On Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change

In the early 1970s, leading environmental scientists and writers argued that curtailing economic growth was necessary to save  human civilization from eco-collapse.  The material needs of society were exhausting the planet’s resources. The worrying trends were laid out in a hugely influential 1972 report and best-selling book entitled, “The Limits to Growth.” Its authors concluded (page 183):

Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities.

I would contend that “Limits to Growth” is among the most influential contemporary environmental tracts, perhaps second to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”














True, the models and conclusions in “Limits to Growth” are much contested, but its underlying concepts have shaped a generation of environmental thinkers. The notion that economic growth must be constrained in order to avoid eco-cide is not a fringe view in the green community. It just hasn’t been accepted outside environmental circles.

The green intelligentsia has tried, without much success, to reframe the “limits to growth” debate. For example, the economist Herman Daley has laid out the tenets for what he calls a “steady-state economy,” in which economic growth fluctuates in accordance with “ecological limits.” What does this mean, in practical terms? A 1997 article in The Atlantic by Daley, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and others discussed “restraining the growth of consumption.”

In other words, reducing our wasteful habits and all the stuff we buy has been pitched as an environmentally conscious way to reduce economic growth. A 2012 report by the UK’s Royal Society recommended that “most developed and emerging economies must stabilize and then reduce material consumption levels.”

I don’t view the Royal Society as a hotbed of Marxist revolutionaries, nor do I consider “Limits to Growth” proponents as fringe characters in environmentalism. So I was puzzled by this statement from Paul Krugman in one of his recent New York Times columns:

I’ve encountered claims that saving the planet requires an end to growth at left-leaning meetings on “rethinking economics.” To be fair, anti-growth environmentalism is a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.

Anti-growth environmentalism may not carry a lot of weight on the left, but it is a popular environmental worldview, as I discussed in this essay. What Krugman is likely referring to is an assertion at the heart of Naomi Klein’s much-discussed new book, which is that capitalism, itself, is the scourge of the planet. It is a “discredited system,” characterized by greed, she tells Grist in this interview.

Klein’s thesis essentially takes the “limits to growth” argument to its logical conclusion. Her book, she says, is intended as  a new lens for liberals to view the world’s greatest challenges. Perhaps, but it’s also political suicide, which is probably why lefty heavyweights like Krugman feel compelled to weigh in with disapproving words:

The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception.

To see just how uncomfortable Klein makes her natural allies feel, read this word jumble from Joe Romm, the self-proclaimed master of persuasion. Here’s a taste:

To repeat, it’s not environmentalists who are anti-growth, it’s polluters and their enablers who are pro-collapse.

Spoken like a true confusionist. Try wrapping your head around the term “pro-collapse.” In any case, such verbal contortions are an indication of intellectual tension in the climate activist/environmental camp. That’s okay. We should welcome a spirited debate on how best to confront climate change and make the industrial world more sustainable.

41 Responses to “On Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change”

  1. mememine says:

    Climate Blame can only be judged as a pure war crime for it’s decades of exaggeration and needless CO2 panic.
    32 more years of science never being able to say; “proven” for a; “possible threat to the planet” is unsustainable in “belief”.
    Get up to date; Climate Blame was Liberalism’s Iraq War.
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

    Did Bush exaggerate a crisis and goose step billions of innocent children to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated crisis just because he hissy fit hated lefties so much?

  2. Tom Scharf says:

    Anti-capitalism is indeed a fringe view in the US.

    You can view the results on November 4th for any candidate who openly expresses to be anti-capitalist or anti-free markets, that is if you can find any. The socialist and communist wings in the House and Senate is pretty small at last count. Don’t confuse the typical liberal pro-bigger government with anti-capitalist.

    Since we are now all inundated with election advertising, listen to what they are saying. Is it bringing an end to the most powerful economic system in the world?

    Now indeed there are likely plenty of “still in the closet” socialists in the green movement, and some are more overt than others. The recent climate march in NYC had plenty of radical left wing types. Most of these greens are simply eco-authoritarians who nobody, nobody would ever want making decisions for them.

    The decision to poison the well of environmentalism with radical politics has done nothing useful for the green movement. These greens are free to go live on a commune, detach from the grid, and live their low impact lives as they wish. They are not free to tell everyone else how to run their lives, and nobody is asking for it.

