As Greens, we should move these limits in a way that is in harmony with our natural environment.

Almost 40 years after the Club of Rome’s famous study on the ‘Limits to Growth’ there has been a reawakening of unease about economic growth.  No question about it: the current growth model is unsustainable.  It overburdens the ecosystem upon which mankind depends and creates increasing risks.  What is up for debate is the following: is it a question of saying goodbye to growth or about a major leap into an ecological modernity , in which economic growth is decoupled from the use of natural resources?  Is this vision of the environment one of prosperity without growth or one of growth with nature?

Let us look at the facts: An end to economic growth is pure fiction. We are actually in the middle of an enormous growth cycle that will continue over the coming decades. It is fed by two powerful sources: the growth of the global population from almost 7 billion today to around 9 million by 2050 and the desire of the vast majority of these people, currently dragging themselves out of poverty, to catch up economically. While we in the west talk about the limits of growth, those in Asia, Latin America and Africa are attempting to realise their dreams of a better life – modern homes, sufficient food, televisions, computers, telephones, fashionable clothes and the freedom to travel both at home and abroad. Nothing and no one will persuade them to abandon these goals. The question is whether this enormous drive for more goods and services will end in an environmental collapse or whether it can be guided into a more sustainable track.

It is no coincidence that criticism of growth is predominantly at home in Europe, a continent dealing with a declining population and increasing self doubt that its best time has already passed. Cultural commentator, Harald Welzer encapsulated this end of an era mentality in an article in the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (52/2009). He reproaches the West’s pursuit of growth as one that denies reality. “The West’s future is in the past. We have to be able to let go.” He claims that growth “neither creates employment nor eliminates global poverty.” It is true that economic growth on its own does not guarantee social improvement but to deny that growth, employment and standard of living are closely interwoven ignores all empirical evidence.

The Limits to Growth Are Variable

Declarations as to the ‘limits to growth’ are nothing new. At the end of the 18th century, when industrialisation was still in its initial phase, the English economist Robert Malthus, prophesied that agricultural production could no longer keep pace with the rapidly growing population. As agriculture was increasingly having to expand to use less productive land, in order to meet the growing demand for food, this would mean that average acreage production would inevitably sink as the population continued to expand. Rising food prices and increasing hunger would be unavoidable. Malthus’ law had one small error: it assumed the status quo would continue into the future. How could he have foreseen the groundbreaking discoveries of Justus Liebig and his contemporary Gregor Mendel? The combination of fertiliser use and systematic plant breeding revolutionised agriculture and increased production many fold.

Instead of coming up against fixed boundaries to growth, the global population has increased sevenfold since Malthus’ gloomy prognosis and enjoyed an increasing per capita consumption of calories. The soon to be 9 billion people on earth will have enough to eat if the necessary agricultural reforms are introduced in good time, the productivity of small farmers increases and the over-consumption of meat in the better off countries declines.

There is no question about it; there are environmental limits to growth that can only be exceeded on pain of serious ecological crisis. These limits are mainly the ability of the eco system to absorb manmade emissions. Our self-made climate change is a symptom of the fact that we have gone beyond what the atmosphere can cope with. These limits, however, are not absolute limits for future economic growth. The natural limits to growth are not fixed in stone. They can be expanded in two ways:

  • By improving resource efficiency (making more out of less);
  • By substituting renewable energy and materials for finite resources, thus accessing potentially infinite sources of wealth.

To date, industry has lived from energy resources stored in the earth: forests, coal, oil and gas. We can now see that use of fossil fuels has had a long-standing and neglected effect – it destabilises the earth’s climate. The age of fossil fuels has, in effect, reached its limits. In future, we will need to cover our energy needs with renewable resources. At the same time, the foreseeable exhaustion of many mineral resources is forcing a transfer to a bio-economy based on organic material. Finally, solar power should be the primary source for all production and consumption.

