What are the Limits to Growth?

A Call for Scientists to Speak Out About Economics.

It is a sad fact that most scientists have very little to say about economics. Perhaps it is because so many economic theories are unintelligible and seem to be allied to political movements that do not practice evidence-based policy formation.

Perhaps too, scientists are often beholden to corporate and government finance for their livelihoods. But, whatever the reasons, scientists are often very, very quiet when our politicians suggest that all our ills can be overcome by continued economic growth; regardless of the fact that we have limited resources at our disposal.

I think scientists need to speak out. Over the past 30 years, our politicians have almost grasped the idea that the resources we humans have at our disposal fall into two distinct categories, renewable and non-renewable; both categories provide limited inputs to our activities. Politicians have also almost realised that our outputs, including those that contribute to climate change and loss of habitats, must be limited to rates that enable our planetary systems to function and remain reasonably stable. Yet, inspite of their improved grasp of how and why human activities are governed by the laws of nature, most politicians seems to think that we should ignore entropic thermodynamics and simply go for growth as if such limits did not exist.

Let’s be clear. All activities require energy and there is no such thing as work-free activity; whatever we do, ‘stuff’ is required. Economic activity is not immune to the laws of physics. It is true that technology can vastly expand our economic horizons but we should not assume that such expansion can be cost-free in terms of entropic advancement; we do not know, for example, that if fusion can be made to work as an energy supply, what the consequences might be. If a fusion plant required vast inputs of materials and energy for its construction and safety systems, the advantages of extraordinary outputs might not be worth the physical costs of the capital endeavour. And even if those problems could be solved, what we do with the additional energy will impact our world to an astonishing degree. Besides, a viable future is perfectly possible with existing technology, without fusion, if only people would vote for it and campaign vigorously.

Even though mass and energy are, in the final analysis, transmutable one to the other, the global human population needs to live within existing technological and environmental limits until new technologies are tested as to their suitability for adoption. Remember the old nuclear power slogan, “energy too cheap to meter”?  With existing patterns of growth, our biosphere has been stretched almost beyond breaking point; climate change, peak oil, declining resources, a growing population and the appalling loss of our living bank of species and their habitats do not bode well for a future based on expanding the economic system of global consumerism that nearly all our politicians keep promoting.

I believe this is what we need to achieve over the next few years:

  • Improve the living standards of the poorest 3 billion people and reduce the over-consumption of the richest 3 billion people by promoting voluntary restraint in the rich communities and the free transfer of technology and resources to those poorer communities that require them. Timescale: 1 decade.
  • Stabilise the global human population to fewer than 10 billions without coercion, through education and family planning. Timescale: 2 decades.
  • Promote a gradual decline of the global population to around 5 billions without coercion through education and family planning. Timescale: 10 decades.
  • Promote science and technological research, particularly in the fields of renewable energy, food and clean water supply, maintaining habitats and disease prevention. Timescale: ongoing.
  • Promote the reduction in the production of heavy weapons such as nuclear weapons and other WMD systems. Timescale: ongoing.
  • Promote peace and secular democratic governance world-wide. Timescale: ongoing.

What we would end up with if we could involve citizens, scientists and politicians in the programme I have outlined is a steady-state global economy in which human activity was limited to the ability of our planetary systems to provide the necessary inputs and cope with the inevitable outputs. In short, we need citizens to sign up to an ethical and scientifically viable future.

Now many cynics will say that wars in the fight for resources, territories, religion and power will prevent such a future emerging; true, if we do nothing. But self fulfilling prophesies of doom are not helpful. Some will say that the problems are too big and can not be tackled. But let’s make one point very firmly: tackling these problems are all easy from a technical standpoint using current technologies, it is only the political will that is lacking. And if it is true that we citizens get the politicians we deserve then it is up to all of us to make our positions on these issues as clear as we can.

This isn’t about allying oneself to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ either; both arch-capitalist and hawkish socialist economics rely on three incorrect common assumptions. The first is that economic growth is essentially unlimited by the laws of physics because ‘human ingenuity’ somehow trumps scientific reality. The second is that redistribution of wealth happens ‘naturally’ by either ‘trickle down effect’ (right wing) or ‘state redistribution of the means of production and consumption’ (left wing). The third is that it is only military power and coercion that can transform society. In truth, both systems are dogmatic, undemocratic and in denial concerning the very concept of limits, let alone the reality of limits, and the power of an active citizenry.

So, break free of the dogmatic ‘left’ and ‘right’ boxes. Be a citizen.

We are not all cut out to be politicians but we can make it very clear who we might support by mass action in support of the things we care about.  In this age of relatively cheap mass communication via the internet (a luxury that might not last if corporations and nation states end up controlling content), we can make our voices heard. In terms of campaigning for a practical and ethical future, we need to use our time on the net and in our political action wisely. We are all busy living our lives and our time is valuable. So sign up to the things that matter. We all need to sign up to solving the root causes of our problems, not just to ameliorating symptoms.

It is perfectly natural to think that your small contribution to solving these vast global problems might not count. But every political action you take will influence another to act too. It is worth remembering that only 30 years ago, environmentalists attempting to promote further research into climate change and global warming were thought of as cranks but now 90% of scientists support the proposition that we need to act to prevent the problem escalating. Likewise, we need to heavily support the concept of a stable-state economy.

