We are all capable of recognising development when it occurs in a system that is still growing, spreading or multiplying. But all systemic development is nested within still broader systems, and these too have limits, optimal efficiencies, and balances that must be sustained or at least remain stable if their component systems are to flourish. If any system is to reach its full potential, at some point – hopefully long before the system’s end – the period of expansion must end, and that of consolidation, clarification and maintenance must begin.
We like growth because it is a clear sign that a system is healthy and functional, and because it consists of rapid, exciting change we can perceive in its entirety; a perception that is generally not possible in systems whose rhythms or periodicities are greater than or close to our own (Such as the generally epochal changes of the biosphere or the evolution of a species, or even – at a more local scale – the concurrent development of our children, siblings, parents and childhood friends). When we do perceive changes in these greater systems, it may be proof of seasonality – a sign of cyclic self-replenishment in living systems – or a non-cyclic period of rapid, erosive or exponential change which necessarily impacts on other interdependent systems.
We might hope the growth pattern for industrial civilisations would resemble that of a single of the individuals that make it up; this would be both comforting and aesthetically pleasing. An infantile period of rapid exponential growth, with perhaps some crises between childhood and adulthood, followed by a long period of maturation, consolidation and perhaps propagation, in which we become (at least comparatively) wiser, more comfortable in our skin, more capable… better. But the developmental pattern of western civilisation since at least the onset of capitalism, but also traceable in the expansion and attitudes of the Roman Empire, has been sporadic, compulsive, unmeditated, and ends in premature destruction. It resembles nothing so much as a monopoly, a cancer, a viral epidemic, an unconscious, self-propagating and horrifically single-minded entity which parasitises other systems more easily than it partners with them; which routinely exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, and even when it manages to achieve sustainability, only uses this as a springboard to further multiplication and consumption; which is so lethal to itself and other systems that it is scarcely recognisable as a mammalian culture at all.
Civilisational cultures, like species and individuals, must endure or adapt to systemic requirements strikingly similar to those described in Darwinian selection in order to survive. They must arrive at a relationship of symbiosis with their habitat, develop characteristics uniquely suited to that habitat, be competitive and sustainable, develop strong relationships with other, perhaps dramatically differing, cultures. Potential perils and opportunities for consolidation and expansion extend upon every possible vectoral path, and so must be kept closely in check.
Like an individual, a culture or civilisation as a whole can behave mindfully or reactively, be a paragon of creativity and culture or a slave to the instincts, prejudices, fears and desires of its populace. With the historical threats of survival vanquished – if only for the moment – industrialised cultures, like the individuals that comprise them, are free to bloat or slide into their worst excesses of extremism and intolerance, apathy and self indulgence. This freedom from constraint is the most immediate risk we run as we approach the long-dreamt of post-scarcity society; and we will come to realise, if we have not already, that even if we achieve mastery over the systems of this world and the worlds beyond we will still need to manage our own appetites and instincts, that even as we refine our most futuristic technologies the darkest, most secret instincts and desires of our ancestors can still bring us down if they are not carefully and honestly examined and taken into account.
In civilisation as in an individual, it is when a threshold of growth has been reached that development begins to be turned inward and the character of a system begins to clearly differentiate from others of its kind. Promises become fruits; flaws become seeds of destruction; motives and strategies become recognisable and characteristic practice. The mystic becomes differentiated from the priest, the surgeon from the wiccan, the bureaucrat from the potentate, the master from the slave.
The end of growth only means decay if we have pursued our growth to the extreme. What unfurls steadily, does not grow beyond its means, and is capable of weathering changes will survive, as always; and it is in the philosophies and practice of such systems that the best hopes, clearest motives and most nourishing fruits of humanity will survive to propagate in the long future that lies before us.