Stuck on the Bus

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“There’s a bomb on a bus. Once the bus goes 50 miles an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 50, it blows up. Whaddya do?” Well, if you’re Keanu Reeves, you might leap from a speeding car, mid-traffic, deliver roundhouse kicks to bad guys, and grin coolly under pressure. If you’re a member of the global North, you might start building a steady-state economy.

What’s the connection?

Astute fans of nineties action flicks will attribute that line about the speeding bus to Speed, the shoot-‘em-up blockbuster that had hostages trapped on a bomb-rigged bus that couldn’t slow down. The passengers on the bus were stuck: They’d crash or run out of gas eventually, but slowing down was unthinkable. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the nightly news will recognize that our economy might as well be on that bus too: If growth slows, we risk losing our jobs or worse. But if it speeds up – especially if that growth is driven by more coal-fired power plants — we’re headed for the sheer cliffs of ecological limits. (Herman Daly and others have pointed this out already, writing that “a failed growth economy is not the same as a steady state economy.”) Sadly, a few slick one-liners from Keanu Reeves can’t do much this time around.

I point out the analogy because I think it does a great job of bringing to life the “rock-and-a-hard-place” position we’re in. We have to find a way out of both the economic crisis and the Long Emergency of global environmental instability at the same time. That’s a complicated, scary, massive challenge. And it’s also new. We haven’t really put together a working set of words, images and analogies, or helpful shorthand, for getting our heads around just what exactly is going on. In contrast, think about the vocabularies built around other tough crises that push public debate forward: Since the American economy tanked in 2008, we’ve discussed “golden parachutes,” “bailouts,” “green shoots,” and plenty more.

In terms of environmental sustainability, though, we aren’t quite at square one. Thanks to the good work of many activists over the last few years, we’ve got “350” – the uppermost safe parts per million limit of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. We’ve got “carbon footprint.” And we’ve got a lock on the color green. But in the mainstream, the problem with pursuing growth while already up against ecological limits isn’t well understood. I wonder: Is this is simply because nobody can imagine what lies on the other side of growth? After all, our current experience of  “the other side of growth”  is job loss, home loss, and worse. Challenging growth, in that context, would sound like the equivalent of letting the bomb go off in the bus.

I once heard that there is no word in the Russian language for the concept of “privacy”. Unnamed, it’s not part of the culture, an indescribable concept — like trying to envision what gravity or dark matter looks like. Here’s the point: In a way, when something is given a name, it suddenly “exists.” Without a name (or an analogy, vocabulary, or image), it’s mostly un-graspable. So maybe it’s time to start building a vocabulary that’ll be powerful enough to lift the postgrowth concept from fringe interest into mainstream discussion. And colorful analogies might help — no Keanu Reeves necessary.

Note: Some credit should go to Rob Dietz of Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, whose essay, “Economics for the Story of Stuff,” inspired this post.

The image above lives here.

Published by Scott Gast

Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.

6 replies on “Stuck on the Bus”

  1. Scott,

    Great post! I hope that this blog helps us to create the language around this concept. We need terms like “post growth” to be absorbed into our culture, and perhaps we need to think of new ways of creating this dialog, too.


  2. Re: a vocabulary to usher in a post growth world.

    I always thought the distinction between growth and development was useful. Most people hearing the two would not see a difference but if we consistently advocate economic development and pour scorn on economic growth we simultaneously wrong-foot the conventional economic and political establishment whilst not frightening those who equate growth with expanding wealth and all things good.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    Nick: Yes! I couldn’t agree more. “Growth” vs. “development” is the one that always stuck for me too (see the tagline of this site: “End of bigger. Start of better”). I think, though, that it’ll be important for those two terms to be properly defined and separated in mainstream discussion. Often seems like the two are interchangeable on the evening news — with “growth” always edging out “development.”

    How does that process of public defining happen? Through ad campaigns? Gradual use in the news? For example: How did the word “green” get connected to “environment” in mainstream consciousness?


  4. Thanks, Nick! I think the more ways these concepts can be distilled into accurate, people-friendly words/analogies/phrases, the faster they’ll move into popular debate — which seems, to me, the first step in changing our trajectory…


  5. Scott, this ‘Stuck on the Bus’ idea is brilliant for communications purposes – a wonderful metaphor and meme for folks who are more likely to be familiar with the storyline of a pop culture film than abstract discussions about sustainability.

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