What’s wrong with economic growth?

Dave Gardner is a gutsy guy.  Gardner, who is 56, a former corporate filmmaker, set his career aside a few years ago to run for office in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO, and make a documentary film called Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth that puts forth an unpopular idea–that economic growth is bad for the environment and bad for human happiness.

“I want to make it OK for people to be against growth,” Dave says, when asked why he ran for office and made the movie.

Dave and I fundamentally disagree. I think economic growth is vital, not just to lift billions of people out of poverty–global per capita income is currently about $10,700, if Wikipedia is to be believed–but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.

Nevertheless, I would urge you to see Dave’s film (screenings are listed here, or you can buy the DVD) both because he raises a number of important questions and and because, to his credit, has managed to capture on film some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the topic of growth–Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor and author of the controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, sociologist Juliet Schor, whose books include The Overworked American, the heretical economist Herman Daly, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and the charismatic political economist and author Raj Patel.

Here are some of the arguments in Dave’s film that I find persuasive:

Cities and states shouldn’t compete against one another to lure businesses. Dave got involved with the growth issue because his hometown, Colorado Springs, was growing fast. Like many cities and states, Colorado Springs offered tax and other incentives to keep its best-known employer–the U.S. Olympic Committee-in the city. The package of incentives was worth $53 million, Dave says, and it’s an expenditure of public money that”is completely unproductive from a national or global standpoint.”

Dave Gardner

Consumption is a big environmental problem–and it doesn’t make us happy. True enough, yet there’s very little conversation about this in the environmental movement.  In the film, Dave says:

We’ve become like rats running in a cage. For too many it’s drudgery, but we are driven by the quest for the good life. What’s worse, most of us never get to the cheese. We’ve all become slaves to a system we created.

Overconsumption, however we choose to define it, is making the planet unhealthier. I have a bumper sticker in my office with a slogan from a small NGO called the Center for the New American Dream: “More fun, less stuff.”

Population is a major environmental issue. This may seem obvious, but it’s not a topic that the big environmental groups  (Sierra Club, NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, etc.) talk about much. “It has so much baggage attached to it,” Dave says. OK, but isn’t it likely that a world with 8 billion people will be healthier and more prosperous than one with 9 billion people? Making birth control universally available might be a more cost-effective way of dealing with the climate crisis than subsidizing solar panels or wind turbines.

Here are arguments in the film that lead Dave and I to part ways.

We’re running out of resources. As Matt Ridley notes in The Rational Optimist, we’ve run out of some resources–whale oil, Lebanon cedars and guano, all of which were thought to be “renewable.” But we haven’t run out of oil, coal, gas, copper, uranium, etc. For better or worse, there are not fixed amounts of these resources; their availability depends on the price people are willing to pay, and the technology available to harvest them. As Ridley writes:

We now know, as we did not in the 1960s, that more than six bullion people can live upon the planet in improving health, food security and life expectancy, and that this is compatible with cleaner air, increasing forest cover and some booming populations of elephants. The resources and technologies of 1960 could not have support six billion — but the technologies changed and so the resources change.

Paul Ehrlich lost a famous bet with the economist Julian Simon (who’s dissed in this movie) about whether the prices of five metals chosen by Ehrlich would rise or fall during the 1980s. Naturally, Ehrlich said the prices would rise; in fact, they dropped.

Economic growth is unsustainable. Uh, no–business as usual is unsustainable but the film does not take into account the ability of people to innovate. Predictions are hard, especially about the future, but it’s safe to say that 2111 will be less like 2011 than 2011 is like 1911 — before highways, radio, TV, the Internet, mobile phones, air travel, nuclear power, etc. If the costs of raw materials rise, it’s not a great leap to envision a world where everything is powered with renewable energy and everything we no longer need is made into something else.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there’s a group of 1 or 2 billion people who don’t get much attention in the film–the world’s very poor. I also wonder how many of the 14 million unemployed Americans believe economic growth is a problem. I asked Dave about this and, to his credit, he said the answer is redistribution.

“We, in the rich nations, overdid it,” he told me. “We have got to really contract our economies out of fairness to allow those other economies to have their fair shake.”

But it’s unlikely that Americans will ever b persuaded to make sacrifices so that people in China and India can live better. Better to find ways to prudently expand the pie than to fight over who gets which piece. Put bluntly, economic growth isn’t the problem. It’s the solution.


