On Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOct 17, 2014 10:04 PM


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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 Timescolumns:

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.

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