The Limits of Growth: The Critics

Uga Bardi at the Oildrum has written an excellent piece,”The Cassandra Curse: How The Limits to Growth was Demonized,” tracing the reception of this seminal work from the time of its publication (1972) to the present day. We all are acquainted with its predecessor, Thomas Malthus’ “An Essay on the Principle of Population.”

As a boy, I thought Malthus was essentially correct: The earth can feed only so many. Of course, Malthus would never have expected us to be so successful for so long.

I remember a Star Trek piece where the unfortunate Captain Kirk was imprisoned on a massively overpopulated planet, the inhabitants of which enjoyed perfect health in a perfectly crowded hell. In usual science fiction fashion, Bixby had taken one question–What if we had perfect health and immortality?–and set its consequences against exponential population growth. In my naiveté , I kept asking: Where were the bathrooms? This planet had people standing cheek to jowl! How did they move? Where do they grow stuff? But then, of course, the Enterprise had that marvelous transmutation device. Matter could simply be transformed. And the energy cost? Those mysterious crystals in the ship’s core handled that.

Infinite growth may be the stuff only of science fiction, bad writing, and bad acting…with lots of liberally sprinkled fairy dust. Yet, today, are we ignoring those limits at our peril? How much fairy dust do we have left?

The usual rebuttal to Malthus or to the MIT authors of The Limits to Growth is: “Well, they were wrong in their predictions! Look at us: Partying on, dude!” But one wise commentator, Big Gav, on the Oildrum threat noted the following:

Reminds me of a time when I was part of an academic workshop and brought up Limits to Growth with one of my colleagues (who I really like and respect) and he blurted out “but they got all their predictions wrong.” I just stopped in my tracks, dumbfounded, because I had just read the book and it appeared to have done just the opposite: not making any “firm” predictions, while still developing frightening scenarios that looked eerily familiar when reading the news.

Yes, the MIT authors made no concrete predictions; they set no dates for Armageddon or our eventual comeuppance. They did, however, state a time frame: the 21st century.

What interested me most in Bardi’s piece were the four groups that the Italian economist Georgio Nebbia identified as constitutionally critical of the idea of any limits to growth:

  1. Businesses and industries who saw the idea as a threat to their continued growth
  2. Professional economists who saw LTG as a threat to their dominance in advising on economic matters
  3. The Catholic Church with its opposition to birth control
  4. The Liberal Left that saw the LTG study as a scam of the ruling class, designed to trick workers into believing that the proletarian paradise was not a practical goal

The first group, business leaders, is easy to understand. Business is predicated on growth. The stock market trembles when profits are stagnant. The Fed worries about recession. Credit is eased; interest rates are lowered to promote investment and continued growth.

Armies of economists are summoned; arguments erupt from the right and from the left on how to make the train go faster. More arguments erupt if the train even hints of slowing. Who is to blame? How much ink and paper has been expanded on the causes of the latest slowdown?

All of which explains the second group, the economists. Livelihoods and professorships are at stake. They are the foot soldiers.

In the third group, the Catholic Church, I would include the religious right or any group that looks on birth control as fundamentally against God’s law. This group believes that God has ordained us to multiply–apparently to infinity–and prosper. Besides, you can “swamp” the religious opposition through sheer numbers.

“Prosper,” how neatly that word fits into the language of the first two groups. Business prospers when there are more customers.

Clearly, an individual in any one of these groups might not personally believe in the aims of any of the others. Many business leaders and economists would support birth control. Some religious leaders would cry out against Mammon and greed. There is in-fighting and disagreements among them. But when we step back and look at the broader picture, they all share the same belief; they all are in the same army. All believe that continued, exponential growth is possible. Each brings to that conviction elements that aid the aims of the others.

The fourth and last group, the Liberal Left, has a role to play as well. It offers hope to those being left behind as the system becomes distorted, as more and more wealth is accumulated at the top. While it may disagree with the Church on birth control or even in its brand of theism, it does share the Church’s concern for the great underclass. We can save these people; we can make their lives better. Prosperity is a practical goal for all.

I hear all these voices every day…on every blog. I remember asking Jim Hamilton if zero growth was viable. He answered, “Yes.” I wonder if he would be happy with zero growth; would anyone be happy with zero growth? And what in this world or any other does it look like?