Eben Fodor, perhaps best known for his book Better, Not Bigger, a virtual Bible among those tilting against the growth presumption, was here last week to give a lecture down at the county library.
It had been years since I read Better, Not Bigger, and, in those years, I had forgotten just how much of my perspective had been formed by his book. The lecture brought it all back home. As he spoke, it was one ah ha! moment after another, just as when I first read his book.
CATS was there, taping the whole thing. For those of you who couldn’t make it, make it up, either by watching the rebroadcast or tromping down to the library and requesting a copy.
What is “growth"?
Growth is a word that gets carelessly tossed about and almost always without any context. “We need growth!” goes the saying, without anyone owning up to what it is that they’re actually advocating growing.
Maybe that’s why my dictionary says growth is a noun, says it’s a thing. But the dictionary’s wrong.
Growth is an adjective, describing something happening to a thing. It’s not a thing itself.
What’s growing? And is that thing’s growth good, or bad?
When Fodor talks about growth, he’s talking about increments in the built environment, the result of growth of the human population. What’s growing? People. What’s the result?
The land changes. Is that good, or is it bad?
The economic argument for growth
Our economy is hard-wired for growth. That means, when we loan someone money, when we make an investment, we expect to be paid back. What’s more, and what’s more important, we expect to be paid back with compound interest.
If that doesn’t happen, if loans and investments fail to deliver exponential returns, if they fail to deliver compound interest, the wheels come off.
And we hurtle headlong into the abyss.
If a shark stops swimming, it dies. If our economy stops growing, it dies. But just as sharks aren’t the only kind of fish in the sea, our growth-based economy isn’t the only kind of economy. It’s just the one we happen to be stuck with.
Because we’re stuck with it, and because we’re terrified of what would happen were the economy to stop growing, we think that everything has to keep growing. We believe in growth, for growth’s sake.
Which, as Edward Abbey famously pointed out, is the ideology of a cancer cell.
The popular argument against it
Our desire for interest-bearing savings has translated into a presumption of growth in our built environment. A community that gets bigger must be getting better, goes the saying. But is that really so and, if not, who’s telling us it is?
Some statistics (all from Fodor’s talk):
- There’s no connection between a community’s growth rate and its income or employment levels. Growing communities do not offer better employment, and stable communities do not have poor employment. Growth does not create jobs for existing residents. New jobs are for people who don’t live here, yet. Jobs create growth, not the other way around.
- The total amount of paved land in the United States now covers an area equal to the size of the state of Ohio. Would it be better if it were larger, if we grew more?
- The rate of conversion of land from greenfields to suburbs, strip malls and office pods is increasing rapidly. Every decade we develop an area the size of the state of Indiana. Would it be better if it were larger, if we grew more?
- Speaking of Indiana, we lead the nation in converting soybeans to suburbs. Fifty-three percent of the land that has gone into new subdivisions in Indiana used to be used for food production. Would it be better if it were larger, if we grew more?
- We’re building 10,000 miles of new roads every year, enough to cross the entire country four times. Would it be better if it were larger, if we grew more?
- When polled on the issue of growth, the overwhelming majority (two-thirds) of the American public indicates that a) they believe their community will grow in size and people, and b) that the growth will negatively affect their lives.
Okay, maybe we’re smarter than I thought. Maybe we don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake. Or at least most of us. But if we don’t, who does?
One final statistic: According to Fodor, 64 percent of all political contributions to local elections come from less than 5 percent of the population. Who is that 5 percent? Real-estate and associated industries.
“The cooling housing market … contributed to weaker first-quarter results [at newspapers],” the Wall Street Journal reported on April 20.
To paraphrase Upton Sinclair: “It’s hard to convince a man of something, when his livelihood depends on not being convinced.”
Change the imperative
I’ve done the math for Bloomington and Monroe County, and our local statistics are not materially different from Fodor’s national ones. The overwhelming source of money in local elections comes from the growth machine: that small portion of the population that actually does get rich off of more, not better.
But you can change that. There’s a city election this year and a county one next. Seek out those candidates who promise to plan for change, not for growth. Those willing to presume in favor of the community’s ecological, not quantitative, needs.
And give them some money.
Gregory Travis can be reached at .