  3. What many people don’t seem to understand is that developed country growth was limited around 1973. And per capita CO2 emissions flatlined.

    One of the few countries to experience growth in a time of very weak oil consumption was Romania.
    Notice what happens in 1973.

  4. CB says:

    “They are not free to tell everyone else how to run their lives, and nobody is asking for it.”

    …and you are not free to pollute the air with CO₂ unless you pay to have it taken back down… or pay for the damage it causes. It’s hard to believe the former would be more than the latter…

  5. realheadline says:

    Climate change has become a euphemism for the ideals of communism. Environmentalists have a choice, reject and separate themselves from the anti-capitalist left or face complete rejection of their alarmist B.S.. Both sides know that this won’t happen, because it is the true motive behind the movement.

  6. mem_somerville says:

    I’ve seen some curious reviews of the book, some from folks I would have expected to be very sympathetic to the entire premise. I think you are right about the “intellectual tension”, that seems to capture the strangeness of the stuff I’ve seen. It’s like they really want her to be right, and they want to stay in the boat with their allies, but can’t quite get themselves to row along this time.

  7. bobito says:

    Perhaps a way to correlate this is with conservatives on abortion. I am a conservative but in no way religious. However, I feel that killing fetuses willy nilly is not moral. So the religious nuts (correlation being the religiously nutty greens) are fighting a fight I agree with to an extent, but they are so nutty that they need to be reeled back in from time to time as to not make all conservatives seem crazy. This sounds like what’s happening here, calling capitalism a “discredited system” is as nutty as saying “no abortions because Jesus said so!”, so the base needs to point this out to save face…

    To underscore:
    Religious nut = No abortion at all!
    Conservative = Killing fetuses willy nilly is not moral but it should be allowed with some control.

    Green nut = Capitalism must go!
    Liberal = More gov’t control over capitalism but capitalism is an overall good thing.

  8. First Officer says:

    I wonder if an economy can grow indefinitely while not really using up resources? The only caveat is access to enough energy (not oil, but energy). We can think of the growth of wealth and economic activity as the reorganization of the matter around us into ever more useful forms. Indeed, except for the occasional asteroid and space dust, we’ve been dealing with the same matter since we arose as a separate species.

  9. Howard B Edgar says:

    Liberal. Communist. Socialist. Capitalist. In the near future there will only be two labels left: survivor and non-survivor. Keep calling each other names at your own peril.

  10. Howard B Edgar says:

    Anti-capitalism is indeed a fringe view in the US. Really, Tom? Have you polled 315 million Americans to learn whether that’s true?

  11. Jim Corcoran says:

    With 60+ BILLION food animals on the planet our best chance to mitigate climate change is to severely reduce consumption of animal foods. More than 1/3 of human induced warming is attributable to animal agriculture. Methane is 24 times more potent than CO2 but takes only 7 years to cycle out of the atmosphere. CO2 takes around 100 years to come out. Human pursuit of animal protein is the leading cause of methane release and a primary cause of CO2 concentrating in the atmosphere. Check the facts and act!

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

    There is one single industry destroying the planet more than any other. But no one wants to talk about it… http://cowspiracy.com

    Step by Step Guide: How to Transition to a Vegan Diet http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/step-by-step-guide-how-to-transition-to-vegan-diet/

  12. Tom Scharf says:

    A prototypical eco-authoritarian statement. Don’t you mean “…and WE are not free to pollute the air with CO₂ unless WE pay to have it taken back down”? Or are you exempting yourself due to an imagined eco-virtue? It is quite common for greens to imagine that those paying the bills will be “them” and “they”, while it is always “us” and “we” who are saving the planet.

    And we are absolutely free to emit CO2 without paying to take it down if that is the rules our society has deemed appropriate in its infinite wisdom. And you get exactly one vote, and get to speak for exactly one person.

  13. Uncle Al says:

    Cancer always wins. Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Arabia are the victorious reproductive warriors. China has opted for benign growth. Will it have the big brass clangers to survive?

    North America (southern invasion), Europe (socialism), and Japan (gerontarchy) are already dead.

  14. Martin says:

    I suppose it’s easy to confuse the ‘self-interest’ of capitalism with ‘greed’.

  15. Tom Fuller says:

    In the near future there will be fewer poor. In the near future our impact on the planet will be decreasing as more people move to the cities. In the near future water and air will be cleaner. In the near future we will on average live to be close to 100 years old.