  1. Amoros Xavier says

    Well, Marc, one cannot seriously make a conclusive statement like “Growth is good or bad or even it is the solutions” in such a short article.
    It needs more debate and even books.
    For America, where every citizen consumes twofold the amount of materials of the average European and where economic growth remains tightly coupled with the material consumption growth, then economic growth can hardly be a solution per se. A more balanced distribution of wealth is probably a right way for America where the richest people possess and earn far more than what they decently need.
    In Africa or in India, the need for a better life is so blatant, then growth is more certainly a valuable objective.

  2. says

    Thank you, Marc, for a very thoughtful review of my film, GrowthBusters. I applaud your recognition that population growth is a significant contributor to many of our modern challenges, and that the topic is too often avoided.

    Of course, I am compelled to comment on what you wrote about resources and economic growth. I think I get your point about how we manage to wring more of a resource out of the Earth – as we (in my words) get more desperate for it and are willing to invest more money and energy to extract it. But I seriously doubt you equate that with an unlimited, inexhaustible supply. The supply of many resources on Earth is, for all practical purposes, finite. And while there isn’t a long list of resources we’ve completely exhausted, today we are past the peak of production of many. In the mining process for many resources, today we move tons of earth to get ounces of material. I suggest exploring this analysis of the resource situation: http://wakeupamerika.com/PDFs/Continuously-Less-and-Less.pdf

    You quote Matt Ridley we now know more than 6 billion can live on the planet with improving quality of life. Ridley fails to tell us we are only accomplishing that by slowly liquidating the planet of its resources. Ridley’s perspective might be likened to taking off from New York City and heading east in a jet with fuel enough only to get 75% of the way to London. Halfway there, everything looks great. Is the first half of the trip real assurance the second half is going to be a delight? The real question is can we feed and otherwise meet the needs of 7, 8 or 10 billion people sustainably (over the long haul)? Or can we have perpetual economic growth even in a world with a stable population of 7 billion? I submit without increasing supplies of fossil fuels, fertile soil and fresh water, we cannot even feed 6 billion for long. Gus Speth said it well when he wrote:

    “…all we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy.
    Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in.”

    It is not just challenging, but impossible, to continue economic growth. Looking backward, certainly economic growth appears to be the path to improving the lives of those in the less developed world. It’s the only one we’ve known. But if that is physically impossible, and if it isn’t really providing fulfilling lives for us in the developed world, it strikes me as the wrong goal. Herman Daly tells us economic growth cannot continue forever. We resist that sobering dose of reality, ignoring plenty of evidence around us. I’m suggesting, since growth is not a sustainable state, it ought not to be a goal. Sufficiency is a more realistic goal than perpetual growth. It ought to be the goal for those of us overconsuming today, and it ought to be a goal for those whose basic needs are unmet today.

    Dave Gardner

    • says

      Dave, thanks for your comment. I like when you write; “Sufficiency is a more realistic goal that perpetual growth.” I think that makes sense from a human, environmental and spiritual perspective. But we would probably define sufficiency a little differently–sufficiency in the Middle Ages is different from sufficiency today because the notion of “what we need” is socially determined and not objective. Still, I would love a world in which we all get what we need as opposed to striving for more and more.

      As for “finite” resources, well, time will tell. Is the sun’s energy finite? What if we could recycle the CO2 we are emitting into the air? I can imagine a world in which products would be designed to be 100% recycled, and systems created where everything we no longer want is made into something else. I think you underestimate the power of human ingenuity. And I certainly hope so!

      Thanks again for the movie, Dave.

      • Piyush says

        “Is the sun’s energy finite”. Yes it is finite, this is basic science. In fact, M King Hubbert showed why this is the key reason why growth as we know it has to stop someday whether we like it or not and why this is so difficult because growth has become a culture. Of course, cornucopians will argue we can tap more and more energy from outer space but there is a thermodynamic limit to this and then they will say we can go and live in outer space, but what is the point? Do we really need to keep population and consumption growing endlessly? Do we just want to see more and more of us everywhere? I think we can do better than rats with a 3 pound brain.

        For scientific information on growth, reading the do the math blog by a professro http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/ would be very useful.

  3. says

    I don’t know, Marc. I think I’m inclined to side with Dave on this one, especially for the foreseeable future. The scorecard for quality of life may have changed since 1911, but it doesn’t change the fact that we can’t really point to any natural ecosystem on earth that operates in better health now than it did in 1911.

    “…but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.”

