Not too long ago, Václav Havel questioned the concept of “growth at all costs”. In doing so, he opened up a big topic, touching upon the pinnacle of our contemporary faith. Growth is is the maxim of our economy – and, one could almost say, our society – and he dared to doubt it.
Just for the record: I have nothing against growth. I consider it natural – all that is alive grows. But only to a certain extent. We can expect a healthy child to grow taller, and rejoice over every new centimetre. But when the child grows into an adult, it would be silly to expect further growth. And to become angry over the person’s inability to grow more. An adult can be expected to grow in other ways: to acquire more education and to become more cultured.
The growth of a society works similarly. GDP isn’t the only sphere where growth is considered healthy. There are other areas as well. Healthy, well-balanced growth is desirable. But growth should not come at the cost of acquiring debts – be they financial or ecological – and this is something that did and continues to take place.
The circle becomes a line
Where did this notion of incessant progress in our society come from? If I asked you how you picture our civilisation in, say, 100 years, everyone would imagine a scenario probably very different from contemporary society – whether you imagine a highly advanced society with sci-fi androids or a post-steam -punk -urban, post-apocalyptic Armageddon. But whatever the scenario, society will have moved far from where we are today. After all, we have thousand of books and hundreds of films that try to imagine the future.
When our civilisation was still young, early records indicate that history was viewed as mostly cyclical. Like something that continues repeating: one season follows another, but nothing significant really changes. Historical time was not understood as progressive. So if you asked a Sumerian what the world might look like in a hundred years, he would probably stare at you in confusion and then say that the world would be the same as now, the same as it always is.
Only relatively recently did we automatically start to expect progress. The basic household set up, for example, did not change for thousands of years: a hearth, a fire for cooking and heat, a table, chairs, shelves, plates, a bed, and a few decorations. The household only underwent a rapid transformation in the last 200 years. Just think back to what your home looked like, say, 20 years ago. Can you even imagine what it might look like just five years from now or in another generation? Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have even known how to use many of the things that now surround us.
At first we were startled by technological progress, but then it became a source of pride. Now it’s viewed as a given. Anthropologists and philosophers more or less agree that the idea of linear time – that is, progress – entered our civilisation from Hebrew teachings. Old Testament stories had historical sense, and Jewish society expected some sort of a historical culmination that would take place with the arrival of the messiah. Linear history, unlike the cyclical concept, has a direction: from creation to salvation. The circle was replaced with a straight line.
Step by step
But we have lost the goal at the end of the line. In following the motto “if nothing is happening, something must happen”, we have been focusing on growth at all costs. Like in sports, which are no longer about joy but about superhuman speed, doping has been going on. We are doping the economy by artificially increasing consumption. If you want to get somewhere, speed is less important than direction. If you just want to run, though, direction doesn’t matter much. We then run laps, without a goal. This is a fine sporting event, but we shouldn’t be surprised then, that we don’t end up getting anywhere.
Tomáš Sedláček is a macroeconomic strategist for ČSOB.