The Power of Stories, and the Need for New Ones

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As my concern with our ceaseless reliance on economic growth increases, I have come to see the peddling of this singular truth about prosperity everywhere I look. The critique of growth has become quite familiar, and can be described in a nutshell as awareness that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible, and that change is imminent – welcome or not. This means thoughtful development of alternatives is necessary for our survival and well-being.

What’s Growth Got to Do With It?

This critique of growth most frequently arises in relation to matters such as economic systems, environmental health, waste and our throwaway society, patterns of consumption and production, corporate power, globalization, and wealth. However, concern about the growth model also finds its way into some unlikely places, such as how we think about happiness, relationships, social services (including health and education), and social justice activities – to name a few.

These days, growth even informs the way we think about activism. As a result, the current generation of young people who are interested in engaging in social justice matters are often ‘pitched’ with the enticing possibility that they can ‘do more for less’. For example, they are told that ‘liking’ We Day on Facebook can change the world, buying a fair trade T-shirt can contribute to global justice, and that attending a one-day corporate-funded, star-studded event can start a revolution.

I’m not suggesting that these small moves are harmful in themselves (it’s certainly better to buy a fairly-traded T-shirt than one produced unfairly) — but I am suggesting they are nested within a model that is quite harmful. Convincing the youth of affluent nations that they can change the world without changing themselves is a lie. Indeed, encouraging youth to continue to consume at the rates that they do, and ensuring them that doing so will transform them into activists is hijacking their efforts toward real justice. And by eliciting corporations to support such movements, we are witnessing the infiltration of growth norms and practices into initiatives which, in fact, require that we move beyond such a model.

Objective Reporting or Peddling Growth?

So what is it that has so successfully facilitated the normalization of growth as a singular, unquestionable, underlying truth?  While of course there is not one answer to this question, I find ‘business reporting’ to be conspicuous in its absence from the list of areas (mentioned above) in which critiques of growth have surfaced.

Indeed, the more I think about the normalization and prevalence of growth ideals everywhere I turn, the more I shudder when I hear the introduction to the business report on the CBC, Canada’s publicly-funded news source. And I shudder frequently: business seems to be reported as often as the weather forecast.

As a listener, my day is punctuated with information as to which stocks are up and which are down. With (comforting?) regularity throughout the day/week/year, CBC reporters inform their audience where our dollar is in relation to America’s, let us know how we can all do our part as consumers, and remind us that certain things (like oil prices) are simply out of our hands.  They comfort us that while our housing market is struggling, the bailouts and checks and balances are proving to have served Canadians well, and the recession is increasingly spoken of in the past tense.

I have to wonder: to whom do the minute details of Wall Street’s activities matter? The average Canadian is busy going to work, raising their families, planting their garden, or trying to find a few coins to rub together – let alone invest them. In fact, most Canadians live paycheque to paycheque (those of us who receive one at all, that is). This being the case, most of us simply glaze over at the mere mention of stock options. What, then, is the function of this frequency of business reporting? It’s with that question that the notion of propaganda seems to make sense: if a message is repeated often enough from reputable enough sources, well, eventually it becomes irrefutable. And the growth message comes from everywhere.

It’s not just the frequency of this message that has become curious to me, but the form as well. Amanda Lang’s assertion on the news the other night that increased private spending is “a sign of health” runs in direct contradiction to the things I am learning about the sustainability of this economic model. I know this is not the only story here, but the interviewer nodded in acceptance of Lang’s statement – the same kind of statement that is unquestioningly accepted every time I hear a business report.

Despite CBC’s self-proclamation as a news source that provides fair and balanced reporting, I have never heard a business report that did not state in absolute terms that a growing economy is a thriving economy. By adopting this ‘objective’ stance towards economics, by interviewing ‘experts’ who unconditionally support a growth model economy, our information sources – particularly those that are either for-profit or government subsidized – are effectively eliminating from public discourse the possibility that there are viable and necessary alternatives.

Post-growth Economic Futures

The growth story as it is currently peddled is very compelling. Much like our current medical narrative which suggests there is a cure for everything (we just have to discover it) and that we never have to experience loss, the growth narrative promises there is a way we can have everything, and we never have to experience less.

But like it or not, these two stories are exposed as myths by the likelihood that this generation will be the first not to outlive its parents; it may also be experiencing a lower standard of living than its parents. Despite technological advances, are we experiencing our own decline? It’s time to consider what post-growth futures might look like.