The Theme Tune of Technological Advance

The bridge to a solar powered future is via a continuing productivity increase in the use of resources. It is about creating more wealth from a fixed quantity of energy and raw material. This will extend the period in which scarce resources will be available and will allow time for the key innovations that will secure their substitutes. For Ernst Ulrich von Weizsächer, who coined the expression ‘Factor Five’, increasing the productivity of resources is ‘the theme tune of the new technical advances that will support a new and important growth cycle.’ In contrast to earlier slower waves of innovation, this time ‘the use of nature’s resources will decline while the level of wealth will increase.’ (Interview in changeX, 14.04.2010).

But what about the famous ‘rebound effect’ that says gains in efficiency will be eaten up by increasing consumption? In fact there are numerous empirical studies to support this. It is not, however, a natural law that use of resources expands more quickly than resource efficiency. A central guiding factor in the use of natural resources is the price of scarce goods. “Therefore we must ensure that limited resources become more expensive over time.” (von Weizsächer ). Energy prices will have to rise at least in line with energy productivity in order to discourage greater consumption. Technical innovation on its own will not be sufficient. To attain the desired environmental goals there will need to be political intervention in the markets.

Leitmotiv – Quality Growth

For millennia the human population and material production grew only very slowly.  With the industrial age, a breathtaking acceleration began.  Between 1800 and 2000, there was a six-fold increase in population, a 40-fold increase in energy consumption and a 50-fold increase in the global economy (Christian Schwägerl, Menschenzeit, Munich 2010).  To view the dynamic of the industrial society in terms of quantity is simply too limiting.  Whatever criteria are used, whether it is life expectancy, infant mortality, per capita food consumption, education, health care, women’s rights or democratic freedom, increasing material wealth has gone hand in hand with social development.  As the quantity of available goods and services increased, so did their quality.  Contrary to widespread prejudice, this is also is true of food, clothing, domestic appliances, cars, computers and medicines.  Competition for customers is not just about price but also about quality.  “Qualitative growth” may well be a new leitmotiv but this issue is anything but new.

Man and Nature Together

In his book ‘Das Prinzip Hoffnung’, Ernst Bloch set down his thoughts on a new relationship between man and nature that anticipated what the ecological  transformation of the industrial society would mean.  Following up on Schelling’s differentiation between nature as an object and nature as a ‘productivity’ he created a utopia that was a co-production of man and nature.  Contemporary technology operated in nature as “an army in enemy territory”.  In contrast a future “alliance-based technology” would seek to  “release the dormant creations of nature.” (Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 1985).  While other creatures live in unconscious symbiosis with their natural environment, Man, who no longer has such a connection, must consciously re-establish this alliance.  Bionics therefore seeks to translate biological processes and materials into technical innovations and to learn from the amazing solutions that evolution has developed over long periods of time.  Further examples of alliance-based technology are:

  • Solar and wind energy, tidal power, use of crop waste in bio energy
  • Nano and bio technologies that reduce material and energy consumption
  • Recycling of metal using bacterial processes
  • Buildings that produce more energy than they consume
  • Vertical green houses producing fruit and vegetables that use the heat emanating from high rise buildings
  • The use of carbon dioxide from industrial plants to breed algae that can provide base material for medicines, cosmetics, food and animal fodder
  • Greening the deserts: the use of highly concentrated thermal/solar energy in desalination plants in order to make desert areas near the coast productive.


The Role of Politics

If we do not want to risk serious crises, the global economy will, in future, have to develop within certain environmental guidelines that will keep us away from the eco-system’s pollution limits. The primary role of politics is to set rules for the conduct of business and trade, investors and consumers but a key issue will be the setting of declining CO2 emissions at national, European and international level. At the same time, we also require a ‘bottom up’ ecological movement driven by high tech firms, organic farmers, inventors and investors, environmental protection groups and consumers.

The question as to whether we will successfully make the change to sustainable growth in a timely manner remains undecided. We could lose the race with the ecological crisis. The future remains unclear but the ability of our open society to innovate is boundless. We certainly hope so.

This article was originally published in Die Ziet.

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