    Well to date, societies are that are more prosperous are better at causing environmental issues that people like you and I try to help mitigate. As the world’s most prosperous economy, America is by no means a role model for sustainability. I agree we certainly could/should be, but…

    I too have no doubts about humans’ capacity for innovation in the face of adversity. It is ironic perhaps that for as much as we seem to be opposed to change, we are amazingly adaptive. At the same time, it doesn’t change the fact that space is finite. I think it is fair to say that many natural ecosystems in the world function successfully because they do not have people on every square inch—and in kind, many are functioning unsuccessfully because of human occupation.

    If one believes that humans need the natural counterpart to survive (a mentality I subscribe to) then the world has to have a finite capacity for people. Whether it’s 7 billion, or 9 billion, or 12 billion almost doesn’t matter because it simply becomes a question of which generation is going to accept the realism of the issue and respond to it in some fundamental way. The point is, there is a limit. Eventually, if the rate of population growth slowed so too would be pressure on needing economic growth decrease. I’m not saying that we should be trying to flatline the world economy now, but championing the idea of perpetual growth is a physical impossibility. The important step that more people have to take is the one away from the concept of limitlessness.

  4. Sibley says

    Thanks Marc and Dave for explaining your well thought out opinions. These do seem like important things to debate.

    The more research into it I do the more I see that the problems and challenges to growth Dave Gardner brings up are incredibly important, but that in the conclusions about growth Marc is correct, as is Matt Ridley. It’s not just that I want to believe that – in fact I have as much of the knee-jerk doomsaying in me as most (and hence am on the fringe already with being an off-the-grid vegetarian who buys little). But in a surprise to us natural doomsayers, history and a detailed view of the whole picture really do seem to support the conclusion that doomsayers keep being largely wrong – that when we do temporarily trip ourselves up on a global scale it is in ways that just a few years prior really almost no one saw coming (The Fourth Turning perhaps excepted) – and that Marc is right – with the economic incentives brought almost entirely by seeking growth, we will keep inventing our way out of Malthusian catastrophe, usually well before we’re even all that close to it.

    I believe David’s argument really hits a wall when he says that perpetual growth is impossible – that just is not true on any time scale short of millions of years. There are no physical limits we know of that are truly fundamental to continual growth through technological innovation that are within many orders of magnitude of the economic output we have now.

    The right focus, I strongly believe, is on mitigating the negative consequences. Smart Growth, you might say. That is a huge challenge, and as stated by Amoros, is not something that can even be approached concisely.

  5. says


    I don’t see how “history” is a very good indicator for avoiding environmental/growth disasters. Throughout most of humanity’s history our affect on the earth has been minimal. What other historic examples do we have of us negatively affecting the climate on a global scale, perhaps with the exception of the ozone layer (which is pretty recent history)? Given that humans have exponential growth rates, the problem is recent and consistently compounded. I’m not sure we have a lot of historic data that points to our ability to invent ourselves out of this scale of potential problems.

    As for having no physical limits that we know of for growth, I’m not sure I agree with that. How about the fact that so many of the world’s fisheries are massively depleted? Perhaps that the Amazon rainforest is 20% smaller? What about the rise in extinction rates, let alone those predicted for the next century at our current pace? Do any of these things “inhibit” us from making more people? Not exactly, but they are signs that our growing prosperity is coming at the expense of the prosperity of the natural world. If one believes that the health of the natural world is fundamental to our survival then the limits are presenting themselves. When the prosperity of the natural world can match that of human civilization, then I’ll believe there is nothing inhibiting us from growing further.

    • Don Ryan says

      I agree with you Sibley except that we do have significant historical data that points to very large and detrimental effects human beings have had on the natural environment. Not in the realm of climate change to the degree we have today, but our early human ancestors killed and drove to extinction several megafauna species on three continents, and has been killing species to extinction since. I used to glamourize many “modern” aboriginal spiritual relationships with nature before I came to understand that they were fairly recent evolutions that stemmed from trial and error over thousands of years. I still think we have a lot to learn from First Nations and aboriginal cultures in many regions, and the disconnect between the First World and most tribal cultures serves to illustrate a fundamental shortcoming in our scientific and technological/economic approach to engaging with the surrounding natural world and its resources.

  6. says

    I want to thank everyone who commented on this post. This is a great discussion, and exactly the kind of discussion and thought I’m trying to encourage with this film. I do feel compelled to comment on the remark that history seems to indicate we can innovate our way around limits. T. Caine did a good job of addressing this, but I’d like to add even more clarity.

    Historically we managed to kick the can down the road, putting off the day of reckoning, true. However, we did that when the world wasn’t quite so full of people. We did that when there were 2 billion, or 4 billion, or 5 billion on the planet. In the future, we may have to attempt that with 7, 8 or 10 billion.

