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What Does It Mean to be Anti-Growth?

-Roger Pielke, Jr. is a professor of environmental studies and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

photo of a stock ticker wallphoto Luis Villa del Campo

Economic growth is simply a metric that reflects the accumulation of wealth over time, usually based on universalized US dollars. Economists define economic growth in three parts: (a) growth in labor, which refers to an increase in the number of people working; (b) growth in capital, which refers to increases in the availability of things that can be used by labor in the process of producing goods (like food) and services (like surgery); and (c) increasing productivity, which can be thought of as improvements in the efficiency with which we turn labor and capital into goods and services.

We can use the three components of economic growth to better understand what it means to be “anti-growth.”

Anti-Labor Growth, The Neo-Malthusians

One sort of objection to growth sits squarely in the tradition of Thomas Malthus and is focused on global population. Neo-Malthusians most recently rose to prominence and influence in the 1960s and 1970s, with Paul Ehrlich the most famous US advocate for population control. Today the neo-Malthusian moment seems to have waned, likely due in part to the fact that UN population projections now foresee the end of population growth later this century, followed by a decline in some scenarios. Even so, the Neo-Malthusian movement has its adherents. As Alan Weisman wrote in a book released last year (see In Review): “From the instant we’re born, even the humblest among us compounds the world’s mounting problems.” Neo-Malthusians see anti-growth as limits on population.

Anti-Capital Growth, The Peak Earthers

Another branch of anti-growth thinking focuses not on the number of people, but rather their consumption of resources. The Peak Earthers, as I call them, present their views through a suite of concepts, such as ecological footprints, planetary boundaries, and natural capital. Such concepts reflect valid concerns, but it turns out that, with respect to limits on continued economic growth, humans have had a tendency to break through physical limits through gains in efficiency and substitution. A good example is “peak oil,” which seems ever on the horizon yet keeps retreating as we tap new petroleum sources. Peak earthers see anti-growth, rather than efficiency gains and substitution, as a solution to resource constraints.

Anti-Productivity Growth, The Luddites

The term “Luddite” refers to an industrial protest movement of the early 1800s, and derives from Ned Ludd, one of the lead protestors. “Luddite” is commonly used to mean anti-technology, a reference to the fact that the original Luddites destroyed industrial machines – but that’s a misreading of history. What the Luddites were protesting was the effect of productivity gains resulting from the introduction of machines into factories as a consequence of the industrial revolution. Today, we see Luddite concerns in other sectors. For instance, in December 2013, The Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “Eight Ways Robots Stole Our Jobs in 2013.” Luddites see anti-growth as a way to stop the effects of technology on the economy.

When we break down the idea of anti-growth into its component parts, we very quickly see that “anti-growth” is not a particularly coherent concept. For instance, those favoring what is often called “sustainable growth” – such as using renewable energy technologies, rather than using fossil fuels, to power growing material wealth – would not fit any of the three categories presented above. Sustainable growth clearly is not anti-growth.

small excerpt of a poll pageReader OpinionWhat do you think: Are there limits to growth?
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In the near future, economic growth and its consequences for the planet will be dominated by today’s poor countries. The OECD estimates that between 2013 and 2030 82 percent of economic growth will occur in what are today considered to be the “poor” parts of the world, with just 18 percent of growth occurring in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and a few other wealthy countries. Similarly, in January BP released its 2014 “Energy Outlook to 2035,” which projects that 95 percent of growth in energy consumption worldwide to 2035 will occur in poorer countries.

Some try to sugar-coat their anti-growth arguments by focusing their attention on the rich world. But with most of the world’s expected growth to occur in the poor parts of the world, such arguments are simply mathematical non sequiturs. The reality is that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries. The fact that very few, if any, anti-growth activists are openly demanding that poor countries remain poor tells us how powerful a force growth is in today’s global politics.

Ultimately, debates over growth tend to mask more fundamental debates about ideologies, values, and what kind of world we wish to see in the future. Breaking concerns about growth into its component parts helps to focus such debates on questions that can be addressed empirically, and those which cannot. So when you encounter an anti-growth advocate, ask him or her, which kind are you, Neo-Malthusian, Peak Earther, or Luddite?

For an opposing view, read what John de Graaf has to say.


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It’s a zero sum game. We live in a finite world. There’s only so much to go around. Environmental impact equals consumption times population.

If “poor” by (Western standards) are to become “less poor,” then “rich” must become “less rich.”

Either we drastically lower overall human population, or we drastically reduce human population. Or a combination of both.

Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.

Full stop

By Michael A. Lewis PhD on Thu, May 29, 2014 at 11:43 am

Dr. Pielke is a political scientist who has no compunction about making arguments and claims for which he has little or no evidence.  This is ideology in the service of economic growth.

But even he should have a vague idea of what the Luddites were about.  Hint: they weren’t “anti-technology”.

By Greg on Fri, March 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Signing CASSE’s position statement is an easy and powerful action people can take to show that they acknowledge that economic growth is having adverse effects in today’s full world.  Sign at:

By Rentz on Tue, March 11, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Prof Pielke uses the old trick of falsely labelling other people in order to frame a strawman argument, viz.
“Neo-Malthusians see anti-growth as limits on population.”

No Prof, Malthus and all sensible people of good understand that overpopulation causes a reduction in well-being.

The other leson which anyone familiar with the calulus of many variables will understand is that one cannot maximize multiple variables.  I would suggest that we should maximize human well-being.

Prof Pielke advocates for maximizing economic growth.  That might be fine if economic growth was closely related to well-being.  But we know very well that the premier measure of economic growth, GDP, has become totally pathological.  Presently GDP growth is driven by:
(1) Inflation masquerading as growth—- because inflation is systematically underestimated.
(2) The increasing role that harmful and obnoxious “services/products” play in our “economy”.

