responsibility?
- If these systems ideas have merit, what changes in mindset (in worldview) do we need to survive emotionally as well as physically? For but one example, negative growth has long meant failure for people leading businesses, but that could be the way of the future. Can we realistically change our mindsets and our systems so that satisfying needs (instead of generating growth) defines success?
- In case these systems ideas don't apply in this situation (e.g., if technology can once again save us even in the face of decreasing energy supplies and rising population), can we design robust actions that work well in either eventuality? How do you answer Tom Fiddaman's questions about the sufficiency of technology?
- What other questions do you have?
Let me be clear: aggregate growth of 0% does not imply that there is no dynamism, no growth in the economy. Our need for certain products and services will increase, even as our need for others will decline. I'm only thinking of aggregate growth in posing these questions.
I have lots of questions and only tentative answers. Right now, I really am interested in seeing your questions, as I've seen the power of listing questions before trying to provide answers.
Later, we'll get to considering answers and how we might test those answers for reasonableness and usefulness.