How to cultivate a growth industry
By Harry Eyres
Published in The Financial Times (UK) | Last updated: October 15 2010 23:42
|Nurturing: ‘Nothing wrong with growing cabbages and potatoes, vines and beans and even beards ... ’|
The rot set in with Bill Clinton. On the stump in 1992 he made “growing the economy” a key plank of his election strategy. Since then the transitive use of the verb “to grow”, applied to inanimate entities such as businesses and national economies, has spread. Many have criticised the usage on grounds of grammar or style but my objections go deeper.
Of course the verb “to grow” can be used transitively. Nothing wrong – everything right, in fact – with growing cabbages and potatoes, vines and beans and even beards.
But this sense of “grow” means nurture and cultivate, not simply expand. To grow a cabbage or potato doesn’t mean to artificially expand it (or at least I hope it doesn’t).
It might be worth recalling the deep ancestry of the verb. “Grow” goes back to a Germanic strong verb form which is also the root of the words green and grass. One thing you could say for sure about this cluster of powerful and evocative words is that they are all organic.
Perhaps green originally was not so much a colour, more an adjective applied to something growing; equally everything that grows is linked to the great vegetative cycles of nature on which all life depends. “Grow” is not just one of the most important words in our language, it is one of the most sacred.
For me the abuse of this word is a sign of two things. The first is the blurring of the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. We are told by sophisticated types that there is no such thing as nature any more, only “nature”. Of course there is a certain truth in this; the air we breathe, the sea we swim in, the most remote wildernesses are no longer free of human traces – if they ever were. Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory was, among other things, a brilliant deconstruction of the idea of “pristine” wilderness. All landscape is in a sense a human creation.
The discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human genome also seem to some to promise a brave new world of bio-engineering. But, to paraphrase Galileo, however much we discover about the building-blocks of life, what we do not know will always be infinitely greater than what we know. All our brilliant detective work amounts to no more than a little gloss on the shining masterwork of creation.
The second development implied by the transitive use of “grow” is more narrowly economic. The mantra of economic growth has become so deafening that it takes precedence over everything, including older and more natural forms of growth. Unending economic growth is unnatural in several ways. First of all, nothing in nature grows for ever; growth towards maturity is followed by decay. Uncontrolled, unlimited growth, in physiological terms, suggests the pathology of the cancerous tumour.
As a bunch of unfashionable economists has been pointing out for decades, there is a mismatch between the idea of unending growth and finite resources on a finite planet. But Herman Daly, the liveliest and most resilient of them, goes further and questions whether such growth is even a good thing, in purely economic terms. The goodness of growth has generally gone unquestioned. Indeed, as Daly humorously points out, the logic of the 1971 Economic Report of the President goes roughly as follows: growth is a good thing, and you cannot have too much of a good thing, therefore more growth is needed. Would the economic advisers to the president give the same advice to a child stuffing itself with cake?
On the contrary, Daly argues that “if marginal benefits of physical growth decline while marginal costs rise (as elementary economic theory would indicate), there will be an intersection beyond which further growth is uneconomic”. Unfortunately, this point is hard to ascertain, especially as the “real costs” of economic growth have been counted as benefits.
All this discussion takes on a more realistic and less theoretical hue if you look at an example of an economy that stopped growing: Japan in the 1990s. Most commentators have wrung their hands over what is called Japan’s “lost decade” of stagnation. Certainly no one could gloat over the suffering of those who lost jobs and, in some cases, their lives. But I have yet to see an analysis of what was really lost, and what might have been gained, not just in terms of gross national product but according to some broader index of welfare and flourishing.
A number of books have appeared recently in Japan with titles such as Rebellion of the Simple Lifestyle Clan and The Young Generation That Doesn’t Want Much. It appears many young Japanese are questioning shibboleths of consumerism such as the necessity of owning a car. Small signs maybe. But they may be pointing in a interesting direction: one in which we return to an older idea of growth, according to which we submit to the natural ebbs and flows which are the bounds of human flourishing.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
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