A Proposal for a Conference on Challenging Assumptions About Economic Growth, Profit, and Consumption

by John E. Mack, M.D.

December 1996

This paper was prepared in advance of a conference that was cosponsored by The Marion Foundation, The Center for Process Studies, and John Mack’s organization. See endnote for details.

The planet is facing the likelihood of environmental degradation and collapse in the near future unless humanity undertakes a radical shift in direction. Yet we conduct our individual and collective lives as if we were helpless to change course, or, worse yet, as if this impending catastrophe was not real. In this holiday season billions of dollars are being spent to induce a sheep-like public to spend further billions on toys and other goods which no one really needs and that ultimately leads to a depletion of non- renewable resources and further environmental desecration. These activities are conducted in compliance with the unchallenged assumption that economic growth and consumption are a basic good, a kind of fundamental, even spiritual, tenet of human life.

At the March, 1996 Esalen conference on the relationship of the work of Alfred North Whitehead to transpersonal psychology, where the idea for this conference originated, philosopher and Christian theologian John Cobb wrote, “The primary determinant of what happens on this planet is now the economy” (Cobb, Conference Proposal, March 26, 1996). More specifically, as Donella Meadows discussed at the Marion Foundation’s exploration of sustainability in its November conference (“The Poetry of Solutions: Taking the Natural Step”), it is the cultural mind set — in her words “the mental models of the culture” — that drives the economic juggernaut.

The power of economic forces seem so inevitable, so out of our control, so apparently mindless, that most of us feel discouraged when it comes to finding a way to challenge these forces and change direction. The problem is more profound, and the solutions called for much more fundamental, than can be contained in more responsible patterns of individual behavior in relation to the environment or better, “environmentally sustainable,” practices on the part of businesses. As Paul Hawken (1993) wrote three years ago, “If every company on the planet were to adopt the environmental and social practices of the best companies — of, say the Body Shop, Patagonia, and Ben and Jerry’s — the world would still be moving toward environmental degradation and collapse.” What is called for, we think, is a fundamental challenging of the basic economic assumptions of our culture, particularly regarding growth, profit, and consumption, in the context of a positive vision of future possibility.

This “barrier of invisible assumptions” (Zander, 1996) is so insidious, so deeply ingrained in our daily lives and ways of thinking, that we may hardly notice its existence or expression. For example, a lead article in the New York Times Sunday News of the Week in Review (“How Both Sides Joined the Supply Side”) during the recent political campaign declared without qualification that a “policy intended to increase the capacity of the economy to produce more” (produce for what?) is “a goal that everyone wants,” and “Everyone is for productivity and expansion” (Uchitelle, 1996). Charlie Hess wrote recently of growth as an addiction, “the must have elixir of trade and business policy” (Hess, 1996).

Assumptions about the intrinsic value of economic growth and expansion, and the inevitable good of the free market, even take on the proportions of theological truth and attract the language of religious faith. New York Times columnist Russell Baker (March 23, 1996) in an article titled, “The Market God,” described the aggressive style in which the “market faith” is preached, even to its victims, and an article about Herman Daly’s dissenting thoughts in the Wall Street Journal (July, 1996) admitted that “Questioning growth is heretical to most Americans.” Everyday we may read about some law or deal in which a major corporation has bought from one governmental body or another the right to further pollute our air and water. (See, for example, Feder, 1996).

The purpose of this conference will be to bring together knowledgeable people in economics, business, ecology, politics, psychology, philosophy, theology and other relevant fields who are prepared to challenge the dominant assumptions that propel the economy, and to develop a political program to implement the ideas that emerge from H. David Korten (LAPIS, 199_) was referring to such a political movement when he identified a group of “cultural creatives,” which he called “transmodernists”. Based on a survey conducted by Paul Ray for the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Fetzer Institute this group comprises 23.5 of the adult population but has no coherent political voice. Considering himself (and all of us at the Marion Foundation and the Center, I presume) to be among this 23.5 he urges us “to transform ourselves into a meaningful cultural and political movement” (p.19).

