Economic growth is the opiate of the people


Karl Marx thought it was religion, and there is indeed a compelling case to be made there.  But then, modern economics has many of the trappings of a religion.  It is assuredly faith-based, and its tenets also appear largely impervious to transparently contradictory empirical data.

The “opiate of the people” analogy is admittedly not perfect — the dream of never-ending economic growth would be less an opiate than a stimulant, and it applies less to the proletariat than to a certain (majority) cadre of economists with an inordinate influence over the world’s power-brokers. Be all that as it may . . .

There is a thoughtful essay on this subject by John Feeney of the “Growth is Madness” blog just published in the BBC’s Green Room series.  The gist of John’s message:

“We have to rethink the corporate economic growth imperative. On a finite planet, the physical component of economic growth cannot continue forever. In fact, it has gone too far already. As a promising alternative, the field of ecological economics offers the ‘steady state economy'”.

Coincidentally, Kurt Cobb has just published an article making a very similar point, titled “Should scientists embrace economic growth?”, on Scitizen.  Maybe the train is at last starting to roll on this issue.  And, with any luck, Bjorn Lomborg will soon be under its wheels.

This is a complex subject with predictable poles of argument.  On the one hand, it is an undeniable physical fact that the earth is of finite size, with a finite supply of fossil fuels, finite quantities of water and many other critical resources, and even a finite (that is, relatively constant in time) supply of solar energy coming in to keep the whole wheel turning.  It follows from these constraints and from very basic, empirically unshakable principles of population biology that human population and natural resource use cannot continue growing indefinitiely.  Let’s call this the “physical constraints” principle.  It is somewhat less obvious but nevertheless true that the ceiling on population and resource use also places a ceiling, ultimately, on economic growth as well, since economic growth essentially can be considered a metabolic rate of human society.  Yet, astonishingly, unending economic growth is the unstated — and sometimes even explicit — assumption of mainstream economic theory. How can this be?

At the other pole, the “Human progress” proponent will argue that this view of physical constraints is hopelessly pessimistic and naive.  Humans, they will say, have transcended physical constraints through the sheer power of intellect and creativity, and will cite the tremendous force of collective human ingenuity that has increased our standard of living at an accelerating rate over the centuries in ways that would have been thought impossible before.  Past progress, the argument goes, suggests that we will always find new innovative ways to solve our problems: “Get out of the way, whining weaklings! The invisible hand of the market will lead the world to a bright new future where there’s a chicken in every pot and a hybrid hummer in every garage! Yes, even in China!”  That’s a lot of hummers.  And not only that but we can have clear skies and healthy forests as the Bush administration’s cleverly misnamed initiatives imply. And our cake and eat it too!

Our economies have always maintained an upward trajectory in the past, the infinite progress advocate will argue, because we’ve found new resources and technologies when old ones became scarce or obsolete.  To some degree, yes.  But the main way of doing that was a sort of global scale slash-and-burn approach.  Europe exhausted and wasted by the Black Death?  Head west and find a new continent or two!  No more trees for ship masts in Massachusetts?  Head for Ohio!  No more land in Iowa to grow biofuels?  Let’s convert the Bornean rainforest to oil-palm monocultures!  And so on. Perhaps you can see where I’m headed with this.  In the past, humanity could always rely on the “externality”, as economists call it, of essentially infinite resources, and infinite capacity to dump wastes, outside the present economy.  But there is little question that those days are drawing to a close.  There is no frontier left.  Not on this planet anyway.  And that is something we have never had to deal with before in human history — verily, there is something new under the sun.

