Do we have to limit growth to save the planet? | KEYE Austin - Green Right Now Austin News, Weather, Traffic KEYE-TV Austin - HOME
Jan 202010

(The question “Do We Have To Limit Growth To Save The Planet?” was posed to sustainability expert Frances Moore Lappe by the Corporate Social Responsibility’s Talk Back Blog.)

By Frances Moore Lappé

We humans create the world according to ideas we hold. Our biggest ideas, our frames, determine what we can see and what we can’t. Ultimately, they will decide whether we can turn our beautiful planet toward life…or not.

Two frames I increasingly hear are “Because growth is killing the planet, we need no-growth;” and “We’ve hit the limits of a finite earth.”


“Growth” sounds pretty good to my ears, especially when I consider the opposite: shrink, shrivel, decline, decrease, die. So it’s hard to visualize excited crowds waving “No-growth NOW!” placards!

The danger in this frame goes far beyond its lack of sex appeal. The real danger is what it leaves unchallenged: the assumption that today’s economy is in fact defined by “growth” — ever-expanding abundance.

It keeps us blind to the truth that our current path is much more about waste and scarcity than abundance—for many now and for many more in the future.

In 1969, squirreled away in the University of California–Berkeley “ag” library, asking “why hunger?,” I discovered that our “efficient, modern, productive” U.S. food system is actually a waste machine. It funnels sixteen pounds of grain and soy into cattle to get back one single pound of steak.

Wait, this crazy ratio has to be an exception, I thought, only to learn that our food system’s gross inefficiency is the rule. Energy analyst Amory Lovins and his co-authors argue in Natural Capitalism that 6 percent or less of the “vast flows of materials” that go into production to make our goods actually end up in products we use. Fifty-six percent, on average, of all energy in the U.S. economy is wasted.

Let’s call it like it is. Let’s call what we’ve been doing an economics of waste and destruction that stymies growth and quickens death. Growth then becomes that which enhances life — generation and regeneration; what our planet needs more of.

And “we’ve hit the limits”?

It encourages us to see the problem as “out there” — in the fixed quantity that is Earth: its limits are the problem. More usefully, the limit we’ve hit is that of the disruption of nature we humans can cause without catastrophic consequences. In this frame, attention shifts to us.

The limits frame conjures up the notion of an overdrawn bank account. The solution?  Cut back what we withdraw.  But if most of destruction is designed in, then we could cut back and still be massively disrupting natural regeneration. What if farm runoff, say, were killing sea life in “only” two hundred instead of over four hundred dead zones worldwide? Still way more than ecological rhythms can absorb.

So let’s shed “no-growth” and “limits.” Let’s reframe the challenge as that of aligning with the laws of nature to enhance life; and from there ask, What are the frames about human nature that drive the current waste and destruction within an economy driven by one rule, highest return to existing wealth? From there, fear eases, as we work to align with nature, including human nature.

About Frances Moore Lappé

  • Frances Moore Lappé is a democracy advocate and world food and hunger expert who has authored or co-authored 16 books. She is the co-founder of three organizations, including Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy and, more recently, the Small Planet Institute, which she leads with her daughter Anna Lappé. In 1987 she received the Right Livelihood Award (a.k.a, the “Alternative Nobel.”) Her first book, Diet for a Small Planet, has sold three million copies and is considered “the blueprint for eating with a small carbon footprint since long before the term was coined”. Her most recent book is Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad. You can hear an interview with Lappé about the book with Talkback’s Managing Editor, Francesca Rheannon, here. Lappé’s forthcoming book is Liberation Ecology.

(Re-posted with permission from the Corporate Social Responsibility wire service.)