Self-devouring growth

In Africa, the consequences of the growth-at-all costs model are starting to reveal themselves, and they're not pretty.

President George W. Bush in Botswana, 2017. Image credit Paul Morse via George W. Bush Center Flickr CC.

Economic growth, the hegemonic progress narrative of our time, is revealing itself to be more complicated than its proponents would allow. Across Africa, indeed across the globe, national and municipal governments, investors, economic institutions, politicians, policy makers, and development experts look to growth as the basis of future wellbeing. So much is done in the name of growth. But as growth remains the common sense, the unexamined imperative, a cascade of unseen consequences, side effects, many of them environmental, also become second nature; which is what I call self-devouring growth.

Self-devouring growth is a name for a set of material relationships whereby something with physical properties is being devoured. Unlike healthy forms of growth, self-devouring growth operates under an imperative—grow or die; grow or be eaten—with an implicit assumption that this growth is predicated on uninhibited consumption. The perversion happens in two ways: first, how the protagonists of growth envision and appropriate the resources upon which it is fed; secondly, how they attend to the production of waste that is a by-product of consumption-driven growth. This particular model of growth has become a logical means of constructing healthy, robust societies, such that there is something intractable about this thinking—grow the economy, grow a business, grow a market, grow Grow GROW! is mantra so powerful it obscures the destruction it portends.

Across the globe at present we are in a world structured by self-devouring growth. In Africa, the consequences of this fact are starting to reveal themselves as crucial water sources run dry, coastal lands flood and cede ground to the sea, pollution escalates, and people buckle under the weight of personal debt, even as jobs with decent wages remain elusive for most.

Botswana offers a good place to understand this dynamic, and to contemplate how and why we humans must think beyond a simple turn to growth. The country has been called a miracle for its ability to achieve forms of growth that produced a steady development trajectory. Yet from Botswana we can see how even that success presents its own horizon as growth becomes self-devouring. Remade under colonialism as a migrant labor reserve for racial capital, Botswana negotiated its independence from Britain, while surrounded by institutionally racist states on all sides. Yet against all odds, in the ensuing four decades it had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, a growth based mainly on the mining of its significant diamond wealth. This impressive achievement has been terrific in many ways—because the government used its revenues in part to build various safety nets and infrastructure. The standard of living has risen. There is a functioning system of universal health care, pensions, and public education. But there is also collateral damage—including an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Botswana is now the tenth most unequal country on earth. And as I describe in my new book, growth has unleashed a set of unfolding environmental processes that threaten to bring the whole thing down.

Botswana forces difficult questions onto the table yet the moral of the story is not a simple one. If global temperatures continue to climb the way scientists predict, Botswana will be one of the many places that will have more days of extreme heat, with predicted increases in heat-related deaths, an upsurge in malaria and dengue fever and increasing drought, with attendant food and water insecurity. Grassland pasture is giving way to thorn bush, the water table is sinking, and from 2015 the central dam for the capital city and populous southeast of the country ran completely dry for nearly two years. Scientists caution that the spectacular Okavango Delta, a primary site of carbon sequestration, the hub of Botswana’s high-end eco-tourism industry—the nation’s second largest income earner and site of some of the earliest human societies, will lose biodiversity as flooding and water distribution patterns shift and the water table drops. The day will eventually arrive when the diamonds that propelled Botswana’s climb out of poverty will run out.  Yet the story is not limited there—Botswana is but one node in a vast formation of self-devouring growth that animate economic life across the globe. The predictions for our planet are so dire that many either turn away in fatalism or dismiss it as exaggeration. Our current consumption-driven growth is self-devouring. How else are we to organize our energies? How are we to live through what is to come?

What were Batswana to do but grow their economy as best they could when the British left them deeply impoverished, and proletarianized, on a planet already polluted and warming through no fault of Batswana themselves? Batswana have managed their development trajectory quite well—and yet, all this and more is in jeopardy in the coming years. Climate change and environmental conditions have long been part of a national conversation in Botswana, where technical expertise in conservation, agriculture, and geology are deep and authoritative. And yet… The story of self-devouring growth in Botswana helps elucidate our planetary predicament—an existential crisis if there ever was one, for those who live in the interstices of what are often described as the great political and economic divides of the contemporary world—rich/poor; first world/third world; north/south.

  • This is a summary of Livingston’s larger argument in her new book, Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa. The book can be purchased here.

Further Reading