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.

The article in question is actually a review – by Ted Nordhaus – of Vaclv Smil’s book Growth. Smil discusses his book in this Guardian article, where he is quoted as saying

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.

This entry was posted in Environmental change, ethics, Philosophy for Bloggers, Policy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Growth?

  1. Vaclav Smil has written about 30 books on FF energy — you would think he would have gotten it right after the first several, but there will probably be many more now that depletion is hitting hard and he will have to continue to revise his thesis.

  2. Willard says:

    > now that depletion

    Drive-by done, Web.

  3. I wrote:

    “Vaclav Smil has written about 30 books on FF energy”

    From Smil’s web site “He has published 40 books … on these topics.”
    Sorry for the error, I was counting on Amazon.

  4. dikranmarsupial says:

    We had technical solutions to slavery before it even started, just not ones that allowed the same level of growth. We have a patchy track record on sacrificing *any* growth for things that benefit others, but doing so requires us to realise that it is what is actually in accord with our own true values (which are not always easily inferred from our behaviour).

  5. Something I couldn’t quite work out from Ted Nordhaus’s review was whether or not he was essentially agreeing with Smil. His response seemed to be saying that we don’t need to actively follow a degrowth pathway because economic growth isn’t really sustainable anyway. As far as I can tell, the main difference is whether or not we should actively manage the situation, rather than there being a major difference about the sustainability of continued economic growth.

  6. Nathan says:

    I don’t see how we will respond in any other way than any other species on Earth does.
    We will attempt to grow for as long as we can, until we are limited by something or go extinct.
    It’s boom-busts all the way down…

  7. Nathan,
    Yes, that may well be the case. Bit unfortunate, though, if we’re a species who can actually consider how our impact on the environment might eventually be highly disruptive and we decide that we can’t really do anything to avoid this.

  8. Nathan says:

    I guess it is pessimistic, but recent events have shaken my faith in humanity as a bulk organism.
    Believe it or not, but the Australian Government is de-funding research into bushfires.
    I guess the messaging was… ‘off’.

  9. Chubbs says:

    Seems like we are on a policy treadmill in attempts to maintain short-term growth. Because we have so much debt, we need to take on even more.

  10. JCH says:

    Think of wild fires as Gawd reducing the fuel loads. What’s left to research?

  11. I read the Smil interview. He doesn’t really advocate for de-growth. He advocates for growth in developing countries and de-growth in developed countries. His example is managing decline in Sussex to allow rapid growth in Nigeria.
    One flaw, IMO, is Nigeria’s expectation of being able to sell stuff in Sussex is a pretext for it’s growth. The second is that the plan’s impact on the environment- the putative reason – is net neutral. The third is the political challenge of explaining to people in Sussex that growth is possible and wonderful, for everyone but you.

  12. jacksmith4tx says:

    What if Trump flipped to support climate change and he told his followers they have to switch to pro-climate change programs like government funded conservation, renewable energy and aggressive clean air/water laws? If Trump says this will grow the economy I bet 90% of his supporters will suddenly become pro-climate and immediately forget their decades of anti-climate rhetoric .
    Don’t laugh, it could happen.
    “President Trump on Tuesday called on Congress to fully fund a conservation program that his budget has repeatedly sought to cut.

    The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) uses oil and gas revenue to fund a variety of conservation efforts, such as securing land for parks. But Trump has suggested cutting its funding by as much as 97 percent year after year, including in his most recent budget proposal.”

    “I am calling on Congress to send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF and restores our National Parks,” Trump tweeted. “When I sign it into law, it will be HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.”

    Strange times.

  13. jacksmith4tx says:

    Love the video. I will add it to my collection of ‘the limits of growth’.

  14. pendantry says:

    @jacksmith4tx Glad you found my offering of interest… I found yours very interesting, too — thank you!

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