03 March 2014

What Does it Mean to be Anti-Growth?

I have a new piece out today in the Earth Island Journal. It is part of an exchange with John de Graaf, who argues that economic growth must end. My piece explores what it actually means to be anti-growth.

Here is how I start:
It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.
Please head over to EIJ to read the whole thing, and come back and tell me what you think.


  1. It seems that being anti growth is a luxury of the affluent. The real irony is that high population growth is associated with poverty while low population growth is a problem of wealth. I wonder sometimes if colleges and universities did not have the benefit of a $ trillion dollar easy money policy from the federal government if wealth creation would be such a bugaboo?

  2. I predict that human popluation will level off at a time when we have eradicated poverty. And thus "growth" will end as well. We will have reached a sort of equilibrium.

    I would agree that attempts to accelerate this process may indeed actually be hindering it. We obviously need more growth and we can still recognize that growth is not going to be infinitie.

    Perhaps this can be made into an analogy. Suppose nobody has ever seen an adult human (i.e. humanity at population equilibrium). Suppose right now we see ourselves as a young human who needs lots of food to continue growing. One could assume that we are on a path towards growing into a giant too large to support our own weight. I'm sure that's how Malthusians think.

  3. Identifying the real terms of the debate about economic growth, as you've done here, is so beneficial because it "unravels" the general debate so that we can more fully understand what those who take an "anti-growth" perspective are really talking about. The real value is that by exposing the rhetorical consequences of an anti-growth perspective, you re-focus our attention on the (ironic) longer-term implications of these perspectives. Namely, that taking an anti-growth stance, in essence, ultimately limits or prohibits (now) poor countries' economic opportunities because it is those (now) poor countries that are ultimately going to be responsible for nearly 80% of future economic productivity.
    I see multiple, valuable connections between your argument and institutes like RAND's Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition, which focus on developing an alternative paradigm of policy thinking and planning that takes long-term consequences into account in policy planning and analysis. Additionally, because of my background in rhetoric, in accordance with your emphasis on the rhetorical implications of an anti-growth stance on the longer-term opportunities for (now) poor countries' future economic progress, I also wonder about the rhetorical distinctions, and consequences, of using the term "development" instead of "growth." ... (continued @ karenlangbehn.wordpress.com.)
    Thank you for yet another compelling argument!

  4. Does Bill McKibben ever discuss growth in economic terms? Has McKibben ever debated growth in a public forum with anyone opposed to his beliefs?

    As a person educated in science and economics (and soccer), I am hard pressed to recall any exchange with anti-growth proponents that were willing to discuss growth in economic terms. These are often people who fast, cry and pledge to be sterilize, such as that meteorologist up in Wisconsin that cried getting on a jet plane, who have no formal training in economics and filter everything through their emotional centers thus bypassing all intellectual centers to arrive at their anti-growth position. I end up being drowned out as an oil shill or denier by other pure emoters who swarm me in comment sections.

    While I think that your assessment is valid those with emotionally based views will shut down their frontal lobes and quickly move to some form of pre-evolutionary dependent brain lock dominated by the "fight or flight" reflex, if they read your article.

    I do have a question for you though Roger. President Obama pointed to ATMs and the internet as causes of job loss. Is this an example of "Luddite" thinking?

  5. You write that “anti-growth” is not a particularly coherent concept. It would be helpful if the anti-growth folks would introduce some coherence by acknowledging that stopping growth would require a great deal of regulation and coercion, implying a strong central authority with the power and knowledge necessary to direct labor, capital, and productivity nationwide, if not worldwide.

    Aside from the fact that no one individual, no one centralized group could know enough to keep an economy running (cf. the knowledge problem), the degree of control required to eliminate growth becomes evident very quickly.

    To direct labor -- job-sharing in developed economies is often mentioned -- or control capital and productivity, private assets will have to be seized. Why seize assets? Simply legislating the end of all research would not work because someone will try to innovate if funds are available. Therefore excess funds have to be seized from companies and investors (individuals and pooled funds) to assure compliance with the no-growth objective. Moreover, a large share of the seized assets could be redistributed as those in charge deem appropriate.

    And so forth. No-growth is coherent as long as one understands that coercion and control lie at the heart of its operation.

  6. Growth is so Marxist. Eli is for elegance (as in doing clunky things better).

  7. "We obviously need more growth and we can still recognize that growth is not going to be infinite."

