If Something Can't Go On, Sooner Or Later, It Probably Won't

The New Economic Foundation's Report on the infeasibility of continued economic growth is yet another bit of analysis that points out the obvious - we have radically overdrawn our resources and that has consequences. One of them is that we can't draw down natural resources infinitely. The other is that infinite economic growth is (duh) not possible. It also observes that continued economic growth isn't actually benefitting most of the people we ostensibly care about benefitting:

...Why growth isn't working
Between 1990 and 2001, for every $100 worth of growth in the world's income per person, just $0.60, down from $2.20 the previous decade, found its target and contributed to reducing poverty below the $1-a-day line.38 A single dollar of poverty reduction took $166 of additional global production and consumption, with all its associated environmental impacts. It created the paradox that ever smaller amounts of poverty reduction amongst the poorest people of the world required ever larger amounts of conspicuous consumption by the rich.

In the end, it is economic growth that most stymies our attempts at stabilizing the climate and reducing our energy usage. We are enslaved to an economy that must grow, or enter crisis. And weighing the odds of an international movement to a steady-state economy versus discovering this the hard way, I have to say, I'm betting on hard way.


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This is the one issue that gets my goat the most about people. I cannot get how intelligent people don't get limits. I am so frustrated that it is setting my hair on fire! What is it about finite that makes intelligent people not see this!!!???
Just had to vent-- Karen

@Karen: the only (even vaguely) compelling explanation I've ever seen here is that it is seated in a deep belief in technology & progress. The argument goes that, while of course there are physical limits to physical processes, there is NO limit to human ingenuity, technological capabilities, and overall march onward and upward. So we're almost out of oil? So what, we'll come up with an alternative fuel. So we're running out of water? We'll create new water efficiencies, or new filtering methods, or get it off the moon, or whatever. All a crisis is, all limits are, in this picture are ways to force our natural ability to overcome adversity really kick in.

Now, don't misunderstand me, I think this is nonsense. Even Adam Smith, that much-maligned economist whose work founded our growth capitalist system (and who, I think, is probably spinning in his grave over what we've done) didn't believe in true limitless growth. He did postulate it for the purposes of his economic work, but said at the same time that of course this isn't feasible, but for the foreseeable future they had functionally limitless resources (and this was in the 1700's). So I fault him for setting up an economic system that he knew at the time would hit limits, and consciously ignored them, but he was the product of his time. How modern economists get past this.... well, there's the above line, which still makes my head spin. Or, maybe, they're all just nuts. Yeah, that seems more likely, actually.

Robyn, I think both you and Sharon misunderstand the argument from the other side. It's not that advances in technology can always replace resources, but that advances in technology can lead to practical benefit even when resource consumption is constant or declining. The practical benefit from advancing technology is economic growth. Think of cell phones instead of POTS lines and old-fashioned rotary dials, with their hundreds of feet of copper wire just to ring the bell. Do cell phones consume more tons of stuff or more joules than the older technology? No. In fact, less. Are they better? Yes.

Now yeah, that doesn't work for ever after. In a billion years, the earth will lose its atmosphere. Another billion after that, the sun will turn into a red giant. Sometime later, the universe grows large and cold.

But looking at the shorter term, can humans a thousand years from now live better than they do today? I think it's quite likely, even though they won't be consuming 80 million barrels of oil every day. The argument isn't that technology will replace X barrels of oil with Y barrels of something else, or at least, not only that forever and ever, but that technology will continue to provide practical improvement. Economic benefit isn't measured in tonnes or joules.

To put it another way, saying economic growth will stop is the same as saying that people a thousand years from now will be worse off than they are today. And yeah, that might be so. The future is hard to predict. But at least, get the argument right. A prediction of economic decline has to be about practical benefit. The prediction needs to argue that science and technology either will stop their progress, or fail to yield further practical benefits, or that whatever practical benefits they do provide will be trumped by other problems. Economic decline means we as a species start to fail. Anything else -- any suggestion for "here's how to make the future brighter" -- is in fact a plan for economic growth.

I'm not sure what one does if one fully believes the future is bleak, and that there is nothing that can be done about that. Activism would seem silly. What's the point? To forestall the decline a little bit?

