Growth Is Our Old Yeller

Poster for the 1957 film Old Yeller

Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.

The only problem is that this friend is about to turn into our greatest enemy.  Pursuit of growth—in money and resource exploitation—has a flip side on Earth’s ecosystems.  Up until now, we mostly saw the good side of growth: conveniences, technology, health care, security.  Becoming apparent is the toll this misguided focus is taking on our irreplaceable home.  No amount of money (all the king’s horses and all the king’s men) can restore lost species and destroyed ecosystems.  So maybe money is a bad metric for what really matters, yeah?

I have struggled to come up with a good analogy for growth that will help us process what it means.  The best I have come up with (and only recently) is that growth is like Old Yeller.  If you’re not familiar with the 1957 film, it’s a real tear jerker.  I remember bawling in concert with my sister when the amazing dog—dearly loved by the family for getting them out of many a pickle—contracted rabies, became aggressive toward the family, and had to be shot.  That’s right: a kid’s movie ended with the beloved central character being shot dead.  Those were different times.  What you really wanted in a kid’s movie was for your children to emerge wrecked. (I also saw Jaws at age 6 and have been scarred since.)

Growth has likewise been this fantastic friend: all upside, upside, upside.  But the rabid side is beginning to show, and our ultimate success depends on killing it.  There will be tears.  Many will bargain, unable to accept the necessity of ending growth.  But it’s no use.  The physics is clear.

Please use the comment forum to suggest other (better) analogies.  Not straying too far, it may be like raising a lion: awfully adorable as a cub, but ultimately a mortal threat to have in the house.  It’s possible that better analogies can be conjured.

P.S. I wrote this in 24 minutes, so please excuse the shortness and sloppiness.

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21 thoughts on “Growth Is Our Old Yeller

  1. Knowing what's happening surely does hurt doesn't it? Makes me wish I never read Ol Yeller but oops I read it 10 times and saw the movie 4 times.

  2. I'm not sure if this gets to the heart of the question but I thought I'd throw it out there.

    Grass in a pasture on a rotationaly grazed farm grows through a series of stages eventually producing a seed head at which point it is done growing for the year having completed it's goal to reproduce. Interestingly grass at this stage is exactly what people think is desirable when looking at a prairie ecosystem. Except it is this stage that has the lowest quality in terms of energy and nutrition for a grazing animal. True prairie ecosystems were routinely "reset" by fire and large grazing animals.

    A prudent grazer tries to mimic this by bringing cows into the pasture before maturity allowing the grass to be eaten (clipped) at the boot stage thus restarting the growth process again. A well managed pasture will produce optimal quality forage for cows throughout the growing season by never allowing it to make seeds. In short, grass that is left to mature will quit growing. Conversely, grass that is grazed too soon will be stressed, lose root mass, and become stunted or die. Growth is a fluid concept that is managed through careful and timely pruning. The goal is a system dependent only upon the sun and cycling of existing nutrients.

  3. World population growth is on track to die a natural death in a few decades.

    So is growth in per-capita energy use, based on the pattern we've already seen in North America, Europe, and Japan.

    Sounds like you'd prefer to "shoot" both of these sooner than that, via some sort of drastic measures, but I'm unclear on what you think those measures should be. I guess I'm also unclear on how the centuries-long time scale of your galactic-scale energy essay is relevant to this much shorter time scale.

    • When all our institutions are set to promote growth, I doubt we'll just shrug off those deep-seated ambitions. One way or another, growth will and must stop. But will it be with a whimper? Will it be embraced, or fought? If I found myself in a world tired of growth as a goal, I might be less concerned, but just look around at its prominence. If prioritizing the pursuit of growth is dangerous to us and the planet, it seems rational to issue warning. My faith in it all just working out is not strong, and faith is a poor substitute for awareness and deliberate attention. So I'm not going to buy the "nothing to see here" defense of the current regime, which seems perilously irresponsible.

      • If your warning is too abstract, it's likely to be misinterpreted and unlikely to have the desired effect. It could even backfire.

        I'm trying to be more specific, so we can figure out what we're even talking about.

        Are we talking about population growth, energy growth, or economic growth? Are we talking about just rich countries like the US, or are we talking about the whole world? Are we talking about time scales of a few decades or a few centuries? These distinctions matter, and I see little point in a discussion (or a warning) that doesn't recognize them.

        I don't think I said anything that could reasonably be interpreted as "it all just working out" or "nothing to see here". There will be major challenges to meet the demands of 11 billion people using (say) 5 kW each while minimizing damage to the climate and the rest of the environment. But I can't think of a humane way to stop population and energy use from growing to approximately those levels, nor can I think of a plausible mechanism that would grow them much past those levels. Can you? For instance, what does the shooting part of your analogy actually look like?

