Dave Gardner has been waging a long and creative crusade against the most relentless red tide the planet has experienced since the Industrial Revolution: humankind’s deadly bloom across the globe
A conversation with a Paul Revere of our time
By Mark Cromer
It’s going to be a long December for Dave Gardner.
The annual American orgy of consumerism kicked off with the usual early-bird brawl party on Black Friday— which now naturally begins on Thursday in lieu of a more reflective Thanksgiving centered on family and friends—and rolled on through Cyber Monday as bloodied shoppers returned from the Big Boxes to work their laptops and phones like coked-up stock brokers screaming ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’
And that was just the pre-party, the opener, the apéritifs and Hors d’oeuvres before the main course.
From now until the dawn of 2019, an American horde from coast-to-coast will whip itself into a frenzy of mass discretionary consumption that has come to define a culture that’s now living on borrowed money and increasingly borrowed time.
For Gardner, who has dedicated much of his life arguing against the accelerating pace of out of control consumption and growth and warning of the consequences that will surely follow, the holidays must stand as some sort of glittering yet grim landscape of debauched retail revelry with a perverse bow on top of whatever remains of humanity’s self-identity outside the prism of mass consumers.
But the shadow of futility has not yet crept deeply into his commitment to stay the course and keep hoping for a national awakening that sustainability isn’t just a suggestion, it’s determinative between life and suicide.
It was nearly a decade ago that I met Gardner during a writers’ conference on the Potomac just across from the shady lanes of Georgetown where I was part of a panel discussion about the media’s role in mass immigration and the unsustainable population growth it propels. Gardner, looking and sounding like something of an environmental science professor morphed into a less neurotic Larry David with a dash of the acerbic wit of David Letterman sprinkled in for good measure, caught me during a break in the conclave and asked if he could interview me on camera for a documentary he was working on about the cult of consumption and its corollary of perpetual growth. I said ‘sure’ and a short while later was fielding what I recall were refreshingly candid and pertinent questions about a society that was, as Gardner framed it: “hooked on growth.”
And just how the media fit into that pusher and junkie dynamic.
His resulting work would be released a couple years later in 2011, aptly entitled GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, a 54-minute romp through the wilds of an America amidst its accelerating disintegration that features a wide array of voices on the subject, including author and Worldwatch Institute Fellow Robert Engelman, former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, legendary California Congressman Pete McCloskey (co-author of the watershed Endangered Species Act in 1973) and the Papa of the atomic Population Bomb himself: legendary Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich.
But far from being a one-and-done documentary that captured a particular late moment of our collective deck party aboard the Titanic that is now our ship of state, Gardner followed GrowthBusters with what has been a long-running crusade to keep the lantern of alarm lit as the deadly threats to the planet and our nation continue to approach by land and by sea.
The professional filmmaker turned eco-activist now runs from Colorado a lighthouse of knowledge at GrowthBusters.org, a sleek and smartly presented web platform that offers something appealing to the most optimistic eco-concerned newt to the fading grizzled cynic still up for an intelligent second-opinion (confirmation) of humanity’s terminal prognosis. Backed by a board of top-shelf environmentalists and human-impact experts, Gardner produces regular podcasts and the Growthbusters site features an online store that offers very clever products with wonderfully subversive takes on our odd pride of transitioning from a nation of people with lives into ever larger masses of cultists of consumerism occupying little more than space in a landscape defined solely by markets.
After staying sporadically in touch over the years, the twilight of 2018 just seemed about the right time for an in-depth conversation with the man that has been doing all that he can in a very genuine way to make the world a better place for all of us.
How did you become a ‘growth buster’? Assuming you weren’t bitten by a radioactive spider or didn’t fall under the spell of a genius-if-mad scientist bent on reforming the world to his own will, what led you to transform your life into something of a Paul Revere raising the alarm of runaway human growth?
The seed was planted in my teens when I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I didn’t really get on my steed and start tilting at growth windmills, however, until 2002 when I became concerned about my hometown being “hell bent for leather” to grow as much and as fast as possible.
I’d moved back to Colorado Springs after 20 years in Dallas, because my wife and I wanted a better, quieter, slower quality of life. Dallas had swollen to the point that running a few errands meant hours in the car. Manners had taken the last exit off the freeway. Gunfire was the nightly soundtrack.
