Director of New Documentary GrowthBusters Says “Stop Drinking the Kool-Aid”

UPDATE:  The director responds to comments here.

JR:  Right now, the global economy is a Ponzi scheme.  We created a way of raising standards of living we can’t possibly pass on to our children.  As Tom Friedman reported in 2009, “We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.”

It has to collapse, unless adults stand up now and say, “This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate.”  Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”  I’ve also noted that the 1% can insulate themselves from the collapse far longer than everyone else, with their gated and moated communities, multiple homes in multiple climates, security guards, private jets and general insensitivity to the price of anything — and hence insensitivity to the value of everything.

by Cole Mellino

The new documentary film GrowthBusters had its world premiere in Washington, DC last night. And Climate Progress had a chance to catch up with Director Dave Gardner to chat about why he made the movie.

Gardner, like so many Americans, grew up hooked on growth. He once had a successful career as a corporate film producer, putting together promotional videos for large companies. But his newest film rails against many of those corporations that are trying to keep us addicted to growth.

First, here’s the trailer to the film:

GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth Trailer from Dave Gardner on Vimeo.

GrowthBusters follows Gardner as he questions the push for never-ending economic growth in the U.S. and the world.

“If I have one goal on this planet, it is to make it okay to question growth,” he tells Climate Progress. “I’m not afraid to say I’m against growth.”

Gardner became interested in the issue when he started looking at the growth patterns of cities, especially his own hometown of Colorado Springs. Officials felt that “if they weren’t growing, they were dying.” And that incessant focus on growth had major environmental implications for Colorado Springs — draining the water supply, increasing congestion on the roads, and destroying pristine wilderness that defines the state.

He ran for City Council in Colorado Springs to bring attention to the issue. After a tight race, he lost. But it made him more determined to educate people about the consequences and limits to growth.

We need to “stop drinking the Kool-Aid” and stop “our nearly universal worship of growth everlasting,” says Gardner.

Gardner’s goal in making the film is to prepare people for a time when resource constraints eventually kill our all-growth-all-the-time paradigm. He also wants to make it okay to be against the culture of growth — to allow people to question the people and institutions that tell us that it’s the only available path. Gardner calls them Growth Pushers.

Gardner worked with many of these Growth Pushers in a previous life doing film work for large corporations. That work allowed him see the marketing behind the push for mindless consumption. Eventually, he realized he needed to do something about it. Hence, the film, which pulls back the curtain on the cultural forces promoting endless, destructive growth.

Gardner encourages people to join their local Transition Movement, which is helping cities prepare for a world of dwindling resources and a changing climate — offering a path to prosperity through “de-growth.”

He also asks people to change the conversation in local politics. “We need to lead the leaders,” says Gardner.

GrowthBusters is one of many recent films to take a look at the limits to growth. But this film is more of a human story about one person’s quest to change the dialogue about what it means to be prosperous. It’s worth a watch when it comes to your city.

— Cole Mellino with Stephen Lacey (and an intro by Joe Romm)

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26 Responses to Director of New Documentary GrowthBusters Says “Stop Drinking the Kool-Aid”

  1. paul magnus says:

    One cannot be more environmental than this…

    “We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks — water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land — and not by generating renewable flows.”

    This is what defines environmentalism.

  2. Zach says:

    I think we’re already approaching, at least in the U.S., a “no-growth” state, which is somewhat encouraging. I think endless growth is more or less something the rich aspire for, as they want endless increases in money at whatever cost. This is evident from the 2008 financial crisis, when the realities that exponential growth cannot be sustained set in. Unfortunately, the consequences of these corrupt dreams of endless growth were bared by the 99%.

    I think most Americans just want to have a job to support themselves and their families. I have no desire to have a huge house, a Hummer, etc, just enough to have a decent place to live, food, internet, etc. The basics. In fact, I plan on living in NYC, where I won’t even need a vehicle. Just living in NYC will make my CO2 emissions a fraction of what it would be living in a suburb, or Los Angeles.

    However, growth is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Protesting growth is doomed to fail, because they are essentially protesting higher standards of living for the poor. People are not going to be swayed when they hear about global warming, etc in pursuit of these dreams of having abundant food, electricity, internet, TV, a fridge, etc. So instead, these filmmakers should advocate for ways to grow while becoming more sustainable in the process. Imagine a 100% recyclable house, or 100% recyclable TV’s, electronics, appliances. What about sustainable metropolises, with mass transit, recycling, cars that get 200mpg, appliances that sip energy? This is where I’ll choose to put my efforts. Not in causes like “no growth” that are doomed to fail (i.e. a waste of time) and ultimately not a solution to the world’s problem: have a high standard of living while being in harmony with nature. These are not mutually-exclusive concepts, or else we wouldn’t have sites like GreenBiz. Sure, it may make the filmmakers feel good about themselves for “busting” such an “evil” concept as growth, but it’s a waste of time and talent, which could be put towards more viable causes (i.e. growing while becoming sustainable).