I disagree with Russell that any plan to 'make the future brighter' involves economic growth. I think he very much confuses consumption with happiness. Even more economical consumption is consumption, and Jeavon's paradox applies here -- if you make something more efficient, then we as the humans we are will end up using more of it than before it was efficient.

Economic decline does not mean failure as a species, any more than population overshoot for any other species does. It means that we overshot our limits and must learn to make do with less until the environment and our consumption come back into balance. Unfortunately, from everything I've read that means we have to go back to approximately the 1830's regarding per person resource usage.

I do think the future is bleak, if by bleak you mean endless recession, interruptions in supplies of commodities, and general lowering of the standard of living in Western nations. I do everything I can anyway to live my beliefs, to pass on the tools to make a difference to my co-workers, my friends, and my family. To do less is unethical and immoral, in my personal world view. But. Do I think that bleakness is bad? No, of course not! I view it as a great opportunity to connect with people, to develop relationships that are mutually beneficial and emotionally satisfying, and of course maddening as all relationships are at times.

And by the way, technological progress HAS essentially come to a halt. When was the last truly new and lifestyle changing breakthrough? IPods? Nah. Not the Iphone, they are only building on previous technology. And their 'benefits' are arguable. While their other problems are large. I think penicillin was probably the last truly earth shaking, life changing technology we had.

The BBC had as one of their top news stories on Sunday that a world economic forum had stated bluntly that endless economic growth is not compatible with living on a finite planet, and that governments who look to eternal growth to fund their projects had better look at a more steady state model.

One of the reasons the belief in endless economic growth is so ingrained in Americans (and some other nationalities) is that any turn away from growth and toward a steady-state economy would require a major redistribution, not just of wealth and income, but of power in society. Redistribution is just so totally out of the question to the ruling elites in this country that they have invested literally billions (maybe hundreds of billions) in universities, public education, public relations, and advertising over the last century to turn the idea of redistribution in the public mind into something the devil is trying to deliver from hell.

People have been taught to believe that growth is the only way to have a better life, that getting a fairer share simply isn't in the cards. This becomes quite clear when the idea of a steady-state economy is broached. The first response (especially in a public, as opposed to an academic or policy forum) is, without fail, "If we don't have economic growth, then the poor will never have a chance for a better life."

So, in the worldview which has become all but ubiquitous, economic growth = a better life. Steady-state economy = stagnation and poverty. No other options. Which one are most people going to choose?

What sometimes amuses and often annoys me is how the growth mantra underpins all economic conversations in the US. Even a media outlet like NPR has a baseline pro-growth (and so by default pro-imperialism) stance. It is maddening.

Russell, it is true that cell phones do use slightly fewer resources per phone. But are those tiny refinements really enough, given the scale of the difficulties? Because it isn't an overall improvement - and despite a 20% overall efficiency increase in household appliances in 30 years (for example) we still consume more energy with our appliance because there are more of them. Not only is 20% in 30 years minute in comparison to what would be needed for climate change, say, but it also didn't result in any net reduction in usage - largely because of the imperative to grow. We can refine things, but as long as we need to grow, the consumption of resources goes up overall. Now it is perfectly possible, with great care and a somwhat different system than the present one to imagine that our refinements would actually lead to a decline in resource usage - but at what scale? 20% over 30 years - not even in the ballpark for dealing with climate change - for getting from 387ppm to 350. Most scenarios suggest that we would need to drop emissions by more than 90% and quite rapidly, within the next two decades. Several, like the U Victoria study suggest we need a 100% reduction in industrial emissions. Best estimates suggest that conversion in under 20 years would be nigh-impossible, unless we went to a war footing. But even then, we don't manufacture replacement batteries, dig metals or heat homes with solar electricity.

I think it is easy to underestimate the scale of what we would need innovation to be able to do. It is no exaggeration to say that human innovation has never done so much - period. So it seems like the burden of proof that we can radically exceed all prior rates of transformation ought to be on the pro-growth analysts.


