I have a lot of conversations about growth. Many of my clients hire me to help them grow.
There’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask but until now, I have not had the courage to ask.
Here’s what I need to know…
How much growth is enough?
I felt strange even writing that. It’s heresy. I could be ex-communicated from the world of business for even suggesting such a bold and unorthodox idea. However, in spite of the risks, I really think it’s important to pose questions like this because the orthodoxy of today is not working.
I’ll explain what I mean by that.
First, let’s examine how the infinite growth mindset affects us on a macro level and then zoom into the micro level. Looking through these two lenses will give us a clear picture of what it’s doing to our culture, and how that winds up affecting us.
First, a clarification. When I say it’s “not working” I mean it’s not benefiting most of us. However, from a different angle, the infinite growth dogma is “working” exactly as intended. If we look at who stands to benefit from a culture of infinite growth, it’s not the majority of the population, but rather a small cabal of ultra-wealthy people who own the land, the property, the media, and who benefit the most from other people’s labor. As a result, it is in their best interest to see that people come to believe that all of this growth is to their benefit. We’ll address this perspective on infinite growth and also look at it on the much smaller scale such as a small business owner.
Starting at the macro level, we should be able to see that our obsession with infinite growth is a problem.
In order to continue growing, we must expand consumer culture into to new markets. This expansion seeks to create new demand for products and services. When all of this expansion and growth is successful, markets go up, and investors earn a return.
However, all of this inevitably requires continued exploitation of natural resources for raw materials and for power, and exploitation of people for the cheap labor. So long as there is demand for a product or service, we will continue to produce, environmental consequences be damned. Since rarely are products made to order, another natural byproduct of this mode of production and consumption, is excess production and waste.
Profit maximization is central to growth and therefore it is in the company’s best interest to keep costs low. Further, if companies believe in their responsibility is to maximize shareholder returns, they will do whatever they can to get there even if it means labor exploitation, less safe work spaces, more environmental damage, or any other negative repercussion. As a result, if the cost of a fine or penalty can be outweighed by the profit potential of cutting corners, it’s seen as good business to do that.
We aren’t taking the problems created by the infinite growth ideology seriously enough, preferring to maintain “up and to the right” by brute force, if necessary. And so, this cycle give us a front seat to watch the looming threat of climate catastrophe and the collapse of bio-diversity.
Those who benefit from this system are the lucky few who have the freedom to afford to temporarily sidestep the problems that the system causes.
Now, Closer to Home
On a micro-level, our cultural obsession with growth has created a standard way of thinking that is unsustainable by design. No matter how much we have, we fear it isn’t enough because we’ve seen how one small swing could leave us with nothing. Since there is virtually no net to catch us when we fall, we operate in a perpetual state of fear, like animals all fighting for survival.
We fear the coming of automation and AI which threatens to wipe out entire categories of employment. We fear our salaries not keeping up with inflation or the rising costs of food, healthcare, or education. We know that our wages haven’t kept up with productivity, and we see the income inequality gap widening with every new report.
Psychologically we suffer from a constant state of performance anxiety, perpetually fearful and always trying to protect what is ours. This is true from the unemployed, to the small business owner, to the CEO of a multinational corporation; we simply never have enough.
Imagine for a moment what it would take for you to truly believe that you have enough. It’s tough to even imagine because it’s so rare that we acknowledge being satisfied. Somewhere along the way, we decided to do away with the concept of enough.
I think it’s time we bring it back.
“I have enough.”
I would argue that not only can we do better, but it’s actually quite simple, in principle.
Enough requires that we completely reframe what it means to be successful. We should do this and discuss it openly.
It means rethinking what we expect from one another in society. The narrative that we are all lone individuals accountable to no one else but our own self-interest, is a dystopian reading of Darwinism. We only made it this far together. Let’s not abandon one another now. Not when we need each other most. Where we used to fear lions and tigers and bears, we now face a global extinction level threat.
We need to start somewhere. For companies, it means thinking not about unlimited and endless growth, but about a destination where everyone on the team has everything they need to survive and thrive. We need to imagine companies as sustainable entities, concerned more with the well being of each individual on the team rather than the profitability of the person or people at the top.
Whether at home or at work, we should be striving for safety in numbers as we share our journey on this rock spaceship floating through the galaxy, with no known replacements. Many of us couldn’t survive in the wilderness on this planet let alone Mars, so maybe it’s time we start cooperating before it’s too late.
In the end, our biggest decision will be deciding what is enough for one person so that everyone has enough, but not too much.
These thoughts were inspired by the following podcast.
Also published on Medium.