Documentary filmmaker Dave Gardner’s Growthbusters is a provocative look at our pattern of growth worship. It’s designed to be a wakeup call and raise awareness of the cultural programming that we’re all subject to that keeps us locked in a relentless pursuit of growth. He talked with me about his six-year journey in making the film, scheduled to be released in late October. http://www.growthbusters.org
Can you give me the “elevator speech” on Growthbusters? How do you describe it to someone who knows nothing about it?
It’s a provocative film that’s designed to be a wakeup call to us all … to raise awareness of the cultural programming that we’re all subject to that keeps us locked into a pattern of growth worship.
What I set out to do was find out what are the forces that are keeping us from reacting rationally to the news. The evidence is out there. I like to say the proof is out there. Not the truth is out there – that’s Mulder and Scully – but the proof is out there that we are in overshoot, that the scale of human enterprise has outgrown the planet, so why are we behaving as though we haven’t limits? I think it’s largely cultural things that are keeping us from recognizing we’re at the limits, so I’m just trying to shine a spotlight on those cultural roadblocks.
How did you arrive at the decision to spend what’s turned into years working on a film about what’s become, surprisingly, one of the most controversial subjects – overpopulation – with the monkey on your back of trying to fundraise too to get it made?
I guess what prompted me was watching my community of Colorado Springs make so many sacrifices based on this completely blind faith that growth would solve all of the community’s problems and improve the community.
It’s a very growth-addicted city, so I’ve actually used my hometown in the film – kind of the ongoing adventures in my town – because it’s a great poster child for this belief system. We don’t question growth even though we can have years and years of experience that should tell us factually that there is no pot of gold at the end of the growth rainbow. We’re just continually looking for the end of that rainbow. We’re just sure of that pot of gold – just because we haven’t been able to find it so far makes us think that we didn’t grow fast enough or we didn’t grow in the right way – but we’re sure growth is the way to get to this nirvana.
Isn’t Colorado Springs projected to double in size?
Yes, it’s doubling every 30 to 40 years, depending on what time period you’re looking at. The state of Colorado is following the same pattern. So, more than twice this century we’re projected to double our population.
Famed populationist Paul Ehrlich comments in the film about the 3 billion population expected to be added worldwide, per the latest projections, being more than the entire population of the planet when he was born. That’s staggering, yes?
Very stunning. If you look at numbers on a micro level in a city such as Colorado Springs, in the city limits we have 400,000 people today. Yet if we keep on growing like we have the last 20 years, we’d have more than 3 million people in this town early in the next century. That’s just insane. It would be insane pretty much anywhere, but it’s really insane in a place that doesn’t even have a river running by it. We get roughly 15” a year of rain. We just have no business having a prosperity strategy based on perpetual construction and expansion, especially in the arid West. It makes absolutely no sense.
So I really was drawn to that subject. What is it that makes us act not in our best interest, not in the best interest of our children. It’s an amazing cultural story that has built up really in only a few hundred years. Mankind has been on an unprecedented binge since we discovered fossil fuels. At the beginning of that binge, we also discovered North America – a vast continent of resources just waiting for us to steal them from a few people who had been pretty good stewards of those resources. We’ve had a few years to get used to behaving in a way that absolutely is not a sustainable way to behave.
You’ve interviewed many of the leading thinkers on growth and overpopulation for the Growthbusters documentary. Who has been the most optimistic about the future?
I think they all are optimistic, or they wouldn’t be wasting their time doing the interviews. And I’m optimistic, or I wouldn’t be doing this film. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I’ve had enough conversations with people that I can generalize and say that all of us who are out there advocating for sustainability are optimists, but have this nagging concern that it’s beyond the ability of our civilization to get there.
Dick Lamm, former governor, Colorado, gave a great interview about sustainability. He said there’s still a possibility for us to have a wonderful world for our kids, but the legacy that growth has left us has given us such a strong cultural inclination to not do the right thing that it’s going to be really hard to make the changes; it might even be impossible.
Also, Peter Victor, author of “Managing Without Growth,” comes to mind. He did great computer modeling to show you could coast an economy down to a steady state without having dire consequences. He’s incredibly optimistic.
I’ve interviewed several board members of Transition U.S., a grassroots movement working to build community in the face of peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. The transition leaders are extraordinarily optimistic. They’re really focusing on the people who “get it.” They don’t have to waste a lot of their time trying to convince people that the current system is broken; they basically are working with people who have figured that out and want to figure out what will work.