Colorado Springs, unfortunately, had a real growth boom in the 1990s after we arrived, and I watched the slow erosion of that higher quality of life we’d sought. It was as though we’d bought a Corvette, but day-by-day it was gradually turning into a beat-up old pickup truck.
In 2002, Colorado was in the midst of its most serious drought in modern history. I thought to myself, “water is going to be the obvious limiting factor to our population growth; maybe it is possible to get Colorado Springs into a recovery program from growth addiction.” So I appointed myself the city’s sustainable population advocate. I spoke out against growth subsidies at city council and utilities board meetings. I wrote opinion pieces in the local newspapers. My first, published in the alternative weekly, was titled Growth – Just Say No.
As a professional filmmaker I was also at this time ready to stop producing propaganda for Fortune 500 clients and put my skills to work telling more important, meaningful stories. I decided to produce a documentary about population growth.
While in the midst of producing that film, I decided to run for city council, with the platform, “Growth created our problems; it can’t be their solution.” My message was: “The era of growth as a prosperity engine is behind us. Growth has become ridiculously expensive (financially, environmentally, and in quality of life). Pursuit of growth (economic, population, community) is diverting our attention and our resources from what truly matters to us. If we can get unhooked from our addiction to growth, we will finally be free to achieve true prosperity and real happiness.”
It was a bold experiment, to see if a candidate can get elected promising to stop pursuing growth, rather than the typical promise of endless economic growth and jobs, jobs, jobs. That campaign and election ended up being the human-interest story in my documentary. After the release of the film, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth in 2011 (on the day world population blasted through 7 billion), GrowthBusters evolved into an ongoing public education and advocacy project.
What was the ‘alternative weekly’ where you first published Growth—Just Say No and how was it received?
That piece was published in the Colorado Springs Independent. I don’t recall that this particular op-ed generated much conversation. But it was the first of many. Today, I’m often thanked – sometimes by complete strangers – for all the op-eds and letters to the editor I’ve sent in over the years. The one result I’ve noted is that the economic development folks in town (the growth boosters) have altered their language a bit, to be a little less obvious about what they’re trying to do to our town.
You ran for City Council, how did that go? How was your campaign platform received and how was it opposed by other candidates?
I’ll never forget the first meeting of my campaign committee, and I’m so glad I asked a film student to capture it for the GrowthBusters movie – it’s one of the most important scenes. Pretty much everyone in the room tried to convince me that I could not run and win being against growth. They were right, but I HAD to try. Would they be right today? I’m afraid so. Progress has been slow.
Is another run for political office in the future?
After my council run, one of our county commissioners told me he thought I could be more effective as an outsider. He was probably right. I don’t think I have the patience to hold office today.
As 2018 draws to a close, from your perspective where do we now find ourselves—globally and nationally—as it pertains to human growth? Where are we now? It’s hard to imagine 2019 offering much of a marked difference than this year, last year, the last decade and the last quarter-century for that matter, but are you expecting any departures or just more acceleration?
I’m seeing positive signs. I think we’re seeing the erosion of the longstanding taboo on discussing overpopulation and population growth, on reluctance to attribute problems and crises to population growth, and on avoiding consideration of action to move the world into population contraction. It’s happening slowly, but it’s definitely underway. Of course that must accelerate if we’re to have any hope of a bright future.
The other multiplier in the sustainability equation is the size of our economy (our consumption). The good news there is that degrowth and steady state economics are also beginning to get traction in the media and public dialog.
The progress I’m seeing, slow as it is, keeps me energized and requires that we double our efforts to amplify those conversations. At the same time, I’m afraid it’s highly unlikely we’ll give up our economic growth obsession soon enough to avoid large-scale collapse of human civilization.
Just yesterday I watched an anchor on a progressive news network tell us that “maintaining or growing the population is an economic imperative.” His message was if we aren’t making enough babies (workers/consumers) then we had better import more workers, because GDP growth is the Holy Grail. The public is fed a steady stream of these unexamined assumptions about the goodness of growth. No one in the mainstream is yet questioning it.