    If you take off from New York and head for London in a jet with fuel enough only to get you 75% of the way, when you’re halfway there history will tell you it’s going to be a great trip.

    Dave Gardner

  7. says

    Enlivening discussion on new perspectives on what ails us as a ‘world.’

    I’ve thought about the issues most of my life and postulated different ways in which ‘humanity’ should change its behaviour in order to improve life for everyone. I used to think ‘revolution,’ but now I tend to think ‘evolution.’ In the natural world, evolution is driven by necessity and change happens so gradually that generations pass before it can even be measured. I liken economic growth phenomena to a heavily-loaded freight train barreling down the track, and I – in this scenario – am equipped with one penny-worth of influence in slowing it down before it hurtles off the track. I lay my penny on the track knowing it won’t make a notable difference unless millions join me and make a mountain of pennies that will have a chance of slowing down the train.

    Over-population is a case in point. The hazards to human life and to the planet of too many people consuming too many resources is well-known; a method by which the problem is being addressed (except, possibly, in dictatorial regimes like China) is nowhere visible other than in terms of pennies laid down by individuals and small groups from time to time. Crassly put, population size is self-regulating in the evolutionary scenario; famine adjusts population.

    A bunch of people pooling their pennies to make a film is nevertheless a great thing; even in an evolutionary scenario, the ultimate crime may be tossing away one’s small offering in futility. Although policies that last respond to necessity, the alternatives can be laid out for the time when necessity finally comes to call.

    It’s not a great time to be a growth buster where I live. My province (Saskatchewan) is in boom-time mode with ever-increasing resource activity and revenues (potash, oil, gas) and social policy is being rolled over by the euphoria of good times brought about by growth. It can be very discouraging if you’re hoping for ‘revolution;’ in many ways, Saskatchewan will evolve backwards for the foreseeable future — at least from a growth busters viewpoint.

  8. Rusty says

    5 years ago, humanity’s combined ecological footprint was 1.5 Earths. That has only increased since then, with more people and greater consumption. This is a major issue that must be fixed, but the monster looming over the horizon is far more terrifying. India and China are developing economies. It would be reasonable to say that they are hoping to gain the same level of prosperity that is currently enjoyed by the USA. Combined they represent 36.4 % of the population. What happens if they reach a comparable level of consumption as the USA which only represents 4.6% of the worlds population? How many earths will we need? 5,6? Obviously this is unsustainable yet it would arrogant of us westerners to put limits on their prosperity. What is needed is redefining of what prosperity is and importantly, what is most important.

    Happiness is the goal that most humans strive for. Now it is a scientific fact that you can’t be happy all the time, so constant happiness is unrealistic. The way we currently live is supposed to be geared towards making us happy, and you would expect the most developed economies with the access to most resources would therefore be the happiest. It is interesting then that in a 53 country poll featuring poor and rich countries, the happiest was Nigeria. Scientific studies have shown that once our basic needs a covered (food, shelter, security) and we have a bit to spend on the side (say average earning of 50,000 a year) no more material wealth will make us happy over the long term. Buying new things is like a drug, you get a kick for a short time, but it soon wears off, and you must ‘use’ again to get the rush. This brain chemistry makes sense in an evolutionary perspective, in that the strive to gain new things is stronger than the reward for getting them. If we did not possess this, we would have no drive. However we no longer live in hunter gather societies where this drive was key to survival. Now that all our basic needs are covered and then some (in the western world) we CAN be happy with what we have got, and should strive to satisfy the needs of those humans who do not. The biggest predictor of happiness is the extent of our social relationships. A primary reason that our brains have evolved in the manner they have is so we can be social. Unfortunately the more-stuff-will-make-me-happy fallacy still rules our collective psych. It’s what fuels growth.

    Economic growth has therefore become a massive joke. Continued increasing material wealth past a certain point does not increase net happiness of the human race. It more likely decreases it due to the destruction of the natural world around us, which studies show relaxes us and relieves stress. Then why? why? why? do we still adhere to it? We have to question the fundamental questions of existence, rather than just economics. What are hoping to attain from our individual lives? If it is happiness, then we are failing.

    If we think we have detached ourselves from the natural world and attained a higher plain of existence through our society and culture, we are deluded. . Because at the moment, we are still big silly monkeys acting on primal urges. Yes we have set up complex systems to satisfy these urges, but they are still the same as any other animals. Disastrously, we have evolved a level of intelligence that allows us to exploit the natural world around us in ways unprecedented throughout the history of the earth. Fortunately we have evolved the intelligence and perspective to fix our errors before its too late. Will we? Stands to be seen.

