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Finite Planet, Unlimited Growth: Is There Any Hope for Us?

November 22, 2011

Post No. 4 in the Prosperity Series

Tim Jackson, in Prosperity Without Growth, says that the economy cannot grow forever on a finite planet, that true prosperity is not about getting more stuff, and that people will flourish in a zero-growth world. (Book review here.)

Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist, says that past economic growth has enabled vast gains in true prosperity and that continued growth is not only possible but necessary to tackle the problems that still limit the quality of people’s lives. (Book review here.)

Who is right?

The vast gap between Jackson and Ridley has many dimensions, but there are two key differences: ecological limits; and the two writers’ conceptions of what it means to be human. This post looks at the first of these.

A Finite Planet

According to Jackson, a continually expanding economy will collide with the limits of a finite planet, as we run out of resources, cause climate change and destroy ecosystems. To stabilise these impacts while continuing to grow, technological innovation would need to occur many times faster than it has in the past.

Matt Ridley says the best way to overcome limits and protect the planet is to make the world richer through economic growth. His book is a history of how humans became different from other species through specialisation, innovation and markets; that is, human beings are exceptional and not limited by nature. He is optimistic that we can come up with the technology that will make continued growth possible, provided government meddling doesn’t turn off the innovation tap.

Ridley accuses “pessimists” of extrapolationism. He concedes they are right when they extrapolate trends into the future and conclude that if the world continues as it is, it will end in disaster for humanity. But, he says, the whole point of human progress is that the world will not continue as it is: “The human race has become a collective problem-solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways.” Here Ridley fails to notice his own use of extrapolation, which might be the practice that got him into trouble at Northern Rock Bank.

I believe Jackson accurately summarises the scientific consensus on climate change while Ridley plays it down. The effects of global warming are likely to be severe, and therefore we should take action. But do we need to move to zero-growth to avoid disaster?

Hope?

There is one possibility that both authors gloss over: solar power. Ridley dismisses it as hopelessly inefficient and destructive of nature because it needs vast areas, but here he ignores the increasing pace of improvement in solar technology, which makes it likely that solar energy will become cheaper than coal in the foreseeable future. If such a thing could happen, we could stop mining coal and oil and reduce emissions much more effectively than we can with a carbon tax. This is my hope.

But if that happens, the planet, in a sense, is no longer finite, as it is not a closed system. Does this negate Jackson’s contention that continued growth is impossible? And if we could have unlimited growth, would we want it? Is that what life is about, just getting more stuff? That will be the subject of the next post in this series – the two writers’ very different visions of what it means to be human.

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