Changing the Growth Meme: A Core Challenge to System Transformation

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Sandra Waddock, Professor of Management, Galligan Chair of Strategy, and Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, Carroll School of Management, Boston College

One of today’s most common stories—something you hear just about every night on the evening news—is based on a meme about the need for continual economic growth. Yet the quest for growth is increasingly placing the future of human civilization in jeopardy. The meme of growth is built into governmental budgets, company strategies, population estimates, and any number of other systems, not to mention expectations for the stock market, GDP, and economies. Indeed, the growth meme now dominates economic thinking. Its prominence has grown since the inception of the Industrial Era and particularly since World War II, when what we know as neoliberalism with its emphasis on constant GDP/economic growth gained sway.

That ‘story’ about the need for and feasibility of continual growth is highly problematic, especially in light of the fact that humanity now faces a new era, which Paul Crutzen labelled the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene defines an era in which human activities are affecting the natural environment at many scales and numerous different ways, with resulting climate change threating the foundations of human civilization.[i] In the Anthropocene, the idea of constant economic growth, with attendant growth in material usage and consumption, not to mention population growth to support increased consumption, is simply not feasible.

The concept of the meme originated by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, as a cultural analog to the gene, the foundational biological unit. Memes, according to Susan Blackmore, are powerful because they affect—or infect—how we view and relate to the world. Memes, basic elements of culture, replicate from person to person when they are resonant. They shape ideologies, narratives, stories, and belief systems that affect how we act in the world. The foundational role of memes in bringing about system transformation is, in my view, too little understood. If, for example, we see growth as the core metric for economic success, then that becomes a vital element of the stories we tell ourselves about economies (and, ultimately, societies), resulting in Margaret Thatcher’s notion that ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA), with all of its behavioral consequences.

The meme of constant growth underpins today’s dominant economic story or narrative, yet is fundamentally flawed when we consider the realities of the natural environment. Economic ‘growth’ implies that all of humanity can continue to exploit Earth’s raw materials without consequence. Yet ecological footprint analyses[ii] indicate that if everyone on Earth lived as people in the developed world do, we would need between three and five planets to support human life, not to mention the numerous other living beings that also rely on Earth’s abundance. The reality is that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demonstrated conclusively, human-induced climate change has created conditions that may ultimately make human life on Earth either very unpleasant or, more radical thinkers believe, not possible at all.

Growth as a meme has considerable traction because it resonates broadly with people, something that successful memes do. Used as the basis for stories about economic life, the growth meme argues implicitly for a better future. Yet the unintended consequences of unlimited growth are severe—and negative. These consequences—climate change, potential ecosystem collapses, and increasing inequality, among others—suggest that we need different resonant memes that contend with today’s reality. Arguably, only with a powerful and resonant set of memes constructed into a new story, as ecologist L. Hunter Lovins says, can we build a better future for all.

The new story needs to shift away from the neoliberalism’s memes about unlimited growth, ‘free’ markets and trade, individual responsibility, profitability for individual companies and economic/GDP growth for countries, with limited governmental input. New memes need to be based in Nature’s abundance and associated with what gives life not just growth. Work that I have done with Petra Kuenkel suggests that there are six principles derived from both natural and human systems that give ‘life’ to systems and, ultimately, to system change: purpose (or intentionality), wholeness, boundedness, emergence, connectedness, and diversity.

Applying these life principles to the transformations needed in societal and economic to cope with the looming crises facing humanity suggests that a ‘new’ economic story should focus not on ‘growth’ for its own sake, but more fruitfully on memes like wellbeing, dignity for all, flourishing, and connection to the whole.  So, the next time you hear a broadcaster sing the praises of economic, GDP, or stock market ‘growth,’ think about how well that growth is serving life on the planet. If it is not, if it is exactly that ‘growth’ that is leading to potentially catastrophic outcomes like climate change or the social instability associated with increasing inequality, then think about how you can begin to use new memes to tell a new story of human—and other beings—flourishing on the planet.

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Further reading

  • Crutzen, P. J. (2006). The “Anthropocene”. In Earth system science in the Anthropocene (pp. 13-18). Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Dawkins, R. (1993). Viruses of the mind. Dennett and his critics: Demystifying mind, 13, e27.
  • Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Foran, John (2017). Abrupt climate justice. Resilience.org, November 17. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-11-16/abrupt-climate-justice/.
  • IPCC, 2014: Summary for policymakers. In: Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part A: Global and sectoral aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, pp. 1-32.
  • Jackson, T. (2011). Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Abington, UK: Routledge.
  • Lovins, L. H. (2016). Needed: a better story. Humanistic Management Journal, 1(1), 75-90.
  • Waddock, S. (2015). Reflections: Intellectual Shamans, Sensemaking, and Memes in Large System Change. Journal of Change Management, 15(4), 259-273.
  • Waddock, S. (2016). Foundational Memes for a New Narrative about the Role of Business in Society. Humanistic Management Journal, on line 2016, DOI: 10.1007/s41463-016-0012-4.
  • Waddock, S., and Kuenkel, P. What Gives Life to Large System Change? Working paper.

[i] Wallace-Wells, David (2017). The Uninhabitable Earth, Annotated Edition. New York, July 14, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans-annotated.html.

[ii] Ecological Footprint, https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/.

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