POSTED: 17 MARCH 2007 - 2:30pm HST

If "Smart Growth" won't work - What will?

"A Short History of America" by Robert Crumb. For more visit

by Juan Wilson on 17 March 2007

It has been demonstrated that "Smart Growth" is a red herring. A smarmy promise that makes us feel comfy on our current road to oblivion. At best, if the promise "smart growth" were fulfilled it would only delay the exhaustion of resources for our grandchildren to experience. Realize that with no population increase, a mere 1.5% economic growth for 45 years will double today's total resource consumption.

We must abandon our measure of success based on growth. As it stands "growth" measured as Gross National Product (GNP) is really the measure of the consumption of non renewable resources. Sustaining such growth requires a further spread of our unsustainable behavior in areas still undestroyed by human activity. In fact, it is only a reduction of current levels of consumption could attain sustainability. "Smart Growth" is a myth and a lie.

Although plants and some other forms of life require growth for their health, humans as individuals do not, once they reach maturity. In fact, continued growth of an individual is a sign of morbidity. Obesity is becoming the greatest health risks to Americans. I don't think that it is a coincidence that our rampant increase in obesity coincides with the peak of consumerism in modern western culture.

For virtually all our history as "civilized" human beings we have depended on the growth of population and the growing use of natural resources for our success. That growth is now becoming something like a cancer. In a fundamental way cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells "that are not part of the program". The "Program" being the balanced equilibrium of the individual.

Because we are now surpassing the limits of the natural systems on planet Earth, we are very much in the same boat as the bacteria in a petrie dish. Once the overcrowded organisms deplete the nutrient in the dish, it's "Lights Out".

Obviously, it would be greatly in our interest to formulate an economy that does not require growth of our population and increasing need of finite unrenewable resources to be healthy and a pleasure.

That is what I would like to examine in a series of articles. I invite readers to submit their thoughts on the issue.

To begin the discussion, I have added two articles below that were published in 1993 on another newsletter/website my wife and I edited back on the mainland, The Gobbler. Finding a substitute for our economic growth models goes back before that. Not much has been done in the intervening years.

In a recent conversation with my son, John Wilson, something he said clicked in ny head. John recently finished a degree in Permaculture and is now living on what was once a dairy farm in Western New York State. During our talk he said that the measure of growth needs to merely be adjusted.

The "Old Growth" model was the measure of the consumption of natural resources in their conversion to manufactured products. The "New Growth" model would be the measure of the increase in the amount and variety of living things. This not just his idea, but somehow in our discussion it clarified the issue to me. It reminded me of an experiment that Charles Darwin conducted on the formation of topsoil before he wrote about evolution. In the early 19th century it was not known how organic topsoil was formed. Many thought it was the work of God at the time of the Earth's creation.

Darwin had suspicions of another means of formation – earthworm waste products. Others argued that earthworms were not capable of the creation of so much organic material in the soil. In order to settle that issue Darwin cordoned off a measured section of an English meadow, dug up all the topsoil and then counted every worm in it. What he proved was that the lowly worm was present in the numbers necessary to create and maintain all the topsoil examined. This, along with his observations of reef formation, were two early successes in his life as a scientist.

To me Darwin demonstrated that with some hard and careful work we can value life and come to measure it as a source of wealth. Wealth should be measured by activity which enriches life on this planet.

As an example, if you had a 100 acre farm and you were to increase its topsoil depth by one inch, that would be an increase of 13,444 cubic yards of soil. That result should be well rewarded. On the other hand, losing an inch of topsoil over 100 acres should be a loss of wealth that needs to be accounted for.

Compensation for work needs to be reevaluated with the quality of life in mind. We here on Kauai are living on a petrie dish of sorts. Creating a useful input-output model of life on this rock would be an achievable first step.

There was a time 35 years ago, when I and anoher fellow architectural student, Diane Lewis, made a pitch to Juliet Rice Wichman to do literally just that. At that time she was just finishing the Natural History Museum in Lihue. Diane and I had done some model work for her consultant on the museum, the architect and model maker Boone Morrison ( We tried to convince Juliet of the virtue of building a working model to monitor the development of the island.

We explained that back in 1970 we had seen an amazing model of the entire city of New York that was housed in one of the 1939 and 1964 World's Fair exhibit halls in Flushing Meadows, NY. The building was vast and the model took up most of it. Visitors were put in "cars" and taken on a trip at sea level on a approach to the city from New York Harbor.