Thank you!! My husband and I have been saying for years that economic growth as a status quo won't work in the long run. People think we're nuts. This post was very helpful indeed.

Susan, it's not that "that any plan to 'make the future brighter' involves economic growth," but that any plan that makes the future brighter is economic growth. People are willing to pay for a brighter future. Economic growth is a measure of that exchange. Much of the miscommunication on this issue involves a fundamental misunderstanding of terms. Consider these two alternate definitions:

Economic growth(1) = more tonnes and BTUs consumed

Economic growth(2) = sum total of people's subjective evaluation of improved circumstance

The first is what concerns people talking about resource limits. The second is what concerns economists.

Now, people being the kind of biological organism that we are, how we perceive our circumstance clearly depends on whether we get enough food to eat, water to drink, etc. People need a base level calories, and 252 calories make a BTU. But for Americans today, a lot of what counts in the economy, from make-overs to entertainment, come at the pointy end of Maslow's hierarchy.

So yeah, if you believe that the future is going to bring a great die-off where much of the current population starves, then you believe economic growth is doomed. No question about it. The retracting economy in that scenario would be a measure of how much bleaker things get. But if you think there is some path toward a brighter alternative than how we live today, then you too believe in economic growth.

Susan, you seem to be suggesting that the future is bleak, regardless of what we do. Is that correct?

Oops, that last question was intended for Sharon, not Susan. Mea culpa.

Russell, I think you are using "economic growth" in an atypical way. Most people, including most economists mean by "economic growth" that the economy actually expands and produces more goods and services. In fact, because of our heavy reliance on debt, effectively, if the economy doesn't grow enough to keep up with interest payments, we enter an economic crisis. This is how I'm using the term, in the mainstream way.

The steady state economists linked to above actually make a similar case to yours - that it is possible to have improved quality of life without economic growth, in a steady-state economy. But this is not easy to achieve. So yes, I think that it is possible that some elements of quality of life could improve for many people, in a best cases scenario in which we addressed climate change, our dependence on debt and energy depletion. I doubt that most people would think that the short term adjustments were easy, but they might think they were worth it in the correct scenario.

What, however, do you think the odds are of shifting to such a society - in time to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change and depletion? I think they are minute - you'd probably need a world-wide debt Jubilee to begin with, and a shift to climate solutions that aren't even on the table in the most enlightened nations, and a level of voluntary constraint that seems unlikely to me. If you can think of a compelling way in which that is likely to happen, I'd certainly be all for it.

But the failure of Copenhagen, the massive expansion of a debt burden, etc... are pretty clear indications that we're not going to respond in time. Which means that future generations are facing pretty nasty situations. The Stern report, which is actually based on higher climate gas numbers than we now know to be safe predicts that by mid-century in an unchecked climate change scenario, we may be spending 20% of World GDP on climate change remediation. Certainly in that situation many people would die, but the majority probably wouldn't - but they also probably wouldn't have nice things to say about their quality of life over the past.


Sharon, I think I'm using the terms as most economists understand it. Consider the phrase "more goods and services." To an economist, a good or service is anything at all that someone values, and "more" is measured not just in quantity, but also in quality. "More" includes "better."

Or to put it another way, I don't see how it's possible to have "improved quality of life .. in a steady-state economy," any more than it's possible to have increasing average temperature of a cooling body. The improvement is economic growth. Think of any specific improvement, from a better way to garden to a better urban architecture. The former will involve people spreading the idea, selling any tools that are useful to it, and explaining the benefit. Lo! New economic activity. The latter will involve some revision of old architecture (or new construction), and people buying or leasing different residences, workplaces, recreational places. Lo! New economic activity.

Here's my question: what kind of improvement is imagined that would not also be new economic activity? The only thing that really comes to my mind that would count as that would be a shift in leisure preference.

Sharon- I'll leave Russell in your capable hands. And, to go on record for once on the opposite side; there are those over at TAE who think I see all counter-opinion people as paid disruptors. Russell does not read that way; he seems highly intelligent, and informed- just, alas, a Zoroastrian amongst a crowd of Catholics. Metaphorically. :-)

Russell- I'm an ecologist. We deal in tracing the flow of resources, through changing populations, over time. Too.

