Questioning the Growth Economy

If you have ever driven through rural Kentucky or Ohio or Pennsylvania, chances are you have run across a horse drawn carriage with a group of people who appear to have emerged from the 1700´s. Many Amish and Mennonite communities still ardently and stubbornly maintain a pre-technological and pre-industrial lifestyle despite being surrounded by consumer capitalist civilization.

For many observers, these simple, hardworking farm communities are like a living antique; a surviving relic from bygone eras. Instead of seeing them as important sources of knowledge or bearers of much-needed skills that will be necessary for the construction of a more sustainable society, we see them as nothing more than as a unique field trip for elementary school kids or a place to buy strawberries come spring time.

For many people, though the Amish or Mennonite communities may be interesting, the idea of returning to a pre-industrial lifestyle is considered heresy. We may admire their sense of community and strong ties to land and place, but we can´t imagine living without our cars and smart phones.
The Hutterites are an ethnoreligious group that takes their anti-technology view to an extreme. There over 40,000 Hutterites living in colonies in Canada and the northern United States. Based on their somewhat radical religious theology, the Hutterites believe that all technological progress (from the 1800´s onwards) is a form of sin that goes against the Creator´s plan for the world. Subsequently, they sun any sort of technological advancement and live lives of simplicity.

Appropriate technology does not advocate for a return to pre-industrial lifestyles. While we do affirm that Mennonite and Amish colonies have much wisdom and knowledge and live a much more sustainable and healthy lifestyle than us modern folk, we also feel that technology can offer important instruments to help us in the task of constructing resilient and sustainable livelihoods.

While the internal combustion engine has been one of the main culprits in filling up our atmosphere with climate changing greenhouse gasses, it also has allowed us to develop and use Keyline tractors that can help to sustainably design a landscape to maximize water infiltration. While the infinite access to information that characterizes the Digital Age has left us over stimulated and dumbfounded, it also allows us to access knowledge, learn about permaculture, and explore new worlds.

When to Respect Limits

One of the most important aspects of any sort of sustainable civilization is the ability respect necessary limits. Limits of any kind, however, are not exactly a hallmark of our industrial civilization. Rather, we have been taught (and forced) to do all we can to try and overcome those limits and impose our will on whatever landscape or community holds us.

One of the most important changes that we will need to collectively make in the coming years, is to understand and accept our dependence on the natural world. We need to comprehend that the economy doesn´t simply exist in a vacuum apart from the rest of the physical world. Rather, the economy and everything it encases is surrounded by the very real and tangible limits of the Natural World.

People from all different cultures around the world have understood this very real need for limiting their desires for growth and have forged cultural manifestations that find goodness in those limits. It is only our relatively recent industrial civilization that has rejected the idea of necessary limitations through a blind faith in our ability to forge and control our own destinies.

The Ability to Say No to Growth

If we are to honestly confront the vulnerability of our current civilization, we need to be able to say no to growth. Whereas our entire economic system rests on the premise that unlimited, sustained growth is necessary for our happiness and well-being, we need to learn and accept that the economy and our livelihoods are encased by a larger system that is finite and limited.

It simply is impossible (and illogical) to seek to grow indefinitely within a closed system. Permaculture teaches us to observe the natural limits to growth, and the technologies we decide to use must also help us to better accept and abide by those natural and ethical limits to growth.
Much has been written recently regarding the optimism related to the coming “renewable energy revolution.” Not only do we hope that renewable energy sources will allow us to continue to consume energy without the consequences related to greenhouse gas emissions, but we also expect this transformation of the energy sector of our economy to offer (even more) economic growth.

The “appropriateness” of photovoltaic cells, however, rests on our ability to limit how much energy we use. If we want to consume 1,000 kWh of energy every month to power the endless array of gadgets, appliances and screens that fill our homes, no source of energy will be appropriate, whether it be renewable or fossil fuel based.

If, however, we limit ourselves to consuming say 50 kWh of energy each month to run a few LED lights, a battery saver lap top, and a simple freezer to help us preserve part of our harvest, photovoltaic cells can certainly function as an appropriate technology to power our homes. It isn´t necessarily what types of technologies that we use that is the most important consideration, but rather the ways in which our livelihoods respect the limits of our places and the wider world around us.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


  1. “Subsequently, they shun any sort of technological advancement and live lives of simplicity.” Good article, plenty of food for thought & practical application.

  2. I am not sure where you got your information on the Hutterite culture from, but it is not correct. I’m in Alberta and we have many Hutterite colonies here. Some of them are more willing to embrace modern inventions and technology than others. But I know many of them that regularly use computers and the internet, have smartphones, and they have modern facilities for livestock, grain harvesting, etc.

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