February 18, 2020

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Rethinking Scale: From Quantitative to Qualitative Growth

We need to downsize destructive growth and scale up restorative growth in our economies.


By Hazel Henderson

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proclaimed the new international goal of happiness on March 20, 2013, following yearlong research on redefining economic criteria for human development, launched in April 2012. 

The long-sought goal of the Industrial Revolution was to expand inventions, scaling up technologies to increase their efficiency and productivity. This goal of scaling up our tools, techniques and organizations led to mass production, mass consumption, industrialized science, agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals, mass education, religions, politics, and a societal goal of efficiency and progress – summed up by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their best seller Future Shock.

After 300 years of industrialization scaling-up its models and methods, one-fifth of humanity reached new levels of consumption, material comfort and prosperity. The goal of 20th century economic development was to scale up this technological progress globally to embrace all humanity and measure it in money-based GDP. 

Scaling Up: Maximizing Efficiency vs. Optimizing Productivity

But as the environmental and social effects of scaling-up industrialism grew, we saw that the larger-scale planetary ecosystems that fostered all life forms successfully over the past 3.8 billion years operated on different rules and metrics. 

The goal of industrialists, financiers and politicians was to maximize each technology’s efficiency and Happinesseach company’s productivity with competition playing a key role in this race to globalized progress. Nature’s goal optimizes the productivity of the whole biosphere, using competition and overall cooperation among co-evolving species. 

The goal of scaling efficiencies in capturing the Sun’s daily shower of free life-giving photons was paired with converting their energy into usable forms, food for survival and evolution of all species. Thus does Nature scale up.

What To Scale Up & Why

Today’s post-industrial Information Age question is “why do humans scale up some technologies while ignoring others?”

What level of awareness and knowledge motivated our Industrial Era and its goal of scaling-up efficiency and mass-production rather than, for example, learning more about our life-supporting biosphere or finding new paths to happiness as promised in the U.S. Constitution?

This new debate about what to scale up and why accelerated in the 1970s in the U.S. after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the effects of scaling-up pesticide use, the back-to-the-land movements, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, the rise of the Beatles, anti-war and nuclear weapons movements.

Eastern spiritual traditions and psychedelic drugs also precipitated the culture wars that are still with us today. The counter-culture critique was much about scale. How much bigger could our weapons, corporations, governments, agribusiness, banks, cities, mass media, satellite communications, medical industrial complex and human population continue to grow on our finite planet?

These debates about scale: what should remain local, what should grow and how to measure progress are coming into focus. GDP is now widely challenged as ignoring the social and environmental costs of money-measured growth.

Qualitative Growth

We need to measure “Qualitative Growth”: what is growing, what is dying and what basic underlying happinesslife support systems must be maintained. New indexes of quality-of-life, well-being, happiness, and our human ecological footprint are proliferating.

Too-big-to-fail banks were bailed out while millions of civic groups, small enterprises and NGOs who have developed successful local solutions to local problems have seen their efforts discounted as “not scalable” by funders, venture capitalists and policy makers.

Micro-credit programs helping rural village entrepreneurs are captured by Wall Street banks, often disrupting their human scale efficiency. Mega-philanthropists often confuse issues of scale. Their differing approaches to agriculture illustrate the struggle between corporations’ industrial-scale, genetically modified methods versus organic production, traditional cloning, hybridization; monoculture versus permaculture.

Similar struggles pit funding large-scale capture of coal’s CO2 emissions versus managing agriculture, grasslands and reforestation to revive their natural efficiency in sequestering carbon. 

Human ignorance of Life’s Principles led to scaling-up many destructive technologies for short-term gains. As we leave the fossil-fueled Industrial Era and proceed through today’s Information Societies toward the knowledge-richer, more equitable, cleaner, greener economies of the Solar Age, issues of scale are key. 

We may continue scaling up wider access to the Internet as we reduce excesses such as the high-frequency trading of stocks and currencies. We can downsize megabanks and scale up access to free education while writing off un-repayable debt and deflating bubble finance and derivatives.

The key goal is to scale up and expand human awareness, integrating all that we learned in the Industrial Era with our growing knowledge of ourselves and Earth systems science.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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