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The Constant Growth Myth

With just the two guest houses we can only accommodate a few people. Three is sort of our magic number. We do have the capacity to get all the way to five, but we both worry that it would be a bit crowded. What’s more, I don’t particularly like guiding (and am not allowed to teach many of the classes I most often teach) more than three people. Even with three, counting me, that’s four people in the water. For you non-cave divers, the way we all most often keep track of one another is by watching the beams of the powerful flashlights we carry. So a diver in the lead position can see either two lazily waving around beams of light other than their own, or if they see their shadow in two different places being cast by two different light sources, or if they see a shadow that is not theirs… one can deduce there are two people following. With a little experience you can even extrapolate both their position and distance from you. From the behaviour of their light you can also surmise general mental state, relaxed or freaked out or not paying attention or whatever. All that without even having to turn around to look. If you introduce another light to the mix it starts getting murkier. It is damn hard to try to keep track of three or four people behind you. Because, generally, all you see from the front position is some sort of disco. To mitigate that, at least for me, we’d break into teams of two. Yes, we’ve got the exact same dive plan. Yes, we’re diving damned close to each other, close enough to share navigation equipment which is usually specific to a single team. But, as long as everything is going smoothly, either lead diver only needs to pay attention to a single flashlight behind them. All that is to explain a little of the logistics of exactly why I like having our small operation of only two guest houses. With either a king-sized bed or two doubles in the white house and a queen in the red house, three is a perfect magic number. To say nothing of how cramming more than three people into the pickup and driving up bumpy, jungle roads is… chummy. It is also why I find a question that we are both frequently asked almost confounding: When are you going to expand? Build another guest house?

I tend to answer that question with a parable. There’s this super-rich, successful business jerk off. Probably the CEO of a hedge fund management company or something otherwise despicable. And he’s on vacation on some tropical island or another. He likes to fish. Morning of the second day of his trip he asks the concierge of his probably $1K/night hotel, “Who’s the best fishing-boat captain on the island?” Concierge says, “Oh, by far that would be Leroy.” “Great!” says the CEO, “Where do I find Leroy?” Concierge explains that if he isn’t out fishing he’d probably be sitting on the beach a few miles down, sitting in his boat pulled up onto the sand, playing old Beatles songs on his guitar. So the CEO makes his way down the shore, and sure enough there’s this little boat that’s held together with duct tape and hope, guy laying back against it, staring out at the waves, absently strumming I Wanna Hold Your Hand. “You Leroy?” “Yep.” “Available to bring me out fishing?" “Yep.” Leroy finishes the song and then pushes his boat out over the gentle surf. It is, far and away, the most astonishingly successful fishing trip our hero has ever had in his life. It’s like leviathans are just jumping into the ice chest as soon as he puts a line in the water. For hours. He knows he can ask the hotel restaurant to cook up one or two of them, but there’s no possibility he’d be able to eat them all even if he had fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the trip. Leroy explains that he’ll be able to sell whatever he doesn’t want to a restaurant or two he’s friendly with around the island. “Is every charter like this?” “Yep.” (Leroy, I’m sure you’ve gathered, isn’t a big talker.) “This is amazing! Why do you only have the one little boat?” “I like this boat.” “No, I mean, why don’t you get something bigger and newer with all the money you must make? Or even buy another boat or two?” “I can only drive one boat at a time. And I like this one.” “Well, obviously you’d have to hire another couple of captains. Teach them your numbers. Then every charter they’d have would be just as successful. You’d be pulling in money hand over fist!” “What the hell would we do with all that fish?” “Could probably export it. Or package it? Get a stall at the market; no, build your own store. Jeez, if you invest in another couple of boats you could probably open your own packing plant!" “Who is going to run this plant?” “Your staff, obviously.” “Staff?” “Yeah,” says the CEO with dollar signs in his eyes as he starts to count off on his fingers, “On top of the captains, you’d have store managers, plant managers, sales people, secretarial, janitorial, HR, IT…” “Where I’m gonna find all these people?" “All over the island. You could be the largest employer around!” “Where am I in all this?” “As head of the company you’d need to oversee it all from your office.” “My office?” “Exactly. It would be hard work, but for the kind of profit I’m sure you’d be making it would definitely be worth it." “Worth it?” “Yeah. Because after… I dunno… maybe 20 years or so you’d be able to retire and do just about anything you want!” “Anything?” “Anything,” the CEO grinned, pleased that he was getting through and helping the guy out. “Know what I want to do?” “What’s that?” “I want to sit on the beach, playing my guitar, and go fishing from time to time. I do that already. And there’s no extra steps that steal everyone else’s employees and make all my friends have to shut their restaurants. It’s what I did yesterday, what I’m doing today, and what I’m gonna do tomorrow.” The CEO blinked in brief incomprehension……………….. At this point in the story I always like to believe that the business jerk off has a self-actualising moment of realisation and humility. Understanding, in a moment of satori that felt, at once, as if it took both lifetimes and only an instant, that his entire life had been a lie. And deciding to call the company he headed and offer his resignation as soon as he got cell reception back. That he would denounce his worship of Mammon, and dedicate himself to living in the moment, maybe buying an old junker of a fishing boat himself, or maybe bringing his years of management experience to a nonprofit that fights the factory fisheries that are stripping the ocean of biodiversity and causing global ecosystem collapses or creates sustainable fishing practices in underprivileged nations worldwide. But that’s probably not what happened. He probably went back to the ultra-luxury hotel and bragged to his disinterested trophy wife that he caught SOOOOOO many fish that day before going with her to the Cartier shop in the lobby for the new set of diamond earrings he promised her for letting him go out fishing that morning.