We also need to ditch ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing politics for good. Over the last 100 years, modern capitalism and socialism have not brought peace and prosperity to all. Neither of these economic systems work.  It is time to change the way we look at economics and scientists should be clear about the thermodynamic truth that there are limits to growth; limits that we exceed with every passing year as our failing planet sends us a message that we can no longer ignore.

Nick Nakorn

Buckfastleigh, England, September 2010

Go to www.sirisuk.org and sign the Sirisuk Declaration


About Nick Nakorn

This is the blog of a concerned citizen.
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8 Responses to What are the Limits to Growth?

  1. Dave Gardner says:

    Thank you for the work you’re doing, Nick. We need more of you (and fortunately the ranks of people who understand limits to growth are growing – ironically I know – every day)!

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the non-profit documentary
    Hooked on Growth

  2. CASSE says:

    Very nice job, Nick. In fact, how would you like to be a Chapter Director with CASSE? This is a new initiative for CASSE: http://steadystate.org/meet/local-chapters/ .

    Good to see Dave Gardner on your list, too.

    Also, let’s ask your readers to sign the position on economic growth: http://steadystate.org/sign-the-position/ .

    Keep up the good work!


    Brian Czech, President
    Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

  3. Nick Nakorn says:

    many thanks for your kind words and encouragement. I’ll e-mail you.

  4. Nick Nakorn says:

    By the way, have you signed Sirisuk? let me know if you do.
    best wishes

  5. I agree with much of this and while I would always support anything which aims to increase education and promote science and research, I fail to see how we are likely to achieve the above stated goals, especially within the time frames listed.
    I am not trying to be a cynic or a contrarian, I am genuinely interested in how you believe we should begin to make the shift from the current modes of thinking.
    For example, I highly doubt there being a way to stem population growth without coercion even with high levels of education and family planning measures.
    I think that as commendable as the above is, it fails to take into account the reality of human nature, while we are neither inherently bad or inherently good we are tribalistic and for the most part irrational. What is proposed is much more than a mere shift in political perception it is a change to the very core of what has made humans so successful.

  6. Nick Nakorn says:

    Jo, you might very well be right. I don’t claim that it is hugely likely that the changes I have suggested will in fact come about in the time-frames I have indicated, but I do claim that they need to come about if further suffering on a huge scale is to be avoided.

    I’ve just listened to the “All in The Mind” podcast on the Plymouth Humanists Facebook page and I find my views very much in line with Stephen Pinker concerning the basis of human nature. Human Nature does not include a fixed behavioural template governed by criteria that are immutable and homogenous; as individuals and as social groups we are extraordinarily adaptable. Adaptable because we are sentient and can make individual choices and adaptable because we can achieve collectively what might be impossible individually. Indeed, as I mentioned in the bar after the ‘Disputables’ meeting, the way many things function socially, technically and politically have changed out of all recognition even in my lifetime. When I was a kid the rag-and-bone man arrived by horse and cart in rural Essex and we could travel by steam train; instant communication was limited to the telephone or telex – even the telegram relied on a piece of paper being delivered. Black people were still disenfranchised in much of the United States, South Africa was still operating an Apartheid system, homosexuality was illegal in the UK, women did not get equal pay, one had to ‘prove’ infidelity to get a divorce, women in the UK marrying Chinese men lost their UK citizenship and their husbands were rounded up by force and deported and the most sophisticated computer available was a slide-rule (I still have mine somewhere).

    So while we are often tribal and irrational as a species (and there are some good evolutionary advantages to having those traits) we do not have to behave in a tribal and irrational way if we choose not to; particularly when the evolutionary advantages of co-operation and rationalism are presented by changes in environmental, and thus social, circumstances. Clearly, the extent to which some individuals are prone to sociopathic actions varies and yet some of us can agree, for example, that rape is unacceptable or that infanticide combined with cannibalism is not sanctioned within the human cohort. Yet we share those behavioural traits with our close primate cousins, the chimpanzees.

    Population is of course one of the most difficult of social issues to address and there is much technical discussion around the carrying capacity of the planet. But while the upper figure (18 billion) that has been proposed over the last 30 years by many theorists might be realistic in a perfect world, we know that we have immense difficulty adequately feeding current numbers; indeed when I was a kid the population was under 3 billion of which about 1 billion was in absolute poverty. But stabilising the population without coercion is completely possible; one can argue about the details of the Demographic Transition model but changes in welfare, education and access to contraception can have very rapids results. Some Indian states are shaking off the patriarchy of the past and have stabilised their populations even while India itself grows apace. It isn’t happening across the globe but it needs to happen and it’s completely possible.

    So I think you are right to be sceptical. But while one can say that if your mind is too open your brains are likely to fall out, one might also say that good intentions butter no parsnips. If something is technically possible the only reasons for doing them or not doing them are political. In my view, we collectively turn many feasible projects into failures by the self fulfilling prophecy of ‘it’ll never work’.
    Naturally, not everything we sign our names to ends up working but we can be absolutely sure that the campaigns no-one supports will definitely not be enacted.

    • growthbuster says:

      Brilliant response above, Nick! By the way, the GrowthBusters movie has premiered, and is now available for folks to order. Community screenings are being organized by everyday citizens from New Zealand to Great Britain!

      Dave Gardner

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