    China and India are going to continue to grow no matter what we do/think/say, and lots of people will be lifted out of poverty in the process. We have to figure out a way to start living in harmony with nature, yet still maintain high living standards. That’s what should be advocated.

  3. Jeff Huggins says:

    Connecting The Dots: A Political Question

    I look forward to seeing this film, and thanks to Dave Gardner for it, to Cole Mellino for the post, and to Joe for the intro.

    That said, here’s a political question/point having to do with the point Joe makes in his introductory comments.

    When it comes to climate change and, specifically, to Keystone XL, many people seem to have this view: Even if Obama approves Keystone XL, many people will still vote for him under the “lesser of two evils” philosophy: “even though the Dems aren’t getting us anywhere, or at least not far, they’re still better than the Repubs would be”. Those people seem to handcuff themselves to the Dems, no matter what.

    But consider that stance, now, in light of the point Joe makes in his introductory comments to the present post. In other words, consider the fact that President Obama is hardly any closer to actually facing and addressing the root causes of what Joe calls the global Ponzi scheme than the Repubs. In other words, neither of the two main parties is anywhere near talking about, let alone addressing, the underlying problems that result in the Ponzi scheme.

    So, it seems to me, it’s a bit hard to reconcile the view that “let’s vote for Obama even if he approves Keystone XL, because the Repubs would be worse”, with a view that acknowledges that we’re immersed in a “global Ponzi scheme” that is patently unsustainable and that neither political party is even talking about, let alone poised to address.

    How can those two views be reconciled? One side of it keeps us handcuffed to a train that is only barely effective, in the smallest of ways, but that is still headed in a deeply problematic direction that it fails to recognize; while the other side of it basically begs us to reject that train and begin, ASAP, to build a new, honest, scientifically informed, and ultimately responsible one.

    I’d be very interested to hear how Joe’s comments in the intro to the present post are reconcilable with the idea of voting for Obama even if he approves Keystone XL. At least, I’d be interested to hear the reconciliation actually explained well, using facts and logic, and not merely with a quick dismissal of the question. Can anyone take a shot at the explanation?

    In short, it seems to me that most of the actual Democrat political leaders don’t understand the real problem any better than most of the talking heads on TV. I don’t like saying this; but (sadly) it seems so.

    Be Well,


  4. paul magnus says:

    Fourteen U.S. billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011: a new record
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    By Dr. Jeff Masters
    8:12 AM EDT on November 04, 2011

    It’s time to add another billion-dollar weather disaster to the growing 2011 total of these costly disasters: the extraordinary early-season Northeast U.S. snowstorm of October 29, which dumped up to 32 inches of snow, b… Continue Reading

  5. John Pearson says:

    we can blame corporations for the problem of ever increasing consumption, but the reality is people are free to do what they want to do so will buy things because they don’t know any better. what is needed is education from a young age which will equip people with knowlege of the implications of the purchase choices they make. its far better to buy a good quality product which has been designed to last a lot longer than the slightly cheaper one which falls to bits in 2 years. look at the victorians, they made things to last. there are for example singer sewing machines in everyday use today which are over a hundred years old. I live in a victorian house which is 150 years old. if things were all made to last we would soon be able to cut consumption

  6. The “Carbon Cartel” is the enemy. Coal, oil, natural gas and the chemical industry work together and speak with one voice. The Carbon Cartel wholly owns the loyalty of all Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats in the House and Senate, and they have bought several Supreme Court Justices as well. They are evil incarnate. They sell us the drugs to which they keep us addicted. They are doing everything in their power to destroy alternative energy.

    Thanks to the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court they have created a system that would be impossible to beat without the internet. You can see their power in the current TV ads cropping up for fracking for natural gas, and against alternative energy. These ads are peppered with thoughts crystalized by the evil wordsmith, Frank Luntz and those who understand his concepts. They have framed the political discussion with pithy phrases like “Death Panels” or “Government Takeover of Health Care.” “Drill Baby Drill” and the idea that it is a choice between “Jobs or the Environment.” People believe these misleading catch phrases.

    Frank, the author of Words that Work, spends his time and energy creating Right-wing catch-phrases that get repeated endlessly through the Main-Stream media, which are generally now all in thrall of the money and power of Big Oil. Even PBS with its alliances with the Carbon Cartel can no longer be counted on to be fair and balanced.

    So what are we to do to reduce the power of the Carbon Cartel? We are talking about ruthless corporations that are the most profitable businesses ever created on this planet. They do not care who they kill, directly or indirectly, to retain power.

    There is no easy solution. But here are a few steps we could take, none of which will work alone and taken as a whole they are still insufficient:

    1. We need to gather signatures for the Constitutional Amendment which will reverse the Citizens United decision and take corporate money out of politics.

