Are there limits to economic growth? It’s time to call time on a 50-year argument


Fifty years ago this month, the System Dynamics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge had a stark message for the world: continued economic and population development would diminish Earths resources and lead to global financial collapse by 2070. Theres now a consensus that human activities have irreparable ecological effects, researchers disagree on the solutions– especially if that involves suppressing financial growth. A parallel research study motion, understood as post-growth or degrowth, says that the world requires to abandon the idea that economies should keep growing– because development itself is harmful. Its proponents include Kate Raworth, a financial expert at the University of Oxford, UK, and author of the 2017 book Doughnut Economics, which has actually inspired its own international movement.Economic growth is normally measured by gross domestic item (GDP). And that is a problem, state post-growth scientists: when faced with an option between two policies (one more green than the other), governments are most likely to opt for whichever is the quicker in increasing development to reinforce GDP, and that may frequently be the choice that triggers more pollution.A report released last week by the World Health Organization (see go.nature.com/3j9xcpi) states that if policymakers didnt have a “pathological obsession with GDP”, they would spend more on making health care economical for every resident.

Fifty years ago this month, the System Dynamics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge had a plain message for the world: continued economic and population growth would deplete Earths resources and result in worldwide economic collapse by 2070. This finding was from their 200-page book The Limits to Growth, one of the very first modelling research studies to forecast the ecological and social impacts of industrialization.For its time, this was a stunning forecast, and it did not decrease well. Nature called the study “another whiff of end ofthe world” (see Nature 236, 47– 49; 1972). It was near-heresy, even in research circles, to suggest that a few of the structures of industrial civilization– mining coal, making steel, drilling for oil and spraying crops with fertilizers– may trigger lasting damage. Research leaders accepted that market pollutes air and water, but considered such damage reversible. Those trained in a pre-computing age were also sceptical of modelling, and advocated that technology would concern the worlds rescue. Zoologist Solly Zuckerman, a former chief scientific consultant to the UK government, stated: “Whatever computer systems may state about the future, there is nothing in the past which offers any credence whatever to the view that human resourcefulness can not in time circumvent product human problems.”But the studys lead author, Donella Meadows, and her associates stood firm, pointing out that ecological and financial stability would be possible if action were taken early. Limitations contributed to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme, also in 1972. In general, more than 30 million copies of the book have actually been sold.But the disputes have not stopped. Although theres now a consensus that human activities have irreversible environmental effects, scientists disagree on the options– specifically if that involves curbing economic growth. That difference is impeding action. Its time for researchers to end their argument. The world requires them to focus on the higher goals of stopping devastating ecological destruction and enhancing well-being. Researchers such as Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany supporter that economies can grow without making the world unliveable. They point to evidence, especially from the Nordic nations, that economies can continue to grow even as carbon emissions begin to come down. This shows that whats required is much quicker adoption of technology– such as sustainable energy. A parallel research study movement, referred to as post-growth or degrowth, says that the world needs to abandon the idea that economies must keep growing– since growth itself is harmful. Its supporters consist of Kate Raworth, an economist at the University of Oxford, UK, and author of the 2017 book Doughnut Economics, which has motivated its own international movement.Economic growth is normally determined by gross domestic product (GDP). This composite index uses customer spending, along with organization and government investment, to get here at a figure for a nations economic output. Federal governments have actually whole departments committed to making sure that GDP constantly points upwards. Which is an issue, state post-growth researchers: when faced with a choice between two policies (another green than the other), federal governments are likely to opt for whichever is the quicker in enhancing development to reinforce GDP, which may often be the alternative that triggers more pollution.A report published last week by the World Health Organization (see go.nature.com/3j9xcpi) says that if policymakers didnt have a “pathological fascination with GDP”, they would spend more on making health care affordable for every resident. Health spending does not add to GDP in the exact same method that, for instance, military costs does, state the authors, led by financial expert Mariana Mazzucato at University College London.Both neighborhoods must do more to talk to each other, rather of at each other. It will not be simple, however gratitude for the very same literature could be a starting point. Limits influenced both the green-growth and post-growth communities, and both were likewise influenced by the very first study on planetary borders (J. Rockström et al. Nature 461, 472– 475; 2009), which tried to define limitations for the biophysical processes that determine Earths capacity for self-regulation. Opportunities for cooperation loom. At the end of January, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services announced a big research study into the causes of biodiversity loss, consisting of the role of financial systems. More than 100 authors from 40 nations and various fields will invest two years examining the literature. They will recommend “transformative change to the systems leading us to disaster”, states research study co-chair, political scientist Arun Agrawal at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.Another chance is an upcoming revision of the guidelines for what is determined in GDP. These will be concurred by countries primary statisticians and arranged through the UN, and are because of be completed in 2025. For the very first time, the statisticians are asking how sustainability and wellness could be more carefully aligned to GDP. Both green-growth and post-growth advocates have valuable perspectives.Research can be territorial– new neighborhoods emerge in some cases due to the fact that of arguments in fields. Green-growth and post-growth researchers require to see the bigger photo. Today, both are articulating various visions to policymakers, and there is a risk this will postpone action. In 1972, there was still time to dispute, and less seriousness to act. Now, the world is lacking time.

Lead author Donella Meadows wrote that the book The Limits to Growth “was written not to predict doom but to challenge people to discover methods of living that follow the laws of the planet”. Credit: Alamy


Related Post