The Statue of Liberty and the Verazzano Bridge over the Hudson River were the first recognizable structures. Then visitors were carried slowly up and above the model over Brooklyn and Queens. High above the model the "cars" did a gentle turn over the Bronx and finally glided down the Hudson River to view a sidelong view of the towers of Manhattan fro the New Jersey Palisades.

The model included every building in the city, and was maintained by a staff of model builders. It had a day/night lighting simulation on about a 15 minute cycle. The model even included detailed model planes landing and taking off on wires from Kennedy and La Guardia Airports.

Models of major proposed building projects could be previewed for their impact on the city skyline. When I took the ride that first time, the yet to be built World Trade Center towers were on the model. At the end of our journey, they were the last view of the city. I imagine, if the model is still there and being maintained, that those towers have been removed.

In any event, on Kauai, Julia Rice Wichman didn't buy into the proposal we were making to better understand and manage the resources of the island. She was right, too. It might have made a nice display in the museum, but it was not very practical.

Today that task is much better handled by computers. The use of 3D modelling and special effects can produce the needed "Eye Candy" but the real work horse applications are those that can handle Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

GIS may be the very thing we need to help model an economy on something other than growth. A "steady state" economy could only be achieved with careful measurement of the results of our activilty. Delicate adjustments would then be possible.

GIS is the tool of choice for timber growing outfits, city planners, environmentalists and others. GIS can integrate quantitative measure with spatial relation. It can pass information either way between data and visual display. It can be the God's Eye View of planet Earth and her resources.

In itself GIS is not necessarily a good thing. It depends on the operators. Certainly, GIS has largely been used without merit by our pro-development Kauai Planning Department.

Other departments of Kauai County now have GIS capablities and there are some enlightened individuals with access. Maybe they will be able to get us where I wished we could go back in 1972.

see also:
Island Breath: No Growth Possible 5/8/2006



POSTED: 17 FEBRUARY 2007- 10:30am HST

Follow-up on Growth

      "A Short History of America" A tour from 1855 to 1965 in ten year increments by R Crumb

by Tom Dworetzky in 1993: Political Science column in Omni Magazine

With the Administration and private attention fixed on the economy, maybe it's time to reexamine a key indicator to financial health - the Gross National Product. For years, a small band of thinkers have argued that the way the GNP is calculated is the real problem, and I agree. Because we live and die on the altar of economic totems like GNP, we worship in ignorant bliss.

Here's the basic dilemma: Say your name is Ned and the GNP stands for Gross Ned Product. You work at the local coal mine, and they pay really well. Of course you can only mine coal for a while before you get black-lung disease and retire permanently. Then there'll be medical bills. So the extra good pay is for using up your lungs, which you can only do one time. Those lungs are your own private, nonrenewable resource - like coal, oil, clean air and water, old growth forests, and even those damned spotted owls.

If Ned calculates his GNP only by considering his income, he looks in pretty good shape until he gets sick, then the medical bills wipe out his savings, and he can't work anymore. The Gross National Product figures things much the same as the Gross Ned Product. It looks at our gross product without subtracting for the one-time depletion of the irreplaceable resources necessary to create those products. Nothing in the figures leavens the GNP with a long-range consideration of how much stuff you're using up that's nonrenewable.

Experts have argued that the GNP is far from the only figure needed to measure the economy. Among the experts are Claremont College theologian John Cobb, his son Clifford, and the World Bank's Herman Daly.

They've gone as far as to create another index, first published as an appendix in the 1989 book "For The Common Good". They call it their "the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare" (ISEW). It offers a different assessment of our economic world. Some major factors ignored by the GNP but part of the ISEW, according to Clifford Cobb, include:

• Distribution of income. New dollars to the rich add less towards ISEW than do new dollars to the poor.

• Lower ISEW for nonrenewable depletion of resources that account for permanent losses.

• International borrowing is subtracted from ISEW.

• Factor unpaid household work and child-rearing into the ISEW figures.

• Adjust ISEW downwards for military spending and weapon programs.

• Adjust ISEW upwards for government spending done on infrastructure; repairs to bridges, streets, sewers etc.

Clearly, as Clifford Cobb says, "With the ISEW, you can measure quality of life better than with the GNP. The ISEW tries to measures how well off we are, not how fast the wheels are spinning. We've known for years that many things are left out of the GNP, but few attempts have been made to address this issue.

Measures of economic activity are vital: In practice, policy makers use the GNP numbers as a measure of welfare and base decisions on them. The mindset develops wherein people ignore what the numbers really represent.

What the Cobbs, and others who advocate sustainable economic growth, have found conforms to our most common experience: We are not always better off if GNP rises. Changing our overreliance on the GNP calculation would put the issue before us every day and make common sense out of calls for conservation and perspective.

