Limits to growth

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Amid the welter of enthusiasm for lead-free petrol and green consumerism it is often forgotten that a foundation-stone of radical green politics is the belief that our finite Earth places limits on industrial growth. This finitude, and the scarcity it implies, is an article of faith for green ideologues, and it provides the fundamental framework within which any putative picture of a green society must be drawn. The guiding principle of such a society is that of 'sustainability' (now one of the most contested words in the political vocabulary; Dobson, 1998, ch. 2), and the stress on finitude and the careful negotiation of Utopia that it seems to demand forces political ecologists to call into question green consumer-ist-type strategies for environmental responsibility (Seyfang, 2005). In this respect it is the limits to growth thesis, together with the ethical conclusions to be drawn from ecocentrism and hybridity discussed in the previous chapter, that divides light-green from dark-green politics.

Much has already been written on the limits to growth issue, and I do not see it as my task here to rehearse all of the arguments to which the notion has given rise. I do think it important, though, to stress its centrality to the green position I am describing and to take this opportunity to point out the features of the limits to growth thesis that are most often referred to in green discussions. Greens have all along been confronted with rebuffs to their belief in limits to growth, and as their responses to these criticisms have developed it has become easier to identify what they are prepared to jettison in the thesis and what they feel the need to defend.

There are three principal aspects of the limits to growth thesis that have come to be of prime importance to the radical green position. They are, first, that technological solutions (broadly understood; i.e. solutions formulated within the bounds of present economic, social and political practices) will not in themselves bring about a sustainable society; second, that the rapid rates of growth aimed for (and often achieved) by industrialized and industrializing societies have an exponential character, which means that dangers stored up over a relatively long period of time can very suddenly have a catastrophic effect; and third, that the interaction of problems caused by growth means that such problems cannot be dealt with in isolation - i.e. solving one problem does not solve the rest, and may even exacerbate them. These three notions will be discussed in more detail very shortly, but first the strategy and conclusions of the original Limits to Growth report ought briefly to be noted. The description and assessments that follow are primarily based on the 1974 report, although I have included references from the 1992 sequel and the 2005 '30-year update' where appropriate. In one or two of these cases it is the sense of the three reports that is identical, rather than the quoted words.

The researchers pointed to what they described as '5 trends of global concern': 'accelerating industrialisation, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 21). They then created a computerized world model of the variables associated with these areas of concern (i.e. industrial output per capita, population, food per capita, resources and pollution); and programmed the computer to produce pictures of various future states of affairs given changes in these variables. From the very beginning it was understood that such modelling would be rough and ready, and the Club of Rome (the name given to the informal association of scientists, researchers, industrialists and so on who, carried out the research) anticipated later criticisms of inaccuracy and incompleteness by admitting that the model was 'imperfect, oversimplified and unfinished' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 21; 1992, p. 105). From our perspective, the important point to make is that greens have generally been unperturbed by criticisms of the detail of the various limits to growth reports, and have rather relied upon the general principles and conclusions of these reports.

The first computer run, then, assumed 'no major change in the physical, economic, or social relationships that have historically governed the development of the world system' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 124; 1992, p. 132; 2005, p. 169). This, in other words, was a run in which business carried on as usual. In this case the limits to growth were reached 'because of nonrenewable resource depletion' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 125; 1992, p. 132; 2005, p. 168). Next, the group programmed a run in which the resource depletion problem was 'solved' by assuming a doubling in the amount of resources economically available. In this case collapse occurred again, but this time because of the pollution brought about by the spurt in industrialization caused by the availability of new resources. The group concluded that 'Apparently the economic impetus such resource availability provides must be accompanied by curbs on pollution if a collapse of the world system is to be avoided' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 133; 1992, p. 134; 2005, pp. 172-3). Consequently, the next computer run involved not only a doubling of resources but also a series of technological strategies to reduce the level of pollution to a quarter of its pre-1970 level (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 136; 1992, p. 168; 2005, p. 211). This time the limits to growth are reached because of a food shortage produced by pressure on arable land owing to its being taken for 'urban-industrial use' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 137; 1992, p. 168; 2005, p. 210).

And so the experiment progresses, with the world model programmed each time to deal with the immediate cause of the previous collapse. Eventually all sectors have technological responses filled in:

The model system is producing nuclear power, recycling resources, and mining the most remote reserves; withholding as many pollutants as possible; pushing yields from the land to undreamed-of heights; and producing only children who are actively wanted by their parents.

