A friend of mine often jokingly asks me what I want to be when I grow up. Given that I have changed career fields several times and still have no burning career ambitions this is a pertinent question. For me though a more pressing question is what our civilisation wants to be when it finally “grows up”.
At present we seem stalled in the anthropocentric obsession with endless growth. As such we have developed and idealised concepts of development and progress rooted in a materialistic, growth for growth’s sake mentality.
In this way the so called developed world is held up as a beacon for the aspirational undeveloped world to emulate. It is worth examining this discourse since countries like the USA, which presents itself as the leader of the developed world, is experiencing increasing levels of inequality and environmental degradation. As economist Manfred Max-Neef contends the categories of developing and developed are no longer appropriate (if they ever were), unless an additional category of “under-developing” is added for presently rich countries, where social support services are being significantly reduced.
If at a personal level we aspire to things like a comfortable home, good health, perfect family and successful career, then what as a society are we aiming for? It is paradoxical that we focus so much on goals at the personal level but do not really take this into account at the societal level. We seem content to be trapped on the never ending march of progress without considering in detail what we would like to end up.
The current material affluence enjoyed by a portion of our population comes at a massive cost to the rest of humanity and the whole earth. All too commonly the violence and destruction of this consumptive way of life is shrugged off as the necessary shadow of progress. Among the casualties of this blind march of progress is the loss of many distinct, locally adapted cultures to the bland uniformity of the globalised culture.
The dominant ideology of our time assures us that “bigger is better”. But is it really better? The sheer size of our global institutions leave no place for the concerns of the majority of humanity, let alone the rest of the planet. Big companies, for instance, might be more efficient and powerful but the genuine human connections required for care, respect and equitable treatment are lost. People are reduced to mere numbers to be exploited in the name of profit and concerned individuals are easily silenced by the powerful few.
What we really need is human scale development with the attendant requirement for small scale, localised participatory systems being favoured over the hierarchical and globalised systems we now have. Smaller communities that are embedded in and responsive to the conditions of their particular ecosystem will be better placed to develop the necessary ways of living that are in balance with the rest of the earth.
Growth and development are neither inherently good nor bad. It is the enactment of these concepts in ways that is detrimental to the well-being of humanity that is the problem. To grow and develop is a natural part of being alive. But development also implies that at some stage we move from an intensive growth phase to a mature/adult stage. So will our civilisation ever grow up and if so what will that look like?
Moving away from our unsustainable path of endless development will not be easy We all need to take the time to really assess, discuss and experiment with alternative ways. There are already many examples from around the world of groups of people who are attempting to re-frame how we live but the more of us who join this exploration the better.
The way forward might be one where small is the new big and instead of focussing on growing the economy at any cost we concentrate our efforts on the well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants. If we are to create such a drastically different reality then we need to go beyond our concept of the separate human that can control everything, to one where we are interconnected with all life and merely one of the many participants in our unfolding universe.
Maybe this is what growing up really means.
Photo credit: Bruno Cordioli (CC-by-2.0)