    Survivor and non-survivor? Well, we all die eventually. But otherwise the semantic content of your comment is virtually null.

  16. CB says:

    “Don’t you mean “…and WE are not free to pollute the air with CO₂ unless WE pay to have it taken back down”?”

    Lol! Yes, excellent point, thanks for the correction. No one, including myself, should be allowed to use the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon pollution.

    If a person despises life so very much, I believe she has the fundamental right to kill herself.

    She does not have the right to commit suicide on behalf of everyone through using fossil fuels…

  17. CB says:

    MeMeMine is a completely automated spam bot. Please flag and ignore.

    Mod, please permanently terminate the account’s access.

  18. Michael Stone says:

    Yeah and outlaw growing rice too… By far rice is the most consumed food by humans and rice cultivation emits near the same amount of CH4, methane gas annually as does the meat industry.

    The fossil fuel industry loves to see people post the stuff you do. Burn that coal, oil and gas to produce electrical power and eat no meat… That is all we have to do, no more meat, no more global warming……Yeah

  19. Jim Corcoran says:

    Certainly we need to reduce the use of fossil fuels and work on population issues, but you have obviously not read or gone to links I posted. So please stop responding until you do.

  20. Michael Stone says:

    Yes I know; the meat industry is responsible for emitting 51% of all AGW greenhouse gases…

    51 of every 100 vehicle running on the highways of the world are hauling
    beef, pork, poultry, eggs, milk, butter, cheese and lambs.
    51 of every building in the world is connected to the meat industry and 51 of every 100 aircraft flying, every ship moving every train car on the rails are hauling meat and dairy products.
    It is our biggest problem. Just imagine, 51% of all items in a supermarket are meat or dairy products… And don’t forget all of that rice too.

  21. Howard B Edgar says:

    Sorry if I fogged your rose-colored glasses, Tom. Fewer poor? Really. Every statistic I’ve seen points to the opposite. And every bit of research I’ve read points to worsening air quality (unless you like breathing methane and nitrous oxide) and diminished water There was nothing semantic in my comment. Perhaps I should have said survivors and “casualties.”

  22. Buddy199 says:

    I love anti-capitalists preaching the austere eco-gospel to the masses while living fat and happy in capitalist societies. The phony liberal 1%ers, eating $300 tasting menus, sending their brats to $25,000 a year grammar schools, toasting themselves with Dom from their balconies overlooking Central Park while their undocumented Salvadoran maids separate the paper from plastic.

  23. CASSE3 says:

    What do Herman Daly, E.O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Bill McKibben, and David Suzuki all have in common? They are among the 11,573 people who have signed a detailed position statement on economic growth offered by CASSE, the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. View (and sign!) the position statement at: http://steadystate.org/act/sign-the-position/

  24. JH says:

    According to CASSE:

    “Therefore, we take the position that:

    1) There is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection (for example, biodiversity conservation, clean air and water, atmospheric stability),”

    i.e., CASSE inverts ten thousand years of human experience and claims that, for humans, ecology is more important than economy.

  25. JH says:

    There are so many ways to parse this up, and it depends on what labels get put on what movement or philosophy.

  26. CASSE3 says:

    JH, thank you for reviewing the position statement. The idea is that our economy is a sub-system of the ecosystems that contain it and is completely dependent on the earth’s ecosystems for resources and waste assimilation. Therefore, our economy needs to remain at a level that respects ecological limits. Economic growth is the increase in production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. Perpetual growth just isn’t possible on a finite planet. What was a good goal for many years is no longer a good goal in a “full” world. The costs of growth are starting to exceed the benefits.


  27. JH says:

    The technology produced by economic growth increases efficiency and ultimately drives consumption down. Population growth, OTOH, drives consumption upward, for obvious reasons. But economic development reduces population growth. Therefore, because economic growth increases efficiency and slows population growth, we can say with certainty:

    Economic growth is essential to a sustainable environment.

    Therefore, CASSE’s position is in direct contradiction to what’s best for the planet. CASSE is dangerous to the planet and everything on it.