I don't know ANY top academic ecologist who isn't astounded at the obvious fallacies embraced by the "science" of economics.

Ecologists as individuals have been saying for decades that "growth", as used by economists, equates to a positive feedback loop- which is lethal to any system which generates it; always.

What irritates me (slightly, since I know this IS how it works) is that the press has paid no attention to these collective statements by ecologists; until now, when some recently whomped up "think tank" comes up with exactly the same stuff.

It's worth keeping in mind- "economics" has failed; repeatedly and completely, in the past several years. They didn't control the economy; they didn't see the collapse coming, and they didn't know how to deal with it (or we'd have a few more jobs these days).

Maybe it's time to look elsewhere for understanding how resources actually work?

Or, metaphorically again; you need to have your dog trained.

World Famous Nobel Prize In Dog Training Professor #1 agrees to take you on. You go to see his operation:

He has multiple dogs in school, and tells you: "Watch this, I'll tell him to come; and sit".

He tells the dog; and the dog ignores him. All afternoon. He tells you; "Come back tomorrow, he'll come and sit then, for sure."

You say, "I'll get back to you!" - and go to check out Professor #2; who is a person who trains 50 different kinds of animals, not a dog specialist, and not famous for dogs.

At Professor #2's school; he says "Come. Sit." and the dog comes, and sits. Pretty much every time.

The $2.9 Trillion Question: which Professor do you hire to train your dog? Which one do you listen to closely when they "explain" how dogs think?


Greenpa, if you want to say economics has failed, you need at least to know what economists say. "They didn't control the economy"? They didn't claim to. "They didn't see the collapse coming?" Well, see, the fact that there aren't reliable predictions of collapses is something that economists claim. Saying that somehow disproves economics is like saying physics has failed because no one has yet invented a perpetual motion machine!

Oh, Russell. Yep, religion is blinding.

" "They didn't control the economy"? They didn't claim to.

Um. What?? Greenspan- didn't claim to be keeping things under control?? Sure seemed that way to - oh- everybody on the planet. Were the economists saying something else in the back rooms? They might have spoken up.

"They didn't see the collapse coming?" Well, see, the fact that there aren't reliable predictions of collapses is something that economists claim.

Um, no. See, there WERE plenty of people who said "look out, the sky is going to fall." But mainstream people ignored them. Ever heard of Roubini? Whitney? And those were just the insiders. There were tons of people outside academic economics saying "this is all going to fall down, soon."

Saying that somehow disproves economics is like saying physics has failed because no one has yet invented a perpetual motion machine!

Not at all; it's like saying "physics has failed because they haven't even noticed gravity." There WAS pre-Newtonian physics of course- but it was not useful for much.

"Economics" bears exactly the relation to "resource dynamics" that Astrology does to the cosmos. I.E. - none, really, but lots of people believe in it fervidly, and will point to stuff that it "proves."

Point to something please where "economics" has made a useful prediction- and had it come true. Over the 20 year span, please- predicting next week is not very impressive, nor useful.

In general, economics is NOT primarily concerned with prediction, but with uncovering the causal links that policies and other exogenous forces have to economic outcomes. Saying that policy X will tend to have economic effects Y is much more useful and feasible than predicting that the economy will be in state Z at some future date. The latter is almost impossible to do as there are so many other difficult-to-observe and predict forces that also affect the economy at that future date.

Having said that, how about the following "long-term" predictions:

1. Economists predicted that by adopting Keynesian anti-recession fiscal and monetary policies after World War II, the economies of developed Western countries would become less volatile than they were prior to World War II. This prediction is true despite the current economic downturn.

2. Economists predicted that if China moved from a totally state-run economy to a more market-oriented economy, China's economic growth would increase. This also seems true.

3. Economists predicted that the Reagan-era tax cuts would not in the long-term raise tax revenue. This also seems true, although it requires some analysis to determine what revenue would have been without the tax cuts.

By Tim Bartik (not verified) on 27 Jan 2010 #permalink

Greenpa, there are always plenty of people who are saying the sky is about to fall. Do you have a reliable procedure to determine which ones are right, when?