    I predict it will be. I predict not only "infinite" economic growth, but at increasing rates (exceeding 10% per year by the middle of this century):


  8. He suffers from pathological altruism.

  9. Are there any zero growth politicians? Or is zero growth zero votes?

    The Greens in a lot of places seem to have switched to 'sustainable growth' which is plausible or at least something that can be sold to the public.

  10. I think that there's some important truth in what you're saying, Roger — particularly regarding what being "anti-growth" means with respect to the poor world.

    But I wonder if you couldn't make a similar break-down among people who are pro-growth? E.g. I might propose three reasons why one might think continued growth is appropriate (this is off the cuff!):

    1) Anti-Malthusians (Labor): Because the human population will eventually level off on its own, it's reasonable to assume that once it does, the global economy will drift toward a environmentally-stable non-growth state. (And that state will be tolerable by the people living in it.)
    2) Greenwashers (Capital): Technology grows more environmentally friendly every year, and one day will be so clean that capital expenditures will no longer have any net environmental impact. Growth will be able to continue unabated.
    3) Libertarian utopians (Productivity): As productivity grows, we will eventually reach the point where arbitrarily high amounts of economic output can be obtained for arbitrarily low expenditures of labor and capital. Continuously increasing growth will be accompanied by continuously decreasing environmental damage.

    So, when you meet someone who's pro-growth, ask them, why do you think we can grow without ruining the environment?

    In the interest of fair play, I'd put myself into the Peak Earther camp. Your example of Peak Oil is exactly why: because we keep getting better at extracting oil, I have no faith that we'll ever reach the point where it's economically rational to stop. But I'd create a distinction between opposition to all growth right now and opposition to indefinite unregulated growth. I'd like for our civilization to grow itself into a globally-just society, and then stop growing. This seems unlikely to happen on accident!

  11. So, when you meet someone who's pro-growth, ask them, why do you think we can grow without ruining the environment?

    Why would growth ruin the environment? I have visited Germany, and it's not a blighted wasteland. You'd be hard pressed to find a poor country which is that clean, both urban and rural.

    Wealth allows countries the luxury of doing things a clean way, even though it might be slightly more expensive. It's poor countries that can't afford to clean their towns and rivers.

    It's a false dilemma between growth and protecting the environment. They can be achieved in tandem, provided both are given weight by decision makers.

  12. Anti-growth as I've seen has typically been based on the idea that exponential growth in the use of physical resources is impossible in the long run. Both the neo-malthusian and the peak earth argument can use that. Then there's the assumption that GDP growth, which is typically considered in exponential terms, implies physical growth. That leads to the Rome Club Limits to Growth scenarios where the exponential curves end predictably in collapse. So the essential question to me is how GDP growth gets decoupled from physical growth in particular resources. As Roger mentions, there's substitution and efficiency gains. There is also miniaturization, virtualization and the simple fact that people's physical needs get less urgent eventually. That's just off the top of my head; I'm sure there's more.

  13. "So the essential question to me is how GDP growth gets decoupled from physical growth in particular resources. As Roger mentions, there's substitution and efficiency gains. There is also miniaturization, virtualization and the simple fact that people's physical needs get less urgent eventually. That's just off the top of my head; I'm sure there's more."

    Yes, look at some of the trends:

    1) Fiber-optic cable replaces phone lines. Wireless communication replaces wires and cables.
    2) Secondary aluminum (aluminum remelted from scrap) replaces primary aluminum, saving 95% of the energy needed to make primary aluminum from bauxite ore. Eventually robots will be able to run resource recovery facilities, and prevent virtually any aluminum--or any recycleable material of any type--from getting into landfills.
    3) Compact fluorescents replace incandescents. LEDs may literally last a lifetime in some applications. (One hour a day is 365 days a year. If a bulb lasts 30,000 hours, that's 82 years.
    4) Ebay lets many used items that might otherwise be junked be sold to someone else.
    5) Bridges made from glass reinforced plastic (GRP, also called fiber-reinforced plastic, or FRP) composites replace concrete bridges.
    6) Natural gas is replacing coal. In areas of the country (e.g. the Southwest) photovoltaics will likely replace natural gas.

  14. Some people are actually choosing to live an anti-growth lifestyle.

    "Raphael Fellmer, Nieves Palmer and their two-year-old daughter Alma have been living on almost nothing for over three years, reports Yahoo. The German couple is on a money strike to protest an “excess-consumption society.” In exchange for housing, medical care and other services, the family works odd jobs. To eat, they largely rely on foodsharing, a practice in which people list and share food foraged from grocery store dumpsters. They hope their example inspires others to think about their own consumption and waste."


