To the question "Why zero growth?" perhaps the best answer is itself a question: "Why not?". Do we really need more polluting vehicles, more habitat-destroying tracts of housing, more malnourished children, more weapons of mass destruction? Can we not see that the earth's resources are finite, that there must inevitably be an end to growth sooner or later? Should we not rein in our gluttonous, soul-destroying, consumptive ways before a halt is forced upon us under circumstances beyond our power to control or rectify? Are we so blinded by the smog-filled haze and murky waters that we cannot see continued unrestrained growth threatens the very environment that sustains us?
Instances of man's shortsightedness are numerous, and painful to repeat: the hunting to extinction of the passenger pigeon in the early years of this century, the over-harvesting of the Peruvian anchovy fishery with the concomitant destruction of the guano industry, the runaway nuclear arms race carried to the point of overkill and probable self-kill. With the delayed impact of some of our vaunted technology, the threat man poses to himself has become particularly pernicious. The chloroflourocarbons (CFC) we released into the atmosphere before we restricted their production will continue to eat away at the ozone layer for 40 or 50 years into the future. Who can say what the final denouement will be?
Thankfully, many people have begun to look around in recent years and a vibrant, influential environmental movement has struggled and ofttimes succeeded in ameliorating some of man's more egregious sins against his world. Rivers have been cleaned up, forests have been saved, the nuclear arms race has been slowed if not halted. But as often as not these efforts have been nullified by our unrestrained growth. We build less polluting automobiles, but more of them yields us little net gain. We save one wetland only to lose another to the pressures of development. We convert marginal cropland back into woodlands only to be confronted with the spectre of mass starvation. Growth defeats us at every turn.
Can continuous growth in the context of finite resource lead to prosperity? It seems contradictory, yet in most people's minds growth implies prosperity. It's so axiomatic that no proof is required or sought. But is this belief, as universally held as was once the notion that the world is flat, be a truism, derived from faulty, simplistic observation, as wrong as was that earlier mistaken assumption?
In boasting of our prosperity, our economic growth, are we like lemmings boasting of how many miles they have advanced in a day. Are we as blind to our ultimate fate as those lemmings scurrying merrily to the awaiting sea? The warnings are as obvious as the view out the window in any of our great cities on a sultry summer day and as veiled as a chemical reaction happening in an ionized stratum far above our growth-distracted heads.
It might be questioned whether the phrase "zero growth" is well chosen. In light of society's growth-addicted mentality, it is bound to be met with negativity. Perhaps it would be wiser to broach the subject in less threatening terms, to speak of "living in harmony with nature" or a "balance between resources and consumption" or the like. But we think not. Though such concepts share much in common with the concept of zero growth, they do not express as clearly what is required and what is sought. "Sustainable development", an expression much on the lips of those concerned with man's fate these days, in particular sounds too much like the mushy phraseology of an apologist for the status quo to be our mantra.
Take, for instance, the difference between the expressions "zero population growth" and "a sustainable global population". What is a sustainable global population? Is it the present six billion? Two billion more? Two billion less? One suspects the eco-scientists will be arguing this well into the next millennium, while the earth itself provides the definitive answer. "Zero population growth", on the other hand, is unambiguous; it clearly states what is required and what is sought.
Moreover, the adoption of a policy of zero growth, much less its implementation, requires such a transformation in the way people think of the world and their place in it, of their way of producing and consuming, of their relations with their fellow man, that, if they cannot get past their initial horror at the mention of the idea, they are not likely to make the mental and moral leap necessary for them to embrace it to their bosom. The jolt of a forbidden notion, boldly expressed, may be what is needed to jump start the metamorphosis to an ethos of zero growth, as a bolt of lightning startles the nonchalant into the realization it is not wise to play golf in a thunderstorm.
To accept the wisdom of a zero growth ethic one does not have to believe man's current activities represent a threat to the global environment, though that assumption does lend a certain poignancy to the issue. One might support zero growth because he suspects that increased pressures on natural resources will inevitably lead to curtailments on personal liberties. Or he might believe that growing scarcities will result in more violence amongst nations. Or he might simply see zero growth as the only hope of resolving the traffic jam which greets him on his daily commute or of preserving his favorite hunting grounds from subdivision.
Those who believe that a dedication to growth is in man's nature and that man's nature is constant and unchangeable, his mental dispositions incapable of transformation, should consider some of the changes in man's perceptions which have taken place through history. Not so long ago it was considered perfectly normal for one human being to own another, a conviction held by some of the most forward-thinking, enlightened men of their age, among whom numbered many of our Founding Fathers. Remember that the heretical belief of those same Fathers - that citizens were capable of governing themselves - was met with scorn and derision by the practical, royalty-adoring believers in immutable man, the "realists" of their age. Could it be that people in the future will consider normal a world where successful companies do not grow larger year after year, where children raise their children in the same house in which their parents raised them, where highways do not become more crowded with each passing year?
What man believes in, and rightfully so, is progress. Throughout most of recorded history, neither progress nor growth was particularly in evidence. Most people assumed the lives of their children, in material terms, would be not much different from their own. And so it was. Only in the last two hundred years or so have men begun to expect the lives of their children to be very different from their own. Progress has led to such remarkable growth that the two terms have become synonymous in men's minds. But they remain distinct concepts, one genuinely positive in nature, the other increasingly negative. We have experienced great progress along with growth, but there is nothing to say we cannot experience progress without growth, as well.
Opponents of zero growth are sure to point out that predictions of the end, whether premised on man's nefarious activities, natural causes, or a disappointed and irate God, have invariably proven inaccurate. Perceivers of a rosy dawn would do well to remember, however, that those of us who see storm clouds looming on the horizon have one big advantage in the debate: we prophets of doom only have to be right once.