We’re not going to expand. Neither Nelly nor I want employees. We don’t want another instructor, which we’d need if we had different classes going on at once or for separate tour groups. We don’t want a maid to tend to extra rooms. We don’t want a cook to tend to all the extra meals. Nelly genuinely enjoys cooking for our guests and takes a great deal of pride in every single dish she makes. You should see her fuss in the morning, arranging the breakfast trays and double-checking that there is exactly the right amount of berries or powdered sugar on each pancake. I sometimes have to talk her off a ledge as she feels compelled to throw a waffle out if it doesn’t look just right. And then she sets about fussing over our packed lunches. To do all that for more people than we already have I think she’d have to wake up at 2AM. Expanding would be the end of that.

We’re all told that constant growth is that to which we’re supposed to aspire. More. Bigger. Grow. Expand. Make more money. Consume. Not to put too fine a point on it: that myth of constant growth has gotten us all here, now. It has created the world in which we live. Reefs are dying globally; hell, the oceans themselves are dying. The climate has gone completely haywire due to CO2 and methane production from large agriculture operations. These latter are also causing huge amounts of deforestation (the forests usually being carbon sinks, eating up CO2). Overpopulation. Poisoned freshwater supplies. Depleted bio-diversity which leads to more and stronger pathogens. Pathogens that are resistant to treatment because they’ve been forced to evolve into stronger versions by the constant application of preventative antibiotics used in factory farms. Because everyone in the world thinks they’re supposed to eat copious amounts of meat. Growth only works for so long. You know why the blue whale is the largest animal of all time? More specifically, why it doesn’t grow bigger? There isn’t enough food in the ocean to support a larger life-form. To grow bigger they’d need an exponentially larger diet. Effectively where there were more krill in the ocean than water. As it stands, there is (or, at least, was) just the right amount to support a breeding population of animals that are already gargantuan. We, on the other hand, have created a society where 81 people… 81… have more money than half the population of the world. 81 people have more money than 4 billion people combined. Resources spread too thin. People fighting and dying over resource access while other go thirsty and starve. That’s where constant growth gets us. While all that money… it’s imaginary. It doesn’t actually exist. But the world is being strip-mined, over-fished, and clear-cut to bolster the mythos that it does exist. And it’s killing us. Gives an interesting dimension to “Mo money, mo problems.” The model of constant growth looked like it was working for a while. We thought it would work forever. But when you’re working with a finite amount of resources.… not so likely. So why is the model still followed? Why don’t we try something different where we value equilibrium, stability, and sustainability over growth? Especially because we are now seeing the effects of it day after day, year after year? I dunno. We’re just fucking stupid, I guess.


Nelly and I have what we want. We’ve found our equilibrium. Our little home is modest as compared to folks who live in the lap of luxury. But compared to so very many people in the world - certainly by so much of the population of even Mexico - we live in a literal palace on property that is as unattainable as the gardens of Versailles. We don’t want to grow. Never once have we had a conversation about becoming the biggest, baddest, awesomest dive shop in the entire area, hiring a battalion of instructors and sales staff, putting all our friends out of business because when anyone from anywhere in the world thinks of cave diving in the Yucatan, they think of us. To what end? So that we can stress out about different shit? (You think the super-rich are happy all the time and have no problems ever in their lives? I’ve known some of them. They’re bloody train-wrecks.) All for the off chance it works, so we can retire early and do whatever we want. We want what we already have. Today I’m sitting in the classroom typing away as the sun tracks across a cloudless sky. That is my equivalent of sitting on the beach playing a guitar. Nelly was sitting and reading, but by now I’m gonna guess she’s napping with one or both dogs. And in a few days a couple of guys I trained are coming to simply dive. At which point our next day off isn’t until sometime in late May. But that’s OK. Because you know what I usually do when I have time off? The exact same sorts of things I do when I’m working. When we left “normie” life we left behind just about everything. Including any vestige of buying into the belief that constant growth is something worth spending our one and only lifetime pursuing. I’m not about to claim that makes either of us better people or more enlightened. It makes us happy.

Which is why we’re glad that we do have the two little guest houses so we can share that joy with people, if only for a week. So they can escape into a little bubble of equilibrium. And learn that vegan food can be amazing enough to, maybe, not feel unwaveringly compelled to eat meat with every meal. More guest houses would detract from that. Make the vibe less personal and cozy, replacing that vibe with one that is more business-oriented. Like we were only in it for the money or some sort of scuba-fame (which is not a real thing. It would allow the vexation of constant growth from the outside wold in through the front gate. Like inviting in a vampire that sucks your soul. Screw that. Sustainability. Balance. Tranquility. I’ll take them over “more” every single day. Well… except for sunglasses. And plants in Nelly’s case. Obviously we need more of them. Everyone’s got to live somewhere. And everyone’s got to have a job to pay the bills. We’re very lucky that we found a lovely place to live and have jobs we love. Yeah, we still create a resource demand: power use, food, people needing to travel here by plane, etc. But we figure we’re sitting on top of a sustainable plateau with no rational reason to grow and create even more demand. Also, have you ever talked to those zero-carbon-footprint people? They’re the absolutely insufferable.

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