    2. We need to let every Democrat know that they are now, like it or not, part of a new “Green Team,” dedicated to leaving a healthy planet to our descendants. We must pledge to defend every Democrat in every seat if they will join the Green Team, which means the team that will lead us to a Clean and Green future.

    3. We need to get into the schools with messages and with actions that permit young people to see that there are alternative futures. They are all “Neo” now, and part of the 99% that has been shafted by the Carbon Cartel.

    4. We need to get out the vote even though they have made it a crime to register voters, and have found many ways to discourage those already registered. The 2012 election is the test of their power. If they manage to steal the Presidency, the House, and the Senate they will have created an untenable situation where armed revolt is eventually inevitable. They will win in the short term and lose in the long term.

    5. We need to each change our lifestyles as much as we can to Transition Town thinking and survivalism. Get off the grid as a household or as a community. Work locally and think globally. Identify one another and team up with neighbors and with the rest of the 99%.

    6. We must never give up against the Evil Empire of Carbon. This is the fight of a lifetime, the WW2 of this generation. It is serious business for them and it should be serious for us as well. We will have a clean and green planet again, either with humans aboard or without. We cannot kill mother nature off entirely, but we can kill each other. If we want to see human life still here in 1,000 years, the use of carbon as a fuel must be completely stopped. The sooner the better.

  7. Ken Barrows says:

    And yet Friedman still pushes corporate globalism. Or have I missed his conversion?

  8. Tony says:

    And we still have almost two full months to go! WAHOOO!

  9. Dave Gardner says:

    Thanks for the great comments so far. Quite varied. While I agree the developing world wants to live better, I don’t believe the Earth is going to let that happen unless the developed world experiences significant degrowth – unlikely to happen voluntarily. Better for the developing nations to embrace non-materialistic goals of sufficiency and fulfillment. They should stop drinking our pro-growth Kool-Aid. Growth is not the final answer.

    We don’t really need to oppose growth as much as we need to embrace the end of growth. Growth is coming to an end, and we’re just wasting time and resources trying to fight it.

    The sad political reality at present is that no one can get elected or re-elected if they tell us the binge is over. That doesn’t excuse our current U.S. president, whose prime mission in life right now is to get the U.S. to increase its ecological footprint. But until the people can convince the “leaders” that we are ready to embrace the end of growth, this will probably continue.

    Dave Gardner

  10. Ernest says:

    I’m looking forward to the film. But to simply be “against growth” is a political non-starter. I hope the film also offers an alternative positive vision for the future.

    Also, technologically, while I agree there’s a limit to growth where bulk materials are involved, esp. in energy and commodities, I’m not convinced were are anywhere those limits when it comes to less material intensive technologies, such as infotech, biotech, and nanotech. The world will keep evolving, but I hope it’s less about “stuff”, and more about human potential. It doesn’t necessarily mean retreat into a technological and scientific dark age, or even impoverishment in terms of a reasonably comfortable, healthy, and environmentally clean, equitable for all, standard of living. But mindless accumulation of things, “consumerism” has to change. The American value system (which the whole world has adopted) needs to change. We (and the world) need a positive alternative vision for the future.

  11. paul magnus says:

    Yes. What I am saying is often people relate to the economic side of the picture and not see that it is only really only the half of it.

    You must also be caring about the environment or else it does not fit.

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Zach, as much as I agree with most of your sentiments, I cannot agree with your conclusions.

    We have the joint problems of over population and over consumption in some populations while millions starve and die of preventable diseases in others. The overall result of this very uneven distribution is that we are chewing up more than one planet already and have been for some time. Further growth represents an impossible equation.

    Something has to give and this is what we are witnessing at the moment – the beginning of the ecologial collapse which means the gradual destruction of all our life support systems. A rebalancing is taking place now.

    You are quite right that sustainability in all things is required but this cannot mean growth in any sense until we reach some point in the future where our population and rate of consumption falls below the carrying capacity of the Earth, ME

  13. Dave Gardner says:

    Yes, the film is partly about how being “against growth” is a political non-starter. But that is really too bad. My advice to all is to get over it. It’s okay to be against growth. It’s okay to be gay. It’s okay to be brown. It’s okay to be black. It’s even okay to be white.

    And it’s good to figure out what we’re for. I would propose it is not to be in a perpetual state of growth of anything. We need more clarity about some end goals. Perpetual improvement, yes. Perpetual growth of anything else is likely to run into problems at some point.

    There is no shortage of diplomats. There is a shortage of people willing to tell the whole truth.

  14. Tony says:

    Wondering what to be for, if not growth? Transition! Join or start a Transition Initiative in your home city, town, village, neighborhood, whatever. Google Transition Towns for more info.

