Thursday, February 12, 2009

Questions on growth: a pre-evaluation

You've helped me accumulate quite a list of questions about growth, and I thank you. Here they are once again:


  1. What if (aggregate) growth went to 0% forevermore? What would it mean to you, to your business, and to your personal life?

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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)?

  6. Can we make such a transition a good thing and not a painful thing?

  7. What do we owe our descendants? For how far into the future do we bear responsibility?

  8. 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?

  9. 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?

  10. Can the current economic "engine" be morphed into one based on such a radically different paradigm?

  11. If we change to a different paradigm that's not built on growth, can we figure out how to get money into the hands of all who need it? Or will our reaction to low or zero growth be to trim people out of companies to keep the organizations viable while building unemployment?

  12. Is an economy built on lending inexorably drawn to growth for survival?

  13. How we to encourage understanding that quality of life can still improve while quantity of consumption decreases?

  14. In light of the current economic crisis, how can we best protect the economy's life-supporting functions such food production, health care and ecosystem services amidst the chaos that will undoubtedly trim the less important financial and luxury markets?

  15. What new national and international policies and institutions do we need to design in order to prepare for a transition to a steady state, or true cost, economy that recognizes the need for investments in natural and social capital as well as financial?

  16. What would constitute the analogy of complex relationships those with "imaginary" components?

  17. Will a state of zero net growth become a state of dynamic economic equilibrium, and will this new state actually make markets MORE efficient, and effective at elevating the state of the common man?

  18. Why is our world so hung up on growth to begin with? How did growth get into our DNA? Has it always been there or is it just since the invention of the steam engine?

  19. What do you do if evolution favors individuals or groups who aspire to growth?

  20. What if the US and EU go green and China and Russia don't?

  21. What if growth had to be -X% per year for Y years in order to reach a sustainable steady state (in material throughput)? How might social systems accommodate that peacefully?

  22. What if technology has limited potential?

  23. What would an evolutionary landscape that favored sustainability look like?

  24. Can wealth can go up while the material flow goes down? How?



I've numbered them this time for easy reference. If you want to see who contributed each question, refer back to the original posting.

Now the next step: how would one go about answering these questions?

Before getting to the process, though, I'm curious how you think we would recognize a good answer. I don't expect that we'll all agree, but, rather than getting into a bunch of statements about our respective positions, I think we might learn more by first thinking about the criteria by which we'll evaluate potential answers.

I suspect our answers to that may be all over the map. As food for thought, I offer up the questions critical systems heuristics offers about motivation, control, expertise, and legitimacy. You can find one article by Bob Williams and Martin Reynolds on Bob's Web site: go to Systems Stuff and scroll down to the article called Critical Systems Thinking. You can see another introduction by Werner Ulrich here. He lists the questions starting on page 11, but you probably need to read the earlier pages to understand what it all means.

Once we have some idea how we'll evaluate potential answers (and how we think we should evaluate them), then we can think about picking approaches, methods, methodologies, or processes we think might be of use for each of these 24 questions.

So what do you think? How will you evaluate the answers to these questions? How do you think you should evaluate them?

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