By Brian Sanderson on Sat, March 08, 2014 at 5:09 pm

The author is advised to read the following blog posts:

By Piyush on Wed, March 05, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Mr. Pielke has earned a spot on the Wall of Shame at Growth Bias Busted. Very disappointing work.

Dave Gardner
Director of the documentary
GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

By Dave Gardner on Wed, March 05, 2014 at 8:27 am

Read the book, Supply Shock, for the big picture, and how being perpetually pro-growth is ultimately anti-land, labor, and capital.  Also read it for a more nuanced assessment of the relationships among economic growth, technological progress, and long-run sustainability.


By Rentz on Tue, March 04, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Maybe pigs are more likely to fly first, but I live in hope if not in optimism.

Mooloo & Balazs:
You talk about the average person, do we define that as the average or, better, the median, income person on Earth?  So globally that would be about $1,600 per year.  At whatever income level, wealth equate to consuming food, goods and services that result in emissions but of course the wealthiest who consume the most or control the investments that fund others to cause emissions.  As the recent Oxfam report on inequality found, the richest 85 people own the same wealth as the poorest half, 3.5 billion people.  It is the irresponsibility of the wealthiest not the average person that should concern you and me.

By Paul Price on Tue, March 04, 2014 at 1:35 am

‘Committing to a global climate agreement among all countries by Paris 2015 is the first step.’ ~ Paul Price

Sorry Paul. Pigs will fly, first.

By Otter on Mon, March 03, 2014 at 4:23 pm

<i>The aim must surely be good quality of life for all not just access to the same over-consumption that has been and is enjoyed by the wealthy nations</i>

What “overconsumption”? What part of our lifestyles are you suggesting we give up?

Nice warm houses? Regular showers. Clean clothes?

Food, accommodation, education of children, medical bills, cleaning, transport to work etc take up the vast bulk of any normal Westerner’s budget. The amount we spend on “luxuries” is trivial as a percentage.

The idea we “overconsume” in large amounts is a fairy story. Perhaps 10% the average person’s budget is on plastic toys and overseas travel etc that the killjoys hate so much. Giving that up would not improve the life of the poor other than trivially.

To dramatically reduce the amount we live on, we would need to dramatically reduce important things like quality of food, medicine, education etc.

By Mooloo on Mon, March 03, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Anti-Growth advocates never spelled out how the “good quality of life for all” without “overconsumption” would look like. Are we allowed to take a shower every day. Are we permitted to wear clean cloth, stay in heated or cooled homes or offices? These are pretty much the aspirations of the poor today. We hear all the time that in the western world we will need to recycle (which is not free and takes energy at the minimum) and be more efficient. We are told to eat tofu instead of beef and drive Prius instead of SUVs. When all the savings form the advocated “austere” measures are added up, they pale compared to the growth that comes from the poor caching up. When I hear the term “overconsumption”, I wonder what are we talking about, is it ok to use toilet paper or Kleenex. How about rubber gloves in doctors office or disposable syringe?

By the time one adds up all that most of us would consider essential for civilized life the bulk part of our consumption in the developed world is probably justified and we cannot expect less for the remaining 2/3 of humanity which is poor than what we already enjoy in the western world.

So far the climate system showed far more stability than was anticipated, so using climate change as a motivation for rapid decarbonization is clearly a mistake. There are plenty of reasons do decarbonize the economy, where climate changes is definitely not the strongest one.

By Balazs Fekete on Mon, March 03, 2014 at 10:48 am

While agreeing that poor countries must play a very large role in determining the response to the limits of growth we face, this article is a classic of mis-direction.  Pielke argues that “to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor”, when in fact the real implication of limits to growth is that they challenge rich people to consume far less so that poor people can be ‘richer’. 

The aim must surely be good quality of life for all not just access to the same over-consumption that has been and is enjoyed by the wealthy nations as well as high income individuals or groups in both richer and poorer nations.

The reality is NOT “that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries.”  The reality is that, as IPCC AR5 WG1 states, there is a cumulative carbon budget roughly linearly causing the long term global raising of surface temperatures.  This is not like other resource scarcity issues where increasing costs can chase ever lower grade sources: a global carbon budget a hard limit.

If the economics of growth is not founded on such a known limit – for example the IPCC-defined remaining 1,000 GtCO2 for a 66% chance of limiting warming to 2ºC – and how this budget it is to be distributed, then it is the economics that has to change to account for the the implacable physics of the climate system, not the other way round as Pielke’s “iron law” would rustily have it.  This clearly makes the “economic” foundation of Pielke’s own argument collapse into the sand of “mathematical non sequiturs”.

Given Pielke’s continuing advocacy of his own ideological preference for business-as-usual growth economics and track record of preferring to underplay climate risk it is hardly surprising that he avoids any discussion of a need for wealthy individuals and corporations in all nations as well as all richer countries to radically reduce the consumption of high embodied carbon fuels, goods, food and services.

As the focus of the article seems to be to distract from an underlying message that there is little the wealthy are responsible for and does this by suggesting three pigeon-holes for his opponents I would ask whether this kind of article can be described as the work of an “honest broker”, the self-described category Pielke claims to belong to.  The subjective term implies evenhandedness and balanced reporting, neither of which are evident here.

If we realise that our economic “prosperity”, the stability of our societies and the health of all humans are a sub-set of a stable climate system, not the reverse, then we will take note of the overwhelming conclusion from the science that the level of climate risk is now very high and responsibility for mitigation and adaptation action lies first and most of all with the wealthy. 

Committing to a global climate agreement among all countries by Paris 2015 is the first step.

By Paul Price on Mon, March 03, 2014 at 7:26 am

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