The Elephant in the Room

I was struck by something Yvon Chouinard said in this video I found on Youtube. At one point he says regarding sustainability that ”growth is the elephant in the room”. At first I didn’t react much but the phrase stuck with me and eventually started a quite vitalizing personal reflection process.

Sustainable human life on Earth is the most pressing issue we face. But not the hottest topic at social gatherings. Or in companies. Or in schools. Or even in politics.

We just don’t frame it that way. It makes us feel depressed. We want to be happy and joyful.

Guess what. Going extinct is REALLY depressing.

I believe we are in deep shit. I believe we are very successful at not dealing with this challenge. So, I share Yvon Chouinard’s pessimism on our future, but also his views on the few things that represent our hope.

The thing is, all these insights more or less came to me in the early 90’s. Which led me to start consulting on environmental issues in the mid 90’s. I read the fascinating and eye opening book The Limits to Growth, and a long line of other books as well. I really dug into the subject. I met Karl-Henrik Robert at The Natural Step and also participated in their training. I made myself committed to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. For a while.

It seems I got distracted. I gradually lost my bearings during a longer period of time – almost 20 years. Sure, I did some of the obvious stuff. Recycled, reduced consumption, lightened my footprint and such but if I look at my professional life I did very little. I shared the occasional book or video clip, I would have sustainability as an important factor in my strategy presentations, but essentially I did not seriously put myself into the service of our future on Earth.

Now, I know this last sentence sounds pretentious as hell but I can’t find any other way to put it. And I’m thinking there is no other way anyone of us should be thinking about our contribution – with the exception of those that are most vulnerable.

So, a lot of suppressed thoughts and emotions caught up with me in the recent weeks and has made me pissed off at myself. I’m trying now to repent and do better. Daniel Quinn says we need to change our minds before we can make any useful changes in how we live. I believe this to be very true and Yvon Chouinard put me right back on track reflecting on the biggie of our civilization – growth.

Our obsession with growth is so sophisticated and embedded in our culture that we can’t see any other perspectives. Karl-Henrik Robert once said that GDP is a very good measure of how rapidly we are depleting the resources of our planet. Oh, the irony of this. Instead of constructing a measure that protects the resources we are so dependent on, we created something that encourages squandering.

When I look myself in the mirror I realize I am also guilty of pretending that all will be fine. Or maybe I should say I have been willfully blind. Telling myself things aren’t that bad. We will sort it out together. Why should I panic when no one else is, etc. But this behavior is exactly what is killing us. Boiled frog syndrome or whatever (I’ve heard this frog thing is a myth but haven’t bothered to check).

Anyway. Growth IS the elephant in the room. Big friggin’ humungous elephant. Almost all of us sense it. But we won’t talk about it. Because it makes us feel depressed and afraid. So we go on killing ourselves and instead try to focus on having a little fun while we do. Or we say to each other that we’ll deal with it later, we only have a couple things to attend to first….

Here is how I see our situation. In broad and slightly simplistic terms.

The embedded cultural idea of growth is a dead end. David Suzuki lays it out elegantly in this short video. There can be no such thing as sustainable growth. It is an oxymoron. What we can have is periods of growth and then retraction, like all other species. But we have found ways to fiddle with these mechanisms, keep feeding our growth and delay the consequences. But by golly, the consequences will haunt us. In our culture we have for some reason planted the idea of eternal growth as something necessary and attainable. We have somehow reached the conclusion that we are exempt from the laws of nature. But there can be no such thing as eternal growth. Period.

What we can have and should strive for is sustainable development. What is the difference compared to growth? I lend myself to the thinking of the late Russell Ackoff, systems thinker in the higher league. He said growth is the increase in size or number. Development is the increase in competence. This makes a lot of sense so I say let’s go for sustainable development and not growth. Any accompanying growth would need to be within the planetary boundaries.

I changed my mind about growth in the 90’s. I am convinced it is killing us. I just forgot about this for a while. Our survival, as I see it, is linked to development – increasing our competence. We do not need more things. We do not need bigger things. We do not need to be more humans on the planet. Yes, there is a case for uneven distribution. But let us then redistribute within our planetary boundaries, not continue to steal from future generations. This system is finite, and we have to deal with it.

I once again realize I have to push myself to initiate and participate in mind changing conversations and contribute so we collectively can get out of our bind. I want my kids to have a reasonable shot at a decent life. The way things look we perhaps only have 2-3 decades to change our minds and move in a new direction. We’ve had humans on the planet for a couple of million years. The last 10-15,000 marked a new course in our lifestyle – which fueled growth. The last 150 years accelerated this growth exponentially. But this is a bankrupt lifestyle. We are lending from the planet, from future human generations, from other species – and soon we won’t be able to repay our debts. If human life on Earth were a business, laws would force us to reconstruct our business or go belly up. I would at this stage prefer the option of reconstructing. We are not dead yet.

So, what will now come next? I honestly don’t know, but it must be different. And it must be sustainable. For the majority of people I think this is a daunting and scary process. Resistance to change will continue to dominate. Willful blindness will continue.

For some – including me – our predicament is a vast space of opportunity. We have a shot at doing something unprecedented. Humanity’s next great adventure is here!



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