        • I'm talking about growth in population, resource usage, the human footprint on the planet's throat. Rich countries are leading the way in spending the inheritance and causing damage, but the rest of the world wants their turn. This was one of my shortest posts ever, not meant to be comprehensive. Take a look at the first three chapters of the textbook for appropriate context.

          And it does us no good to make the issue about the shooting part. Perhaps that aspect of the analogy is too "triggering," and was an unintended piece of baggage. The only real point I wanted to convey was that something we thought was a friend turns out to be a real danger to us. In this post, I am simply trying to take the preliminary step of raising awareness that we should not push for growth or cheer it any more. Recognize its true cost.

          Your "on track to die a natural death" for both population and energy indeed suggested a "nothing to see here," or "no need for action or to point out growth's perils." If growth leads to our premature demise, then forestalling efforts to consciously and actively bring its end will turn out to have been ill-advised.

          • Good! Let's abandon the shooting part of the analogy.

            My "on track to die a natural death" was intended as a statement of fact (upon which I hope we can agree), not any kind of argument that dealing with that natural death (or the remaining years of life that precede it) will be easy.

            Whether we should "push for growth" depends, I would say, on exactly what kind of growth and where. I hope we can have that discussion some other day.

  4. How about a story from life instead of an analogy?

    I learned of a case on a remote, thirty-two-square-mile Alaskan island called St. Matthew Island that starkly illustrates the effect. In World War II, the U.S. Coast Guard operated a base there to help troops navigate. Because of its distance from Alaska and its long, brutal winters of hurricane-like blizzards, they introduced twenty-nine reindeer, who live in such climates, for the men to hunt for food if necessary. The men didn't end up needing to. The war ended. The men went home and left the reindeer.

    A biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, David Klein, visited in 1957 to find the reindeer could handle the winters and thrived on the lichens and vegetation prevalent there. They counted over a thousand healthy, fat reindeer. In 1963, Klein returned. “We counted 6,000 of them,” he said, sensing an imbalance with their food source. “They were really hammering the lichens.” He returned in 1966 to find reindeer skeletons everywhere and only forty-two alive, including only one male, who was infertile. When those forty-two died, a population with no predators that started with abundant food went extinct on the island.

    Lots of posts about it in more depth:

  5. >Growth has been our close companion for centuries, and we love it to pieces. It makes politicians swoon, economists dance, investors giggle, and community planners smile.

    That just shows we voters have listened to the wrong people. We need voices decrying that stance. eg Extinction Rebellion, Professor Kevin Anderson, Steve Keen and a few others. So it's not we need to put a good friend down and be heart broken, it's quite the opposite. Like transition from slavery to not slavery, or support for Hitler, it must be difficult to even imagine support for slavery or Hitler and yet it was wide spread, we need to transition so that it must be difficult to even imagine sane people supporting continual Growth.

  6. I like the analogy you used in your short video. This high-energy growth phase of human existence is like a fireworks show; it's exhilarating to experience while it lasts, but it will eventually end, the sky will darken and life will return to normal. After the fireworks, the rising sun will reveal a natural world to which we should have been paying attention all along, a world in which the fireworks of modern civilization has no place.

    • I like this extension, which brings a sort of poetic calm and sense of hope for something better over the horizon.

  7. I liked a quote/meme I saw during occupy movement:
    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

  8. This may sound a bit off the wall but,

    Over the last several years I have become convinced that there is a demon (or demonic idea) at the heart of our economic system.

    The Native American’s in my part of the country have identified a demonic entity they call the Wendigo. The fundamental characteristic of the Wendigo is an unquenchable hunger for ever more. When it eats it gets: bigger, stronger, deadlier, and even more hungry. We have been feeding it for a couple of centuries and now it is so big, strong, deadly and hungry that it is threatening much of the life on earth.

    Most people are obsessed by this demon but our social structures like banks, governments, corporations have become literally possessed by this demon, meaning they are set up to feed the Wenidgo’s insatiable desire for ever more.

    I see groups like the ecomodernist as a community who thinks they can “Green the Wendigo” and still have “green growth” but I am pretty sure that makes the situation even worse. We must abandon the Wendigo (we must give up on endless economic growth) before it comes after us and our loved ones.

    ( From a catholic perspective it is shocking at the exalted position that the 7 deadly sins have in our economy/ society. The seven deadly sins are the seven behaviors or feelings that inspire further sin. They are typically ordered as: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.)