(Meadows et al., 1974, p. 141; 1992, p. 174; 2005, p. 218)

Even this does not solve the problem of overshoot and collapse:

The result is still an end to growth before the year 2100 [2050 in the 1992 report, p. 174]. In this case growth is stopped by three simultaneous crises. Overuse of land leads to erosion, and food production drops. Resources are severely depleted by a prosperous world population (but not as prosperous as the present [1970] US population). Pollution rises, drops then rises again dramatically, causing a further decrease in food production and a sudden rise in the death rate.

The next sentence of the group's conclusion on the computer's final run helps distance environmentalism from ecologism and provides the intellectual springboard for radical green political strategy: 'The application of technological solutions alone has prolonged the period of population and industrial growth, but it has not removed the ultimate limits to that growth' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 141).

This, then, brings us to the first of the three notions associated with the limits to growth thesis that I suggested above are essential to the theory and practice of political ecology: that technological solutions cannot provide a way out of the impasse of the impossibility of aspiring to infinite growth in a finite system. Irvine and Ponton point out that:

technological gadgets merely shift the problem around, often at the expense of more energy and material inputs and therefore more pollution. Favourite devices such as refuse incineration, sulphur extractors in power stations and catalytic converters in cars cost money and energy while at the same time generating new pollutants.

This will most likely appear heretical to those familiar with light-green, environmental politics, which bases itself precisely upon this sort of strategy, but it is at just these points that ecologism distinguishes itself most clearly from environmentalism. The issues at stake here come sharply into view in the context of energy provision, for example. Supporters of the limits to growth thesis will feel themselves vindicated by the constant price rises in non-renewable sources of energy such as gas. They will acknowledge that some of these cost increases have 'non-environmental' causes, such as geopolitical tensions, but will insist that as finite resources run out, their price is bound to increase. The question then is: Can other technologies fill the gap? The range of long-term options seems to have narrowed because we now know that energy based on fossil fuels is a major cause of climate change, or 'global warming'. In this context, some technology enthusiasts will look to already-existing, supposedly carbon-neutral technologies such as nuclear fission to supply us with the energy we are used to. Others will put their faith in commercially untried and untested technologies such as nuclear fusion. Greens are suspicious of nuclear technology for a number of reasons. They point out that it is costly, potentially dangerous, that there are problems dealing with and siting waste, and that future generations are left with a legacy they will not appreciate. They will also point out that uranium is itself a non-renewable resource, due to run out well before the end of this century. So even if it were to be cost-effective, safe, and harmless to future generations, nuclear energy is not a long-term solution to humanity's energy problems. This leaves us with either some as yet undiscovered technology, or the successful commercialization of an existing yet untried one, or the basket of renewable energy possibilities based on wind, solar or hydro sources.

The trouble with this last option is that by all accounts it is unlikely to supply so-called advanced industrial countries with the quantities of energy to which they have become accustomed. This is what leads greens to focus unfashionably on the demand side of the energy equation rather than just the supply side. Of course mainstream discourse occasionally strays into demand-side territory too, and so we are asked to lag our lofts better or to install double-glazing so as to consume less energy. But greens will say that even these measures are unlikely to be enough. Experience suggests, they will argue, that every time a saving is made through a technological advance (e.g. more fuel-efficient car engines), the saving is soon negated by pressures in other parts of society that drive up demand (e.g. the need, or the willingness, to travel further to work). This suggests that technological advances, on their own, are not a complete answer to the problem of sustainability.

So if the sustainable society is not, on the face of it, (only) going to be full of environment-friendly technological wizardry, what will it be like? Part of the answer is provided by Garrett Hardin's definition of a 'technological solution': 'one that requires only a change in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality' (quoted in Meadows et al., 1974, p. 150). It follows that if the green movement believes that technology on its own cannot solve the limits to growth problem, then it will have to argue for more profound changes in social thought and practice - changes in human values, ideas of morality and associated practices. These changes will involve accommodating social practices to the limits that surround them, and abandoning the Promethean (in this context, technological) attempt to overcome them. It is in this kind of respect, once again, that the dark-green sustainable society is different from the environmentalist one, and why the latter can sit only uncomfortably with the former. All of this is a result of the idea that technological solutions can have 'no impact on the essential problem, which is exponential growth in a finite and complex system' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 45).

And this is the second notion that political ecologists have rescued from the debate over limits to growth, making it central to their argument as to why current industrial practices are unsustainable: the idea of exponential growth. Meadows et al. claim that all of the five elements in the Club of Rome's world model experience exponential growth, and explain that 'A quantity exhibits exponential growth when it increases by a constant percentage of the whole in a constant time period' (Meadows et al., 1974, p. 27; emphasis in original). In quantitative terms this is easily demonstrated by placing rice grains on the squares of a chessboard, with one on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, sixteen on the fourth and so on. The numbers build up very fast, and while the twenty-first square will be covered with over 100,000 grains of rice, the forty-first will require one trillion (Meadows et al., 2005, p. 21).

