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Clinging to economic growth suffocates the imagination | Andrew Simms

After 40 years, the message of The Limits to Growth report is still not being heard. We need other ways to share a finite planet

Listen to the news today and you would think that economic growth was the only answer to all our problems. But 40 years ago The Limits to Growth, written by a group of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published by The Club of Rome, broke a modern taboo: it suggested that growth itself might be the problem.

It wasn’t the first time someone had suggested that an economy endlessly expanding in scale was neither possible nor necessarily desirable. As long ago as 1821, David Ricardo wrote of the ultimate equilibrium to which economic development led. And, in his Principles of Political Economy, 1848, John Stuart Mill raised and answered the question like this:

“Towards what ultimate point is society tending by its industrial progress? When the progress ceases, in what condition are we to expect that it will leave mankind? It must always have been seen, more or less distinctly, by political economists, that the increase of wealth is not boundless: that at the end of what they term the progressive state lies the stationary state, that all progress in wealth is but a postponement of this.”

Why, then, did The Limits to Growth shock in 1972, and why does questioning growth today still provoke incredulity and anger? The report itself became something of an albatross for the green movement. The view entered folklore that it contained predictions about resource use that were alarmist and plain wrong. But, as New Scientist magazine reported recently, it was the critics of the book who turned out to be mistaken.

For one thing, the model used by the MIT scientists didn’t make precise “predictions”, but projected what was likely to happen if certain trends continued, allowing for “adjustable assumptions” of resource use. Their real finding was not that collapse was likely to occur by a particular year, but that population and the global economy would contract rapidly after peaking. The only circumstances under which some kind of stabilisation, rather than collapse, was achieved, was constraining population and the scale of the economy.

Models and reality are not the same thing. But – strikingly given the relatively crude computer modelling available at the time – the MIT projections have proved remarkably accurate. Today they can be checked against decades of actual data. Population, industrial output, pollution and food consumption all track the lines in the model.

There is a popular view that economic growth can be saved by efficiency measures, recycling and technological substitution, such as nuclear and renewable energy replacing fossil fuels. Yet the model allowed even for these variables, and crashed under the pressure of growth just the same.

I took part in a debate last week with Michael Jacobs who was an environmental adviser to Gordon Brown’s Treasury. My job was to respond to a lecture he gave at University College London called The Green Moment? The Crises of Capitalism and the Response of Progressive Politics. Jacobs’s critique, which several on the left share, is that pointing out the non-viability of economic growth (at least at the global aggregate level and where rich countries are concerned) is a mistaken article of faith in the green movement.

His argument is that, firstly, opposing growth is bad politics, it’s bad spin for the green movement that “puts people off”. Secondly he argues that low growth is compatible, even in rich countries, with environmental constraints. The first point is immaterial if the limits are scientifically real. It is an inconvenient reality that cannot be spun away. The second point is a claim that must be backed with evidence, it cannot simply be asserted.

And while I have yet to see any figures to illustrate how growth in rich countries can, in perpetuity, be compatible with environmental limits, several assessments point to the opposite conclusion. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University found that to prevent dangerous global warming, economic growth in rich countries would not be possible. With colleagues at the New Economics Foundation, I came to a similar conclusion.

Jacobs quotes, admiringly, the work of Tim Jackson on “prosperity without growth” with the former government advisory body the Sustainable Development Commission. Yet Jackson’s work too, as the name suggests, foresees a future without growth.

Work by the Stockholm Resilience Centre on environmental “planetary boundaries” shows several have already been transgressed, requiring large absolute reductions of consumption in rich countries.

One thing is sure: advocates of growth need to be able to show not only that environmental impact can be cancelled out by efficiency and resource substitution, but that deep, absolute reductions in resource use can be achieved simultaneously, and that such gains can be made year, after year, after year, ad infinitum.

A key insight by the original MIT group was the problem of time lag. Environmental problems became obvious and were acted on too late. Damage became locked in. This is the moment we are now living through. Nasa climate scientist James Hansen recently pointed out that if the rich world had started reducing emissions as recently as 2007, the annual reductions necessary would have been 3%. Wait until next year and the figure rises to 6%, wait further until 2020 and the annual target leaps to a staggering 15% reduction per year.

Bear in mind that the Stern Review on the economics of climate change found that annual emissions reductions greater than 1% have “been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”.

There are many problematic issues to do with growth that can’t be covered here. Clinging to growth, however, suffocates the imagination needed to devise more convivial ways to share a finite planet. At the very least, and with so much evidence to the contrary, the burden of proof now lies heavily on those who reject the original message of the Limits report, for them to demonstrate how, and under what circumstances, we could possibly enjoy “growth forever” in a finite world. Kenneth Boulding, the founder of general systems theory, thought this to be a view held only by “madmen and economists”.

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