Physical vs. Psychological Growth: The Teenage Dilemma!

It has been interesting to read political and environmental critiques of economic growth, coming from a psychology background. Gus Speth, for example, devotes a good portion of “Bridge at the End of the World” to arguing against the doctrine of infinite economic growth.

Environmentalists and progressives decry the evil of economic growth, often calling it a “cancer.” This attitude towards growth was very striking to me because in psychology, growth is great! It is no exaggeration to say that growth is the primary goal of therapy.

Of course, it’s a different kind of growth—when psychologists speak of growth, we mean emotional growth: the expansion or enhancement of capacities such as self-reflection, affect tolerance, empathy and agency. To have better, richer relationships; to be more realistic about oneself and ones circumstances; to not be burdened by guilt, anger, depression or narcissism.  Therapy helps patients build their “emotional muscles,” and grow as people. This is why some people stay in therapy for many years; not necessarily because they are terribly troubled, but is often out of a dedication to growth: the continued desire to get healthier, stronger and more self-aware.

So we have two very different types of growth. Economic growth is a type of physical, literal growth. When the economy grows, we extract more resources, process them, consume them, and dispose of them. Emotional growth happens internally.

What is the relationship between these two types of growth? Between physical growth and psychological growth? Does economic growth encourage or discourage emotional growth among nations and the individuals that comprise them?

To consider this question from an experiential, psychological viewpoint, we can examine the human life cycle. There are two periods of rapid physical growth for humans: infancy and puberty. In both of these periods, the project of growth virtually consumes the organism. In their first year, infants normally sleep 14-20 hours a day! When they are not sleeping, often, they are eating. Babies are quite focused on their physical growth-project.

And what of puberty? What does the process of changing, growing bodies do to teenagers? It consumes them. Obsesses them. Adolescents orient their whole lives around their bodies and the bodies of others. They adorn, display, and reveal their bodies; they evaluate their own and each others’ bodies, carefully and mercilessly, measuring, ranking and critiquing; they pierce and tattoo their bodies; they test their bodies limits through extreme sports, fist fights or risky behavior; they mutilate their bodies in myriad ways, such as cutting, huffing, and eating disorders. They talk endlessly about body parts and body functions. I haven’t even gotten to sex, yet! Needless to say, teenagers also spend countless hours, masturbating, watching pornography, sexting, having sexual fantasies, having or seeking sex, gossiping about who had sex with who and wondering which of their peers are gay.


Teenagers are obsessed with bodies. But its not their fault! Their bodies are going through rapid changes, which is confusing and destabilizing.  Teenagers often appear awkward or strange; they are the novice captains of large ships! Teenagers devote a huge amount of effort to getting a grip, a sense of mastery for their new bodies.

And how about teenagers’ emotional growth? Its….. limited. During times of rapid physical growth, the organism devotes huge amounts of mental and physical energy to reacting, adapting, understanding and coping with that growth.  Young adults, once their bodies have reached settled into a more homeostatic state, can start to tackle questions like, “Who am I?” “What do I want from life and how should I go about getting it? Or even, “How can I do good in the world, improving the lives of people I care about?” Adults’ bodies change, of course, and the changes occupy some of our attention. But the relative stability of our bodies allows us to shift our focus to develop mental and emotional capacities.

So does physical growth trade-off for emotional growth in the economy in a similar way? Indeed it does; our spurring the economy towards constant growth affects us on every level of society—causing  group and individual preoccupations; like teenagers, mooning over their bodies, American adults obsess to no end about money. Russel Collins (2000) points out “the pursuit of economic growth became the defining feature of U.S. public policy in the half-century after the end of World War II. Commentators in the 1950S coined the term `growthmanship’ to describe the seemingly single-minded pursuit of exuberant economic growth that was then appearing to dominate the political agenda and the public dialogue throughout the Western industrialized world, nowhere more dramatically than in that bastion of materialistic excess, the United States.” Individually, we devote a huge portion of our lives to earning money, often more than we devote to our families, to our communities, to our education, or to causes we believe in. We compete with our friends and neighbors based on who earns more. We read in the media about high fashion, luxury cars, and multi-million dollar real estate.

All the time, attention, and investment we spend on the spurring growth and adapting to its changes and effects takes time, attention, and investment that we are NOT spent on making our society better. It is not spent on education, on reflection, discussion and collaboration, on improving our governments and schools, on pursuing scientific and scholarly research, on building meaningful relationships with others, or on community projects. Annie Leonard, author of “The Story of Stuff” articulates the same concept in this 9-minute video: The Story of Solutions in which she argues that our economy’s goal is “more” and we need to change it to “better.”

Our obsession with economic growth is harming our country’s emotional maturity, keeping us emotionally adolescent! Ask yourself: Do most Americans spend more energy on growing financially, or on growing personally? Do our elected leaders act like mature adults, or do they act like babies and teenagers, trying to cope with a rapid physical expansion?

