Christopher Ketchum writes: The idea that economic growth can continue forever on a finite planet is the unifying faith of industrial civilization. That it is nonsensical in the extreme, a deluded fantasy, doesn’t appear to bother us. We hear the holy truth in the decrees of elected officials, in the laments of economists about flagging GDP, in the authoritative pages of opinion, in the whirligig of advertising, at the World Bank and on Wall Street, in the prospectuses of globe-spanning corporations and in the halls of the smallest small-town chambers of commerce. Growth is sacrosanct. Growth will bring jobs and income, which allow us entry into the state of grace known as affluence, which permits us to consume more, providing more jobs for more people producing more goods and services so that the all-mighty economy can continue to grow. “Growth is our idol, our golden calf,” Herman Daly, an economist known for his anti-growth heresies, told me recently.
In the United States, the religion is expressed most avidly in the cult of the American Dream. The gatekeepers of the faith happen to not only be American: The Dream is now, and has long been, a pandemic disorder. Growth is a moral imperative in the developing world, we are told, because it will free the global poor from deprivation and disease. It will enrich and educate the women of the world, reducing birth rates. It will provide us the means to pay for environmental remediation—to clean up what so-called economic progress has despoiled. It will lift all boats, making us all rich, healthy, happy. East and West, Asia and Europe, communist and capitalist, big business and big labor, Nazi and neoliberal, the governments of just about every modern nation on Earth: All have espoused the mad growthist creed.
In 1970, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began working on what would become the most important document of the 20th century to question this orthodoxy. The scientists spent two years holed up in the company of a gigantic mainframe computer, plugging data into a system dynamics model called World3, in the first large-scale effort to grasp the implications of growthism for mankind. They emerged with a book called The Limits to Growth, issued as a slim paperback by a little-known publisher in March of 1972. It exploded onto the scene, becoming the best-selling environmental title in history. In the Netherlands half a million copies sold within the year. More than three million copies have been sold to date in at least 30 languages.
Its message was commonsensical: If humans propagate, spread, build, consume, and pollute beyond the limits of our tiny spinning orb, we will have problems. This was not what Americans indoctrinated in growthism had been accustomed to hearing—and never had they heard it from Ph.D.’s marshaling data at one of the world’s citadels of learning. [Continue reading…]