While growth-pushers suggest there’s only one trajectory for this storyline, there is good reason to believe otherwise. Rather than the ‘growth equals prosperity’ slogan we’ve been sold, in fact much of the more recent evidence shows quite the opposite: when different measures are used, it becomes clear that post-growth futures are actually far more likely to serve the needs of the planet and its people than a growth model does today. Maybe having less stuff means having more of what really matters.

The good news is: growth is not the only economic model, despite what we hear on the daily news. The very exciting news is: a post-growth world is feasible – and it looks good. As we embrace alternatives to this model, we can expect that more of us will experience greater satisfaction, health, and well-being.

Fortunately, scores of people all over the world are already taking up the challenge to think and act seriously about post-growth futures. There are visionaries, activists, economists, educators, researchers, and concerned citizens setting to work creating such post-growth possibilities. The challenge is to create the space for their work to be normalized, replacing the incessant repetition of the promise of growth with which we are currently bombarded.

What can we do to contribute to a world in which the growth story is not the only story we hear? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Find out who is paving the way for post-growth futures in your town. For example, in my community of 20,000, there are a number of initiatives: slowcoast, transition town, community radio, family and community resource centers, a fruit tree project, community gardens, landshare co-ops, and much more.
  2. Develop relationships with these initiatives; support their work, get involved, and spread the word.
  3. Write a letter to your MP in support of these local initiatives.
  4. Write your local and national paper in support of these (and related) initiatives.
  5. Contact your local and national news source and challenge them to include ‘post-growth’ economic possibilities in their business reporting. Encourage everyone you know to do the same!
  6. Join or start a letter-writing campaign, such as this one:
  7. Create your own ideas…and spread the word here!

Published by Janet Newbury

Janet Newbury has a PhD in Child and Youth Care, teaches at the University of Victoria, and is actively involved in various community-based initiatives in Powell River, BC. She lives on the West Coast of Canada.

9 replies on “The Power of Stories, and the Need for New Ones”

  1. Janet,

    A great post which sums up the issue perfectly. It is worrying to see the progressive movement that corporations have made into the business of fixing the world’s problems, on two levels. Firstly, I don’t think it is appropriate that corporations identify which issues are worth addressing in the world, because this is where their own vested interests come into play. Secondly, I think you summed up the problem beautifully with this line: “Convincing the youth of affluent nations that they can change the world without changing themselves is a lie.” Liking a page on Facebook might assuage someone of their own first world guilt, but it does very little if lifestyles and mindsets do not fundamentally change.

    I agree that media sources constantly shape what we, as a society, value, and that mindless repetition is often used to do this. However, I don’t agree that there is anything inherently incorrect in assuming that a growing economy is a thriving economy. What I think is more problematic is equating a thriving economy with “success” and “happiness”. In essence, the assumption equates “economic prosperity” with success.

    Despite intuitively knowing the opposite, we see this myth perpetuated all around us. I was reading this ( article from the Wall St Journal, on quite a different topic (talking about why men in their 20s take so long to reach “adulthood”), and one of the intrinsic assumptions in the article was that higher paid jobs equates to reaching adulthood. For someone that has no interest in climbing to the top of the salary ladder, this might come across as a bit difficult to comprehend.

    This brings us back to the role of corporations in promoting societal and cultural norms, and highlights exactly how dangerous it is, particularly when corporations are pushing these very values of economic success. So if we highlight that the corporation is one of the main causes of these myths and problems, how do we tackle it, when it is all around us? What strategies would you suggest that everyday people could employ to resist the corporation and fight against the myth of growth that they pose?

  2. Thanks for pushing these ideas even further, Weh. You raise some great points, and draw some really important connections.
    As for the little bit about ‘a growing economy is a thriving economy’ … I definitely agree with you that there are other measures of success besides wealth. But I’d also suggest that even if economic measures are what we’re after, we’re probably in for a harsh reality check if we think this kind of growth model will enable us to go on indefinitely. With finite resources, the growth model will not ‘thrive’ forever.
    Hm, your final questions are great, and I’d love to hear what others have to say in response – think of the list of possibilities we might generate here – and then act on! As for me, my response at the moment would be twofold: 1. We have to put pressure on leaders to acknowledge the limits, dangers, and injustices inherent in the current model, and to make concrete changes in order to address them. 2. We have to put good solid energy into other possibilities, and these can most readily be found at a grassroots level. Strengthening local movements and activities can then bolster efforts at systemic change, by providing realistic concrete alternatives to the status quo. I don’t think this is a question of ‘local or global’, ‘systemic or grassroots’ … I think the two are vitally important and can (and should) go hand in hand.
    Thanks for your comments Weh. Great to hear your perspective.