Russell: "Greenpa, there are always plenty of people who are saying the sky is about to fall. Do you have a reliable procedure to determine which ones are right, when?"

lol. Now THAT is a damn good question.

Facetiously, I'll say "Sure. It's when they agree with me." Which in the case of Roubini and Whitney, is true.

Over on TAE, my standard tactic is to announce what my friends, the anthropology team from Antares which hides in my attic, have told me recently. The point being- an outside perspective is very necessary, when dealing with humans.

Your question would provide an exceptional basis for a year long upper level course in any of Philosophy or Psychology or Marketing. So I'm not going to get to truly answer it here-

I'm serious; it's an excellent question, and obviously one which humans have no good answer for yet. As a scientist- that is a challenge.

It's actually something I work on, and so do my sons.

"Science" is an algorithm for "knowledge". Do it right, and it will return answers that predict things with great reliability. It also took some 300 years to "invent" science; and many workers, attempting to fight through the clouds of conventional thought.

Shouldn't we have an algorithm for "wisdom"? We don't.

A couple starting points: Never take opinions from vested interests seriously. Check all contrarians for signs of insanity.

Using those two guidelines- yes, Roubini and Whitney and others, really should have been listened to.

Russell - It's bizarre to suggest that anything that would make the future better - or just keep it from getting worse - will require cash payments. What if I'm developing Type 2 diabetes and I decide to stop buying processed junk foods, thus gaining decades of good health? Lo! LESS economic activity! What if I develop a better gardening technique and, Mises forbid, SHARE it with my neighbors instead of trying to make them pay me for it, thus gaining pleasurable social interactions and reducing the amount of veggies all of us must buy at Wal-Mart? Lo! (And so forth.)

I don't want to stray from the main point I'm trying to make. There is no theorem in economics that natural resource use must increase over time. There also is no theorem that declining natural resource use implies declining economic growth. It might lead to that. It might not. Anyone who thinks that that declining resource use means economic decline misunderstands how economies are measured, and also what constitutes economic growth. Dollars are not a unit of mass and energy.

If Sharon imagines a "steady-state economy," does she also imagine that the people in it are stuck in a non-changing rut? Or does she imagine that using those fixed natural resources, they nonetheless can continue to advance their knowledge and technology and make changes to how they live that constitute improvement in their eyes? If so, that is economic growth. Saying "no, no, but their natural resource consumption is staying constant" is not a refutation of that, but a misunderstanding of that.

Of course, economics doesn't assert that economic growth is inevitable or eternal. We may indeed be facing a great collapse. But it still seems to me one should understand what economic growth is, if one is going to say it is impossible under some scenario or another.

If 'economic growth' means something like 'growth in the sum total of things which people want or value, both physical and non-physical' then I don't think many people want an end to economic growth. We all - or at least most of us non-emo kids - want to be happier tomorrow than today. But I don't think this sense of economic growth is what's implied by the steady-state economy or by the NEF report. In that context, economic growth is tied up with things like increased resource use, increased debt and all the rest. It's useful to distinguish between these two senses and if, as you claim, you're using 'economic growth' in the sense which economists do then it's fair to criticize others for not understanding this but it doesn't sound like a global criticism. Most of us non-experts - and, importantly, governments everywhere - use economic growth in the non-technical sense and that's a perfectly valid use.

Dollars are not "a unit of mass and energy," no. Dollars are an abstraction that we use to measure the ability to buy goods and services, which do require some amount of mass and/or energy. If it were only the quantity of dollars flying back and forth that affected our happiness, the President could just ask us to take all the bills out of our wallets and add on two extra zeros with a Sharpie - voila, instant economic growth! If you demand that measures of economic growth be corrected for inflation, you are really acknowledging that what you want is a greater sum of goods and services being made available, requiring greater resource consumption.

True, we can learn to make certain goods "better," using fewer inputs of mass and energy to obtain the same results (though we will never reduce inputs to zero), but how would that automatically lead to economic growth? Such cleverness ought often to make those goods cheaper rather than more expensive, reducing the GDP.