  9. Like your 'Old Yeller' analogy – it has the necessary emotional appeal (not sure that's the right word).

  10. Those of us who read the NY Times (I fear that group has a very large overlap with us baby boomers who remember Old Yeller when it was new) notice a lot of disconnects when it comes to issues treated on this blog, including peak whatever, climate, and population. Sometimes they try, and sometimes they don't even seem aware they need to try. I blame editors and owners.

    Lately there's been quite a spate of articles on population, with emphasis on the undeniable issues in places like China and S Korea, where the childbearing per woman is getting down around 1.4-ish IIRC. Fears of each worker supporting numerous elderly etc etc.

    Once in a while there's a tip o' the hat towards the idea that hey, every cloud has a silver lining, 'cause lower populations emit less carbon and other nasty stuff. But as good as never will you see any stepping back for the context. Namely … well I don't need to cite details. Just read this blog, someone like Ugo Bardi if you like, I recommend Dave Roberts at, and RealClimate (skip the comments. please) NYT, please wake up.

  11. If we're going with old tv entertainment, how about the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" part of Fantasia in the 1940's, or Lucy & Ethyl in the chocolate factory in the 1950's, or The Lorax in the 1970's. At least they didn't make me cry.

  12. Hi Tom, Just came to this site from ecosophia. I have downloaded the book (thanks) and will begin working my way through it. It is so nice to see this backed by math & physics.

    That said, I quickly skipped to the chapter 19, "A Plan Might Be Welcome", hoping to find a clear, if imperfect, "plan" proposed. On pg 234 you talk about a steady state economy – and I think the idea of taxing ingredients instead of labor is a good idea. However, ultimately, a plan that won't be implemented because one is not "king of the world" is not — it seems to me — optimal. It reminds me of "If we had eggs, we could have ham and eggs…if we had ham."

    So, considering that we don't have eggs, and we don't have ham, and we are not likely to either become — nor even catch the sincere ear of — "king of the world", I am wondering if you have something at small scale which becomes sustainable? Since I probably haven't yet read 99.99% of what you've written, it may already be out there. In that case, please direct me. But, if not, perhaps you could lay out something which doesn't require converting the mass of people, or even the king of the world, first? And, no, I don't mean simply "conserve". I mean, if you started small, and your only goal was to get a working example, have you ever speculated out how – in theory – X people could feed, cloth, and maintain something close to a "first world existence" without outside energy inputs, at least?

    Again, I think it is pretty likely you have already done that – perhaps in the chapter on going into space. But that is where I would like to begin, for myself: with an end which could be under my control in mind. And I worry less about perpetuity than I do about the next 100-1000 years. If we can keep tech alive, somehow, even at dramatically smaller scale, it seems like people such as yourself, given enough time, might actually be able to come up with some better options.

    Hopefully, my short post makes some sense. I would personally like to try making more energy than I consume, for example. I think that starts with energy and not with food, nor other outside inputs. Those can be step 2, step 3, etc.

    Theory of Constraints would be the driver of what to work on next.

    Thanks for any feedback and the huge effort to date!

    And, obviously, your work (even if I haven't looked at 99.9% of it) has still provoked me to write.

    • P.S. I want to make clear that when I say "I would personally like to try making more energy than I consume, for example." I don't really mean "make" energy. Also, I don't mean make the initial inputs. I mean, if you relocated to the right place and either came in with enough geothermal equipment, or windmills, or PV panels, or whatever, could the energy unsustainable factor be removed for, say, 1000 years for, say, 1000 people at "first world" conditions? It seems like Iceland, for example, might be able to do this for a lot more than 1000… I personally take it as a *given* (and a desirable given, in fact) that 6.5 billion people or so need to leave the earth and NOT be replaced. I just want that to be as peaceful as possible and as voluntary as possible and, ideally, with everyone dying a natural death. Do I think we are going to get consensus on that? Of course not. So, IMO, (or at least as far as I can imagine) the next best option is to "go Iceland", one intentional community/small country at a time. And, until then, one family or small town at a time.

    • I thought I should throw in Jean Pain – methane production from wood chips.

      My heart is all a flutter to have you estimate how many trees I would need to chip to provide internet, cooking, some lights, running water a refrig, and reasonable heating to have a reasonable facsimile to a 1st world life on a few acres in northern New England, for example.

      FYI, I may as well confess: I don't care AT ALL about global warming – or, more correctly, I place it somewhere around worry 100…way down from (1) freezing to death in the dark, (2) side effects of biodiversity collapse; (3) plastics and chemicals in general; (4) feeding ourselves (5) surveillance state totalitarianism (6) aquifer and other critical input shortage (7) bio-weapons (8) etc….

      Back to topic: what do you think of Jean Pain and producing enough methane for necessary stable fuel to drive saws, tractors, and other necessary equipment until they get alchemy perfected?

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