crowded_earth.gifTo be fair, there is some truth to the ‘human progress” view of things.  Clearly, humans do have tremendous ingenuity, we have made previously inconceivable strides in standards of living and technology, and we do have some (albeit decidedly mixed) track record of solving difficult problems. And some aspects of these arguments indeed seem superficially to contradict the hard-nosed view of the world based on physical constraints.  But it’s not so simple.  These considerations may well change the date that the debt comes due, and maybe even its magnitude, but they do not alter the fundamental fact that we as a global society are in ecological debt and going deeper by the day.  To take an extreme example: even if, against all odds, currently unknown technologies can make us infinitely efficient in producing food and recycling water and so on, there is a brick-wall physical limit to the number of 50-kilogram warm-blooded mammals (i.e., us) that can stand abreast of one another on the surface of the earth.  I am not suggesting that we are likely to reach that limit, but the larger point is that at some point, we will approach “carrying capacity” in the parlance of ecology, and outstrip the planet’s ability to support us.  No amount of technology can wipe away this fundamental fact. Indeed, some would argue that we’re already there.  We just haven’t yet noticed the past-due bill in the mailbox.

oilrefinery.jpgThe problem with the infinite progress argument is that, despite (or perhaps because of) its appealing and hopeful message, it has yet to be made in a rigorous, empirically based way.  There is of course a simple reason for this — it can’t be.  Instead it is usually offered in something more closely resembling a religious sermon that plays on human emotion and pride and glosses over the inconvenient truth (to coin a phrase) of this planet’s physical constraints.  The infinite progress argument is deconstructed in considerable detail, and with merciless wit, by the economist Herman Daly in chapter 5 (“A Catechism of Growth Fallacies“) of his book Steady-State Economics: Second Edition with New Essays (Washington: Island Press, 1991). A sample:

“Environmental degradation is an iatrogenic disease induced by the economic physicians who attempt to treat the basic sickness of unlimited wants by prescribing unlimited production. We do not cure a treatment-induced disease by increasing the treatment dosage! Yet members of the hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you school, who reason that it is impossible to have too much of a good thing, can hardly cope with such subtleties. If an overdose of medicine is making us sick, we need an emetic, not more of the medicine. Physician, heal thyself.”

As Mahatma Gandhi presciently observed, when asked whether India would attain British standards of living:

“ It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve its prosperity; how many planets will a country like India require?

So what’s the solution?  Fortunately, better thinkers than I (including Daly) have pondered this issue in some depth.  There is a growing field of ecological economics that seeks to reconcile the human enterprise with the finite world in which we live. You can start here.


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Education, Politics, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Economic growth is the opiate of the people

  1. Pingback: photowinks » Blog Archive » Economic growth is the opiate of the people

  2. Well said. I think this will be the biggest challenge of the 21st century. Hopefully we can pay the past due bill before some knee breaking collection thugs smash through our door.

  3. John Feeney says:

    Hi Emmett,

    Thanks for the nod. And it’s great to see you tackle this topic! It seems rethinking the problem of economic growth is going to be one of the essentials in making our way to sustainability.

    I loved this line:

    “Maybe the train is at last starting to roll on this issue. And, with any luck, Bjorn Lomborg will soon be under its wheels.” :-)

    I read recently, by the way, that Lomborg kind of got started on his current track after reading some stuff by Julian Simon. Simon was of course the ultimate “cornucopian,” completely irrational in my view, but someone who did influence many others.

  4. Emmett Duffy says:

    Hi John. Your article got me inspired on the subject. As an ecologist, the growth religion of economics has always baffled me — I had thought that I must be missing something important in the argument. But I think the opposite is true — economics is missing something important.

    If my readers have not yet visited John’s blog, Growth is Madness, I highly recommend it.

  5. Pingback: An economic growth FAQ from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy « Growth is Madness!

  6. Nucbuddy says:

    (I used the tags incorrectly. Trying this again.)

    there is a brick-wall physical limit to the number of 50-kilogram warm-blooded mammals (i.e., us) that can stand abreast of one another on the surface of the earth.”

    Why wouldn’t they simply use multi-story buildings? Have you read this?:

    if each person were to have to himself or herself two rooms measuring l5 feet by l5 feet — a great many people patently do not feel crowded in luxury apartments with that much space, which is many times more space than Abraham Lincoln had in the log cabin in which he grew up — and if high-rise housing were built to well below the height of the Sears Building in Chicago or the World Trade Tower in New York or even the Empire State Building, l55 million people could live on Manhattan Island and l.59 billion within the land area of New York City, even leaving 20% of the land area for streets, parks, and buildings other than housing.