The most common metaphor environmental and political writers use for growth is a “cancer.” This metaphor clearly fits; unconstrained growth that can have devastating consequences. I think the metaphor of adolescence is more illuminating, however. We can all remember adolescence: how insecure, confused, and body-obsessed we were. As adults, we can appreciate the gift of relative physical stability; that things stay the basically the same in our bodies from day to day, allowing us to develop other, more internal, parts of ourselves. When you are a teenager, you cannot imagine what it is like to be an adult; it is impossible to comprehend what it feels like to be more mature and less body obsessed. Likely, something similar is true of economic growth. If we brought our economy to a steady-state, we would have more energy to developing our civil society, our institutions, our communities, our discourse, and our governance.

Highlighting the inverse connection between economic and emotional growth is not intended to excuse us from pursuing dedicated efforts to grow emotionally, even as our economy continues to expand. Though it happens more slowly, emotional growth is possible during periods physical growth. Though teens aren’t generally considered bastions of stability, insight, empathy and wisdom, they do move forward. A national-level example: Germany, matured greatly as a country in the decades after WWII, even as their economy grew quickly. To their credit, Germans were able to mourn their huge losses of 2 world wars, and to (to some degree) face the evil of what their nation had done. (The United States and the Marshall plan also deserve credit for helping Germans to feel safe and secure enough to grow emotionally).   Germany demonstrated their maturity through their leadership the EU, especially in sustainability: Germany has become Europe’s leader in greening their economy.

We must dedicate ourselves to growing emotionally, even though we live in a growth-obsessed world. Challenges and loss can be precursors of emotional growth for individuals and groups—they can encourage reflection, reevaluation, and empathy and push people and groups to higher levels of functioning.  Climate change poses the worst threat humanity has ever faced and is already creating widespread disruptions. We must attempt to channel the pain and stresses that arise from climate change into wise action rather than regression and panic. We must push ourselves to new levels insight, empathy, dedication, and maturity. Only by utilizing mature emotional and intellectual capacities will we have a fighting chance of building a social movement that faces the horrifying truth of climate change, giving us a fighting chance of solving the climate crisis. The time for adolescence is over, we cannot afford immaturity any longer, it’s time to grow up.


  1. Jon Liberzon

    First off, it is clear that the pursuit of constant growth is quickly exhausting the natural resources of the planet and driving its ecosystems and natural services to the brink of collapse. Still, this very vague anti-growth formula misses a few key issues which combine to make non-growth a disastrous strategy for any one nation individually, and for the world as a whole. Of course, by addressing these issues head-on, growth could be mediated without disastrous consequences. The three most critical roadblocks are:

    1. Debt-financed growth: As the recent debt ceiling debacle (and the housing market collapse before it) clearly illustrates, the modern global economy functions not on assets but on credit. Whole economies are brought to their knees not by devaluation of real estate or drops in stock prices, but in a seizing up of the credit market. Essentially, the concept of growth is so entrenched in our capitalist system, that day-to-day operations of all major industries are actually financed by relatively short-term loans taken on the futurized value of economic activities that are presumed to grow as if by force of nature. This is why banks are so important in the modern global economy: few businesses keep enough cash on hand to handle day-to-day business; moreover, debt financing is the central element which allows innovators to enter new markets and spurn competition and innovation. From multi-billion-dollar corporate acquisitions to small micro-finance schemes for small farmers in developing countries, debt fuels economic activity. Of course, on the macro scale, borrowers are dependent on creditors and investors who are looking for profitable places to put their money, and the only way to ensure secure growth in large amounts of investment capital is through economic growth. Without growth, there is no reason to invest accumulated capital, and without investment, no credit can be extended. Without credit, everything shuts down.

    2. Population growth: Since the publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, the global population has risen consistently and meteorically. The only reason that that books’ apocalyptic predictions of famine and thirst have not come to fruition is that economic and technological growth has so far managed to keep up with population growth and allowed us to feed and clothe the majority of the human population. Higher yield varieties, fertilizers and other agrotechnical tools have kept food prices down, extensive water resource development and efficiency and reclamation technologies have kept water availability from plunging (in fact, the world will achieve the millennium development goals on access to drinking water by 2015, according to the Gates Foundation), and development of new energy sources have all facilitated the growth of populations on this planet by supplying to the world’s constantly growing demand for food, water, clothing, shelter, transportation, medicine, security and entertainment. In effect, economic growth is both a cause and effect of population growth, based on addressing rising global demand for all products and services. If we try to eliminate economic growth without tempering population growth, disaster will follow as scarcity sets in and prices of all essential goods, including food and water, will skyrocket.

    3. Class mobility: This third factor includes both the problem and its solution. Even discounting population growth, demand for goods and services rises over time as large populations in the developing world begin to achieve higher living standards resulting from economic development and the global transition of poor, rural populations in traditional economies into less-poor urban populations integrated into globalized modern economies. In some nations, such as China and Brazil, a rising middle class is dramatically increasing the demand for nearly every good and service humans produce. As affluence grows in these areas of the world, meat consumption increases, which increases demand for grains as more and more grains go to feed animals instead of people. Thus, without constant growth in productivity, food prices would rise astronomically, disproportionately impacting the world’s poorest and hungriest people, and all this would happen even without ANY increase in global population!

