Live Well, Do Good

Limits to Growth in a Finite World

Brandon Sun, February 4, 2013 - David McConkey

In today’s uncertain economic times, the question lurks: Will Canada and other countries slide into another recession?

But a bigger question is usually left unasked: “How can we keep growing in a finite world?”

A recession is usually defined as two consecutive quarters (of a year) with negative economic growth. During the recent economic meltdown, Canada and the U.S. both experienced a recession.

The Canadian economy contracted about 3.5% and the American economy about 4%. The resulting unemployment and dislocation caused politicians of all stripes to advocate growing the economy to ensure that we don’t go into another recession.

But, again, the question: “How can we keep growing in a finite world?”
The notion of limits has been around for a while. In 1798, British thinker Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus thought that people were inevitably headed for starvation because food production would not increase as much as population. But so far (by and large), food production has kept pace with population.

In the 1960s and early 70s, we began to realize that there was an “environment” around us that imposed some limits on human behaviour. A seminal book was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. A significant response by governments was to establish departments of the environment.

There was also the beginning of environmental activism. Stewart Brand (later of Whole Earth Catalog fame) lobbied NASA to release to the public the photos from outer space that had been taken of Earth.

The pictures were released. Humankind would never be the same after seeing those photos of our planet as a blue marble in space.

The first Earth Day celebrations were held. And the idea that our lifestyles could have a global impact was explored in such books as Frances LappĂ©’s Diet for a Small Planet.

The Club of Rome think tank published Limits to Growth. This report emphasized how natural resources – such as metals – were limited and would eventually stop economic growth. But skeptics replied that new resources would be found and that new technologies would be developed.

In the late 1980s, three new concepts about limits came into common awareness.

The first concept, peak oil, was similar to earlier concerns about resource limits. But this focused on one crucial finite resource: petroleum. There was no agreement, however, about when we would reach the point after which oil production would go into permanent decline.

The second was more hopeful: sustainable development. This involved an integrated vision of economic development that meets the needs of people today without jeopardizing the needs of people in the future. This concept is widely embraced today, although often more in theory than in practice.
The third was new: global warming, now usually referred to as climate change. That human production of greenhouse gases is affecting the planet’s climate is now widely accepted by scientists, but not as much by citizens or politicians.

Unfortunately, our track record of dealing with limits is not good. Despite the tremendous wealth of the U.S. and Canada, for example, we cannot easily handle even a small reduction in economic growth. The recent Great Recession showed that.

And our heeding of warnings is not good either. Remember the collapse of the fishery in Newfoundland 20 years ago? Before the collapse, the usual arguments: of course, we couldn't limit fishing as the people depend on their jobs, the region depends on a growing economy, we have always fished that way. The denials continued right until the whole fishery collapsed. (It has still not recovered.)
If we don’t want such a collapse of our whole economy and way of life, then we need to start discussing limits to growth. The challenge is to discover how to have fulfilling lives within planetary limits.

Two factors, however, stand in the way of having this broader discussion about limits and our future.

The first is that the public (and politicians) are reluctant to think about limits when there is worry about the economy and another recession.

The second is that a large proportion of the public – conservative right-wing folks – are deeply skeptical of science and facts from “university types.”

As an example, a study by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. found that there is a major left / right political divide regarding the science of climate change. 

Left-wingers are more informed by science. And among left-wingers who are college educated, there is an even higher level of acceptance of the science of climate change.

The opposite is the case for right-wingers. And among right-wingers who are college educated, there is even less acceptance of the science of climate change.

* * * 

See also:

Sustainable Development on     (on

The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy to Lie About Climate Change Has Worked

Youth May Soon Lead Change 

The End of Growth?

Learning to Step Lightly 

Live Well, Do Good 

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