The central point is that such growth is deceptive in that it produces large numbers very quickly. Translated to the arena of industrial production, resource depletion and pollution, what seems an innocuous rate of use and waste disposal can quickly produce dangerously low quantities of available resources and dangerously high levels of pollution. Greens often point to the staggeringly rapid growth in industrial production this century and ask the (increasingly less rhetorical) question: 'Can this be sustained?' Thus, Irvine and Ponton note that 'In a mere blink on the timescale of human evolution, industrial society has been depleting and impairing Earth's "supply system" at a phenomenal rate,' and that 'Americans, for example, have used more minerals and fossil fuels during the past half-century than all the other peoples of the world throughout human history' (Irvine and Ponton, 1988, pp. 24-5).

Greens believe, simply, that present rates of resource extraction and use - a '3 per cent growth rate implies doubling the rate of production and consumption every twenty-five years' (Ekins, 1986, p. 9) - and the production of waste and pollution necessarily associated with them, are unsustainable. They further believe that the nature of the rate of growth produces a false sense of complacency: what appears to be a safe situation now can very quickly turn into an unsafe one. A relevant French riddle for schoolchildren goes like this:

Suppose you own a pond on which a water lily is growing. The lily plant doubles in size each day. If the lily were allowed to grow unchecked, it would completely cover the pond in 30 days, choking off the other forms of life in the water. For a long time the lily plant seems small, and so you decide not to worry about cutting it back until it covers half the pond. On what day will that be? On the twenty-ninth day, of course. You have one day to save your pond.

The 1992 report, indeed, makes much of this effect by running computer scenarios in which the necessary policies for sustainability are implemented in 1975, 1995 and 2015 respectively (Meadows et al., 1992, pp. 202, 198, 204). It will come as no surprise to hear that 1975 would have been best, and that waiting until 2015 will mean a very bumpy first hundred years of the twenty-first century.

The third and final aspect of the limits to growth thesis that has become central to the radical green position is that of the interrelationship of the problems with which we are confronted. It should already have become clear from the description of the Club of Rome's computer runs that solving one problem does not necessarily mean solving the rest, and our refusal to confront the complexity of the global system and to draw the right conclusions for action (or inaction) from it is why most greens believe our attempts to deal with environmental degradation, in particular, to be insensitively inadequate. 'What matters,' write Irvine and Ponton, 'is not any particular limit, which might be overcome, but the total interaction of constraints, and costs' (1988, p. 13). Change in one element means change in the others: nuclear power might result in a temporary drop in climate change emissions from the energy sector, but it will permit greater resource throughput in other parts of the economy, thereby potentially contributing to resource and pollution problems.

In sum, radical greens read off three principal features of the limits to growth message and subscribe to them and their implications wholeheartedly: technological solutions cannot help realize the impossible dream of infinite growth in a finite system; the exponential nature of that growth both underpins its unsustainability and suggests that the limits to growth may become visible rather quicker than we might think; and the immense complexity of the global system leads greens to suggest that our current attempts to deal with environmental problems are both clumsy and superficial.

Linked to all of this is a problem of knowledge, in the context of which green ideologues adopt a predominantly conservative stance:

One of the worst changes that industrialism has made to pollution is not the addition of individual new pollutants, but their combined effects. . .. Some half a million chemicals are in common use; about another thousand are added each year. Yet we know next to nothing about their interaction and combined effects, and the scale of the problem suggests that we never will.

The implied impossibility of knowing enough is crucial to the green suggestion that we adopt a cautious approach to the environment. If we cannot know the outcome of an intervention in the environment but suspect that it may be dangerous, then we are best advised, from a green point of view, not to intervene at all. This has become known in policy-making circles as the 'precautionary principle' (O'Riordan and

Cameron, 1994). In this respect, green politics opposes drawing-board social design and thus falls into the realm of what is generally considered to be conservative politics - siding with Edmund Burke against Tom Paine, so to speak (see Chapter 5 for more on the relationship between ecologism and conservatism).

