By Huck Fairman
Growth is in our conversations, our plans, our past. It is an integral factor in life on
In his book, GROWTH, Canadian-Czech scientist and policy analyst Vaclav
Smil has drawn from the research and thought of many fellow scientists to analyze the roles, the influence, and also the threats that growth in the 21st century
presents to life today on this planet.
While he confesses that he looks, in his book, at neither the largest or the smallest
phenomena that exhibit and are influenced by growth, he does alert us to the myriad cases where growth in our world is both deeply integrated and very possibly outstripping the systems and mechanisms that surround us, and, in doing so, may be taking us to new modes of existence.
Clearly eager to understand and define growth, through the planet’s, and civilization’s history, he is also is deeply concerned that growth will, in its accelerating, near-term future, undo the planet’s, and civilization’s, ability to
Smil begins by reminding us that Growth is an “omnipresent” and “protean”
element in our lives. It identifies evolution and adulthood. It enables humans to
utilize the physical offerings of our planet.
It is the term we use for personal advancement, maturity, and the evolution
of our species.
At the same time, growth describes the life cycles of micro-organisms, mammals,
galaxies, and the universe. It pertains to Earth’s topographical history, and to the
utility of what we create, make, and adopt. Populations and economies grow,
and we measure the latter’s success by how they grow.
Over 50 million years ago, the Himalaya Mountains were pressed upward by the
collision of tectonic plates. In today’s world, elements and compounds meet,
mix, and create new biomasses.
Growth, therefore, describes physical realities but also serves as metaphor for change. Our civilization depends on growth for
survival, whether referring to food or raw materials.
But with growth, natural and
human, ecosystems have changed. Humans have fashioned “progress” out of
varieties of growth. But now we are discovering that we must also manage
growth. Is it too slow or excessive? Will it lead to major, social or biological dislocations? Will it pertain to and influence new realms? And at what cost?
The need to understand it, and its
repercussions, is perhaps evermore urgent today, with population growth and
technological growth requiring more, even as some things – arable lands, say –
are declining. And with economies growing, debates on how to manage that
growth, with all the implications and changes, have increased.
Beyond the natural world, growth can now be applied to our homes and
possessions we accumulate. It can refer to transportation and government.
Education and armed forces are required to keep up – in short, grow.
Until recently, growth was considered desirable. It was a sign of progress and
hope in human affairs. But possibly only in the last half-century have the problems
that increasingly accompany types of growth come to be recognized. The rate
of growth is now considered key.
Today change, or development, happen much faster. Population growth pressures
communities and creates needs for other types of growth. The growth of tools is
relatively simple to understand, but what of that in judgment, expectations,
interactions? Is reasonable consensus likely … possible?
At the same time, growth in the technologies of communications is
accelerating social interaction. Worldwide, growth is graphed out as
increasing exponentially. Microchips, to take one technology, have recently
increased from 10/3 to 10/10.
All of this has produced an ever-expanding growth of expectations, ever expanding into the future, and producing still-greater expectations, which are likely
to exceed reasonable conclusions and bring discontent.
Sil states, “The growth of infrastructure
has proved equally mesmerizing.” And
“90% of all extant information in the world has been generated over the
preceding 2 years. “As billions of mobile phones voluntarily surrender their
privacy, the rationale is to keep the economy growing.” But again, for what
purposes and at what costs?
“ The growth of “information.” writes Sil, “appears more pitiable than admirable.”
“The phone time spent by adults per day has doubled between 2008-2015.”
He warns that we are creating “screen zombies.” People not fully alive.
This leads to the concerning prediction that within decades, Machine intelligence
will surpass human intelligence. And this will lead to a Singularity: technological
change will occur so rapidly and profoundly that it will present a rupture
in the fabric of human history.
The ideas and observations in the book, therefore, would seem to be essential for
us to understand and grapple with.