This first essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at hierarchal human systems and explains why their structures fundamentally demand continuous growth. The second installment will investigate what causes and sustains hierarchy. The third, fourth, and fifth installments will formulate an alternative to hierarchy that addresses its cause, not merely its symptoms, along with proposals to apply this alternative at both the personal and societal levels.
Why must hierarchy continually grow and intensify? Within the context of hierarchy in human civilization, there seem to be three separate categories of forces that force growth. I will address them in the order (roughly) that they arose in the development of human civilization:
Human Psychology Drives Growth
Humans fear uncertainty, and this uncertainty drives growth. Human population growth is partially a result of the desire to ensure enough children survive to care for aging parents. Fear also drives humans to accept trade-offs in return for security.
One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc.
Still today, our fear of uncertainty and desire for stability and security create an imperative for growth. This is equally true of Indian peasants having seven children to ensure their retirement care as it is of rich Western European nations offering incentives for couples to have children in order to maintain their Ponzi-scheme retirements systems. Fear also extends to feelings of family or racial identity, as people all over the world fear being out-bred by rival or neighboring families, tribes, or ethnic groups. This phenomenon is equally present in tribal societies of Africa, where rival ethnic groups understand the need to compete on the level of population, as it is in
The Structure of Human Society Selects for Growth
The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.
In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative.
The Development of Modern Economics & Finance Requires Growth
This civilizational selection for growth manifests in many ways, but most recently it resulted in the rise of the modern financial system. As political entities became more conscious of this growth imperative, and their competition with other entities, they began to consciously build institutions to enhance their ability to grow. The earliest, and least intentional example is that of economic specialization and centralization. Since before the articulation of these principles by Adam Smith, it was understood that specialization was more efficient—when measured in terms of growth—than artesian craftsmanship, and that centralized production that leveraged economy of place better facilitated growth than did distributed production. It was not enough merely to specialize “a little,” because the yardstick was not growth per se, but growth in comparison to the growth of competitors. It was necessary to specialize and centralize ever more than competing polities in order to survive. As with previous systems of growth, the agricultural and industrial revolutions were self-reinforcing as nations competed in terms of the size of the infantry armies they could field, the amount of steel for battleships and cannon they could produce, etc. It wasn’t possible to reverse course—while it may have been possible for the land area of England, for example, to support its population via either centralized or decentralized agriculture, only centralized agriculture freed a large enough portion of the population to manufacture export goods, military materiel, and to serve in the armed forces.
Similarly, the expansion of credit accelerated the rate of growth—it was no longer necessary to save first buy later when first home loans, then car loans, then consumer credit cards became ever more prevalent, all accelerating at ever-faster rates thanks to the wizardry of complex credit derivatives. This was again a self-supporting cycle: while it is theoretically possible to revert from a buy-now-pay-later system to a save-then-buy system, the transition period would require a significant period of vastly reduced spending—something that would crush today’s highly leveraged economies. Not only is it necessary to maintain our current credit structure, but it is necessary to continually expand our ability to consume now and pay later—just as in the peer polity conflicts between stone-age tribes, credit providers race to provide more consumption for less buck in an effort to compete for market share and to create shareholder return. Corporate entities, while existing at least as early as Renaissance Venice, are yet another example of structural bias toward growth: corporate finance is based on attracting investment by promising greater return for shareholder risk than competing corporations, resulting in a structural drive toward the singular goal of growth. And modern systems of quarterly reporting and 24-hour news cycles only exacerbate the already short-term risk horizons of such enterprises.
Why This is Important
This has been a whirlwind tour of the structural bias in hierarchy toward growth, but it has also, by necessity, been a superficial analysis. Books, entire libraries, could be filled with the analysis of this topic. But despite the scope of this topic, it is remarkable that such a simple concept underlies the necessity of growth: within hierarchy, surplus production equates to power, requiring competing entities across all scales to produce ever more surplus—to grow—in order to compete, survive, and prosper. This has, quite literally, Earth shaking ramifications.
We live on a finite planet, and it seems likely that we are nearing the limits of the Earth’s ability to support ongoing growth. Even if this limit is still decades or centuries away, there is serious moral hazard in the continuation of growth on a finite planet as it serves merely to push that problem on to our children or grandchildren. Growth cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. This must seem obvious to many people, but I emphasize the point because we tend to overlook or ignore its significance: the basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. Our civilization seems to have a knack for pushing the envelope, for finding stop-gap measures to push growth beyond a sustainable level. This is also problematic because the further we are able to inflate this bubble beyond a level that is sustainable indefinitely, the farther we must ultimately fall to return to a sustainable world. This is Civilization’s sunk cost: there is serious doubt that our planet can sustain 6+ billion people over the long term, but by drawing a line in the sand, that “a solution that results in the death of millions or billions to return to a sustainable level” is fundamentally impermissible, we merely increase the number that must ultimately die off. Furthermore, while it is theoretically possible to reduce population, as well as other measures of impact on our planet, in a gradual and non-dramatic way (e.g. no die off), the window of opportunity to choose that route is closing. We don’t know how fast—but that uncertainty makes this a far more difficult risk management problem (and challenge to political will) than knowing that we have precisely 10, 100, or 1000 years.
This is our ultimate challenge: solve the problem of growth or face the consequences. Growth isn't a problem that can be solved through a new technology--all that does is postpone the inevitable reckoning with the limits of a finite world. Fusion, biofuels, super-efficient solar panels, genetic engineering, nano-tech--these cannot, by definition, solve the problem. Growth is not merely a population problem, and no perfect birth control scheme can fix it, because peer polities will only succeed in reducing population (without being eliminated by those that outbreed them) if they can continue to compete by growing overall power to consumer, produce, and control. All these "solutions" can do is delay and exacerbate the Problem of Growth. Growth isn't a possible problem--it's a guaranteed crisis, we just don't know the exact time-frame.
Is there a solution to the Problem of Growth? Can global governance lead to an agreement to abate or otherwise manage growth effectively? It's theoretically possible, but I see it about as likely as solving war by getting everyone to agree to not fight. Plus, as the constitutional validity and effective power of the Nation-State declines, even if Nation-States manage to all agree to abate growth, they will fail because they are engaged in a very real peer-polity competition with non-state groups that will only use this competitive weakness as a means to establish a more dominant position--and continue growth. Others would argue that collapse is a solution (a topic I have explored in the past), but I now define that more as a resolution. Collapse does nothing to address the causes of Growth, and only results in a set-back for the growth-system. Exhaustion of energy reserves or environmental capacity could hobble the ability of civilization to grow for long periods of time--perhaps even on a geological time scale--but we have no way of knowing for sure that a post-crash civilization will not be just as ragingly growth-oriented as today's civilization, replete with the same or greater negative effects on the environment and the human spirit. Similarly, collapse that leads to extinction is a resolution, not a solution, when viewed from a human perspective.
A solution, at least as I define it, must allow humans to control the negative effects of growth on our environment and our ability to fulfill our ontogeny. The remaining essays in this series will attempt to identify the root cause of the problem of growth, and to propose concrete and implementable solutions that satisfy that definition.Sign Up: www.JeffVail.net is published every Monday morning (with occasional updates in between). Consider signing up for the RSS feed by clicking here.