It bears repeating – just because something is deeply, profoundly unpopular, even unimaginable, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. The fact that we have reached the end days of expansion is so simple, so obvious and yet ….we just can’t bear to think about it. “Surely _____ (Fill in the blank: God, technology, human ingenuity, Amerucun know-how, aliens) will step in and allow us to continue to grow forever.”
Why is there so much fear about this? The end of growth can be managed – we are smart enough, we do have the technology. Does it have to be worse? How can it be worse than it’s been here lately? What’s so great about growth that we are scared to death of losing it?
Beyond the limits to growth
In 1972, the now-classic book Limits to Growth explored the consequences for Earth’s ecosystems of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion.1 That book, which still stands as the best-selling environmental title ever published, reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population. It summarized the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.
The idea was heretical at the time, and still is: During the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When an economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting and general misery ensue. Predictably, a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was pilloried in a public relations campaign organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this purported “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited. In fact, the original Limits to Growth scenarios have held up quite well, so much so that even the thoroughly pro-business Wall Street Journal printed a lengthy frontpage reflection on that fact in March 2008.2
In any case, the underlying premise of the book is irrefutable:
At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources. We the co-authors of The Post Carbon Reader believe that this time has come.
…Limits to Growth foresaw this inflection point nearly forty years ago. But the world failed to heed the warning; as a result, adaptation now will be much more difficult than would have been the case if growth had been proactively curtailed decades ago. Global leaders now face the need to accomplish four enormous tasks simultaneously:
1. Rapidly reduce dependence on fossil fuels. We must do this to avert worse climate impacts, but also because the fuels themselves will be more scarce and expensive. Ending our reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas proactively with minimal social disruption will require a rapid redesign of transportation, agriculture, and power-generation systems.
2. Adapt to the end of economic growth. This means reworking, even reinventing, our existing economic system, which functions only in a condition of continuous expansion. Banking, finance, and the process of money creation will all need to be put on a new and different footing.
3. Design and provide a sustainable way of life for 7 billion people. We must stabilize and gradually reduce human population over time, using humane strategies such as providing higher levels of education for women in poor countries.
But even in the best case, this objective will take decades to achieve; in the meantime, we must continue to support existing human populations while doing a better job of providing basic services for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. We must accomplish this in the context of a nongrowing economy and with a shrinking stream of resource inputs, and we must do it without further damaging the environment.
4. Deal with the environmental consequences of the past 100 years of fossil-fueled growth. Even if we cease all environmentally destructive practices tomorrow, we still face the momentum of processes already set in motion throughout decades of deforestation, overfishing, topsoil erosion, and fossil-fuel combustion. First and foremost of these processes is, of course, global climate change, which will almost certainly have serious impacts on world agriculture even if future carbon emissions decline sharply and soon.