I consider our (in the U.S.) increasing fascination with Doomsday scenarios, as evidenced most prominently in Hollywood offerings such as World War Z, I Am Legend, Intersteller and too many television zombie flicks to name, to be some sort of subconscious projection not so much of dystopian fantasy but rather a grim and all too real approaching future merely adorned with Tinsel Town’s stylistic flourishes. It seems to me a mass acceptance of sorts that we indeed are staring down the barrel of calamity that runaway population growth and the rapidly expanding human footprint that it invariably brings. What’s your take on the idea that Hollywood is effectively programing as entertainment our collective estimation of the twilight of our species?
It’s only natural that our entertainment reflects what is happening in real life, including in our collective psyche. It doesn’t seem to be making a difference, however, in the public’s reaction to reality. I don’t think the general public is, in any way, beginning to accept that we’re on a course that has no happy ending. We really do think we’re invincible.
We’ve had four major, very serious warnings from scientists in the past year about what we’re doing to our home planet. Those warnings have gotten very little attention. I do see, however, growing acceptance and resignation among the scientists, philosophers, ethicists and others who – like me – were born without that invincible/denial gene. This subject comes up more and more often in my GrowthBusters podcast. Some days I’m tempted to stop my activism and join the party as the ship goes down.
You mention ‘four major, very serious warnings from scientists’ that received very little attention. What were they and why did they fall flat?
Living Planet Report 2018 – published in October of 2018
IPCC Report: GLOBAL WARMING OF 1.5 °C – published in October of 2018
Global Footprint Network’s announcement that Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 1, 2017: http://www.overshootday.org
World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: Second Notice – published in the fall of 2017: http:scientistswarning.org
Each received a lot of attention among those with heightened concerns about human civilization and our “spaceship Earth.” But the seriousness of their content warranted being the lead story on the evening news. It warranted being the page one headline in the New York Times. Heads of state around the world should have addressed the public and called for emergency measures. Of course none of that happened. Why? That’s a topic of ongoing theorizing and speculation. I suspect it is largely because we’re still too comfortable. And the threat is moving in slow motion. And the links are a little too nebulous. Did the recent catastrophic fires in California cause even the families who lost homes or loved ones to adopt extremely low carbon lifestyles because climate change is intensifying our fires?
In terms of Hollywood reflecting our collective psyche and yet not having much of an impact in triggering a real crash aversion among the masses, do you feel that perceived hypocrisy might play a role in the limited reach of the message? Specifically, Al Gore can make a film like An Inconvenient Truth but then people read stories about his own carbon footprint and fairly jet-setter ways, or a constellation of A-List Hollywood celebrities can virtue signal the correct environmental message via their films and social media accounts, but then the masses see them arrive at the red carpets in armored-up SUVs and return to any one of five or six 17,000-square-foot homes? Doesn’t the real lives of the messengers effectively step on the validity of the message, the authenticity of it? And how do we get around that? Ask for a massive moment of collective self-awareness and plead for very real ‘downsizing’ from a class of people for whom living larger than life is indeed life itself?
I’m sure that plays a role, I’m not sure how significant. I do think it would be worthwhile to try a massive role-model action of those celebrities who have millions of Twitter or Instagram followers. They do have the bully pulpit. But I can understand how difficult it is, if you’ve “made it,” to give up the trophy house and the private jet.
The 1970s is now frequently recalled as a ‘golden’ era for a variety of cultural signposts, from network television programming to porn (thank you Norman Lear and thank you Linda Lovelace), and it was also an age when the environmental movement in the United States really came unto its own as a movement. We saw the formation of Greenpeace (albeit in Canada), the birth of Earth Day, the reinvigoration of the ‘back to the land’ sensibility, experimental communities like Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti and part of all that was a widespread sense that human population—and the growth it fuels—had reached a tipping point. Zero Population Growth, both as a philosophy and an organization, developed a certain cachet in popular culture. My question is: What happened??? It seems like there was this beautiful moment where the light bulb went on—and then burned out into the 1980s: Reagan, coke, greed, wild growth and the triumph of Gordon Gekko. What’s your take on that and why it happened? How did America lose interest even as it stood at the cliff’s edge?
I know what happened to me. I graduated from college and got focused on getting a good job. Then I got married and focused on being a good provider. I had two children (stopped at two because of my overpopulation concerns) and focused even harder on being a good provider. I completely lost touch with my conservation ethic, and I was too busy running on the rat-race treadmill so I’d have a house as big and a car as nice as the next guy. There was a black hole for me in my 20s, 30s, and even 40s.