    The good news is, extensive research has shown that as nations develop in such a way that allows individuals to move up the class ladder and improve their living standards, population growth slows down and eventually reverses to net population decline, as is the case in modern Europe, Japan and other developed nations (US population growth is almost exclusively driven by immigration or immigration-related processes). Gary Snyder, famed co-founder of the deep ecology movement, once claimed that the globe could achieve complete resource sustainability and human equity if we could keep the population at roughly 800 million souls. Clearly, using new technologies, we should be able to achieve sustainability at somewhat higher populations, but everyone is agreed that our rapidly approaching prediction of 15 billion by 2020 is unsustainable. How can we prevent this continuing population explosion? By actively fighting to improve the livings standards of those populations on this planet that are driving global population growth. We must allow the world’s poor to gain access to the opportunities (specifically educational and entrepreneurial), security (specifically food, water and medical security) and high level of human development that we enjoy in the West. In other words, we have to grow in order to shrink.

    The trick will be, how can we achieve this development without a concomitant runaway increase in energy and resource use? Only by realigning economic incentives (think carbon taxes), vigorously promoting efficiency, fighting for inclusive political and economic institutions, improving per-capita productivity, relentlessly developing new technologies, empowering the global poor and learning to better utilize and better distribute our global resources can we hope to achieve this target. We must learn to grow in the right way, so that one day we can begin to shrink. Note that countries which have begun to shrink their per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are largely the same countries whose per capita wealth and human development index were either highest (as in Germany and Iceland) or growing most rapidly (as in Costa Rica). This is not a coincidence. We must take a global approach to this problem.

    Perhaps one day human societies will arrive at an economic system that can promote development without growth, but we are a long way from this goal, both intellectually and structurally. Calling for “no-growth” approaches are not only foolhardy in the short term, since growth-dependent debt is currently the gasoline of our global economy and growing demand for goods and services ever threatens to increase prices, but is also problematic in the long-term, since a growing economy will always outcompete one that stagnates. Even if we halt growth in our own countries, we will quickly be overtaken and made irrelevant by others that are growing. We need to think creatively about new approaches to mitigating the damaging effects of growth, but we cannot simply stop and sit on our thumbs.

  2. I enjoyed your nuanced response, Jon. Are you aware of the argument, put forward by Richard Heinberg and others, that economic growth is nearly over, whether we like it or not? See here:

  3. The decline of oil’s EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is driving a lot of what’s happening in the world; oddly I’ve never seen a word about this, although someone must be writing about it. Addiction to the growth of the recent past, or unwillingness to adapt to its end, are manifestations of what you’re talking about. In the 1930s oil’s EROEI was about 100:1; for every barrel of oil spent to find, get and use oil, we got 100. Now it’s 11:1 to 15:1 and declining ever faster, while alternative fuels are even less, often approaching 1:1 or even less. At that point, it’s no longer any use to drill or burn the fuel, since it takes as much to get it as it yields. Of course, the less oil we get for the oil we spend the more it costs, and the same is true for coal and gas. Peak oil is not just about oil, and it’s not about running out of anything; it’s about the inevitable decline toward 1:1. As it declines, the greenhouse gas emissions and other ecological damage associated with each gallon of oil goes up.

    So inflation is one thing being driven by the changes in EROEI; accelerating climate change is another.

    In the late Middle Ages the upper classes were under pressure from inflation but with one foot in the new, moneyed world and one foot in the old world of personal and hierarchical loyalties, they couldn’t pass on the rising money costs of things to those (peasants, serfs, farmers and craftworkers, especially rural) not yet connected to the changes in trade and finance. So the upper classes were made to seem evil because of structural changes in society. Well, more evil than they were. They weren’t squeezing peasants out of sheer malice, necessarily, although they could have chosen to distribute the pressure evenly, or even adapted to fit the new reality of life with capital. That they didn’t is the essence their evil (failure to face the shadow according to Jung, or unwillingness to face the pain of self-examination, (M. Scott Peck). The upper classes today face a similar dilemma, although in a very different context and for different reasons. They’re as addicted to the EROEI of fossil fuels as European “nobility” was addicted to their declining-value loyalties and the portion of the crop peasants owed them, which increased slowly with better technology but couldn’t keep pace.

    Our “nobility” has more historical experience, more resources, and more options created by the more complex economy, technology and laws that rose out of that earlier transformation. They can squeeze peasants throughout the world in thousands of ways, and are. They’re also trying technological fixes–offshore and Arctic drilling, all kinds of pseudo-oils like tar sands, oil shale, liquefied and gasified coal products–that are like an alcoholic drinking bottles of vanilla and finally, shooting up with transmission fluid trying to stay high. Layoffs, offshoring jobs, attacks on unions and government and taxes, attempts to further degrade environmental and worker protections as well as social security and the hatred of even the tepid health care plan are all vanilla, all responses to the back slope of peak oil. The transmission fluid is coming, unless we stop it and provide the symbols and education to begin healing, and deploy the technology for a soft landing.

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