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Developing Naturally: Common Growth Myths

Dave Ewoldt, June 2006

   Most people accept the status quo as the way things are and therefore must be. They're used to it. It's comfortable. But wonder if the status quo is flawed? There is a litmus test for validity: Does it support the Web of Life?

   Let's take the business-as-usual mindset of infinite growth as an example. Can it provide a realistic framework for how it will continue to meet people's needs as population increases on a finite planet, stop creating its negative consequences of resource depletion and pollution, and provide tangible benefits and improvements in the overall quality of life for everyone instead of just the top 5%? Could this framework survive the light of day? I think not--and an alternative is both necessary and available.

   Since the general dissatisfaction with the status quo of the growth economy is generally not allowed to express itself or be presented rationally without being marginalized as communist rantings against capitalism, nor are the disastrous consequences of the infinite growth paradigm generally discussed in mainstream media, let's start with some of the accepted myths of orthodox growth economists.

   First though, let's reiterate what we're talking about. "To grow" means to develop to maturity, which includes the concept that there is a point where sufficiency is reached; where accumulation gives way to a steady-state of maintenance. It must be understood that growth is _not_ equivalent to betterment. After all, imagine if we humans never stopped growing physically. Even an old-growth forest reaches a point of maturity and steady-state maintenance.

   A foundational assumption of orthodox growth economists is that if a little growth is good, then more must be better. World Bank economist and professor Herman Daly immediately reminds us, however, of the elementary economic principle of diminishing marginal benefit and increasing marginal cost. The 1971 President's Council of Economic Advisors admits that growth in the GNP has its costs, and that there comes a point beyond which these costs aren't worth paying. However, there is no effort put into determining where this point might be. Further, the Council states that people's desires and government policies put "claims upon GNP itself that can only be satisfied by rapid economic growth." By not discussing these claims or growth costs, growth mania is created.

   Daly further points out that the situation is actually even worse than this. We take the defensive costs of protecting ourselves from the unwanted side-effects of resource extraction and production, and add these to the GNP instead of subtracting them. Orthodox growth economists tally costs as benefits. Daly calls this "hypergrowthmania." By not properly accounting for costs, the point where growth becomes uneconomic can always be said to exist somewhere in the future, and "the ideology of growth ...transcends the ordinary logic of elementary economics."

   One of the common arguments against limiting growth is that we must continue to grow the economy in order to pay for economic degradation, pollution, and finding the new areas for resource extraction that are necessary for continued growth. Think about this for a moment. They're saying we can't afford to pay for cleaning up after ourselves if we don't continue to consume more. But this just increases the need and scope of the clean up efforts. Not only will there never be enough to pay for it, the gap will continue to increase.

   Pollution, loss of non-renewable resources, and using renewables beyond their regenerative capacity is an iotragenic disease. By calling for increased production to treat the induced pathology of unlimited wants, we have a treatment induced disease which can't be cured by increasing the treatment dosage. Growth economists insist you can't have too much of a good thing, but what we need is an emetic, not more of the same medicine.

   The need to move to a steady-state economy, and remain within the limits and constraints of our natural resources--the model exhibited by a healthy and thriving ecosystem--is further clarified by Harold E. Goeller. In "An Optimistic Outlook for Mineral Resources," he concludes that if properly managed, the Earth's resources could maintain American's current (1972) level of affluence, if we only share it with the rest of the world to "some meaningful degree" for about another 100 years. To which Daly makes the obvious point, that "such optimism makes pessimism redundant."

   The confluence of Peak Oil, global warming, and the imminent collapse of a growth economy fueled by the compound interest charged on increasing levels of debt is a race to the bottom in which there are no winners. The time to start changing our ways and developing a steady-state economy is now. And we can start the relocalization process right here at home.

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Attraction Retreat, a call at (520) 887-2502.


"If you want to know your past, look into your present conditions. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions."
Chinese Proverb


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