The Danger of Growth Spirals

cut shell growth spiralThroughout the evolution of western society the idea of growth has been a cornerstone of both economic and political metrics. The image of success enjoyed by developed countries has helped to champion the practice of feeding expansion that cause economies and populations to grow with the promise of success as a reward–an idea that the developing world has been quick to subscribe to and implement.

Without a doubt, there are many examples of why growth at all scales has improved the quality of life and security for billions of people, but we have reached the point where there are numerous examples where rampant growth models can disregard quality or safety for the sole attribute of feeding themselves. In some instances, the nature of goals crafted around growth can evolve into restrictions that necessitate additional growth not for continuous improvement, but merely for survival–a spiral of perpetual growth for its own sake. As we enter an age of technological maturity and reach a population of over 7 billion people, the time has come to reassess the dangers of not only fostering, but promoting unbridled and unproductive growth.

The Way We Eat

An easy place to begin is the treatment of our agricultural system. As an area that has seen immense increase in production yields over the past century, food systems across the world have been retooled to focus on how to consistently produce more crops per acre with little focus on how those quantities relate to what the environment can sustainably support.

In his book Third Plate, author and chef Dan Barber points towards an example of this phenomenon in the evolution of the chicken farming industry in the United States. Barber outlines the difficulty in running a chicken farming business that is both small scale and profitable given the backdrop of a consumer public that has evolved with a growing acceptance of increased quantities of lesser-quality meat.

“Instead, the end result is a food system that plays out like an ongoing national tribute to Rube Golderg. The overproduction of grain enables the overproduction of chicken, which lowers the price of chicken, which means even more chickens are raised to make up for the declining revenue. That leads to even more unneeded chicken. So it’s fed to other animals that it probably shouldn’t be fed to, like fish (which are increasingly farm raised, in part due to the offshore pollution caused by producing too much grain). And then the overproduced chicken gets dumped to places like Mexico. To compete, Mexico turns to the same kind of system, the get-big-or-get-out system that feeds on itself: produce more chicken at lower prices. Laid off poultry workers seek work in America, often illegally, which drives down wages and helps poultry companies produce… more chicken.”

The one-sided support to this system is that cheaper poultry is available to a wider customer base. Fair enough, but that benefit comes with a series of negative cultural repercussions, the most basic being declining conditions for the animals themselves in industrial-scale chicken farms, leading towards the increase of disease and the subsequent use of antibiotics. Next comes the production of protein with a declining spectrum of taste and/or nutritional value.

From there the trend leads to the purchase of increased amounts of lower priced food, which has been shown to lead Americans to make bigger portions and ultimately throw more food away, leading to fodder for landfills and the production of methane gas. At the macro scale, smaller farmers find it only harder to compete–especially if they are trying to produce a local product of higher quality. These bastions of small business are forced to either grow and reduce costs or  change the focus on their business.

Decades later, even if the industry as a whole has grown, the number of jobs has increased and the country tout a positive contribution to a rising GDP, society as a whole has still produced greater portions of a declining product while degrading the environment and hurting small business.

The Way We Move

Our country’s commuting habits point to another growth-inducing system that has been on the rise for over half a century. The U.S. Census Bureau states that 85.8 percent of Americans still get to work by car, and 76.4 percent drive solo, making traffic on our highways and time spent commuting consistent issues for most of the country–especially around urban centers. By now, we have traded the critical mass of many once-thriving local and regional transportation systems for a dependence on car-centric maneuverability.

When a car is the only reasonable way to complete daily tasks, it is only more frustrating to drivers when traffic stretches out the time of regular trips. The solution to traffic problems is commonly focused on increasing capacity with wider roads in order to alleviate the congestion of a given amount of cars on an existing area of impervious blacktop. Yet as this forum has discussed before (here), the benefits of increasing the capacity of the roads are relatively short lived and ultimately wind up producing larger quantities of the same problems.

Highway Capacity Cyclical

History shows us that increasing the capacity will inevitably make driving more convenient, causing more people to drive and resulting in an increase of volume that utilizes new capacity. Eventually, congestion will once again result as more people try to take advantage of the road network until new calls come to alleviate traffic by increasing capacity. From his book Walkable City, traffic engineer Jeff Speck quotes Jan Gehl as saying:

“… In every case, attempts to relieve traffic pressure by building more roads and parking garages have generated more traffic and more congestion. The volume of car traffic almost everywhere is more or less arbitrary, depending on the available transportation infrastructure.”

With a focus on growing economies fueled by development increasingly far away from city centers, the system has taken on a life of its own with an agenda that pushes the need for growth in order to maintain health rather than improve it. Larger highways are not functioning “better” or giving people more pleasurable rides. The temporary relief in traffic is not improving access or opportunity. It is simply reminding people of the service that the infrastructure was supposed to provide and refreshing their memory of that before it fades again into overuse.

Assessing the actual  problem would mean toggling our larger, regional goals for development and the resulting demands on movement and access. Many road projects are not being paralleled with alternative transportation projects that could actually undercut the growth spiral by giving more options and greater flexibility. Our goals for new development are also not incorporating coordinated deployments of both commercial and residential space that could remove  long distance commuters from the road (or commutes entirely) and reduce net vehicle miles traveled.

