Economic growth: it’s not dead yet

Green thinkers are plain wrong to claim there are natural limits to how much we can expand our economies.

Colin McInnes

Topics Science & Tech

Just before the advent of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution – about 10,000 years ago – the global population is estimated to have been a few million souls. If those present-day souls who obsess about resources are correct, then our Neolithic ancestors were the super-rich of human history. The entire planet and its resources were at their disposal, shared amongst their small number. In comparison, now that there are seven billion of us walking the Earth, surely we should be much worse off? After all, all that land and all those resources need to be spread so much thinner?

Of course, we’re now more prosperous than our Neolithic ancestors could possibly have imagined. We have used innovation to multiply the utility of the physical resources of the finite Earth. A handheld Neolithic stone axe contains atoms of silicon and aluminium amongst others. Using modern innovation, we can now rearrange those same atoms to produce a smartphone, which some argue has better utility than an axe. This is the true historical meaning of growth: it involves complexity not just consumption. And there are no practical limits to such growth.

For many commentators, however, economic growth will soon be ancient history, just like those stone axes. For example, in a recent article, Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, claimed that growth has come to an end. Millennia of growth have now apparently come to a crashing end. We have gone from the slow-burning Neolithic revolution, which re-arranged nature to our liking, to the expansion of agriculture, and the great Industrial Revolution, which eventually freed us from the land. However, growth sceptics such as Heinberg are positing why economic growth should end right now, in the early twenty-first century, when we are more prosperous and resourceful than at any time in the past.

Human history is littered with economic and physical bottlenecks that were eventually overcome. The Elizabethans worried they were running out of wood – ‘peak wood’, as it were – and began to use coal as a substitute. In so doing, they unwittingly precipitated the Industrial Revolution. They even had their own growth sceptic in agricultural writer Arthur Standish. In 1615 he claimed that ‘there may be as much timber raised as will maintaine the kingdome for all uses forever’, while advocating a sustainable, wood-burning society as an alternative to the use of energy-dense coal. We can be thankful that Standish was politely ignored. The Industrial Revolution was just around the corner, leading to an escape from millennia of near-Malthusian stagnation and a decoupling of the costs of energy and labour.

While innovation-driven growth has delivered immense improvements to the human condition, it is also the means through which human needs can be gradually decoupled from the environment. Growth emerges from productivity, doing more with less. For example, new additive manufacturing technologies, so-called ‘3D printers’, look set partly to replace the wasteful subtractive manufacturing of machine tools. In contrast, in coming down from our oil high, as advocated by Heinberg, we could regress to using whale oil for lighting, as was the case prior to commercial oil production. But this hardly constitutes progress, economic or environmental.

The key point to Heinberg’s argument is that growth is constrained by the availability of energy. In this, he is correct. Physics tells us that we can put order into disordered matter using high-grade energy, generating low-grade waste heat in the process. Consider, though, that since the formation of the Earth, its finite mass has not changed, but self-organising systems such as rain forests have evolved to manufacture wonderfully complex structures from dead matter. Energy from the sun is used to photosynthesise complex molecules, while waste heat is radiated to cold space through the leaf canopy. But while unthinking biology can evolve impressive feats such as giant redwood trees, thinking humans can conceive and create artificial structures such as the sensational Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, reaching almost 10 times as high as the forests.

In the same manner, a growing economy does not necessarily mean a garage of sports-utility vehicles for every man, woman and child on the planet. But it does mean a perpetual motion of innovation that can liberate us from the physical constraints of our environment. Mechanical excavators liberated us from back-breaking labour, rapid transportation freed us from the insularity of village life, and spaceflight recently freed us from the limitations of gravity. Just as the directed random walk of evolution seeks out new arrangements of matter in biology, human innovation can continue to rearrange matter in more useful forms through engineering.

However, Heinberg argues that high-grade energy is becoming scarce, that we have eaten the low-hanging fruit. Consequently, growth must end as we lack sufficient energy to rearrange matter into more useful forms, whether smartphones, tractors or vaccines. In reality, high-grade energy is anything but scarce.

Fossil fuels represent energy which is not of our time; they represent energy from the sun stored in compacted dead plant matter. But nuclear fuels represent energy which is not of our place. Their immense energy density, about a million times greater than fossil fuels, comes from the final moments of collapse of ancient stars which fused lighter elements into uranium and thorium. Even the prophet of ‘peak oil’, M King Hubbert, a man beloved of growth sceptics, cleverly recognised that while fossil-fuel use will no doubt ultimately peak, nuclear fuels are essentially forever, because they are so energy dense.

Let’s be clear: there is no shortage of high-grade, carbon-free energy to deliver a future of shared prosperity. But we need the will, ambition and inventiveness to exploit it. We also need to recognise that we have only scratched the surface of nuclear energy. Even modern light-water reactors are woefully inefficient at turning the energy of collapsing stars stored in nuclear fuels into useful work. But through future innovation, we can tap almost all of that clean, compact energy considerately provided by nature.

The real worry of Heinberg’s vision of a post-growth world is his straight-faced assertion that ‘there should be [an] increasing requirement for local production and manual labour’. This chilling claim is more Year Zero than zero growth. A return to carbohydrate-fuelled manual labour may be appealing to Heinberg and others as a means of powering down our lives and reconnecting with the land. But he shouldn’t expect a long queue of volunteers.

Ultimately, Heinberg’s thinking – and that of many other anti-growth writers – represents a needlessly limit-setting view. It would deliver a future of material poverty and intellectual stagnation with hard-won advances in human welfare abandoned. It is unlikely that future generations would thank us, and we simply have no right to inflict it upon them. Indeed, unilaterally proclaiming that growth should cease at this entirely arbitrary juncture of human history displays a degree of apocalyptic angst. Ironically, while environmenalists love to bang on about saving the planet for the sake of the children, insisting that we must regress to a simpler way of life displays a degree of contempt for future generations.

To be taken seriously, Heinberg and others need to articulate a long-term vision of a post-growth sustainable society. Is it a future of permanent energy austerity, but somehow unlimited cultural growth, or is it really a return to agrarian poverty? Fortunately, just like Elizabethan writer Arthur Standish, Heinberg’s own growth-sceptic views are unlikely to prevail. Even if some faction of humanity were to choose a future of economic stagnation, they would simply be outcompeted by others who pursue innovation and growth. Thankfully, there will always be some smart ass who wants to fly to the moon.

Colin McInnes is Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Strathclyde. He writes at Perpetual Motion.

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Topics Science & Tech


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