The ultimate aim of the conference and such a political movement would be — again in Korten’s words — “to assume conscious responsibility for our economic lives by transforming the economic system that has become the enemy of life” (p. 15).

The Marion Foundation has sponsored two conferences in the past year on The Natural Step, the pioneering program of the Swedish oncologist, Karl-Henrik Robert which has sought to achieve consensus on the roots of the environmental crisis. If we begin with the “trunk and branches,” instead of the leaves, Robert contends, “the answers become clearer and more consistent.” Robert has had considerable success in getting companies in Sweden to subscribe to the four basic “‘system conditions’ or rulers by which human society must play if it is serious about its own sustainability” (Focus Report: Business and the Environment, Vol. 7, No. 7, 1996), with more limited results in other countries It is not altogether clear to what degree a corporation that subscribes to The Natural Step Program is declaring an intention or actually changing its policies, what environmental impact full subscription would actually have, or what mechanisms The Natural Step organization may have for monitoring (let alone implementing) compliance with the essential elements of the program, especially condition four, the efficient and just use of resources.

This conference would be a natural follow-up to these two conferences. We are proposing to look even further “upstream” to the fundamental assumptions that underly economic activity itself, especially on the part of corporations and other businesses, and stand as psychological and structural barriers to the acceptance and implementation of the four rules of the Natural Step Program. At the Esalen Whitehead conference, John Cobb (1996) began the process of identifying the basic “erroneous assumptions” which inform contemporary economic theory and practice:

1) That increasing market activity is good;

2) That human beings are best viewed as autonomous individuals;

3) That these individuals are rational insofar as they seek their own satisfactions efficiently;

4) That this leads to maximizing consumption and minimizing work;

5) That nothing other than individual human beings has intrinsic worth.

6) That there is no acceptable way to evaluate the objects of human desire other than the price established in the market;

7) That natural resources are inexhaustible because technology can substitute one for another;

8) That further satisfactions should be discounted relative to present ones;

9) That per capita GNP provides a useful measure of economic well-being.

10) That economic well-being is the most basic or the most important form of well-being.

These assumptions might all be understood in terms of fundamental psychological and spiritual forces, such as the dominant power of greed throughout the human community, the illusion of separateness from the’ natural world (which the fledgling discipline of ecopsychology is seeking to understand and overcome), the denial of the consequences of continuing as we are going, and the almost exclusive dependence on material satisfactions to the exclusion of other possibilities for human fulfillment. Dana Meadows recently wrote cogently to Michael Baldwin of ‘”the emptiness within us that we are always trying to fill with growth outside us” (Meadows, November 14, 1996). I was confronted with an illustration of the above denial a few years ago when I attended a conference on the psychology of business practice. I ran into an old friend of mine, a management consultant, at the beginning of the meeting. He proudly told me the improved results he was getting with his clients in terms of increased productivity. He was taken aback and caught speechless when I asked him, “productivity for what?” An important objective of the conference would be the full identification of the hidden individual and collective psychodynamic and spiritual forces which propel the economic system.

Some of our blindness to the power of unquestioned assumptions is reinforced by administrative and legal structures that once served an appropriate and useful function but are now outmoded and vastly dangerous. The legal obligation of corporations to place the maximum financial return to shareholders as their primary obligation regardless of destructive consequences to the larger community or the Earth itself is the most obvious structural problem. Equally dysfunctional is the global nature of the idea of limited liability. Instituted originally to spur risk-taking and incentive on the part of entrepreneurs and investors, this legal anachronism has become a sometimes impregnable fortress/web behind or inside of which corporate leaders can avoid or deny responsibility for the consequences of their decisions (Everett, Mack and Oresick, 1993). These structural elements combine with powerful human drives to stimulate escalating cycles of greed and create further inequalities in the distribution of material resources.

