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Pamela’s Blog:
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Limits to growth

February 9, 2012

Within the last few weeks, two news items caught my attention. The first item related to the proposed elimination of some of the United States’ nuclear arsenal. One of the states affected by the removal of the weapons and, presumably personnel and economic activity associated with maintaining them, was complaining bitterly about the proposed action and threatening to resist it. The second item related to Easter candy. The article reported that some parents were decreasing or even foregoing purchases of Easter candy for their children because of the epidemic of obesity among children and a desire to provide their children more healthful foods. The Easter candy industry was, reportedly, not concerned because (loosely quoted) “people will always want to buy candy at Easter.”

Both stories prompted me to think about the limits to growth or even, sometimes, to a continuation of what is. Notwithstanding overwhelming evidence from our own lives and the many centuries before us that change is inevitable and that nothing either grows or sustains itself forever, we persist in expressing surprise, shock, and even distress at each instance. Get rid of the nuclear weapons housed in our town? But what will we do for an economy after that happens? Cut down on Easter candy? But how will we make our earnings projections or tell our investors a growth story? What and how, indeed.

The limits to growth is a classic systems pattern, expressing the simple truth that nothing in nature can grow forever. Nor can any artificial thing. Limits always exist. As the saying goes: nature loves a balance. The content of that balance is constantly in flux, producing short-term winners and losers, but the fundamental result of balance remains. If we could apply this truth to more of our investments — personal, business, governmental — we would do ourselves and future generations a favor. If we accepted that little or nothing was truly “permanent,” perhaps we would design our structures and institutions to emphasize flexibility and mobility rather than economies of scale in which bigger is always better.

If the state housing the nuclear weapons had admitted to itself that this arsenal and the people and dollars that came with it was unlikely to last for a century, it might well have begun the process that now would be delivering hope and rewards to its citizens. As the Cold War ended about two decades ago, it might have asked such questions as:
— What uses other than housing nuclear weapons and the related materials and people might these facilities have?
— What core capabilities do the people living here have and to what other uses could those capabilities be put?
In other words, what should we start now so that when (not IF) these nuclear weapons someday go away (as we fervently hope for our children’s sake and the sake of every living thing in the world), this community still makes sense? And, if we can think of no reason this community will make sense when the inevitable happens, what should we start doing now so that the transition is as painless as possible?

The Easter candy companies probably have a bit more time than the state housing nuclear weapons but recognizing limits to growth raise key questions for these organizations as well:
— What can we imagine selling if our mature markets begin to reduce consumption for health and/or economic reasons?
— What is the core value that we bring to people; i.e., what do we help them with, and what other ways might we pursue doing this?
In other words, are we only an organization that makes Peeps or do we help people celebrate the rituals in their lives through imaginative food that evokes feelings as well as provides nutrition?

The state presently storing nuclear weapons and the Easter candy manufacturers recently glimpsed their limits to growth. The former reacted with anger and fear; the latter with denial. Neither reaction will serve these communities or organizations. Time and change will continue their relentless march. The only response to the limits to growth is to choose a new path. For many, choosing a new path first will require identifying a direction as the original choice of direction may be lost in the mists of time or never have been clear. As long as the direction aligns with the fundamentals of nature, many paths will appear.

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