The Way We Live

Many of us have been part of a rising growth spiral that is much closer to home–literally our homes. The suburban development pattern has matured into a broad market that stretches across the country, occupying countless localities outside of urban cores. The first generation of urban flight and suburban construction became  a new experiment for how people could explore their relationship to the city, their jobs and each other. In many ways, the benefits  of this lifestyle (and there certainly are some) created an idealized image that became synonymous with property ownership and the so-called American Dream.

Engineer and Planner Charles Marohn has spent years studying the effects of suburban municipalities and points to the flaws of the system that make growth necessary in order for these towns to stay solvent. Marohn peels back the rind on common municipal examples that undermine their own strength in his book Thoughts on Building Strong Towns.

Towns that were new in the 50’s and 60’s are now quietly showing signs of their age. Roads and bridges exposed to use and the elements can only be covered with a fresh coat of asphalt so many times. Older schools for local children are either bulging at the seams or are becoming ill-equipped for modern teaching goals and quality of space. Pipe networks used to move water and sewage have useful lives that are consistently blown past with many places in the country still using infrastructure over 50 years old. While the bones of a suburban community could be strong, the extremities represent a new stage of recurring costs that many local governments do not have measures to satisfy. As a result, growth has become an attractive option to finance these shortfalls.

Growth Spirals-01

Whether they are new towns sprouting up in subdivided farmland or historic towns anchored by a tight center, municipalities can use some common tactics in order to encourage growth and bolster their treasuries and perform necessary maintenance of existing infrastructure. A number of incentives can be used for enticing developers to erect new neighborhoods and sometimes a few of these immediate liabilities can be thrown on the bill as well. But all too often, developers are willing to build infrastructure of roads and services that are ultimately turned over to the management of the municipality upon completion, only adding to an infrastructure maintenance load.

In exchange for a short term increase in tax revenue, the town has now inherited more assets that have a lifespan that Marohn averages at around 30 years. This is compounded by the fact that the tax revenue of new residents will rarely cover the cost for replacement of the infrastructure built to serve them. The cycle continues itself with upcoming costs met by fostering more low-density growth with its own respective infrastructure.

Marohn reflects on the “bailout” nature of suburban development:

“If it “doesn’t make sense” for the people that live along a dead end road to pick up the cost of maintaining it, what does make sense? In the Ponzi Scheme that is the financing of America’s suburbs, that would be the local government, that magical entity that, while it is made up of a collection of neighborhoods of people, is somehow expected (and in the first life cycle is able) to provide more services and amenities than those people are willing to pay for.“

Growth Spirals in Nature

Though manufactured growth spirals have proven to be something that humanity can create and nurture rather well, we are not the only examples of these occurrences on the planet. Nature shows us instances where evolution comes to mistakenly favor runaway growth, often to the detriment or collapse of a species.

One common example used by biologists for citing detrimental growth is known as the “Peacock Effect.” A large tail of attractive feathers, proved to be an early evolutionary trait for males to entice the affection of Peahens, grew  to represent a healthy and well-fed specimen. In its early stages, weaker Peacocks would be dismissed in order to promote strength in the species and aid in its broader survival.

However, as tails began to grow so did their requirements for nutrients along with their weight. The continuously increasing size of an eye-catching fan would eventually weigh down the bird and only make it an easier catch for predators. Over time, this lead to populations of Peacocks declining even as their tails continued to grow–a practice that could have driven the species to extinction if not saved (some could say “bailed out”) by humanity for wanting to preserve the beautiful birds.

A great article in the Harvard Business Review by Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby looks at the causes for these occurrences and leaves insight to their answers.

“You might wonder how it is that other species escape their own runaways. Why does the giraffe’s neck not become impossibly long? Why no towering rabbit ears? That’s because what went on with the peacock is an aberration: an interesting mismatch in the processes of natural selection (the criteria by which nature decides what makes an individual fit enough to thrive and reproduce) and sexual selection (the criteria by which the opposite sex of the species makes that call). In species that remain viable across millennia, these two selection processes are aligned—they have to be. Any misalignment serves to run a species into the ground, sooner or later.”

Unwinding Growth Spirals

The existence of so many examples can prompt the question of how to break the cycle. How do we unwind the self-fulfilling spiral that only builds its own momentum while baking itself into the powerful inertia of social norms?

The propagation of western culture suffers from similar problems of  misalignment and have attached qualities to our hopes of thriving and reproduction that can exacerbate the weight of our own growth.  The cultural link between ever-increasing ownership of homes, spread farther apart can lead us to be crushed by the weight of infrastructural and environmental obligations that we cannot meet. When we employ singular metrics like GDP as a skewed measure of our country’s overall success, we are promoting monetary growth above other, more fundamental projects and needs that stretch across borders of socio-economic class barriers. How long is it before we fall prey to the fanfare and elegance of our short-sighted success?

The answer may lie in focusing on the source of “misalignment” that helps perpetuate our contribution to a system that may be broken. All too often this kind of dissonance results from our keen ability to misjudge the merit of a practice by increasing the amount of time between its benefits and its inevitable costs or repercussions. The more we can take an action that we may already know to have questionable foundations and delay its response to the next generation, the less critical its solution seems to appear.

Whenever possible, we should be promoting a holistic appreciation for quality that can be sustainably maintained for the foreseeable future and beyond.

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