Monday, July 13, 2009

Climate change is not the primary issue

Play it again, Sam. Sam points out that both peak and oil and climate change are themselves symptoms of a larger issue facing contemporary society: namely, what I have previously called "the myth of infinite growth". And that this in turn is primarily a spiritual and ethical issue, not simply an economic, technological or political issue (though it is all of those as well).

Can anyone offer suggestions of published academic work that makes this point? This is quite an important aspect of my current project.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Not sure - but John Michael Greer's book covers it. (Does it count as academic?)

Rich said...

Karl Marx?
Donella H. Meadows?

Truman Falsetto said...

Hey Byron,

Wendell Berry has written innumerable essays on infinite growth. The two books, "What are People For" and "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community" have a few each.

Andrew Chirgwin said...

Hey Byron,
Just as a "devil's advocate" comment, there is possibly an interesting phenomenon that goes with the "Infinite Growth" concept.

There is an economic assumption that inflation must occur. The fact that the house I recently purchased was valued at $300,000 when the home I did much of my "growing up in" is in a better location, is larger and a host of other things cost significantly less than that.

So we can have an "illusion of infinite growth" as long as we are willing to accept "inflation".

There is what they call "real growth" or "growth above inflation". Most of that "growth" is probably just how fast and how often money moves from one pocket to another pocket (and little more).

So, yes, I recognise that there is something of a logical mis-match between "Infinite Growth" and "Finite Resources"... I doubt our world economy is going to suddenly throw off its goal of "continuing growth" any time soon and may just create another illusion (like Inflation) to help it justify why things need to keep "growing".

Dan Montoya said...

Hi Byron
I can only think of a few sources which might be helpful:
Christianity, climate change and sustainable living, by Nick Spencer and Robert White, can be found at Also, Clive Hamilton wrote a book called Growth Fetish which i read a little while ago, but i don't remember how helpful it might be for your question.
My only other thought is a question - how do you distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' growth theoretically and in practice where, in simple terms, 'good' growth is the mandate to fill the earth and 'bad' growth is greed?

byron smith said...

Thanks for these suggestions, keep them coming!

Sam - you tell me (since you've read it!).

RIch - can you suggest specific texts?

Matt - thanks, I've been meaning to look at more Berry. I'm less interested in the concept of infinite growth per se and more in how it is possible spiritually to wean ourselves off it.

Andrew - Yes, growth is a complex phenomenon. I doubt our world economy is going to suddenly throw off its goal of "continuing growth" any time soon Probably not. But that is not the goal. The goal is a Christian community acting as salt and light who are not dazzled by any false idols (whether consumerist or environmentalist) and who are able to speak the truth in love to world which may well be reaching many of the limits to growth as we have known it for the last few hundred years.

Dan - that is a good question. Growth is not itself a problem. I think my answer might make use of some of the terms and images I suggested here, i.e. the problem is growth without reference to the whole (which in the case of the world economy, certainly includes the ecological and resource context).

Mike said...

I'm pretty sure Clive Hamilton's book Growth Fetish (as Dan said) does explore exactly that idea of growth growth growth..... He's written another called Affluenza which I've not read - but would be another good option.

byron smith said...

Thanks for that suggestion Mike. I haven't read either of those yet, though I've heard them recommended by a few people.

However, to clarify, my point is not that the myth of infinite growth is problematic ecologically (which, though contested, I take to be fairly obvious), but that it is also theologically and spiritually suspect.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Byron - have you ever managed to work through my 'Let us be human' material? It's essentially a 60,000 word spiritual and theological response to the Limits to Growth. And after my sabbatical, it should be a book! I basically prepared the material because I wasn't aware of a theological analysis of the issues (it was Peak Oil that triggered it for me).

byron smith said...

Sam - your material is one of the most relevant pieces of work I've come across so far. I have read part of it and am hoping to read it all before too long. I really hope you find a publisher. I'd love to chat with you further about it once I've read more. Your blog (and all your links!) have been a not-insignificant part of the initial stimulus for my project. Perhaps we could even meet up sometime when I'm down south?

Sam Charles Norton said...

Sure, love to. I can get to London easily enough if that's more convenient for you, else I'd happily welcome you to my little island!

byron smith said...

I'd love to see your little island, having read so much about it!

I'll see what I can work out. I get down to London a few times each year. I was just there a week or two ago, so it might be a while before I'm back. Next time I'm heading south, I'll get in touch and see if you're around.

Anonymous said...

This book

is an extended deep meditation on the origins and consequences of the current crisis.

And what needs to be done to turn it around. He also points out that ALL of the usual "answers" are, in effect, an extension of the same toxic meme that created the disaster in the first place.

A crisis which is the inevitable outcome of the power and control seeking drive at the root of the entire Western "cultural" project, including all of its "religion".

Plus these four references also provide clues as to the psychic and cultural origins of the power and control drive that has created the current disaster.

What is really a collective psychosis. on the "Culture" of death

gbroughto said...

Hey Byron,
I've had a 2 week break from blogs etc.., so this is coming in a little late.
I can't help but think that some of Ellul's work will be helpful, although his focus was different but not altogether dissimilar to yours.
I can hear you asking, "which ones?" and that is where is gets a little trickier, given my patchy knowledge of his corpus, and even patchier knowledge of your research... but with those caveats, here goes:

Ellul, Jacques. Money & Power. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

Ellul, Jacques. The Meaning of the City. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970.

Ellul, Jacques. The Ethics of Freedom. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.

(I have restricted myself to only those works I am familiar with. I don't think there is much in "The Technological Society" for you, but maybe some interesting ideas in his "Jesus and Marx")

Drew said...

This mightn't be what you mean by 'academic' work, however, on the problem of growth without reference to the whole (hence the cancer analogy), Nietzsche's "Use and Abuse of History for Life" and Husserl's Crisis both seem to me to have certain analogies with your question, though obviously their solutions are different.

Both are concerned (as I'm sure you know) with the expansion of a particular aspect of experience that is developed in an altogether autonomous fashion, without reference to a greater whole, and with resulting disastrous consequences.

I'm not aware of theological discussion of either - but Matheson might be good on the Crisis...?

O'Donovan's work sometimes reminds me of aspects of Husserl, in particular his critique of historicism, so perhaps it's not a way out analogy to draw.

byron smith said...

Thanks Geoff and Drew!

Sam Charles Norton said...

Byron - please see the latest post on my blog, I think you'd be very interested.

JohnR said...

Herman Daly, "Beyond Growth" - primarily economics, but the last part of the book contains some theological/ethical reflection.

byron smith said...

Thanks John, I'll add it to my list!

BTW, Sam I've just finished JMG's book. Fascinating. Great first half, but I felt he started to ramble a little in the second half.