    I love the fact they brought another "consumer" into the world though. Hypocrisy is one of most prevalent of human traits.

  15. I think your economic calculus is out of date. If you factor in the extraordinarily high utility some get from sheer self-satisfaction, then even the complete ruination of the entire undeveloped and underdeveloped world would not be able to offset the net theoretical economic gain.

  16. Of course, we do need growth in many developing countries because human well-being is very low for most people in those countries. It is possible to argue that we have enough in the developed countries. But if we care about protecting the environment and resources, then directly controlling their use is the first best policy. Not only is stopping growth not a sensible policy - we at least want the increased productivity part of it so that we use less resources to achieve given ends - but there is no policy instrument to implement it. How would anti-growth advocates actually stop growth per se? Ban innovation?

  17. Unless we start rocketing material off into space, we can't change the material content of the Earth by much. Running out of raw materials is nonsense. But changing patterns of use of materials will be inevitable over time; ingenuity and (even more-so) available energy are the only required inputs to avoid the Malthusian catastrophe, in all its variants. Which is of course why maintaining availability of energy is so important.... and so strenuously resisted by the various Malthusian advocates.

  18. These people aren't against growth per se. That's just bombast designed to create controversy. What they want is to control growth in ways they find acceptable. It's all about outlawing growth that doesn't fit their precious ideology. If their local bicycle shop was flourishing because everyone was buying bikes instead of cars, they'd be happy. Conversely, If they could put the car makers out of business they'd also be happy.

    In the long term it's about establishing elitist control of free economies where governments decree, to a degree that will inevitably destroy growth and create chaos, economic stagnation and shortages. In other In other words, a return to the good old days where most people (but not the elites) live lives that are " . . . solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

    In the UK with the recent rise of "fuel poverty" in a world awash in energy and energy reserves, its already begun.

  19. Great article Roger.

    Once you have satisfied all of your basic material needs you can start to have the conversation about how much of your time you want to trade for the stuff you want and how much you want to keep for your own growth, education, and leisure. In a free and open society with resources and access to energy this is all a matter of acting out your free will - in a right-acting kind of way we all hope.

    People in the developed world are starting to work out new strategies for increasing happiness, developing human potential, and preserving the natural, urban, and cultural environments. But we still need to be able to afford to meet our basic needs and have enough children to pass all of this forward to. Winding up like the Spartans, extinct, would be stupid.

    Take hope, as a planetary civilization we are actually starting to work this out, but we just can't recognize it when we see it. The kingdom of heaven is spread across the face of the Earth but men do not see it. [oops, somebody already said that one]

    The last real problems will be selfishness and greed, which were also the first problems, and the solutions to those won't be economic, because they are spiritual problems.

    Some of the symptoms of the problems that Mr. DeGraff mentions in his response to Roger are actually solutions in process of evolving. If people are unhappy and if they have resources and live in a society where innovation is possible [not all are] people will automatically start revaluing things and creating new structures in their lives that will attempt balance their needs for stuff vs their need for happiness.

    People critical of "business as usual" really ought to be less 'prescriptive' and more 'exemplary'; make your solution to the problem more attractive than the slope-browed-retro-troglodyte alternative. Show us all how well it actually works.

    Be the change you want to see in the world. [oops somebody already said that too!]


  20. What the anti-growth environmentalists don't get is that environmental protection is a luxury good. Only rich societies can afford it or are willing to spend significant resources on it.

  21. "...the complete ruination of the entire undeveloped and underdeveloped world..."

    Many of the denizens of the underdeveloped world would be overjoyed to see it ruined with clean water, safe structures, reliable electricity, low cost wholesome food, and all of the other crimes against nature committed by the developed world.

  22. I have been working as an economic consultant and financial analyst in developing countries since 1970, in Africa, West, South and Southeast Asia, North Aftrica and the Near East, Central and South America.

    In my opinion, based on my observations in these countries, no matter what these modern Luddites intend for their own countries the developing countries will not, indeed cannot avoid seeking continued economic growth.

    As a matter of fact, polls in the developed countries have indicated that most people in the US, Canada and Europe put jobs and economic growth much higher in their list of priorities than environmental concerns in general and climate in particular.

    Amazing I think when you consider the immense propaganda efforts by the media and the governments in the developed world.

    Politicians who propose no-growth or even a slowdown in growth as policy will find themselves looking for other work.