I interview Raj Patel, author of “The Value of Nothing,” who did a great job in the film of reminding us that we’re beautiful creatures. We’re amazing; we’re capable of collaboration and sharing. We are not the selfish creatures we’ve been made out to be, and we’ve been convinced we are. I hope that comes through in the films.
I believe one of our biggest challenges is that we’ve set the bar too low. We’ve come to expect too little of ourselves. We don’t expect people to change their behavior unless we can financially incentivize them. The economists have told us that so many times that it’s become a self-fulfilling prophesy. We’ve got to find a way to raise the bar and remind ourselves that we aren’t the selfish creatures, as Raj reminds us, we’ve been made out to be.
Well you’ve got to know the next question. Who has been the least optimistic?
I don’t think any of the interviewees were pessimistic. There is a little doubt and a little sadness that it may just be bigger than us – that we can’t do it. Stephanie Mills has a little of that. She was inspired by Paul Ehrlich, bestselling author of “The Population Bomb,” and announced at her commencement address in 1969 that she would not have kids, and she became an instant media sensation. She’s spent her life writing and speaking about environmental issues. She’s seen how little has been done.
In the film, there’s not much about philosophy; the big ideas in my film were around 40 years ago. So an Ehrlich or a Mills who have been in it that long and seen how we’ve ignored so many of the issues … that’s got to be really tough on them.
I think Dennis Meadows, author of “The Limits to Growth,” is probably another one. He’s watched; he had high hopes, and he has watched us dance around the evidence. I think somewhere along the way he had to decide he couldn’t let it drag down his life that he was unable to get society to recognize the kind of changes that were needed.
In your growthbusting journey, where have you arrived on the scale? Say at one end, the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades to the other end, some Cormac McCarthy-like apocalyptic “Road” to hell.
I’m very, very worried. Here in the United States we’ve been blessed in many ways; there are very few of us who are starving. There are very few of us dying in battles over resources, so it doesn’t look like we’re at the 11th Hour. But I’m really worried that we are at the 11th hour, and it’s just far enough away out of our sight that most of us are capable of ignoring it.
I’m hoping we haven’t passed the point where no matter what we do we can’t get back on track. But I suspect if we haven’t hit that point it could be any day now – similar to what you hear from author and environmentalist Bill McKibben about climate change. Most of the people who have been fighting to get CO2 emissions down now are saying it’s not going to be good no matter what, because we fooled around so long. We’re going to have to adapt to a warmer world and what that brings. We’re already on somewhat of a predetermined path, but I think we still have the ability to make choices that will keep it from getting as ugly as it might otherwise be.
So I have some optimism, but I’d say I am really concerned.
The United States has become such a polarized place. Do you think one person really can make a difference, particularly on the overpopulation issue which is so polarized?
I have to wonder if there could be some leader who could stand up in front of us and tell us the truth and actually inspire people to follow. I haven’t seen any evidence that there’s anybody who can buck all the forces – you can’t get elected based on telling the truth.
Probably a better hope is to get more and more people to start making changes in their lives. That brings up the question, “Can individual behavior make the changes we need?” The truth is we need both. I think without individual behavior change we might not be able to change the system. But, it’s hard to be real low impact in a system that’s so consumer driven.
I hope I’m successful in conveying that in the film. I’m guilty. I say, hey, look at me; I’m just like the rest of us. I’m on the same journey and so far from living a sustainable life, and I am struggling with that. I drank the Kool-Aid for 50 years. There still are some things that strike a chord in me, but I know better.
I have gotten over my desire to have a Hummer. When the Hummer launched, I thought, what a cool vehicle. Today, I would be ashamed to be seen in a Hummer.
In the film, I confess that I thought I had arrived when I bought a house with a three-car garage and 3,600 sq. feet, which was huge at the time, but may be considered modest in comparison to some newer houses. I measured my success by what kind of car I drove and how big a house I had – I was mired in the system. My kids have watched the change in my views, which has been one of the coolest things about this journey.
When and how can people see Growthbusters?
The best way is to order a copy and host a screening (growthbusters.org). Be the change and invite a group to see it whether it’s five or 50 people. If you’re not group-oriented, order a copy and add it to your library and pass it on to family and friends. Or, go to bravenewtheaters.com for screenings.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? Do you think Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray would approve?
I can only hope!