Are there limits to growth?

The Limits to Growth is a 1972 book about the computer simulation that tested exponential economic and population growth on a planet with limited resources. Largely it presented a doomsday scenario where eventually demand outstripped supply and we as species faced catastrophic consequences. It has spurred continued debates in scientific, political, and environmental circles. You can read some of the highlights here

The most useful aspect of the debate are the questions it raised about how we approach living and working and consuming on our planet. Through all of that debate however, the meta-worldview of ‘growth is good’ that flows across cultures has not been shaken.

Individuals, communities, businesses still seek progress. Indeed, motivational texts have identified that a clear sense of progress is fundamental to employee engagement. This includes great works by Dan Pink (Drive), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) and Australia’s own, Dr Jason Fox (the Game Changer and How to Lead A Quest).

We yearn for discovery. It has fuelled all great exploration movements across the globe and in to space. It sits on the tip of Elon Musk’s BFR (Big Fucking Rocket) and its mission to colonize Mars.

We see in nature the innate yearning for growth. Stop for a moment and look at any green space and you will see the most extraordinary plants and creatures seeking existence and development in the most unlikely places: squeezed impossibly in cracks, clinging at perilous angles to cliffs. Life is a surge of growth.

What then of personal growth? It seems natural that personal growth follow nature’s yearning too.

Some people actually don’t want progress. They are quite content with where they have found themselves. They have discovered the relief in ‘enough’. Enough money, enough material goods, enough fame and fortune. A study by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, revealed that once you reach an income of $75,000 per annum, increases in financial income do not make you any more happy. 

Growth in material goods and external markers is not the name of the game.

Growth and insight into one’s own limits and limitations - and one’s potential - is the kind of infinite game we can bring to the table as leaders.

This is no easy game. Learning about oneself is confronting, sometimes harrowing. It requires us to seek our own limiting beliefs and habits. It means we face head on the damage we cause ourselves and others (unwittingly or not) and process the grief and shame that comes with this new awareness. It means learning forgiveness and letting go. Acceptance of our past and all its wounds is the greatest act of courage. Making sense of it and using that insight with wisdom is true leadership.

Are there limits to this kind of growth? There are no limits here. There are only our own limitations: the discipline of reflection, the courage of inquiry, and our exercise of compassion, firstly for ourselves.

What then the benefits of navigating these treacherous seas with the most fearsome of watery beasts?

It’s the thrill of discovery and adventure, of seeing new lands, with new eyes, every day a new delight.

We are captains of our own ships on the sea of life. And as John Shedd said,

“A ship is safe in harbour, but that is not what ships are built for.”