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To Continue to Prosper, We Must Redefine Growth

Communities pursue expansion when what they need is development.

October 01, 2000|RICHARD HANDLEY | Richard Handley is a long-time Ventura county resident currently residing in Australia and working on a book about the emerging economy of the 21st century. To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Institute, visit the Web site

Investing in education, upgrading our infrastructure and not squandering the tax break promised by both major presidential candidates may help Ventura County prosper into the foreseeable future. But can this prosperity be sustained in perpetuity? Anyone with a basic understanding of economics would say impossible.

Charting the business cycle over the past 100 years clearly shows that it has always been a boom-or-bust proposition.

The Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., is at the forefront of a movement seeking to revolutionize the business cycle by creating a self-perpetuating economic system that values natural resources as "natural capital."

This movement also calls for redefinition of the word "growth" and claims that confusion over this charged subject has negatively impacted areas like Ventura County.

Established in 1982 by resource analysts Hunter and Amory Lovins, the institute addresses a range of issues including sustainable "green" development and natural capitalism.

The folks at the institute believe that growth has two fundamentally different definitions: expansion and development. The assumption that economic prosperity is only possible through growth fails to properly differentiate between these meanings. Expansion means getting bigger; development means getting better and may not involve expansion.

Many communities have wasted time and energy pursuing expansion when what they really needed was development.

The researchers at the institute believe that a sound economy requires development, including vigorous business activity, and doesn't necessarily require expansion of community size. They compare the growth of a community with the human body. Human growth after maturity is cancer. When a town continues to expand past maturity, its cancer becomes manifest in spiteful controversy, higher taxes, sprawl and a lost sense of community.

But after reaching physical maturity, humans continue to develop in many beneficial and interesting ways: learning new skills, gaining deeper wisdom and cultivating new relationships. Similarly, a community can develop itself without necessarily expanding. It can create affordable housing, protect public safety, improve employment and health and expand cultural and educational activities. An acceptable result of this development is the creation of jobs, income, savings and a stronger community.


Another of the institute's pet projects is the promotion of natural capitalism. This business model places high value on natural resources and imitates nature in using them. It seeks not merely to reduce waste but to eliminate the concept of waste. It promotes "closed loop" production systems modeled on nature's designs, in which every output is either returned harmlessly to the ecosystem as a nutrient, like compost, or becomes a component of another manufacturing process.

An excellent example of natural capitalism is underway in Fiji. Waste from a Carleton beer brewery in Suva is filtered and sent to a low-tech integrated biosystem at a nearby school. The grain waste from the brewery is washed and dried and used as a substrate in the cultivation of mushrooms. After the mushrooms are harvested, the grain provides a food base for a herd of pigs raised at the school.

The pig manure collects in two troughs and is transferred to a digester that produces methane gas, used to produce electricity for the school. The liquid effluent from the digester is then transferred to a series of terraced ponds growing algae, plankton and six species of fish. The remaining solid waste is used as a fertilizer for fruit and vegetable gardens.

This integrated biosystem supplies protein, vegetables and root crops to feed the students at the school and earns $60,000 per year in crop and livestock sales. Considering that the average annual income in Fiji is $2,000, this represents a substantial profit.

Through fundamental changes in design and technology, farsighted companies following the natural capitalism model are developing ways to make natural resources many times more productive. Restoring, sustaining and expanding natural capital is a way to sustain prosperity and productivity.

By redefining growth as the creation of jobs, income and savings and not necessarily expansion of community size and by encouraging companies to adopt the natural capitalism model, Ventura County can indeed prosper in perpetuity.

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