Limits to Growth: the issue of our times?


Dr. Rupert Read of PPL celebrates the launching of an All Party Parliamentary Group at Westminster that celebrates the philosophical, ecological and economic expertise of academics and politicians alike.

Growing is a dangerous business. A person over seven feet tall is at massive extra risk of having a heart attack. Imagine how it would be for them at eight feet tall. Or nine. Or…

Aren’t we always told that ‘the sky’s the limit’? That more growth is clearly better?

Consider some of the further examples. Some companies can be so big and interconnected that if they fail so does everyone else. And a population that is too big can strip the land bare and kill both it and themselves in the process. These are just two more of the problems with growing too much; the first, as is well known, is one of the causes of the moral hazard that made the financial crisis so bad (and might well do so again, because the culture of gigantism has not changed), while the second continues to be a growing (sic) problem that we are facing at the moment.

Growth provides benefits. But it also fragilises. When that fragilisation brings in its train risks of ruin, then it is utterly reckless to keep growing regardless.

But we were warned of these problems decades ago. In 1972 The Club of Rome published its landmark report, The Limits To Growth, which laid down a challenge to the world at large. It argued that we are fast depleting the Earth’s resources and polluting it severely, and that if we continue on our current path our way of life would collapse as soon as sometime during the 21st Century, Of course this hasn’t happened yet, but how reassuring is that? How reassured should the turkey be, as each day it gets a little fatter?

The reasoning behind the claims of the Club of Rome is, in my view, clearly still valid (in fact, more so than ever), and some of their scenarios model alarmingly closely what the world is like, now, 44 years on. We live on a finite planet with an ever growing population some of whom are absurdly- decadently- rich and hyper- consuming, and many of the rest of whom (under the gun of advertisers) are continually demanding by a better ‘standard of living’. Eventually the resources we have will run out or will be overwhelmed by our own ‘waste’ products or both.

So, as I see it, the Club of Rome have rightly urged precaution. They have urged us to stave off the calamity before it happens. In my view, what they gave us was by no means a forecast. It was a schematic risk assessment. Warning us to be precautious- to head off the profoundly uncertain, potentially dire risks attendant on our current path. This point is so important that it is worth drilling down into a little further. For it reflects the need for government to take a view that is not confined to cost-benefit analyses, nor even to what the ‘evidence- base’ tells us. Namely: The need for government to act according to the Precautionary Principle (see here the salient recent work of mine on The Precautionary Principle, co-authored with Nassim Taleb).

This Principle is (supposed to be) part of the UK (and EU) law: meanwhile, it has been under sustained attack from some Parliamentary Committees in recent years (Cf. e.g. When one considers for instance the risk of potential future pollution crises (of which we may as yet have no evidence), then arguably there is an in-principle Precautionary argument against further economic growth . Such growth fragilises us; it puts us more at risk. One can see this just by looking for instance at the things (especially on the pollution side) that the 1972 Limits to Growth report didn’t see coming (because pretty-much no-one did), especially catastrophic risks such as the ozone hole and dangerous climate change.

The key claim of the Club of Rome, then, as I see it, is that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely without us probabilifying the hastening of the collapse of society. So they aim to re-frame the debate about environmental degradation and the survival (and flourishing) of the human race to not be merely about climate change mitigation etc. (because: anthropogenic climate change is a symptom) but instead about heedless economic growth (the single biggest underlying cause). They challenge the assumption that the only way to bring true affluence (on which, see Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth), let alone greater equality (on which, see The Spirit Level), is through economic growth. However, their warnings have gone unheeded and the state of the planet has become more precarious. The rate of extraction of precious resources from the ground has increased, population has almost doubled since 1972 and inequality has grown too.

In light of all this, myself and a group of colleagues from Green House (Green House Think Tank) and from the academic and activist world has implemented a new initiative, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Limits to Growth, with the specific aim of re-assessing the evidence for the social and environmental limits to growth and contributing to the debate on redefining prosperity (APPG Limits To Growth). The APPG launches next Tuesday, 19 April, in Parliament (APPG Launch Event). I’ll be there. For this is an important moment: it’s the moment that the great issue of the 21st century finally, belatedly, comes to the mother of all parliaments.

(Thanks to David Burnham, my Research Assistant, for invaluable help in writing this).

Rupert Read teaches Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He also chairs the Green House Think Tank and is active in the Green Party.

Image Credit: Flickr

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5 thoughts on “Limits to Growth: the issue of our times?

  1. This treatise correctly outlines what should be the major political issue of our time, but isn’t. It should have informed the Paris climate change discussion, but did so only tangentially, if at all But what this treatise, along with Prosperity without growth, The Spirit Level, and you could have added Dan O’Neill and Bob Dietz’s ‘Enough is Enough’, all fail to deal with is the forces driving the growth dynamic.
    Many blame the capitalists, but I find it more helpful to see them as in the iron grip of a dynamic they see no reason to escape from – yet – because they are, for the time being, still its beneficiaries. I recommend The Origins of Capitalism: A longer View’ by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Verso 2002). Wood’s thesis is that the monetization of transactions formerly in kind, in mediaeval England opened opportunities, which in due course became global imperatives. The challenge is how to help those still in the grip of still profitable imperatives to desist. A culture shift will be a necessary precondition, and I suggest a Citizens’ Basic Income as something which will facilitate that shift.

    1. Indeed, Clive, it’s the system. It’s a system that embraces media as well as business and which demands, and largely obtains, pro-growth thinking as well as pro-growth behaviour even from people who ought to know better.
      We have to respond to this at all levels, there is work for academics, jounalists and even parliamentarians.

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