The Limits To Growth

Just attended a very interesting talk by Dennis Meadows, and wanted to note down some things before I forget them. Mainly, the way to deal with humanity's impact on the planet:
  1. Population
  2. Consumption
  3. Efficiency
  4. Renewable energy
The focus thus far has been on 3 and 4 -- being more efficient with the energy that we have and gradually switching from fossil fuels to green alternatives. The problem is that if 1 and 2 keep growing (and they are, exponentially), any progress on 3 and 4 will quickly be reduced to nothing.

I think the reason 3 and 4 have been the most important is that they work well within a capitalist system. The genius of capitalism, as Marx made clear, is that it constantly revolutionizes the means of production -- it creates new technologies at a faster pace than any other economic system we have known. So as long as there is demand for greenery, we can be reasonably confident that the free market will meet that demand.

The other big plus with capitalism is productivity. New technology (and the drive for higher profit margins) serve to eliminate waste. Again, you need to fiddle around a bit so that environmental costs are factored into the balance sheets of firms (carbon credits etc.). But as with artificially boosting demand for green products (with subsidies etc.), this is fiddling within the system. Thus, not an insurmountable problem politically.

1 and 2, on the other hand, pose huge political problems. Politicians saying 1 (you will have fewer kids) and 2 (you will have less stuff) are not going to be popular. The latter is especially difficult because it doesn't fit comfortably within the free market, as a fact and as an idea. In terms of ideology, the call is for less activity, lower horizons, fewer opportunities. You are not going to win friends and votes with such a message. And yet this is the message that so desperately needs to get out there. How to communicate it will be one of the great challenges of our time.


  1. Hey,

    I think your blog is very interesting and your regular posts have entertained me each and every time I have visited. I'd also like you to know I view your blog as a guiding light for my own fledgling blog which I has yet to gain momentum.

    Back to the article, I think this a fairly short sighted view considering the depth of thought you are capable of. Do you not think political and economic success (I mean of course the democratisation and capitalist 'success') of developing countries will limit the exponential population and consumption growth we are seeing?

    Maybe with a longer analysis you would've reached different conclusions. Effectively, by simplification, you are confusing the problems of Developing and Developed states, where the problems are in fact nation specific e.g. china and india.

    Coolcoolcoolcool they're my thoughts anyway.
    19, Student in UK

    p.s. found your site from a search on johnny foreigner my fav band, about a month ago.

  2. I just checked your profile, didn't realise you weren't American, soz lol
    no offence...

  3. Oh my, how you flatter! Thank you. Yr words are much appreciated. And the best of luck with yr blog. (ANOTHER RIVAL? CURSES!) I've just taken a peek at both yr creations, and they look gorgeous. Much more appealing than this dank cavern. I'll explore further soon.

    But first! We need to deal with my very shallow thinking!

    The new post I put up today argues rather forcefully that capitalism doesn't have an ideology. While in this post, I say... the opposite! Another example of my endless hypocrisy, friends! We'll deal with what I actually think on the subject (if anything) just a little further down.

    Because we need to talk about what yr talking about! OK, very rapid population growth is a developing world problem, yr right. In the developed world, birth rates are actually falling. Apparently, this has something to do with how secure parents think the lives of their children are. If life is good (like in the developed world) you spawn one or two and focus on bringing them up right. If life is less good (the developing world) you get as many as possible and hope that at least some of yr seed makes it thru this cold cold world. The developing world seems to be going thru a transition where people are still having large litters and those sprogs are ALL surviving.

    NOW! According to everyone, we need to drastically change our behaviour in the next 20 or so years to avoid cataclysm. Is that time enough for THE ENTIRE WORLD to become developed and comfortable and start birthing less people? I think intervention is needed sooner than that.

    The second point: consumption. My post tried to argue (very unclearly) that reducing consumption in today's capitalist world is HARD, because capitalism always creates new products and new wants. If it has an ideology, then that is it. GROWTH. What with globalization, capitalism pretty much exists everywhere outside of North Korea and Cuba (and the latter is wobbling). So reducing consumption is a GLOBAL problem. The entire world wants more stuff. How are we going to convince everyone that, actually, we need to want LESS stuff.

    So. That's the thought process. I don't know if I've addressed yr complaint very well, so please get back to me! And thanx once more for reading!