Years ago, five years ago now, Rep. Bill Hilty, chair of the House Energy Committee, and practitioner of the “Hilty Jilty” when he didn’t want me to testify, started out the legislative session not with testimony of agency heads about their view of what was needed, but with a presentation, a several meetings long LONG presentation, that things were different, and we needed to be clear about the distinction between “growth” and “prosperity.” Hilty also promoted a series of meetings across the state about “Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty.”  It was a great concept, really looking at what we mean with all this talk of “expansion.”  This was back in 2008… during the crash.  He was on top of this, but it never went further than those meetings.

Yeah, that’s a good idea to be addressing these issues… whatever happened?  How were we distracted?

The concept isn’t as dead as the discussion, and today, a Commentary in the STrib:

Head in sand, you can’t tell that the air is foul

… with a focus of “Grow-or-die is the only way forward.”  They’re trying to prop up the notion that up, up, up is where we have to go.  It’s so contrary to obvious experience.  Have we learned nothing?

I’ve been reading this book that looks at the origin of that “grow or die” concept, how growth became accepted as necessary, with little concern or awareness of the impacts of that growth.  Here I thought back in 2008 that Rep. Hilty was going to bring some sanity to the legislature and shift the focus to “prosperity” and not “growth,” recognizing the difference, but nooooooooo… it didn’t take hold.  Now here we are, the crash wasn’t a little temporary blip, it’s the “new normal,” and we’re spinning our wheels.  Thus this little treasure found in someone’s free pile at a garage sale is just what the doctor ordered!

The Great Delusion:  A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth, by Steven Stoll.


It’s a cute little book, and takes a bit too long going in circles telling the story, but it’s a good read, a reassuring read, tracing the notion of “economic growth” as a necessity, and the belief that the world is ours to take and strip of its resources forever, all the way back to Hegel and focusing on the utopian John Adolphus Etzler, whose “fantasy has become our reality and that we continue to live by some of the same economic assumptions that he embraced,” … “that the transfer of matter from the earth’s environments into the economy is not bounded by any limitation of those environments and that energy for powering our cars and iPods will always exist,” conflating growth with progress, doing what Hilty attempted back in 2008, to get us off the “growth” kick into something more sustainable.


The obsolete world view, per Stoll:

From that time forward, economic growth became conflated with American influence abroad and the capacity of politicians to maintain affluence at home…

The result was an oddly plausible utopia: cheap energy and a land regime that traced indelible patterns across the continent by removing American Indians and eradicating wildlife, leading to a soaring human population that would soon live by consuming manufactured products, all financed by joint-stock companies and protected by a government that encouraged growth.

… (and citing and quoting Thomas Ewbank):

“Who can inform us where the terminus is to be?” he asked.  “No one; for there is nothing in ourselves, nor in the earth’s resources, to point out there the last step is to land us … It is a rational belief that there are no limits to [man’s] advancement, as there appear to be one to the agents of it nor to his power over them.”  Coal got him even more excited: “A first element of progress for all time, it is preposterous to suppose the supplies of coal can ever be exhausted or even become scarce.”  Preposterous, he said, because it formed continually in “the depths of our oceans,” faster than people can burn it. … “The proposition is, that unlimited amounts of force are to be drawn out of inert matter.”

Oh my… Yup, that pretty much sums up this mess we’re in.  We cannot go on…  What are we going to do about it?  In a very concrete example, I’m thinking about Xcel Energy’s forecasts on which the CapX 2020 transmission buildout is based, 2.49% annually, and it’s nothing close, far enough off that those forecasters should be fired, at best.  The 2013 demand for Xcel Energy is now forecast at about -1.2%.  That’s a 3.62% decrease from the earlier forecast.  Jobs, jobs, jobs, grow, grow, grow, we cannot keep doing this forever, we cannot keep up this “Great Delusion,” and folks, worse, we’re clearly NOT doing it.

Let’s start focusing on prosperity.  Because if we can’t get a handle on that, and refocus our efforts, we’re going to keep headed south.  We’ve had how many years of a rude awakening?


One Response to “Growth… more… insatiable consumption… more… limitless growth… more resources… more… more… more…”

  1. Betsey Buckheit Says:

    Carol – Fortunately, there is a growing interest in prosperity and productivity rather than “growth” – I’m on the board of Strong Towns which I joined because I was concerned about the costs of seeking more growth as the (only) answer) and the organization is working on just the issues you talk about. I don’t know nearly as much about the energy world as you do, focusing instead on land use and transportation. So, check out Strong Towns, the various voices on streets.mn and the links you find there.

    I agree we’re in a mess, but compared to 10 years ago when I started asking questions, there are so many more resources and committed groups and individuals. I’m hopeful.

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