Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The ideology of growth


"Growth for the sake of growth is the

ideology of the cancer cell."

—Ed Abbey

Admirers of the thinking, writing and philosophical life of Ed Abbey (1927-1989) keep that quote handy when trying to make sense of any number of political, social, economic, environmental, imperial and even personal perplexities woven into the fabric of modern life. It is axiomatic that for something to grow, something else must die, a truism overlooked more often than not.

Abbey's insight is, as usual, well phrased, and, as usual, mostly disregarded, disdained and denigrated by the people who could best use and be served by it. That is, the majority. Such is the fate of many hard or even inconvenient truths and the people who espouse them. Abbey was not the first to point out that growth for the sake of growth is destructive. Neither will he be the last, though "the ideology of the cancer cell" is hard to beat as metaphor.

All things seem to have a size that works for itself and for that part of the world in which it lives. Beyond that size, things tend to come undone. Anyone who has not been living in a high-mountain, isolated cave for the past few years can easily pick out numerous examples from world and local affairs to make the point.

Among the earliest and best known seers of the inescapable consequences of growth was Britain's Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). His most famous quote and axiom is likely "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second."

Abbey and Malthus, to put it mildly, lived very different lives by wildly different personal and social values and would not have agreed on many things. Abbey was a practicing, devout hedonist, Malthus a devoted, conservative, proper, priggish Anglican minister. Malthus saw population growth as divinely imposed to teach humanity virtuous behavior. Abbey, on the other hand, said, "Homosexuality, like androgyny, might be an instinctive racial response to overpopulation, crowding, and stress. Both flourish when empire reaches its apogee."

It is amusing to contemplate Ed and Tom sitting down over a bottle of wine to discuss theology, human behavior and their respective views of human population growth, but it is more instructive to pay attention to the overlap in the thinking and observations of two such very different men. They both saw that overpopulation has unpleasant consequences, though one ascribed them to a creator's lesson plan and the other to mankind's greed and stupidity.

At the time Malthus died, there were about a billion humans on the earth. By the time Abbey died 150 years later, there were about five billion humans, an indication that the lesson plan wasn't working too well.

In 1968, Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb," in which he states, "A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people. Treating only the symptoms of cancer may make the victim more comfortable at first, but eventually he dies—often horribly. A similar fate awaits a world with a population explosion if only the symptoms are treated. We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparent brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance to survive...(We need) compulsory birth regulation... (through) the addition of temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food. Doses of the antidote would be carefully rationed by the government to produce the desired family size."

Needless to say, Ehrlich's proposed treatments for the disease have not been embraced by any nation, much less devotees of smaller governments or the Catholic Church, but perhaps he, Malthus and Abbey are onto something real.

Meanwhile, the world population at this writing is approaching seven billion and is increasing by more than 100,000 each day, almost two million each month, and almost 40 million each year, on and on and on in a geometric ratio that, whether one views it as part of a divine plan, the result of greed and stupidity, or a disease in need of treatment, has consequences also increasing in a geometric ratio.

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