Problem of Growth

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Article. Jeff Vail. The Problems of Growth

Introduction at

Condensed version at


Jeff Vail:

""The Problem of Growth" addresses what I see as the critical problem facing humanity: the structure of our civilization, its inherent need to grow (and therefore its unsustainability), and how we can fix the problem realistically. My proposed solution is, by definition, quite radical, because it rejects the prevalent problem-solving mechanism of modern technology: that we can use technology to continually mitigate the symptoms, rather than take the difficult (but, as I will argue, necessary) step of actually identifying and addressing the underlying problem."


Hierarchy is driven by fear and insecurity

Jeff Vail:

"One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect. Most anthropologists agree that the Chaco Canyon dwellings served as a hub for a food redistribution system among peripheral settlements. These peripheral settlements—mostly maize and bean growing villages—would cede surplus food to Chaco. Drought periodically ravaged either the region North or South of Chaco, but rarely both simultaneously. The central site would collect and store surplus, and, when necessary, distribute this to peripheral settlements experiencing crop failures as a result of drought. The result of this system was that the populations in peripheral settlements were able to grow beyond what their small, runoff-irrigated fields would reliably sustain. The periodic droughts no longer checked population due to membership in the redistributive system. The peripheral settlements paid a steep price for this security—the majority of the surplus wasn’t redistributed, but rather supported an aristocratic priest class in Chaco Canyon—but human fear and desire for security made this trade-off possible." (

Hierarchy as a function of surplus production

Jeff Vail:

"The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.

In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative." (

Dependency as the root cause of growth

From Part 2.

Jeff Vail:

"The first installment in this series identified the reason why hierarchal human structures must grow: surplus production equals power, and entities across all scales must compete for this power—must grow—or they will be pushed aside by those who do. But why can’t human settlements simply exist as stable, sustainable entities? Why can’t a single family or a community simply decide to opt out of this system? The answer: because they are dependent on others to meet their basic needs, and must participate in the broader, hierarchal system in order to fulfill these needs. Dependency, then, is the lifeblood of hierarchy and growth.

Virtually everyone is dependent on participation in hierarchal systems to meet their basic needs, of one type or another. This dependency forces participation, and drives the perpetual growth—and therefore the ultimate unsustainability—of hierarchy. If growth is the problem, then it is necessary to identify the root cause of that problem so that we may treat the problem itself, and not merely a set of symptoms. In our analysis, we have seen in Part 1 that hierarchies must grow, and now in this installment that human dependency is what sustains these hierarchies. Dependency, then, is the root cause of the problem of growth." (


Marcin Jakubowski ( and

I agree with the identification of a root cause - "dependency ... is the root cause of the problem of growth" - and therefor a root cause of hierarchy, oppression, and other forms of abuse. Eliminating dependency - via self-reliance on a smaller scale of human organization - is the fundamental motivation in our work. Self-reliance applies on all levels - from personal security, provision of needs, and political organization. We see an increased capacity of non-dependency as the only route to a post-centralist framework of abundance and prosperity. History has shown consistently that lack of self-reliance, or dependency - was the cause of conquests, imperialism, subjugation, and other human suffering.

More Information

  1. Part 1: Hierarchy Must Grow, and is Therefore Unsustainable
  2. Part 2: Hierarchy is the Result of Dependency
  3. Part 3: Building an Alternative to Hierarchy: Rhizome
  4. Part 4: Implementing Rhizome at the Personal Level
  5. Part 5: Implementing Rhizome at the Community Level