Reflections on Growth

By on March 26th, 2020

“Could a simpler way of life really be possible?”

As I write these words, my local area is in social isolation, much like the rest of the world, to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

Schools are closed, along with most businesses. Events and family gatherings, weddings, and even funerals, are postponed or cancelled altogether. We are forced to stay put. To slow down. 

And while much of the conversation globally has surrounded grave concerns about stunted growth in an economic sense, I have been pondering what positive, and unexpected consequences might result from our current predicament.

“The Modern World is obsessed with growth. We worship growth. Growth is our religion.” — Mansoor Khan1

At the first Annual IC3 Conference, held in Mumbai in 2016, well known Indian film director and producer Mansoor Khan spoke about humanity’s unwavering, and perhaps recalcitrant, commitment to growth. Khan commented on what he recognized as a misguided expectation that continuous, exponential economic growth was both desirable and feasible. His discussion of growth centered on the role of energy and, in particular, on the irreconcilable dissonance between the exponential growth expectation about which he spoke and the finite reserve of natural resources. Khan concluded very directly that sustaining current growth rates was impossible, even in scenarios where innovations in alternative energy production take center stage.

Khan’s conclusion is certainly not a universally accepted one. For example, historian and author Yuval Noah Harari maintained that energy potential is unlimited, citing the historical track record of human ingenuity, innovation as well as the technology curve2. 

Regardless of one’s position on the current state of natural resources and its relation to tomorrow’s energy supply, what is clear is that we have grown - materially, and in terms of consumption. Here is some food for thought:

  • World population currently stands at an estimated 7.8 billion, an increase of 7.1 billion since the year 1700. Two billion people are overweight or obese, a far cry from the reality for most people throughout human history3. Though the annual growth rate will slow between 2020 and 2050, global population is expected to approach 10 billion during this period4
  • In 2020, 726 million motor vehicles will be in use in OECD countries alone, up from 530 million in 2002. The overwhelming majority of these vehicles are for personal use5.
  • As a snapshot, in 2015, nearly 36% of all new plastic was produced specifically for packaging consumer goods6, presumably motivated by a large appetite for single-use items. Packaging is, by far, the largest category in plastic production7.

Some argue that we are addicted to material excess. We are rarely satisfied with what we have. We want more stuff, and we want it cheaper. While these are certainly not universal conditions, the global economy is largely built on the demand for more. Though, without question, growth is not exclusive to the economy. 

This brings me to the concept of the growth mindset.

“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” — W.B. Yeats

One of the ways we as educators and leaders can positively impact our youth is to instill a growth mindset. To be clear, a growth mindset has nothing to do with growing GDP or other material or economic developments. A growth mindset is actually about an individual’s perception of their ability to learn and their brain’s capacity to develop, as opposed to a belief that their intelligence is static and that they have no power to feed it.     

Here is a perspective from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, also known as PISA. PISA gauges the ability of 15-year-olds’ to apply acquired knowledge from key subject areas (namely reading, mathematics and science) in their everyday lives.

“[S]tudents with a growth mindset reported greater motivation to master tasks and self-efficacy, set more ambitious learning goals for themselves, attached greater importance to school, and were more likely to expect to complete a university degree. There are various ways a growth mindset can be instilled in students. It can begin by teaching students more about the brain’s capacity to learn through reading, class discussions and other activities. Research has shown that students who are exposed to these school-based interventions tend to show stronger beliefs about the brain’s capacity to change8.”

Instilling a growth mindset is not the sole responsibility of counselors and teachers, however. The report also indicates that outcomes associated with a growth mindset are significantly impacted by the system itself, and by its policymakers. In other words, counselors and teachers need to be appropriately supported with the time and resources it takes to achieve these goals.

Regardless of whether framed in economic or intellectual terms, there is enormous power in growth. Growth is dynamic. It can be both creative and destructive.

And while arguments over resources generally dominate discussions of growth in almost every context, it is rare to observe any mention of what I believe to be one of the most valuable resources in the human experience. Time.

Assuming one’s basic needs are met, is there anything more important than how we spend our time? Unlike many other resources, time is gone forever once it is spent. It can never be recovered. You cannot earn more, or buy more. Time does not regenerate. We won’t find a treasure trove of time through ocean drilling or by mining asteroids. All of this is to say that without some extraordinary and unexpected developments in quantum physics, we can’t get it back. Time is truly precious.

So, again I ask: “Could a simpler way of life really be possible?”

There is no shortage of stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, including legitimate concerns about employment status, the potential or actual loss of income, and physical and mental health of oneself and family, above all else.

Though, amidst the panic and uncertainty in our current global predicament, I’ve also observed a slow-down in the general pace of life (at least for many, and unfortunately and notably not for first-responders, medical professionals and other essential personnel). But, for those without essential duties and with daily commutes considerably shortened or altogether done away with, there seems to be more time for simple pleasures. Simple pleasures like a modest breakfast or dinner at home with immediate family; quiet time for reflection, reading or personal research; calmer roads, with seemingly cleaner air; an unusually long or leisurely walk or bike ride (of course depending upon available outdoor space and local restrictions). 

I’ve also observed generosity, compassion, empathy, and resilience. Many charity organizations are benefiting from an outpouring of support and civic engagement from their local communities. It seems a time capsule has been unlocked.

Are we experiencing something that could fundamentally change how we live our lives - how we interact with each other, how we work, and how we study?

If so, could this experience also change how we grow, or perhaps how we arrange our growth priorities?

How will we, both collectively and individually, prioritize our limited resources into growth after this? Will we focus on adding to our collection of stuff? Will we increase the quality of our limited time? Will we expand our minds? Our spirits? Our hearts?

I suppose time will tell.

1 Khan, M. (2013) The third curve: The end of growth as we know it. Mansoor Khan.
2 Harari, Y. N. (2015). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind.
United Nations. Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Sustainable development goals.
4 Chamie, J. (2020, February 11). YaleGlobal Online. World population: 2020 overview.
United Nations. Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Sustainable development goals.
6 Geyer, J., Jambeck, J. R., & Law K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7).
7 Beckman, E. (2018, August 13). World   Economic Forum. The world’s plastic problem in numbers.
8 Schleicher, A. (2018). PISA 2018: insights and interpretations. Organization for economic cooperation and development (2018).