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Know your limits!


As European countries struggle to return to growth, Martin Lack reminds us that this is a finite world with finite resources

Geoscientist 21.11 December 2011/January 2012

The accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole objective of many people in modern society; and perpetual growth is posited as a means whereby even the poorest might achieve it. The former World Bank economist Herman Daly called this “growthmania”.

David Mackay’s book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air is dedicated to “...those who will not have the benefit of two billion years’ accumulated energy reserves”. This immediately focuses the reader’s mind on what Meadows et al. called “the predicament of mankind” in their immensely influential Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome in 1972.

In the first chapter of Small is Beautiful – a study of economics as if people mattered, E F Schumacher described our predicament as being deluded that we have solved what he called “the problem of production”. This is the problem that production and consumption are inextricably linked to population and/or economic growth and, like it or not, we live on a finite planet with finite mineral resources and finite ecological carrying capacity. This is the starting point for organisations like the Optimum Population Trust, which has spent much of the last 20 years arguing with those who deny there is a problem. However, as John Dryzek puts it: “The driver of an accelerating car about to hit a brick wall might well say ‘so far so good’ – but that does not mean that the wall is not there.”

Proponents of ‘sustainable development’ and/or ‘ecological modernisation’ would have us believe that we can decouple environmental degradation from economic development, but this still does not acknowledge that perpetual growth is unsustainable. In 1994, Julian Simon claimed that “humanity now has the ability (or knowledge) to make it possible to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years.” However, the stupidity of such an assertion was exposed two years later by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who pointed out that if growth did not decline from 1994 levels it would take less than 2000 years for the mass of the human population to equal the mass of Earth.

Neil Carter suggests that ‘dematerialisation’ (the reduction of environmental resources consumed per unit of production) in manufacturing processes is essential. This may be true, but dematerialisation alone cannot deal with the problem of resource depletion unless the increase in unit efficiency is always greater than the increase in unit production; something that is impossible to sustain indefinitely.

Although many sceptics have denounced those who warn that humankind’s environmental bank account is seriously overdrawn, nothing has happened in the last 40-odd years to invalidate the Limits to Growth hypothesis: Annual percentage growth in anything, however small, is still exponential. I believe it is time we stopped denying this and acted accordingly.

As Herman Daly pointed out: “...the Earth may be developing; but it is not growing”. Therefore, economic growth cannot always be the answer to our problems. In fact, our predicament is that growth is our ultimate problem.
  • Martin Lack CGeol FGS is the author of the ‘Lack of Environment blog - on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems’ (