Our habits of productivity reinforce another destructive assumption that goes largely unchallenged, namely the idea that a resource of the Earth has no value unless it is taken from the ground, cut down or “harvested.” Architect William McDonough in a 1993 sermon entitled, “Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things,” delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, asked, “Does a forest really become more valuable when it is cut down? Do we really prosper when salmon are completely removed from a river?” What particularly fascinates me about these questions is the underlying assumption that a life form might have aesthetic or spiritual intrinsic value just by being, without any sort of material product or functional utility.

At the November Marion Foundation conference Donella Meadows focused the challenge of sustainability by reference to Herman Daly’s resource pyramid, in which he showed graphically the idea of a progressive shift from bottom to top with respect to the Earth’s resources. At the overly heavy bottom was the dominance and emphasis on material resources, moving up through science and technology-aided investments, with increasing application of wisdom, spiritual awareness and joy toward the top. What is called for, Meadows stressed, is increasing commitment to finding our fulfillment at the lighter top of the pyramid, to find joy in meeting “non-material needs non-materially” (Meadows, 1996). John Cobb is making a similar plea when he calls for far greater stress upon the quality of life in economics. “Since the quality of life is not considered in economic theory,” he wrote a year ago, “the economistic policies that now govern the world ignore quality” (Cobb, Timeline, Nov/Dec, 1995). Related to this value shift from quantity to quality is Charles Hess’s call for replacing wealth with meaning.

Part of this process would be a trend to deurbanization, even a kind of deindustrialization. Smith Barney in its recent report, “New Horizons for the 21st Century,” suggests that “The United States might be on the verge of converting from a century-long capital-intensive industrial economy to a new secular, 21st century trend not only toward a precision technological electronic economy, but also possibly toward a new global agricultural economy” (Smith Barney, Summer, 1996).

I would suggest that it may not be possible to solve the problem of planetary life survival at the level of the pyramid itself, or even our appreciation of it. Rather, what is called for — and this is the point of the conference — is a reframing, a recontextualization of the problem. In effect, we live the pyramid. But the full awareness of its power cannot come simply from pressures to move to a higher level. The whole economic system needs to be seen as a way to deal with matters that are fundamentally about relationships — to the Earth and one another — and about means of achieving satisfaction and personal growth that cannot be achieved materially. The economic system itself needs to become a kind of category error, an effort to solve the problems of human life that do not really belong in that domain.

All of this may be too late, of course. Even as I write, Malaysian, Japanese and Singaporean corporations are destroying the Earth’s few remaining rain and hardwood forests in Asia, Oceana and South America. Underdeveloped countries, eager for hard currency, are selling away the resources of the planet that belong to all its peoples and species, while “‘the corporate leaders involved rationalize that someone else would do it if they didn’t” (personal conversations with American businessman, Andrew Martin, 1995 and 1996).

Despite such seemingly insurmountable obstacles with a positive vision we may yet prevail. As a friend of mine, a concentration camp survivor herself, once said, “John, it is the hopeless causes for which we must fight the hardest.” As Paul Hawken has noted, “Being visionary has always been given a bad rap by commerce.” Nevertheless, he. continues, “without a positive vision for humankind we can have no meaning, no work, and no purpose” (Hawken, Utne, 1993, p.61). John Cobb writes similarly, “There exist visions of another and better future, and we need to inspire the belief that they are possible” (Cobb, 1995, p.8). Business leader Joseph Jaworski, in his about to be published Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership has refined the power of visionary possibility this way: “…if individuals and organizations operate from the generative orientation, from possibility rather than resignation,we can create the future into which we are living, as opposed to merely reacting to it” (Jaworski, 1996, p.199).

Finally, columnist Molly Ivins in a Boston Globe piece last summer titled, “Market Down? Praise Be…” quoted words of Wright Patman from 1936 where he counter posed vision and greed: “We know that many, but not all, of our most powerful and influential citizens are very greedy. That fact has many times been demonstrated. It is perfectly natural that they should seek more power, influence and wealth. It is also true that where there is greed, there is no vision, and the Good Book says that where there is no vision, the people perish” (Ivins, July 23, 1996. p. A13).