Would you drive a car with no odometer, with no thought to the fuel consumed? Today's GNP calculation is like a gas gauge with no associated mileage reading. Isn't it time to start figuring out how many miles we're getting to the gallon instead of just how much fuel we've burned? It might just tell us how far we can go



POSTED: 17 FEBRUARY 2007- 9:30am HST

Economic Health Versus Growth

Beginning of suburbia, .Stone Lane, Levittown 1949. One house = One car. No driveways, no garages

by Juan Wilson in 1993 in The Gobbler

Over the last several years, I have participated in several conversations about the need for jobs, the sorry state of the local economy and the problems associated with poverty. Participants in these conversations blamed everything from television to Japanese trade practices as the source of our economic woes.

Underlying all these conversations was the idea that a healthy economy is one that must grow. The more widespread and quicker that growth, the sooner we'd find answers to our problems. All we had to do was find the means to make things grow bigger and faster. This is an assumption that I have held my whole life because it was an idea everyone, whether rich or poor, seemed to endorse.

I am now beginning to question that assumption. I'm 48 years old and have lived through three periods of conspicuous growth. The first was during the explosion of suburban development in the early nineteen fifties following World War II. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, and America fell asleep every night watching gunfights acted out in TV westerns and John Wayne war films. The second growth period were the Go-Go years of the late sixties during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. We had a national policy of Guns & Butter. A War on Poverty and a War in Vietnam. Americans ate dinner every night watching young Americans die in Southeast Asia and urban riots in city after city across America. These were real gunfights.

Like many of you, I also remember the last economic boom, during the yuppie 1980's, when Ronald R. Reagan was President and two-bedroom bungalows in gentrified suburbs sold for $350,000. A time when junk bonds, bank failures and debt made a few rich and everybody else poorer.

In my recollection of these times it does not seem that life overall was any better for Americans than it is now. On the contrary, had the accelerated growth of those times continued unabated until today, we might be worse off today than we are. Pollution, depletion of natural resources, overpopulation, debt and other serious problems might have engulfed us.

I was not distant or disconnected from the places of growth in those economic "good times". In the 1980's I lived in suburban Connecticut and in the late forties and early fifties my family lived in a series of mass produced tract homes, as suburban growth swallowed up and paved over the potato, duck, and horse farms of central and eastern Long Island.

When I was a boy I rode a bike along Old Country Road near our tract home. At that time, it was an old road with mature trees on either side, that joined branches overhead. There were farm stores and other small owner-operated businesses sprinkled along its path.

Believe me, you wouldn't want to ride a bike along Old Country Road today. Old Country Road is now a six lane commercial strip with windowless national franchises butted parking lot to parking lot. It dwarfs what we see today on nearby Fairmount Avenue. Just imagine looking out your picture window one morning when the chain saws begin cutting down the big trees across the street, which edge the flowered meadow that will shortly become a blacktopped parking lot for heaven knows what operation.

This suburban growth on Long Island has in no way relieved the problems of New York City. In fact, things got worse. New York's population wasn't reduced much, but the population of Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island increased by tenfold. Activity in the suburbs sapped the economic strength of the city.

Paradoxically, many of the voices raised loudest for more economic growth in New York State are in the very places where the fastest and most intense growth has done the greatest damage.

If you are a politician running for office in America it is safe to call for more growth in front of almost any audience. This is true for Republicans or Democrats. The Democrat will tell you that growth is good for the "little guy". More jobs for the unemployed, less poverty, etc. The Republicans, on the other hand, will tell you growth is good for corporate America and business in general. More opportunities to get rich, less poverty, etc.

Both political parties advocate economic growth as a fix for our problems. There was a long period of time when we in America could turn in the direction of the west for a growth fix. For a while we had a few thousand miles of resources in front of our growing population to rely on in a pinch: there were plenty of virgin forests, minerals, oil and gas reserves with no end in sight. I think the time for a simple solution that employs expansion and growth to achieve economic good times has passed us by.

Instead of talking about economic growth, I feel we should be talking about economic health, economic harmony and economic improvement. These aspects of the economy would be measured in sustainability, fairness, and the quality of life. We ought to be pointing to the quality of the work we do and the quality of the products we produce and not just the "bottom-line". As long as we cannot be turned from using growth and its profits as the primary measure of our overall well-being, we will be doomed to disappointment in what will be perceived as a smaller and smaller world.

see also:

Island Breath: Cuba shows how
Island Breath: 6.5 billion people
Island Breath: Green Canada
Island Breath: Green Chautauqua
Island Breath: Sustainable Kauai
Island Breath: Sustainable Maui