Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about limits to growth that focussed on an article written by Michael Liebreich. I found his argument particularly silly as it seemed to suggest that the economy could grow until the Sun died. Yesterday I came across another article about limits to growth that also included the lifetime of the Sun, but this time in a slightly more nuanced way; it was more attempting to satirise degrowth arguments than actually suggest that growth was only limited by the Sun’s lifetime.
Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know. The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense. The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone. The best hope is that you find some way to manage it.
Nordhaus’ response suggests that even though economic growth and development has lead to environmental damage, this doesn’t necessarily imply that the solution is degrowth. According to Nordhaus, economic growth can lead to more efficient use of resources and will, eventually, slow. Consequently, environmental impacts might actually increase if we were to actively follow a path of degrowth. His argument is that economic growth would eventually lead us to limiting our impact on the environment. Eventually we would develop alternatives that would allow us to no longer exploit the resources that we had been relying on.
This is where I find the argument somewhat unfortunate. For example, he highlights that [w]e “saved” the whales only after we had hunted many global populations to extirpation, and developed better substitutes for most of the resources we depended upon them for. It may be true that when commerical whaling (mostly) stopped, we had viable alternatives. However, I think these had existed for quite some time; we could have stopped well before we actually did. I don’t think it’s the case that the emergence of alternatives is a prime reason for limiting our impact on the environment. It seems much more likely that we do so when the impact is so severe that there is little economic benefit to continued exploitation.
I haven’t really developed strong views with regards to growth versus de-growth. I’m well aware that economic growth has brought many benefits, and that there are many who have yet to benefit. I’m certainly very uncomfortable with the idea that we might actively develop a pathway that essentially prevents others from experiencing the benefits that many of us have experienced. However, economic growth is clearly associated with resource exploitation that is often not sustainable.
Whatever you may think of Smil’s overall argument, he’s certainly correct that the biosphere is crucial to our survival. Even though we can’t avoid exploiting the environment, maybe we could try harder to prioritise sustainability, rather than assuming that alternatives will always appear just in the nick of time.
Growth – From Microorganisms to Megacities – by Vaclav Smil.
Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’ – Vaclav Smil interview in the Guardian.
Must Growth Doom the Planet? – Ted Nordhaus’s review of Vaclav Smil’s book.
Limits to Growth – my previous post about limits to growth.
The Secret of Eternal Growth – Michael Liebreich’s article about eternal growth.