Changing the Meme of Constant Growth

Constant growth is driving humanity off an ecological cliff, writes Dr. Sandra Waddock (Boston College). She describes how growth has become a “meme,” a core value, and she identifies diverse alternatives, from “thrivability” to “enough.” Dr. Waddock is active with the Ecosystems Labs, an Network for Business Sustainability Thought Leader (NBS), and a world expert on sustainability issues. This is a reposting of an NBS blog, August 13.

It’s easy to take for granted our society’s core principles. It can be difficult to imagine alternatives: even when the status quo threatens our survival.

Memes: The Genes of Culture

Memes, a word coined by biologist Richard Dawkins, are ideas, behaviors, and styles that spread within cultures. Dawkins wanted a word that sounded like gene to reflect something that reproduced ideas or other aspects of culture, much the way that genes reproduce biological traits. Memes affect how we think about the world around us.

Memes can, in fact, shape whole social or economic systems. In complex social systems like our economic and business systems, this glue of memes links individuals, organizations, and societies. To effect change we need to tap into — and change — fundamental memes: the core ideas, values and operating norms of these systems.

The Meme of Growth

In Western society, the notion that constant growth is essential to a successful economic system is such a meme. Most people believe that without growth, our economy and companies could not survive or prosper.

The growth meme may have served a purpose in the heady days following World War II, when it became prominent.  Leaders in that era saw a need to foster growth because the war had destroyed companies’ ability to produce and peoples’ ability to get goods and services. Whole countries, including Japan and Germany, needed to rebuilt their manufacturing infrastructure, so the emphasis was on regenerating productive capacity — and consumption.

But the growth meme no longer serves humanity well; indeed, it is driving humanity off an ecological cliff.

Questioning Constant Growth

Economic growth is measured using gross national (or domestic) product: GNP and GDP. But these measures, and the goal they represent, are fundamentally flawed: They only assess activity that can be priced. As a result, GDP and GNP don’t consider possible negative consequences of economic activity, such as environmental degradation and social costs.

GDP and GNP also fail to capture vital elements of the economy. They don’t consider human wellbeing and other important values. And they leave out activities with no monetary value but important economic consequences: like, for instance, childrearing in the home.

Numerous studies (e.g., from the Club of Rome) conclude that continued economic growth, as currently measured, is not physically possible over the longer run. As climate change heats up, the need for systems change becomes even clearer.

Nonetheless, the meme of constant economic “growth” powerfully shapes our views about how an economy or society is doing. Just listen to any news broadcast or read any economic report to confirm the bias towards constant growth.

Finding a New Meme

Memes can evolve as the culture around them changes. What new memes can reflect the realities of our resource constraints — and human beings’ place in that world?

We need a meme that allows businesses, societies, and, importantly, human beings and other creatures, to thrive without destructive growth and the emphasis on material consumption — the relentless pursuit of “more” — that we find with the current meme of growth.

By thinking carefully about possible new memes and talking about them with others, we can all play crucial roles in changing the growth meme to something that works better for the long term.

What might this new meme be? Here are some suggestions:

  • Flourishing. Management scholars John Ehrenfeld and Andy Hoffman urge a focus on “the fullness of life, not some material metric,” and specifically on caring for oneself and others. “Corporations’ basic strategies would move from satisfying needs (or wants) to enabling care,” Ehrenfeld writes.
  • Wellbeing. In our recent book SEE Change, Malcolm McIntosh and I argue that humans crave community, balance, connection and artistic and spiritual development for wellbeing, not just material goods and money. A focus on wellbeing could create a saner, more interpersonally connected, and more sustainable world.
  • Plenitude. Sociologist Juliet Schor urges households to diversify income sources and explore small-scale enterprises. She calls for appreciation of “undervalued sources of wealth”: time, creativity and social relationships.
  • Enough. Writing from a religious perspective, Will Davis also emphasizes caring for others.
  • Thriving or thrivability. This is my personal favorite. It incorporates sustainability without that word’s connotation of status quo, recognizing that we cannot “sustain” the meme of growth.

We need a new core meme for our economic, productive, and social systems that connotes thriving in a context of using fewer ecological resources while still supporting the world’s living beings. I call this new meme thrivability.* What do you call it?

*The idea of thrivability was generated by a group I participated in at the Business as an Agent of World Benefit Conference in 2006.

Additional Resources

Davis, Will, Jr. (2012). Enough: Finding more by living with less. Ada, MI: Revell.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene. London: Oxford University Press.

Ehrenfeld, J., & Hoffman, A. (2013). Flourishing: A frank conversation about sustainability. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Gilding, P. (2011). The great disruption: How the climate crisis will transform the global economy. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Schor, Juliet (2010). Plenitude: The new economics of real wealth. New York: Penguin.

Waddock, Sandra and Malcolm McIntosh (2011) SEE change: Making the transition to a sustainable enterprise economy. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf.

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