    [Edit: its unfortunate that the luminaries signed onto this petition have such a limited understanding of growth]

  28. CASSE3 says:

    You’re correct. Population growth and per capita consumption are the two critical factors. And technological innovation and increased efficiencies COULD POTENTIALLY lower consumption, but typically do the opposite. The Jevons Paradox is the proposition that technological progress that increases efficiency tends to increase the rate of consumption, not decrease it (aka “rebound effect”). Steam engines, far more efficient than horses, resulted in exponential increases in consumption. Increased efficiencies COULD mean reduced work hours, but instead, typically result in increased production. There may be a tendency for owners of more efficient vehicles to drive more due to a false sense of low impact. Etc, etc. In a steady state economy, technological innovation would actually result in less “throughput” (resources and pollution).

    Read Supply Shock. See http://supplyshock.org

  29. David Skurnick says:

    ““If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.”
    The impact on global warming would be the same — namely zero. More precisely, a negligible amount very close to zero.
    This action, like most recommended actions, wouldn’t save us from disaster, assuming that the catastrophic climate models are correct. When we ignore the magnitude of the impact, we’re dealing with symbols, not science. In other words, today’s environmentalism is like a religion.

  30. JH says:

    “technological innovation and increased efficiencies COULD POTENTIALLY lower consumption, but typically do the opposite. ”

    Except that they don’t do the opposite. At the very least, you’ll have to agree the data indicate that economic development levels energy consumption…yes?


  31. CASSE3 says:

    World Bank data for U.S. since 1960 shows energy use/capita up but now somewhat stable; and energy use/$1000 GDP down. HOWEVER, total energy use has doubled!

  32. JH says:

    And population has more than doubled, so the rate of energy usage is growing slower than population.

    And even though the population has more than doubled the percentage of people living in poverty has declined by half in the developing world, and food production per capita has remained constant.

    All thanks to economic growth.

  33. JH says:

    Here’s an interesting article on the “population bomb”. (from the National Institutes of Health of all places). I haven’t read it yet but it promises to be interesting at least:


  34. JH says:

    The “Steady State” or “no Growth” approach ultimately fails.

  35. CASSE3 says:

    Energy use is growing slower than population, That’s a good thing, just not the point. Total energy use is the problem, whether from consumption or population, and it’s up, way up.

    And true, significant progress reducing poverty at $1.25/day. HOWEVER, at $2/day,
    the progress is much slower: 2.6 billion in 1981 down to 2.2 billion in 2011. Why
    has economic growth failed to lift 3 billion people above $2.50/day? If this is
    not a problem, we should carry on, but I don’t think it’s working.


  36. JH says:

    “Total energy use is the problem, whether from consumption or population, and it’s up, way up.”

    The problem for what? It’s the problem that causes the problem that made the problem? 🙂

    Energy use isn’t a problem at all. As we’ve seen in our discussion, energy use is a net benefit for the planet.

  37. JH says:

    “HOWEVER, at $2/day, the progress is much slower: ”

    Imagine what it would be like without economic growth!

    Growth is the answer, not the problem. Energy is the answer, not the problem.

    Is there something about the fact that these conclusions are clear and incontrovertible that repels you and other anti-growthers?

  38. CASSE3 says:

    If you see having nearly half of the world’s population still living on less than $2.50 per day as a sign of a succussful economic growth strategy, then don’t sign the CASSE position on economic growth at: http://steadystate.org/act/sign-the-position/

  39. OWilson says:

    I hope we can get you social engineers to agree on how I am allowed to live my life.

    It would be a shame if you didn’t get your theories quite right.

    Thank you.

  40. Tom Fuller says:

    Howard, please trot forth your statistics. They will certainly be interesting to read. They won’t come from the WHO, the IMF, the FAO the World Bank, etc. Which obviously doesn’t mean you might not be right. But I think anyone stating in public that the number of poor is increasing might be doing so… um, without much in the way of standing.

  41. Jake says:

    Economic “growth” is not necessarily restricted to extracting more resources. Fundamentally, the economy is fueled by “economic value added” – now if that means taking a strip of land, strip-mining it, manufacturing goods to sell at an added value to consumer then that is exctractive. But, it is certainly possible to add economic value by reducing or re-using waste products – the major problem is the economic incentive structure which makes resource extraction so much more cheap than resource re-use and recovery. There is an environmental cost which is not absorbed by the producer or the consumer – it is impossible to budget and it is absorbed by every living thing that depends on that environment.

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