At this moment of economic uncertainty with the stock market in a downturn and words like “recession” and “bear market” on the tip of economists tongues and pens, I find myself wondering if our metric for a healthy economy is fundamentally flawed. Why is growth seen as the one primary indicator of a healthy stock market, GDP, economy, bank account or even startup valuation?
No where in ecology is pure growth seen as a good thing. The health of an ecological system, a biota, is measured by sustainability — the ecosystem’s ability to maintain itself in a healthy balance. Like it or not, every economy, business, quarterly report, city and nation is part of this global ecology. They all exist on Earth. If you are reading this, you also exist in this biosphere. You are currently on our planet (or in the rarest of cases, you at least orbit it). So, why do we not think of these things through the lens of building a healthy and sustainable system?
I can tell you one reason; sustainability doesn’t mesh well with greed. It doesn’t keep the 1% getting richer and richer. In biospheres, if there is a minority that threatens to knock the ecosystem off balance, these outliers are often culled and the first target of the natural predators. Killing off the weaker animals of the zebra herd is the first priority of the lion pride. I’m not advocating to kill the super rich (yet) and of course there are some who achieve wealth without exploitation. But, indulge me in this train of thought anyways…
First, let’s accept greed as the vice and unhealthy affliction that it is. This, in turn means that those focused solely on growth are “sick.” This makes them like the injured and weak zebras in the herd. They are not important to the pack, except as food for predators. So now we can ignore them as they are non-essential to our global herd, as are their motivations. This frees us from thinking of their values of growth and wealth as virtues. I know its stretching the metaphor a bit but we need to question who is telling us “growth is important: buy more! Build more! Take more!” and what their motivations are.
Obviously, there is a logical necessity for growth when the population increases. More people means more production to keep them alive and a healthy and thriving part of our worldwide ecology. The goods and ills of population growth can be debated at another time, but when the Western world has seen low to stagnant population growth why do we demand that Western countries have year-over-year increases in GDP? Unless it is to offset those of poorer countries, like sending excess food to starving countries Africa, and we are making sure that this is the reality of the distribution of resources, it makes no sense.
Taking a look again at the natural world, of course there are examples of organisms that grow beyond the limits of most. Take the mighty redwood tree, for example. It’s lifespan and height is unparalleled in nature, but its growth is slow! It only reaches its heights over centuries. Do you think the redwood tree cares if he grew by 0.5% or 5% last year? The growth of a redwood tree is almost imperceivable to the human eye. If we use this as a metaphor for the ideal long-lasting business, or nation, this is the kind of sustainable economic growth we should be after, one almost seen not to exist.
There are organisms that do adhere to a hyper growth cycle. We can use them as a metaphor for startups where we praise exponential growth. For this example let’s look at the mosquito. It’s a vital part of the ecological system, providing annual food for millions of frogs, birds, spiders, fish and other animals. But the mosquito is born, reaches maturity, breeds and dies in a single season. A male lasts on average only 10 days. Hyper growth is only sustainable if it is coupled with hyper death. Therefore death should be celebrated. If it wasn’t for the death and decay of the mosquito, there would be no redwood. When a company shutters or is eaten up it provides valuable resources back to the whole ecosystem. It frees up the trapped energy (e.g. money, talent) for use in other ecological pursuits. This is maybe where startups have it right. Fail fast is the motto. We need to make sure this death is easy and painless. Otherwise we are prolonging the life of organism who needs to die. We’re asking for a bunch of sickly mosquitos.
The other stand-out natural phenomenon that grows out-of-control is cancer. I shouldn’t even need to say more about this comparison. Celebrating growth for growth’s sake is like celebrating cancer. To complete the metaphor, if a startup is successful the hyper-growth needs to stop after the initial gestation period to make way for sustainable business. Otherwise the company can become a cancer on the whole economy.
They cannot see that growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness … They would never understand that an economic system which can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human.
-Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
I’m obviously not the first to think of the economy or business in general in terms of the greater ecological environment. I’m just an art major who woke up early from a jet-lagged sleep, inspired by reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and contemplating my fledgling startup’s future. My father, who dedicated his life to conservation, pointed me in the direction of smarter people than I (including my Dad. Go Dad!) who have worked on ideas like the Green GDP, surprisingly only adopted and then abandoned by China as “unattractive.”
I would welcome any further reading on the topic and for my part will begin to think less about how my company can post better and better quarterly results and more about how it can build a business that sustains it’s employees’ and customers’ lives as well as is a healthy part of its ecology. Because without businesses and governments who's core belief is one of being a player in a larger ecological system, considering not only our own profits and bottom line but the health of the entire biosphere, we will all not survive.