We keep getting new generations of young activists (until they get sucked into that vortex of pursuit of “the American Dream”). For some reason environmental sustainability hasn’t been their thing. There is a groundswell of support for the shift to renewable energy, but that seems to be born of a belief that technology can solve our problems; we don’t have to examine our own lives and alter our individual behavior. We’re busier than ever, and that apparently means too busy to dwell on what sustainable living really is. I don’t have a satisfying explanation.
I have written professionally for years about mass immigration and the human population issues that fuel it and yet I am still amazed at how both the general public and the political officials that govern conveniently bifurcate population and the growth it fuels from virtually every other social ill or issue that those twin elements play a fundamental role in; be it ecological degradation, wildlife impacts and extinction level events for a growing list of species (particularly large apex predators that need space), water availability and competition for that vital resource to the more obviously immediate impacts in everyday human life like traffic congestion, local pollution, crime, economic impacts and jobs, housing stocks and on and on. You don’t need a PhD in physics to grasp the linear connection or to understand where the trend line is heading and yet with the public-at-large you frequently encounter narcolepsy and with politicos it’s often a head-nodding, furrowed brow rendition of “Hey, I get what you’re saying, and that’s why I believe my plan for job creation, new home construction and a balanced budget with debt reduction goals will help this nation turn the corner and make the 21st Century truly the American Century.” Left or Right, Blue or Red, they seem to instinctively, like a Pavlov dog, start drooling talking points and sound-bites that ultimately say nothing. What’s your take on the failure of our bipartisan political system to seriously address the devastation of perpetual growth? What’s your take on the mass public who abet it every election cycle?
There is a lot at work here. Greed, selfishness and short-termism play a role. The hundred-year history we have of what looks like success and prosperity from growth feeds it. We’re brainwashed from birth to believe in prosperity from growth. Limits to growth feel very uncomfortable to people living “the good life.” Who wants to believe they should be walking to work, earning and spending less money, NOT buying and flying to that vacation ski or beach condo? Of course, that is all fairly vacuous in terms of real meaning, happiness and life satisfaction. But again, we’re too busy to stop and contemplate that. And it’s challenging to have that conversation via an Instagram post.
You cite ‘greed, selfishness and short-termism’ as contributors to the bipartisan failure of America’s (in particular) political establishment to seriously address growth and sustainability issues and how tech has neatly dovetailed into that by making the necessary conversation even more difficult to have by the very nature of the platforms (i.e. Instagram), and your answer reminded me of watching Ralph Nader address a thousand students at the Claremont Colleges back in 2006 and when he was asked about immigration and its various impacts he offered a nuanced, thoughtful, ten-minute answer that was completely digested by riveted students. That was more than 12 years ago and I can’t help but think that today Nader’s very cogent answer would have been quickly and rudely interrupted by many of the students on campus now; either for being insufficiently orthodox or, just as likely, unwilling to speak in the sloganistic sound bites that platforms like Twitter demand. Colleges have a role to play in shaping students intellectual expectations. Have they abandoned it, particularly as it relates to issues as immediate and vital as growth? I’d point out that universities are recruiting students increasingly through rather lavish campus comforts—the building sprees of spa-like accommodations is head-spinning—and that would seem to run completely counter to a more genuine example of asking students to check their appetites and open their minds.
I am regularly invited to address college classes, so I know there are professors out there giving these topics their due. Meanwhile, this is done at universities that measure their success by the growth of the student body and the physical expansion of the campus. (sigh) One of the reasons I’m putting so much energy into the GrowthBusters podcast (and, coincidentally, The Overpopulation Podcast, which I host for World Population Balance), is that the podcast form seems to be one of the last vestiges of longer, deeper, more thoughtful exploration. Today’s young adults are voracious podcast consumers. So, maybe podcasts like:
Having spoken with most of the marquee players of the population reduction and mass immigration restriction movement at one time or another over the past couple of decades, I’ve noticed that a significant number of them could be accurately identified as proponents of a ‘no growth’ policy—whatever that would look like in actual application—but they fear to say so outside the pleasant company of fellow travelers given the allegedly radical nature of that stand. More than a few quietly lectured me about using terms like ‘smart growth’ or ‘managed growth,’ apparently believing that the time for employing such vernacular is long over and now only serves to perpetuate the ongoing fantasy that we can continue to indulge really any further significant growth whatsoever. What’s your take? Is it ok to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre if the crowded theatre is on fire?
