Biophysical limits to growth

Biophysical limits to growthClive Spash (WU Vienna University)

Wednesday 6th July, 10.00-11.30, UAB Campus


The phrase “limits to growth” (LTG) was popularised by the publication of a small book by Meadows et al. (1972) that created some public debate and aggressive responses from economists. This work highlighted the conflict between expecting human systems to meet the imperative of economic growth and the biophysical limits posed by pollution absorption capacity, food production systems and resource availability.

LTG pleaded for profound, proactive, societal innovation through technological, cultural, and institutional change in order to avoid an increase in the ecological footprint of humanity beyond the carrying capacity of planet Earth.” (Meadows, Randers, and Meadows 2005: x)

Yet to believe the LTG book was a unique critique would be highly misleading. Rather it came at the time of an energy crisis with resource power struggles affecting the supply of oil to the industrially developed Western nations and it appeared in the context of a range of critical perspectives on the interactions between society, economy and ecology.

The problems of economic growth was in fact a message being put forward on several fronts by a variety of economists, but in different ways than the modelling approach of LTG that seems to have so annoyed mainstream economists (Georgescu-Roegen 2009 [1975]: 348-349), who seemingly could ignore non-modelling approaches. Boulding (1966) had produced a widely cited essay emphasising limits. There was work on thermodynamics and economics (Kneese, Ayres, and d’Arge 1970; Georgescu-Roegen 1971) and the implications this had for restricting the economy to a stationary state (Daly 1972, 1973; Daly 1974; Daly 1977b, a). Economic growth itself was being attacked for failing to meet its promise with the myth of consumer sovereignty (e.g., Mishan 1969; Kapp 1971) and American corporate capitalism creating the false illusion of private affluence amidst public squalor (Galbraith 2007 [1967]). This led beyond biophysical limits into the realisation that there were also social limits to what growth might offer (Hirsch 1977; Easterlin 1974). Yet all this promising critique became sidelined in the neoliberal 1980s as the discourse was changed as exemplified by Gro Bruntland’s 1987 report promising sustainable development where superior growth for all could be undertaken alongside environmental quality improvements and poverty reduction (World Commission on Environment and Development 1991).

 In reality, thirty years after the LTG, the basic scenario was being fulfilled (Turner 2008). For many, human induced climate change has brought the message home. A returning LTG thesis is evident in discourses based upon carrying capacity as encapsulated in the guise of ecological footprints (Wackernagel and Rees 1997; Wackernagel et al. 1999; Rees 1996) and “planetary boundaries” (Rockström et al. 2009). These combine with critiques of the failure to address poverty via trickle down, and the meaningless character of ever increasing material wealth and consumption. However, the potential for a politically unsavoury side to carry capacity has arisen in the form of racial discrimination and immigration policy aimed at maintaining wealth for the richest countries and elitist groupings within them. This is exemplified by the Carrying Capacity Network, with its links to American white supremacists (Muradian 2006: 210). Unfortunately ecological economists (e.g. Daly, Rees, Costanza) have been found supporting this organisation (Spash 2015b). Then there is the promotion of technocracy by promoters of the planetary boundaries because they argue scientists and engineers are best placed to define the limits and offer the technological solutions in the age of the anthropocence (see Spash 2015a). Jorgen Randers, one of the original LTG authors, advocates an ecological modernisation approach which he sees as requiring an enlightened dictatorship (for him Chinese authoritarianism is a positive example) because he believes democracy has failed to address environmental problems and specifically human induced climate change (Confino 2015). So conceptualising the limits to growth requires addressing the social (ethical, political), ecological and economic crises.



References Cited

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