At the root of all this, of course, is the most profound belief of all: that there are limits to growth. The most common criticism of the Limits to Growth report is that its predictions as to the likely exhaustion of raw materials (for example) have been proved wildly wrong. This is a point most famously put by Julian Simon and Herman Kahn in their The Resourceful Earth (1984), and then in an engaging debate between Julian Simon and Norman Myers on various aspects of the limits to growth thesis (Myers and Simon, 1994): 'Conventional "green" beliefs are massively contradicted by the scientific evidence' (Simon in Myers and Simon, 1994, pp. xvii-xviii). Bjorn Lomborg has more recently argued much the same thing in his The Skeptical Environmentalist (Lomborg, 2001). Lomborg argues that greens have made selective use of data to give the impression that the state of the environment is getting worse whereas in the round it is in fact getting better. To make his point Lomborg asks environmentalists the following question: 'When would you prefer to have been born?' - in the past or in the present? (Lomborg, 2001, p. 351). Environmentalists have responded that Lomborg is asking the wrong question. Given the massive imbalances in political power and the way in which environmental goods and bads are systematically unfairly shared out, the question to ask is not 'When would you rather have been born?', but 'How would you rather have been born - with power or without it?' There is little doubt that the Queen of Sheba was better-off in her time than the billions of people getting by on less than $5 a day in ours. Lomborg's view that 'things are getting better' (Lomborg, 2001, pp. 3-33) needs to be accompanied by the health warning - 'for some'.

So greens have learned to accept the detail of these criticisms while continuing to subscribe to the general principle of the limits to growth thesis. Thus in his most recent contribution to these debates, the Chair of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Sustainable Development Commission, Jonathon Porritt, writes: 'If we don't learn to live sustainably within the natural systems and limits that provide the foundation for all life forms, then we will go the same way as every other life form that failed to adapt to those changing systems and limits' (Porritt, 2005, p. 10).

This is the starting point for thoughts about the sustainable society: that aspirations of ever-increasing growth and consumption cannot be fulfilled because resources are finite, as is the space into which we must throw our waste. Mahatma Gandhi, when asked if, after independence, India would attain British standards of living, commented that 'it took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve its prosperity; how many planets will a country like India require?' (Enviro Facts, 2006). 'Ecological footprint' analysis gives us some approximate answers to Gandhi's question:

If just the present [i.e. January 1996] world population of 5.8 billion people were to live at current North American ecological standards (say 4.5 ha/person), a reasonable first approximation of the total productive land requirement would be 26 billion hectares (assuming present technologies). However, there are only just over 13 billion hectares of land on Earth, of which only 8.8 billion are ecologically productive cropland, pasture, or forest (1.5 ha/person). In short, we would need an additional two planet Earths to accommodate the increased ecological load of people alive today. If the population were to stabilise at between 10 and 11 billion sometime in the next century, five additional Earths would be needed, all else being equal - and this just to maintain the present rate of ecological decline.

Thus the concept of scarcity is fundamental because 'every time energy and matter are converted into a different form, their quality is degraded and they become less useful to us' (Porritt, 2005, p. 47). Dark-green politics is based upon a fundamental commitment to the principle of scarcity as an insurmountable fact of life and the consequent limits to growth imposed by a finite system. In this respect, to hint that radical green thinking is damaged by hitching itself to the Limits to Growth report - because of its self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, programmed to collapse by dint of Malthusian reasoning - is rather to miss the point. Green thinkers do believe that current industrial practices are programmed to collapse by virtue of their internal logic, and in this respect they are persuaded by the fundamental message of the limits to growth thesis.

It is worth stressing here a point made in the Introduction: that this 'scientific' element in the green position pushes it well beyond a merely romantic response to the trials and tribulations of industrial society. Greens propose a sustainable society not merely because they think, in terms of some bucolic fantasy, that it would be more pleasant to live in. They believe that science is on their side. This has given rise to a radical green economics that was presaged at the beginning of the century by the so-called 'energy economists' - a story told by Anna Bramwell

(1989). She points out that as long ago as 1911 Wilhelm Ostwald wrote that 'the free energy accessible can only decrease, but not increase' (in Bramwell, 1989, p. 64). The most influential contemporary champion of the economics based upon this kind of observation is American economist Herman Daly. Green economics are rooted in our ecological circumstance in a very fundamental way: '[O]ur dependence on the natural world takes two forms - that of a source of low-entropy inputs and that of a sink for high-entropy waste outputs' (Daly, 1992, p. 34).

Daly notes that the first law of thermodynamics states that 'we do not produce or consume anything, we merely rearrange it' - so we cannot produce resources, we can only use them, and they will eventually run out. The second law - that of entropy - has it that 'our rearrangement implies a continual reduction in potential for further use within the system as a whole' (Daly, 1977b, p. 109). This also implies that there is a limit to the use we can make of scarce resources, as well as pointing out that waste (high entropy) is a necessary product of the extraction and use of resources (low entropy). The limits to growth notion is thus the practical reason, as it were, why greens argue for the necessity of a sustainable society. They also present 'social' and 'ethical' reasons (Daly in Ekins, 1986, p. 13), which will be pursued as the chapter progresses. Now, though, we are in a position to outline the parameters within which dark-greens believe any picture of the sustainable society would have to be drawn.

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