Growth of Limits

Ralf Fücks, Foto: Ludwig Rauch

May 9, 2011
Ralf Fücks
Nearly 40 years after the famous study by the Club of Rome entitled Limits to Growth, our unease about economic growth is returning. The nuclear disaster in Japan has also raised the question of whether the danger at which industrial society puts itself requires radical change. Without a doubt, our current growth model is not sustainable. It overburdens the ecosystems people depend on. What conclusion are we to draw from this insight? Should we bid farewell to growth or take a giant leap into an ecological modernity in which economic growth and consumption of natural resources are decoupled? Does the ecological vision mean prosperity without growth or growth in line with nature?

Let's face the facts – reports of the death of growth are highly exaggerated. Rather, we are in the midst of an unprecedented growth cycle that will continue for the next few decades. It is fed from two powerful sources: a global population growing from nearly seven billion people today to around nine billion people by 2050 and the needs of the great majority of people on Earth. They dream of a better life – comfortable homes, more nutritious food, computers and telephones, fashionable clothing, entertainment, individual mobility, and trips abroad – and are not about to give up these dreams. The question is only whether this gigantic surge of new goods and services will cause an ecological collapse or whether it can be rerouted onto a sustainable path.

When industrialization began at the end of the 18th century, English economist Robert Malthus forecast that agrarian production would not be able to keep up with fast population growth. He wrote that rising food prices and famine were inevitable because the earth would not be able to support more than a billion people – roughly the global population at the time. There was just one problem with Malthus' reasoning: he was extending the status quo into the future. He could not have foreseen the groundbreaking discoveries of German chemist Justus Liebig and his contemporary, genetics researcher Gregor Mendel. The combination of agro-chemistry and systematic plant cultivation revolutionized agriculture and increased harvests several times over.

Since then, the global population has grown sevenfold even as per capita calorie consumption increased – a classic example of the "growth of limits." At the same time, energy consumption increased by a factor of 40; the global economy, by a factor of 50. Whatever criteria you apply – life expectancy, infant mortality, level of education, health care, women's rights, or democratic liberty – the increase in material prosperity went hand in hand with social progress. Soon, there will be enough to feed nine billion people, provided that: the agrarian reforms needed are implemented in time; the productivity of small farmers increases; the excess consumption of meat in wealthy countries decreases; and the production of biofuels does not compete with food production.

To be sure, there are ecological limits to growth, and the cost of crossing them is severe environmental crises. They mainly lie in the ability of ecosystems to absorb the emissions from civilization. For instance, man-made climate change is a fever symptom indicating that the atmosphere's limits have been crossed. We can do two things to push the biophysical limits to growth further back: increase resource efficiency (do more with less) and replace finite resources with renewable energy and materials – in other words, we need to tap the potentially infinite sources of prosperity.

Up to now, industrial society has been living off of the earth's stored energy reserves: forests, coal, oil, and gas. Now, there are signs that the exploitation of the planet's carbon reserves will have an effect long overlooked – it will destabilize the planet's climate. The fossil age is indeed reaching its limits. Our current energy system is as hard to globalize as our transport system based on cheap oil. Increasingly, we will have to get our energy from renewable sources. At the same time, the foreseeable exhaustion of a number of industrial raw materials forces us to transition to a bio-economy that gets its materials from organic sources. In the end, we are talking here about sunlight as the primary source of all production and consumption.

The bridge to the solar future starts with greater resource productivity. The goal is to provide greater prosperity from a certain amount of raw materials and energy. In doing so, we extend the time frame in which scarce resources are available to give us time to come up with substitutes. For Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, who coined the term "Factor 5," greater resource productivity is the "melody of new technological progress that drives a major new growth cycle." Unlike earlier long waves of technological innovation, the goal this time is to "reduce consumption of nature even as we increase prosperity."

But doesn’t ever greater consumption eat up efficiency gains again and again? It doesn't have to. A crucial steering factor for the consumption of natural resources is the price of scarce goods. When resource efficiency increases, raw materials and energy have to become more expensive to prevent efficiency from becoming an incentive to consume more. In other words, we need policies to tax resource consumption.

In his main work The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch formulates some ideas about a cooperative relationship between mankind and nature that anticipate the focus of the green industrial revolution. As he puts it, conventional technology within nature is like "an army in enemy territory." In contrast, future "alliance technology" will take account of the productive forces within the bosom of nature. For instance, bionics aims to adopt biological processes in technology and learn from the fantastic solutions that evolution has developed over long periods of time. Another idea taken from nature is the principle of closed cycles, in which every final product is a precursor for new processes.

If we do not wish to risk severe crises, it is clear that the global economy can only grow within the ecological limits manifested by the absorption limits of ecosystems. To achieve this, we need the right policies. One important step is binding European and international targets for carbon emissions that gradually taper off. At the same time, we need an ecological movement from the bottom up, driven by high-tech firms, organic farmers, inventors, investors, associations, and consumers. "Less is more" may be the way to individual happiness. Material wealth is not the only thing that determines a standard of living; other factors include control of your time, a social life, and a job you enjoy. There is little reason to believe that the expansive dynamics of modernity will give way to a new inward-looking culture of frugality.

The main challenge lies in decoupling economic growth and consumption of natural resources. Europe should use its ambition to become a leader in ecological modernity – instead of settling for distributing the “less” that's left.

Ralf Fücks is president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He deals with sustainable development, green economics, migration, and international policy.

This article was published in German in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit (#16, 4/14/2011) 

Ralf Fücks is a member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 1996. He is a regular contributor to numerous newspapers and political periodicals and co-author to numerous books.