Limits to growth – there is no Planet-B
July 10th, 2010 by Jules
Economist Kenneth Boulding quips that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”. As Richard Branson has put it, “There is no planet-B.”
However we are living as if there were no limits. The last fifty years, the ‘era of pseudo-satisfaction’ and hyper-industrial, growth-obsessed consumerism has driven us to seek to deliver materially to what are known as ‘non-material’ needs. Living our lives mediated through extrinsic values, and seeking identity and love through material possessions, is costing us the earth whilst failing to satisfy our underlying wellbeing needs.
The scale of the challenge of ‘decoupling’ this growth from ecological impacts is truly enormous. Scale and intensity are key to decoupling and yet, whilst globally material and energy intensity has been reducing, the scale of the economy has been far outpacing any of these improvements. The very best technological improvements tend to sit at around 2% efficiency improvements p.a. or a factor two improvement over 35 years. And in many areas the low hanging fruit has been picked. For example electric motors are now at 90% efficiency – they can’t go much further. To keep below a liberal 450ppm emissions target, we would need the carbon intensity of every global dollar of economic output to fall from today’s 768gm of CO2 to 6gm of CO2. That’s an 11% p.a. reduction on every global dollar of output. To put that in context, the best reductions managed between 1990 and 2007 were 0.7% p.a. Even if growth stopped in developed countries we would still need 5-6% p.a. reductions. As financial analysts Tullett Prebon have recently said “technology is no seventh cavalry riding to the rescue.”
A consensus is therefore building that, unless we find something akin to a perpetual-motion machine fast, macro-scale growth will need to halt. And if the poor world is to continue to develop, that will mean finding a reverse gear for the rich world.
Aside from in political circles, there is now a growing and influential consensus that we are reaching the limits of growth. We may now, like it or not, be reaching the end of global growth, due to peaking of resources, ecological collapse and the meltdown or debt-onation of our financial systems.
Professor Kevin Anderson of The Tyndale Centre, one of the world’s leading climate scientists has called for a “planned recession” and stated in December 2011 “Tackling climate change is not compatible with economic growth.” Echoing this, in January 2012, Tullett Prebon, one of the world’s leading inter-dealer money brokers, wrote “We see an impending collision between an economic system which by its nature, must grow, and a finite resource set which, ultimately, cannot grow.”
Ian Cheshire, CEO Kingfisher B&Q has agreed saying “Infinite high resource intensity growth is simply not possible, and we are already living off our future capital. It may be gradual but most businesses will have to adjust to a very different reality.” And Amanda Sourry, Chair of Unilever UK has said “The old business model of growth at any price is broken. We have to find a new way of doing business.”