  3. Janet,

    Good contribution to the whole slow growth/post growth debate (with great links to useful stuff), especially the part dealing with young people and how they are being manipulated to carry the torch for consumer society. If they can’t be mobilized re: voluntary simplicity and cultural change then we are in trouble.

    A couple of points that I thought would have made the piece stronger: The article is very good on the cultural dimension of the obsession with growth by the biz media in particular: “So what is it that has so successfully facilitated the normalization of growth as a singular, unquestionable, underlying truth? While of course there is not one answer to this question, I find ‘business reporting’ to be conspicuous in its absence from the list of areas (mentioned above) in which critiques of growth have surfaced.”

    I think it would have been useful to point out – even though it may seem obvious – that capitalism must grow or it will die. That analysis is shared by everybody from Adam Smith to Marx to Amanda Lang Without this foundation for understanding the growth imperative it could be assumed that we could just quit consuming stuff and all else would remain the same. But if we REALLY quit consuming stuff we don’t need, capitalism would enter a phase of permanent crisis and there would be profound social and political implications.

    It would mean that those now with power would begin to lose it so they would do all they could to suppress and halt any movement for post-growth that was really effective. In short, it will still in the end be about power – exactly how that would play out will be determined by hundreds of factors, not least of which the speed at which 1) we build the post-growth movement and 2) how fast the planet imposes its limits. If the planet is faster than we are it will be chaos and dystopia with the wealthy hiring private armies to defend against the literally starving masses.

    A more optimistic view could see the wealthy slowly come to their senses and give up some of their wealth and status. But as attractive as this notion is it seems unlikely from my reading of history and culture. It’s actually too late for that to happen given how long such a change would take. There will be a rush for safety behind the walls of the gated “communities” – which already exist with their private police and fire services.

    But we certainly agree that it will start in smaller communities like Powell.River where community is still possible, genuine, participatory democracy could still take hold and we can actually imagine a different future taking shape.

    Also, you say, and I agree: “What, then, is the function of this frequency of business reporting? It’s with that question that the notion of propaganda seems to make sense: if a message is repeated often enough from reputable enough sources, well, eventually it becomes irrefutable. And the growth message comes from everywhere.”

    It’s not just the growth message that comes from everywhere – its’ the message that the economy is all important. One of the propaganda coups of the right has been to turn the role of the economy on its head. In the so-called golden age – the 60s and most of the ‘70s – the question was always how could the economy serve the country/nation/society/families. In short, it was secondary to these institutions. Every politician talked about “full employment” – even if they didn’t believe in it. You never – literally – hear that phrase any more. We are now almost 20 years into an era where the question is “Is it good for the economy?” Federal bureaucrats at international meetings no longer refer to countries as countries. They refer to them – universally – as “economies.” The abstract economy is now the dominant institution and everything else has to be sacrificed for it. The concern now is with inflation – because it is the wealthy who suffer with high inflation (their wealth decreases). The notion that inflation is a threat to our very lives is just nonsense. The IMF (hardly a left wing organization) reported a few years back that inflation of 8% or less is not a threat to the proper functioning of the economy.

    Of course, when you deconstruct what the economy means in this cultural context, it is nothing more nor less than the largest corporations, with the financial sector being dominant. I was involved in an effort years ago to organize bank workers. One young woman teller I had lunch with told me she didn’t want a wage increase because it would be inflationary – and bad for the economy. That’s how deeply ingrained the message is.

    Lastly, your list of actions is great – all key to creating the cultural change that is necessary for post-growth. But…we can’t let our guard down on the political system we happen to have. There is real power there – and it can be used to promote post-growth, or make it more difficult.

  4. Murray,
    THANK YOU for the reminder of the importance of a) history and b) political context when it comes to these matters. Really, really appreciate you sharing these ideas here.

  5. Thanks Kiely, and thanks for all the thought-provoking writing and clips over there at Flashpoint.

  6. Janet, Good post,

    and Murray, I couldn’t agree more with the link between growth and capitalism. I have written about that several times, last when reviewing Tim Jackson’s book,

    Perhaps the interesting thing is not to discuss growth or zero-growth but to free our minds from at all use economic growth as a good indicator of development of any kind, whether it is good or bad. Growth is, in this perspective not the problem and certainly not the solution, but just a symptom of other things. I expand on that in another blog post.

  7. This is a very provocative discussion. I wish I could remember where I read that continuous growth on the cellular level is called cancer, a word that can strike terror in many hearts. I might have read it in a Buckminster Fuller essay many years ago.

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