One of my favorite bumper stickers is one I created (it’s available in the store at growthbusters.org). It reads, “What’s so smart about growth?” “Smart and Growth” are in big, bold letters. In an emergency, when the theater is on fire, it isn’t the time to say, “If you’re getting a little warm, why not take a break? Let’s all go to the lobby.” The emergency is here, and we need to be honest about it.
But I will admit there are all kinds of approaches, with theories behind them. Some espouse that really bad news paralyzes people and you need a Pollyanna approach to inspire action. I believe each approach has a role. Different types of people at different stages need different messages. Personally I try to be optimistic enough to avoid having too many doors slammed in my face, without out-and-out lying about how dire our situation is. I want to get people into the tent so they can hear the whole sermon.
It is very tiring, though, to see so much attention given all these little adjustments at the margins, which have no hope of making human civilization sustainable. What I do is support them (without putting too much of my own energy into them) while reminding everyone that they need to be accompanied by bigger, more impactful changes. I designed a sign for people to carry at climate change rallies. It reads, “#1 Carbon Reduction Action: Smaller Families (Add it to your list).” I created stick-figure family stickers for autos that brag “Stopped at Zero,” “Childfree,” “Stopped at One,” and “Stopped at Two.” I’d like to think I’m pushing the edge of the envelope and making it safer for the more timid to follow into this space.
Over a decade ago I was on a panel discussion/debate on immigration at USC, I recall it was moderated by Matt Welch who was at the Los Angeles Times back then but is now an editor over at Reason, and one of the students in the audience asked me if I thought it was time for the United States to implement a one child per family policy akin to China’s, to which I replied that the good news was I didn’t think we were there yet. But I look back now and recall that nearly thirty years ago I hung out with Paul Watson while working on a story about his break with Greenpeace and his launching the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and he explained his rather convincing take that the sustainable human population globally was around two billion people, so I’ve wondered at times whether I should have just answered that student’s question with a simple but straightforward: “Yes.” The ramifications of such policies, even posed as academic hypotheticals—particularly when what’s required to implement them, to say nothing of the proverbial slippery slope of what other policy initiatives could logically follow—can still be unsettling. But the current situation seems to beg the old rhetorical question Reagan famously uttered: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” So, how do you look at what China did, and now somewhat un-did, and are there any takeaways for the United States and the rest of the world for that matter? Did China have the right idea? What would you say to the student at USC were you asked that question today?
Thanks for this question. The legendary Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich has for 60 years been very outspoken about overpopulation and overconsumption. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and doesn’t pull any punches. He’s been called on the carpet for being abrasive about it. Has he done the sustainable population movement more harm than good? I don’t think so. We need someone like him today who can get on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert time after time, like Ehrlich did on The Tonight Show back in the Johnny Carson days. But I digress.
The horrific abuses in implementing China’s one-child policy have really set us back. To this day they make it hard to have productive conversations about sustainable population, because people fear that you want nations to enact that kind of policy. So my answer to that question is always to allay those fears. We don’t need a one-child policy. We need a one-child norm. If every couple around the world is armed with the knowledge that we’re in overshoot, and understands the implications of their family-size decision on the quality of life – even the survival – of their child, then I believe they’ll do the right thing without any outside compulsion.
We do need to keep raising the bar on this. By that I mean that we need to get to a point where it’s not offensive to talk about it being “irresponsible” or “immoral” to conceive multiple children. Right now we seem to be hung up on the idea that procreative freedom is an inalienable right. Well, that right may be taken from us if we don’t exercise that freedom responsibly.
Today, everyone should know we’re in overshoot, but sadly that’s not yet the case. But anyone who does know has a responsibility to have at most one child. If we can make one-child families the norm, and get the global average fertility down to one and keep it there for 100 years, then we’ll be back near a sustainable population without enacting any laws. That will require political will, good public communication campaigns, free or low-cost contraception, lots of education, gender equity, and possibly some tweaks in tax law and welfare policy to incentivize smaller families. But it won’t require any violations of human rights. It’s humane and it’s voluntary. A few nations have already demonstrated that this works.