A lot of questions to answer, Russell. I think it really would be helpful to have you read the report linked to above, because I think they are pretty clear about what a steady-state economy would be. I should also say that I think that a steady-state economy is pretty unlikely at this point - that we have already set in motion the conditions for an economic decline over the next few decades by not dealing with depletiona nd climate change. On the other hand, if we could achieve it, I think a steady state economy would be a pretty good thing.

Can we agree that economics measures the portion of "betterness" in our lives that can in some way be converted into dollars, and assumes that for the most part, we're trying to get at betterness. This is both grammatically and otherwise a little imperfect, but for the purposes of a conversation here.

We also can agree that not all forms of betterness show up in ways measurable by dollars. The classic textbook example would be the classic textbook example (and raving bit of sexism ;-)) of when a man marries his housekeeper. The outcome of that is less measurable economic activity - GDP declines. But assuming that the guy in question didn't marry her just to save money on toilet scrubbing, there's a measure of greater personal happiness for both of them that doesn't show up in the measured economy, right? In a purely economic sense, no growth in betterness accrued, right - in fact, there was an economic hit taken, right? In a purely personal sense, assuming they married for love and happiness, betterness accrued.

Now you are right that economics has elided the relationship between resources and energy and economic growth. You are correct that there is no specific economic theorem that states that. That doesn't however, actually mean that much. Economics is not a science, despite the conscious attempts by participants in the discipline to transform it into one - the absence of a relevant theorem is not proof of anything. What we can say, speaking historically, is that large scale economic growth has *always* in every circumstance, accompanied greater energy and resource use. That is correllative evidence, not proof of causality, of course, but in order to make the case that they have nothing to do with one another, you'd have to offer some compelling argument to the contrary. Given the preponderance of the evidence that two things have always been associated, the burden would lie on you to make the case that they can be disassociated - that is, the two cases are not equally compelling. It isn't the difference, as you imply, between "it might, it might not" but between "in the whole of human history these two things have never been fundamentally parted and there's no compelling prior evidence that they can be vs. maybe we could."

There are two kinds of potential growth available to us. The first is the kind measured in dollars, the second in happiness. Both can be called betterness, but they don't get measured the same way. Some betterness comes with goods and services, ie, new super-fun video game comes out and some doesn't - ie, man marries housekeeper. Some of the opposite (for a fun ungrammatical parallel let's call it lessgoodness) comes with goods and services - ie, rising rates of diabetes lead to a boom in testing supplies and needles, while some comes with a decline in those things - job loss means not buying your favorite stuff.

In a steady state economy, you could have growth in betterness one of two ways. First, by transference of existing betterness from one place to another - ie, I used to buy lots of beer at bars trying to meet a nice girl, but I then met a woman who gave me something to do besides drink and now we spend it on admission to art museums. Transferrence of dollars and resources to one thing, ideally things that gave you more pleasure or met your needs better is a pretty big category of potential improvement for many of us. The second would be in areas of betterment that didn't cost anything financially, or reduced your costs - ie, giving up the processed foods so you don't have to take insulin shots, staying home with the kids and getting to be with them more, getting together with friends and jamming.... What would have to give would be the category of goods and services that would constitute more over and above what we already have. In the developed world, for many people, this wouldn't be that hard. It is a somewhat different issue in the developed world, but if you postulate a fair share of natural resources, there's room for increased goods and services in measured amounts for much of the world, while decreases occur in the developed world.

If you consider climate change to be a compelling priority - that is, you don't think we will simply magically compensate for the loss of water for agriculture, lowered food yields, increased rates of tropical diseases, desertification, rising sea levels, and if you believe the economic analysis of the Stern report, then it is very hard to imagine unchecked climate change leading to overall economic growth - to more good and services and happiness. Besides the fact that people don't like drowning or dying of malaria much, and refugees generally are both less happy and have fewer goods and services than people who are not refugees, the cost of using more resources is so enormous that it is virtually impossible to imagine overall economic growth, or even overall betterness occurring. The only way to make changes on the scale that we are speaking of is to quickly and dramatically curtail goods and services. Fortunately, goods and services are not all - they are only one kind of betterness, nor do they always represent betterness.