    Three hundred trout are needed to support one man for a year. The trout, in turn, must consume 90 000 frogs, that must consume 27 million grasshoppers that live off of 1 000 tons of grass. What happens when the grass is gone?

  9. Marc Gunther says

    Great comment, Rusty, you raise really important questions about the role of consumption–a topic not discussed nearly enough by environmental groups.

  10. nora says

    Europeans lived in filth for centuries. The high rate of procreation in that culture assured population growth despite the lack of interest and skill in sanitation.

    As a dominator culture, the Europeans procreated and split their so-called “continental” seams and looked for more land to relieve their population growth. On that search they discovered sanitation practices in the Middle East and East. But, unfortunately, they did not observe other ways of improving life, also, like those regarding procreation practices which they might have adopted; I’m referring to the European men’s abuse of women wherein they treat women as baby-making machines, with no male sexual abstinence while mothers are nursing, no rest for mothers, and the result is rapid sequential births, etc. (This attitude is still preserved as “traditional” religious “morality” in the Roman Catholic and American Protestent religious dogma that even eschews birth control let alone a woman’s prerogative to say “not now”.) The European patriarchal dominator culture adopted none of these logical approaches toward reproduction that were protective of the health of women and offspring and evident in indigenous cultures of those they invaded and dominated. (Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Africa did maintain such practices as Native American women had a vote in tribal affairs, and in African village communities womens’ role and health was vital to the success of the whole community. In these cultures, women were often the agriculturalists.). The European patriarchal dominator culture adopted none of these attitudes/practices that allow women strength and a balancing force in the culture and society.

    The spread of Europeans to the Western Hemisphere and Africa were their population pressure release valve. As the dominator culture of the Planet, Europeans have spread THEIR culture while destabilizing the cltures of other peoples; the result has been the loss of cultural/societal position of average women around the world and the adoption of European patriarchal non-stop breeding practices preferred by European males, of which the bloated consumption problem is another expression of out-of-control European appetites.

    And now Europeans and those of European extraction say the rest of the world makes too many children and needs too much resources to sustain. How spaced-out and clueless can the European intellect get?

    European-sourced profiteering and industrialization has befouled the environment. Yet, the Europeans and the European-extraction Americans expect the rest of the world to make the greatest sacrifices — a global austerity plan, if you will — while they keep their standard of living elevated. That is not a solution to the world’s pollution and population crises. Again, the EuroDominators are clueless, self-absorbed navel gazers, oblivious of not only their responsibility for this dilemma, but also intransigent in fulfilling their own PRIME role in being the ONLY starting point in any solution to these problems.

    • Aleister says

      Typical incorrect European culture hating, feminazi lies. “I’m referring to the European men’s abuse of women wherein they treat women as baby-making machines, with no male sexual abstinence while mothers are nursing, no rest for mothers, and the result is rapid sequential births, etc.” That sounds more like a description of Islam.

      It is normal and natural for human beings to produce an abundence of children; large families aren’t a European creation. Low birth rates only occur in unnatural, highly industrlialized nations like Japan, Germany and Italy, or countries were the government enforces low birth rates eg China.

      For thousands of years the worlds population only increased very slowly despite high birth rates. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the world’s human population took off, and it happened around the globe, due to increased agricultural output mainly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth

      The solution: limit the number of children people can have, either by denying welfare to people who have more than their allotted number of children, or if that fails to work, compulsory sterilization (we force people to have vaccinations, so why not sterilization as well?). This should be combined with eugenics – good people should be allowed to breed more than bad people (by bad I mean stupid, lazy, mentally ill, physically sick, sociopaths, criminals, drug addicts).

  11. mtnprivy@yahoo.com says

    Just an observation, Rusty, from someone who lives up a “holler” near WVa. The happiness of folks in Nigeria is assisted by their abundance of sunshine, which I have experienced the lack of in late fall/winter days. That is NO SMALL thing.
    On the other hand, it is hard to argue that our consumption is NOT coupled to exploitation of resources. While finding uses for each step of something down the entropy ladder could help, in the end we still need to have limits, and we are BEYOND those limits now. It would be good for Marc to acquaint himself with Frederick Soddy, and his connection of physics to the economy. Our only income on earth is the sun’s radiation to earth. This must serve all the earth systems, and humans too. It would be smart if we did not intercede so much between these two essential players. After all, we are NOT a “producer” but merely a consumer. We are a dependent and should not forget that the health of our host is MOST IMPORTANT.

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