It is a shame we didn’t understand we were approaching overshoot early in the twentieth century. It would have been so much easier to stop growing human numbers at a sustainable level. Instead we’ve blown way past the mark (studies indicate we did that in the 1970s), making it harder now to get where we need to be, and causing serious injury to our life-support systems, actually chipping away at their carrying capacity. It’s almost too late to correct our error, so we do need to stop tap-dancing around the issue.
I feel I must be clear that I firmly believe we need to put just as much effort into achieving one-child families in the overdeveloped world as we do in the developing world. The reason should be obvious. The impact of one additional child in the overconsuming world is huge and immediate. And an additional child in the developing world adds to the number of people who want to be overconsumers (and have every right to at least live decent lives, which do have significant footprints). We have little reason to celebrate getting down to replacement fertility rate in the U.S. The trend is good, but we can’t stop there since we’re unwilling, apparently, to live very simple, monastic lives.
Speaking of Paul Watson and his break with Greenpeace, what’s your take on those who have been drawn into more direct action, confrontational tactics against some of the more ghastly impacts of human population and the runaway growth and consumption it fuels like a flywheel running on its own momentum, be it the slaughter of whales and horrors wrought by the shark finning fleets across the world’s oceans or the clear-cutting of forests and mountain top removals? Watson decided it was time to start ramming the Japanese whalers and the monkey-wrench man himself, Edward Abbey, drafted what became the manifesto of sorts for Earth First! with their tree-spiking hijinx. Then came ELF and their own eco-anarchistic actions, albeit often with a Tyler Durden-esque flair. Do you feel such actions are dead-end streets that do more harm than good or do you feel that they’ve just arrived at a last resort scenario faster than the rest of the movement?
I’m not really sure. I admire them for their courage and commitment. But their issues have been downstream from the root cause of the problem – population and economic growth. I wonder where we’d be if Greenpeace, Sierra Club, WWF, The Story of Stuff, 350.org, etc. had all been focusing on these big-picture root causes for the past 50 years. At the very least, the average world citizen would be aware of the problem. I’m reminded of a very candid statement by Sir Peter Scott, the founder of WWF: “You know, when we first set up WWF, our objective was to save endangered species from extinction. But we have failed completely; we haven’t managed to save a single one. If only we had put all that money into condoms, we might have done some good.”
In early 2004 I was living in Flagstaff and I had read an essay from Mike Davis taken from his impending opus Planet of Slums, I think it was excerpted in Harpers, and as I had with Watson I had also interviewed Davis back in the early 1990s after his epic take on Los Angeles, City of Quartz, had been published and it struck me that Davis had been chronicling in a roundabout way humankind’s hell-bent race to a very crowded end. And how and where I was at the time resonated with me and still does sometimes, because I was a writer in a nice spread in this still rather quaint mountain town amid the forests of Northern Arizona and reading this early dispatch from hell by Davis with my boots up before ambling down the hill from my Cherry Avenue pad and into a favorite bar or two to ponder what it all meant. Sure it was informative and even inspiring, but what it most immediately inspired in me was the idea that drinks and a cigarette at the Monte Vista or the Weatherford was definitely the first action item on the agenda. There was a casual disconnect in play and I think part of that is rooted in the sense, one perhaps even more prevalent now, of what really can be done? ‘Oh, there’s 38 million people jammed into the vast sprawl of Lagos and the inhuman conditions there are so abhorrent that even seasoned teams from the UN were stunned by the hellish scenes they encountered? Wow man, what drag! Great read, but an incredible drag. Whew! Who needs a drink?’ Just gauging my own reaction to it in that moment I see a parallel to where a lot of people are today; educated, informed and active people. Overwhelmed? Hey, a least I didn’t start building a bunker, yet. Mainly because I tend to be more comfortable in a bar. But what’s your sense of information overload and engagement fatigue? And as such, how often do you need a drink?
A) My decision to do the film and podcast and crusade for a sustainable culture made me a starving artist. So I’m bummed my budget doesn’t allow me to head down the hill to a local watering hole on a regular basis. Darn! (Living simply really IS a joy, though, I assure you.)
