Are There Limits to Limits?

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+/-It’s a debate that’s been with us at least since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: Is economic growth sustainable, or at some point will we run up against resource scarcities? In its crudest form, the discussion comes down to disagreement between Malthusians, who say that at some point we’ll overreach the planet’s carrying capacity, and Cornucopians, who argue that human ingenuity and technological progress will overcome physical limits. The debate has taken on new urgency today as global climate change and an ever-increasing human population put new strains on resources. John DeGraaf, director of the film Affluenza and writer of an accompanying book, says the market economy’s constant drive for growth is incompatible with a finite planet. Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, disagrees, and says that to be anti-growth is to argue for keeping poor people poor.

We Can’t Grow On

by John de Graaf

John de Graaf is a co-author of the recently reissued bestseller Affluenza, as well as What’s the Economy For Anyway? He is a member of the Earth Island Institute board of directors.

Is economic growth sustainable? Is it desirable? First, let’s define our terms. I’m speaking of material growth, more products for more people. Non-material “development” – including improvements in health, education, and leisure time – may well be sustainable and desirable. But further material growth, especially in rich countries, is much harder to justify.

The twentieth-century environmentalist David Brower pointed out that, since World War II, population and economic growth have resulted in greater material consumption than in all previous human history. In that period – one one-hundredth of a second if we compress the age of Earth into a single week – we have reduced our fisheries, fossil fuels, and soils by half while causing the extinction of countless species and dangerously changing the climate.

Consider what it means that we did this in the blink of the geological eye. There are those who believe what we’ve been doing for that last hundredth of a second can go on indefinitely. Those people are, Brower observed, considered reasonable and intelligent human beings. Indeed, they run our governments and industries. But they are stark raving mad.

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What do you think: Are there limits to growth?

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