Re:sky falling, I don't think that I'd quite frame it that way, because I don't think that things that have been unsustainable ceasing to be sustained is really the sky falling - it is just inevitable. If you try and run your car on fumes long enough, you'll run out of gas sooner or later. If you piss in your own stream long enough, eventually it won't be good to drink out of. These are not "sky is falling" scenarios but simple material inevitabilities.

As for the question of how things will work out and whether they will be bad or worse or less bad - think about your own grandparents and great-grandparents (or parents depending on your age). Most of them lived through a number of things that looked like the sky falling. Extended depressions. Wars. Bombs falling. Pogroms and other racial conflicts. Famines. My own grandparents and my husbands between them saw the Nazis - lost chunks of their families and were made refugees. They lived through hunger and an extended economic crisis of more than a decade. The blitz. Epidemics. Hunger and shortages. This wasn't the apocalypse, it was just what happened in the course of a life - and these were normal events in the course of almost all long human lives for most of human history. Only since the Depression generation in the US, and since the rebuilding post WWII in Europe have whole generations of people grown through middle and old age without anything really, really bad happening to them. What makes anyone think that these magical 60-80 years will continue infinitely? Particularly when much of our prosperity and stability depended so deeply on precisely the resources that are most in danger of depletion and which we can least afford to burn. There simply is no compelling case to be made that I've ever heard that we could have had the deep prosperity of the last few decades without fossil fuels.

I know we have the narrative of Fukuyama's end of history in the back of our heads, and we try and convince ourselves it is true, but there is no evidence that history is over.


Two points in response to Sharon Astyk:

Ms Astyk uses the classic example, often used by economists, of someone marrying their housekeeper, and says "In a purely economic sense, no growth in betterness accrued, right - in fact, there was an economic hit taken, right? "

No, this is incorrect. Economists would give this as an example of where measured GDP is mismeasuring economic welfare. An ideally measured GDP would in fact show no change in GDP.

Second, Ms. Astyk says that "large scale economic growth has *always* in every circumstance, accompanied greater energy and resource use."

But it is also true that energy use and resource use per unit of measured GDP has declined over time, and has declined faster when higher prices are put on energy and resource use. Economists have used those responses of energy and resource use to higher prices to extrapolate what kinds of taxes would be needed to lower energy and resource use to more appropriate levels. These extrapolations generally conclude that various environmental goals, such as reduced CO2 in the atmosphere, can be reached without large percentage sacrifices in GDP.

By Tim Bartik (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

And I should add that the fact that some solution to our environmental problems is economically feasible at reasonable costs does not mean that it is politically feasible.

For example, I think our climate change problems can be solved with the "right" carbon tax or cap and trade system. But whether such a system is politically feasible is more questionable. There are powerful economic interests opposed to a carbon tax or cap and trade system of sufficient size and rigor. And the public may be easily influenced to oppose such short-run costs for long-run gain.

From an economist's perspective, I thought this was the strongest part of Gus Speth's book, "The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability". Speth agreed that we could deal with our environmental problems if we "got the prices right". However, he expressed skepticism as to whether economic interests and the workings of our political system would allow us to "get the prices right". In my opinion, this is the most powerful point in the environmental critique of our current economic system.

By Tim Bartik (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink

For what it's worth, and if anyone is still paying attention to this blog post, blogger Matt Yglesias has a post that looks at the issues of limits to growth. He makes some of the same points that I've tried to make here, about the possibilities of reducing the energy intensity and resource intensity of the economy, and cites some of the relevant research on the costs of preventing climate change vs. dealing with the consequences of climate change.


By Tim Bartik (not verified) on 30 Jan 2010 #permalink

Civilization itself can't last forever, and I'm certain of that. Our end will come at some point, so all this shit about unlimited growth and economies holds no validity in the face of the non-human world. We're gonna destroy the very earth we rose from, and destroy ourselves in doing so. I just hope I live to see the day when forests overrun cities and towns and a man can roam free and earn his right to live with his will to survive.

By Sunflower Rive… (not verified) on 27 May 2010 #permalink