B) It’s 9:30 a.m. here, and I’m wondering if I SHOULD go sit by the fire with a glass of wine right this minute. Way too early. I frequently start my day at my desk at 4 or 5 a.m., and spend an hour or two just taking in all the relevant news, new perspectives, and taking note of the latest pro-growth propaganda. Then I launch into my to-do list, which often grows during the day as much as it shrinks. So in all honesty, by 5 pm every day I feel a need to shift gears and reward myself for getting through another day. It’s a long slog. But I don’t have to do any fracking to fill up my tank with passion about this.
C) I do feel a little burnout, but it’s mostly fatigue from having to spend time on fundraising. I’d much rather just be doing the work of reporting what I see, and enlightening people, and inspiring change. I’m not yet burned out on that part of my “job.”
D) Seriously, Colin Jost had a very apt line in Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update after the latest IPCC report told us we are seriously fucked (I’m not crazy about using that word, but that’s how friggin’ serious this is). Jost said: “It’s like if you owe your bookie $1,000, you’re like, ‘Okay, I gotta pay this dude back.’ But if you owe your bookie a million dollars, you’re like, ‘I guess I’m just gonna die.” Enough said?
Back when I was in college in the mid-1980s Warren Johnson’s seminal book Muddling Toward Frugality was required reading and a couple of decades later I had the good fortune of spending some time collaborating with him on an essay we envisioned as revisiting the alarm he had raised in 1978 and the answers he proposed as ‘a blueprint for surviving the 1980s’ with an eye on what an updated perspective would suggest for the opening years of the 21st Century. [A draft of that of that essay may appear here at some point.] But Warren cautioned that my enthusiasm for a reevaluation of the ‘back to the land’ movement as a viable alternative to reimagine for this brave new world we find ourselves in now might result in stripping away much of the fond cultural mythology that has since glossed over the hard realities that those early, counter-culture communes actually found themselves confronting. “The fact is,” he told me over lunch one afternoon, “Most of those early ‘off-the-grid’ communities didn’t make it. They didn’t last. They didn’t work. And for a lot of reasons.” Further, he pointed out that some of the higher profile communes, like Wavy Gravy’s (Hugh Romney) ‘Hog Farm’ up in Tujunga became portraits of drug-addled dysfunction, more portraits of excess and hedonism than profiles in experimental living. But we concurred that the prevailing dominant culture of consumerism—the very soul-corrupting structure that the hippies and their associated agrarian sympathizers sought to drop out of—was even more insidious now than it ever had been in the 1960s and ‘70s. And that was our assessment a decade ago, before the rise of the mobile devices had reached their present stupefying level of saturation. So what do you make of the micro-home movement and its associated level of off-the-grid or semi-off-the-grid lifestyle? Does it correspond with what you are doing at GrowthBusters? It seems to me a viable alternative that is hindered primarily by the near religious conversion that Westerners need to make in order to downsize their lives and curtail their desires of want. How do you see it?
I admire and applaud anyone’s brave effort to unplug from this unsustainable mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. But I know the answer to this existential crisis is not for 8 billion people to live in the woods, off the grid. We can’t spread out that much, unfortunately.
I see the eco-villages, tiny houses, etc. as experiments to try to find long-term sustainable models we can adopt. We may end up taking the best of one and combining it with the best of another, and another. Who knows? I do believe, and I try to promote this idea regularly in the GrowthBusters podcast, that there are great benefits from more and more of us skinnying up our lives as much as possible:
A) Social influence: if you walk out the door every day and see your neighbors hopping in their Hummers with their 4 kids and acting like there’s no emergency, then you’re less likely to behave as if there is one. In fact you may question the validity of your interpretation that there is an emergency. After all, if we are in drastic times, how come no one is taking drastic measures?
B) Elected policymakers are going to go in whichever direction the wind is blowing. We create that wind by living what we believe. We must lead the leaders.
C) Imagine if those we elect came from families, homes, or communities that had the values we need to be adopting. If they can avoid being corrupted, or at least avoid it for a while, we might actually start getting enlightened public policy. So the more of us living these values, eventually we’re going to be infiltrating the system.