The purpose of this conference will be to set in motion processes on a global level that can enact a vision of a sustainable, equitable, loving and fulfilling future.


This paper was prepared on December 12, 1996, for a conference held the following year by The Marion Foundation, The Center for Process Studies, and John Mack’s organization, The Center for Psychology & Social Change. The event, “From Growth to Balance”, took place November 14-16, 1997 in Marion, Massachusetts. Featured speakers were Donella Meadows, John Mack, Herman Daly, and Vicki Robin, with additional presentations by Paul Hawken, Ray Anderson, John Quiring, Alan Atkisson, and James Thornton. Dr Mack’s presentation, “The Economic System: What Would We Choose if We Woke Up?”, will be published separately.


1 Baker, Russell, The Market God, New York. Times, op-ed, Saturday, March 23, 1996, p. 17.

2 Focus Report: The Natural Step: Where Science and Business Meet Sustainability, Business and the Environment. Vol 7, No. 7, 1996.

3 Cobb, John B., Jr., From Quantity to Quality, Timeline, November/December, 1995, pp. 7-8.

4 Cobb, John B., Jr., Conference Proposal, March, 1996.

5 Zachary, Pascal, G. A ‘Green Economist’ Warns Growth May be Overrated, Wall Street Journal. July, 1996, pp. B1-B2.

6 Feder, Barnaby J., Lower Bids Expected This Year at Sale of Air-Pollution Rights. New York Times, Saturday, March 23, 1996, p. 19 and 22.

7 Hess, Charles, Addicted to Growth: Phased Responses to the Changing Dynamics in World Trade, Inferential Focus. Inc., October 4, 1996, p.1.

8 Ivins, Molly, Market Down? Praise be…, The Boston Globe, Tuesday. July 23. 1996, p. A13.

9 Jaworski, Joseph, Synchronizing: The Inner Path of Leadership, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. In press, 1996.

10 Karlen, David, Midwifing the New Consciousness Toward the Creation of Just and Sustainable Societies, LAPIS, pp. 15-19.

11 McDonough, William. Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things. A Centennial Sermon. Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York, February 7, 1993 [Adaption of the Sermon by Paul Hawken and William McDonough].

12 Palley, Thomas I., The Forces Making for an Economic Collapse, Atlantic Monthly, July, 1996, pp. 44-46, 50, 52, 54-55,58.

13 Passell, Peter, Asia’s Path to More Equality and More Money for All, New York. Times,Sunday, August 25, 1996. p. E5.

14 Walt Hayes, The Natural Step. What One Person Can Do: The story of Kari-Henrik. Robert, Timeline, No. 20, March/April, 1995.

15 United for a Fair Economy, The Growing Divide: Exploring the Roots of Economic Insecurity. Save the Wealth (?date)(1996)

16 New Horizons for the 21st Century, Smith Barney Technical Research, Trends report March/April, 1995 (re-released with update August, 1995).

17 Uchitelle, Louis, Recession Proofed: How Both Sides Joined the Supply Side, The New York Times, Sunday, August 25, 1996, Section 4, p. 1 & _.

18 Hawken, Paul, A Declaration of Sustainability, Utne Reader, September/October, 1993, pp. 54-66.

19 Zander, Rosamund, Fields of Invention: A Model for Relationship, Unpublished manuscript, January, 1996.

20 Meadows, Donella, Marion Foundation conference: The Poetry of Solutions: Taking the Natural Step, November, 1996.

21 Meadows, Dana, personal e-mail to Michael Baldwin, November 14, 1996.

22 Everett, Melissa., Mack, John E., and Oresick, Robert, Toward Greening in the Executive Suite. From: Environmental Strategies for Industry: International Perspectives on Research Needs and Policy Implications [Eds. Kurt Fischer and Johan Schot], Island Press, Washington, D.C., Covelo, California, 1993.

  • John E. Mack, M.D. was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

© 1996 John E. Mack, M.D.