  15. jorma says:

    >China and India are going to continue to grow no matter what we do/think/say

    No they’re not, at least at present rates. The growth of China and India is enabled in large part by Western economic policy. Economic policy is a political choice. China and India are not immune to the effects of economic and trade policy.

    For example, imposing some kind of economic carbon emission disincentives on China and India (and other countries) would definitely have an effect on their growth (and global growth too, of course). Protecting national markets from some outside competition more than before would also prevent some growth.

  16. Leif says:

    Capitalism and corporations need to think quality goods for affordable prices that are accessible to all with an economy structured in a manor that all can afford the basics. Planned obsolescence is a corporate mantra and reselling stuff while the old is thrown away is high profit margin. Humanity has worked for capitalism for over 200 years and what do we get? Look around. It is past time for capitalism and corporations work for humanity first and foremost and then profits. If a corporation cannot be profitable after paying for environmental impacts it is a drain on the rest of us, no matter what the bottom line says.

  17. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Merrelyn, any thoughts on what the carrying capacity might be? The population of the planet before coal reached 1B. But alternate energy sources should allow a greater capacity, but certainly not 7B. I had this exact conversation with my wife a couple days ago, sharing my guess for a resource sustainable capacity somewhere between 1B and 2B. She thinks I’m nuts, but…

  18. Tim says:

    We need to find a way to convince people that we should aspire to growth in quality of life in place of growth in quantity of stuff we buy. There are not many, but there are a few examples where political rhetoric has enabled such a view to gain traction. As the cold war wound down, it became apparent that our nuclear arsenals were silly. (Of course, to those paying attention is was apparent long before then, what with both the US and the USSR building more missiles and warheads so we could bounce the rubble 20 times over instead of 10 times over.) The terminology that allowed the arsenals to shrink was that we were going to “build down”, i.e., the “safety” and “reliability” of our arsenals were going to increase even as the number of warheads declined.

    Those of us with more than we need have to become convinced that our lives would be better if they were simpler, less cluttered, and less burdened with all the crap we buy from Big Box Mart. We need better stuff, and less of it. We need things that require labor, not that come from displacing labor.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Dennis, I’m no expert in this area. We have had raging debates in Oz about our carrying capacity and the estimates vary wildly depending on what is taken into account.

    At the planetary level, I don’t think we have any idea of what will be left as support systems after the damage has been done and the old Ma has once again stabilized. We know that there are some species that are taking advantage of the warming/extra CO2 (e.g. jelly fish and mozzies) while others go down (lots) but there are some horrific years in front of us as the systemic effects kick in with all the ‘unknown unknowns’.

    Does anybody out there have any data or modelling on this? ME

  20. dan allen says:

    Good stuff. Yea, perpetual growth is the idology of the cancer cell — it ultimately means death.

    Living organisms get around the trap of perpetual growth by something called maturity/adulthood; after an initial period of growth, our bodies reach a steady-state.

    Economies need to do the same — e.g., Herman Daly’s ‘steady-state’ economics. See also Heinberg’s ‘The End of Growth’ and David Korowicz’ ‘Tipping Point’ for a thermodynamic perspective.

  21. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Thanks ME. A few years back i read “Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann. In the book, Hartmann lays out his premise of human population vs. energy source during the current inter-glacial. I don’t recall the numbers, but before coal the population was 2B, then oil -> 7B thus far. If we do a retrace, and if Hartmann’s premise is valid, we’ll wind up with a few hundred million – unless we burn wood an an unsustainable rate. [Disclaimer: Hartmann is a radio talk show host who is continually researching ans writing books, of which there is now a plethora.]

  22. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Correction: Before coal (the days of wood) the population was 2B, then oil -> 7B thus far.

  23. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Correction: Before coal (the days of wood) the population was under 1B, then coal allowed growth to 2B, then oil allowed growth to 7B thus far.

  24. Lauren says:

    Here in South Texas we are seeing our landscape changed overnight by the oil & gas industry. These huge tanks and endless wells, costing more than ever to extract natural gas , have permanently changed this area. But we “need” this fracing to maintain and grow our SUV lifestyle. Who cares about the foul-smelling smoke, road trash and building-sized storage tanks? Glad some of my neighbors are being pulled up by this (so they can really up the consumption!) but growth costs in many ways.

  25. gavind says:

    “If not growth, then what?”

    How about sustainability? I believe most of the U.S. population would like some stability, in particular.

  26. Primarily, we need to re-define what a high standard of living actually is. Do we take the highly advertised corporate definition that makes us all feel inadequate if we don’t bu their products, or do we find our standard of living in the enjoyment of our community and the environment that it offers us: our family ties, our enjoyment of the exchange in cultural events, and other measures that aren’t based on continuously increasing profits?

    We can live very comfortably and with much satisfaction without stepping onto the corporate/consumer treadmill. We must disconnect, in our own minds, the link between consumption and standard of living.