Dream world scenario: Dave Gardner is asked to address a full session of the United Nation’s General Assembly with heads of state leading their delegations. You get twenty minutes behind the dais to lay it on the world’s leaders. What is your rap in summary? What are the narrative heartbeats? What are the key takeaways? What must they hear?
It’s time to face the music, stop the tap-dancing, and tell the truth. The iceberg is right before us. Turn the Titanic now, and turn it sharply. If you do the right thing, we’ll make great, epic movies about what heroes you were. If you don’t, we won’t be around to make any movies and there won’t be anyone to turn on the projector or watch the movies.
Fresh from his address to the world’s leaders at the UN, Dave Gardner is invited on the late night talk show circuit, much as Paul Ehrlich was in the wake of The Population Bomb. Sitting on Jimmy Kimmel’s stage, on Stephen Colbert’s stage, on Jimmy Fallon’s stage, what would you tell their audiences before they had to break for commercials selling them more stuff?
Yay! This is just what we need. I hope I can maintain my composure. This is exciting. It’s my moment. What would I tell them?
“Here’s the thing: we, the human race, got carried away. We’re now so big we are crushing our planet. It is not going to support us much longer, especially not in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. If you doubt me, there is plenty of evidence to support this statement. Run that clip, please, Jim.” [QUICK MONTAGE OF CLIMATE DISRUPTION, FISHERIES COLLAPSE, OCEAN DEAD ZONES, MAJOR RIVERS AND AQUIFERS PUMPED DRY, CROPS FAILING DUE TO INFERTILE SOIL, ETC.]
“Now, what are we going to do about this? Unplug from this system. Get out of debt. Simplify your life. Enjoy the good things – they don’t cost a lot of money and they’re easy on the planet. More porch-sitting, more love-making, more walks, more talks. Lose the ATVs, the speedboat, the jet travel, the McMansion. Stop working so damn hard. Play. Laugh. Spend some of your newfound time growing some food (since your paycheck will shrink, this will keep your family fed). Find other people doing what you’re doing and hang out with them. Support each other. Loan and borrow tools, etc. Substitute manual labor for burning fossil fuels. You’ll be in better shape and won’t need that gym membership. You will find a lot more joy in this than you ever found at the office.”
And finally: “Now, I’ve been talking to your audience up to this point, Stephen (or Jimmy). Now I want to ask something very important of you. YOU have this incredible bully pulpit. People care what you say, what you think, and what you do. Will you please join all of us in this reset of the American Dream? Be a role model. Be a spokesman. We could use your inspiration. And donate several million dollars you won’t be needing, to the public campaign encouraging us all to shrink the family, shrink our footprints, shrink the population and shrink the economy. It’ll be fun. And that way you get to live instead of racing off the cliff into a mass grave.”
We live in a culture now in the United States where growth is no longer just good, but rather growth is God. And from that cultish orthodoxy springs a host of ills that cloud the scientific reality that the party can’t last forever even as the band plays on. When increasing human densities as a solution becomes more preferable than actually reducing the never-ending outflow from the wellspring of human population growth, we are way past just in serious trouble. Increased density only amplifies everything about humanity’s condition; most notably crime, congestion and competition for resources. How do we break a cultural religious dogma? What will trigger an enlightenment that will lead to a reformation? Or are we just destined to wait for an Armageddon of our own making?
Well I’d go back to what I’ve been saying and let me add that it’s not just the United States worshipping at the church of growth everlasting. We may be the Vatican of this religion, but there are followers and parishes worldwide; there are priests and cardinals around the world leading the flock toward that cliff. You’ll find them at Davos, at the UN, the World Bank, Wall Street, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the Club for Growth, chambers of commerce, parliaments, congresses, think tanks (both conservative and progressive), and the G7. Many of us are trying to catalyze that needed culture shift. We’ve tried myriad ways to get that going. It doesn’t seem like anyone has hit upon the answer. There must not be an easy button for this. Heck, there may not even be a hard button. It could be impossible for us to be collectively enlightened enough to make the necessary course correction. Most of your readers probably don’t realize how close we are to running out of time, how close we are to the cliff. It may well be within a few decades. But if as many of us as possible live as sustainably as we can, we can tell our children we’re giving it all we’ve got. In the process we’ll be living more meaningful lives and we’ll experience more joy. Maybe we’ll accomplish the shift. But if we go down, we’ll go down with integrity.