Growth and Its Enemies
One of the characteristics of the human race, a look at current bookstore displays would suggest, is that it is the only species of animal which worries obsessively about its own future. What religious prophecy was to the past, social prophecy has become to the present: predicting the future of man in this life as distinct from the next—a sort of communal fortune-telling. Any roll call of contemporary exponents of the art would include Herman Kahn, Herbert Marcuse, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marshall McLuhan, among others. Mostly, there is a thin dividing line between prediction and prescription, prophecy and propaganda; between those who purport to be neutrally observing events and those committed to preaching what ought to be happening.
Although prediction appears to be a growth share on the cultural stock exchange, interest in the future is obviously not a new phenomenon. Leaving religious prophecy aside, even the secular variety can be traced back for some centuries. What appears to be new is the intellectual industrialization of social prophecy which, like some other forms of research, is rapidly entering the mass-production stage. On the one hand, there are the academics in search of as yet unclaimed territories to stake out. On the other, there are the mass media, hungry for new ideas to transmit before they are worn out by overexposure. So futurology becomes a new academic discipline, with its own institutions, and its own products displayed in the windows of the press and television.
It is as the latest model off this assembly line that The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind1 is of some significance. By now its recommendations are familiar. To avoid a “global crisis” within the next hundred years or so, both the world population and the world economy must be stabilized within the next few decades. If control by eventual catastrophe is to be avoided, a “global equilibrium” must be achieved, with the world population fixed at roughly its present size and the average income per head at about $1,800 a year—half the present U.S. income and roughly equal to the current European income. Otherwise an overpopulated world, corrupting its environment and exhausting its resources, faces an inevitable cataclysm.
Dramatic though these recommendations are, paradoxically they are the least interesting aspect of this study. It is as a variation peculiar to our own times and culture on what is a long tradition of social prophecy that The Limits to Growth deserves looking at: less for what it tells us about the future than for what it shows us about the present.
To start with, The Limits to Growth is itself an example of the intellectual industrialization of social prophecy. Commissioned by the Club of Rome—an international consortium of intellectuals concerned to “foster understanding of the varied but independent components . . . that make up the global system”—the study was financed by the Volkswagen Foundation and carried out by an MIT team under the direction of Dr. Dennis L. Meadows. It involved systems analysis—that is constructing a highly simplified model of the “real” world and expressing in a series of mathematical equations the relationship among the factors selected. The study also, inevitably, used a computer. So the book is the product of a process which shares many of the characteristics of the industrial system: in particular, the specialization of labor and the use of mechanical tools.
So much for what is new about the technology of this particular study. But it ought to be seen also in the context of the Western prophetic tradition—with which it has more in common than its manner of production might suggest. This tradition has two main themes which come together in a somewhat unexpected way in The Limits to Growth. There is the theme of apocalyptic catastrophe: the threat of doom to come. And there is the theme of millennial hope: the promise of eventual human perfectibility.
The theme of apocalyptic catastrophe runs through the history of Western Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond. There were regular prophecies of approaching devastation by wind and storm, drought and famine, pestilence and earthquake; often, indeed, a precise date was given for the impending catastrophe and when the Antichrist, the Red Dragon with Seven Heads and Ten Horns, or the Tyrant of the Last Days would appear. Equally regularly sects and movements would arise of the select who knew both how to avoid the doom and how to achieve the millennium: the 13th-century Pastoureaux who impartially killed Jews and clergy, the 14th-century flagellants, and over several centuries, various varieties of the Free Spirits. The doctrine of this last sect, a sort of mystical anarchism, has some curiously modern overtones: “When a man has truly reached the great and high knowledge, he is no longer bound to observe any law or any command, for he has become one with God. . . . He shall take from all creatures as much as nature desires and craves and shall have no scruples of conscience about it, for all created things are his property.” The property included women: one of the signs of being a member of the elect was the ability to indulge in promiscuity without qualms of conscience.
The historian of this dark, prophetic tradition, Norman Cohn, in The Pursuit of the Millennium, also described the social conditions which bred the various movements. It was not the often starving but secure peasants who provided the raw material for the prophetic movements. It was the townspeople of the prosperous belts of Western Europe where, even in the Middle Ages, some of the features usually associated with modern industrial society were found: great inequalities of wealth, unemployment, and insecurity.
The other tradition of prophecy is more recent, the product of the last three or four centuries of scientific and economic development. It is basically optimistic, relying for its appeal not on fear but on hope. Man’s history is a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from being the victim of his environment to being its master. Clearly this tradition casts the intellectual or scientist in a central role—since it is his knowledge which gives mankind its tools and his skills which allow it to steer an untroubled course into the already mapped waters of the future.
It is in this optimistic intellectual climate that futurology has flourished. It is difficult to draw a clear distinction between utopianism (an ideal future world) and futurology (a probable future world). Given sufficient optimism—and there was an abundance of it in the 18th and 19th centuries—the ideal easily shades off into the probable. Thus in 1770 Sébastien Mercier, in his L’an 2440, anticipated many 20th-century works of futurology by predicting a world in which man would only work for a few hours a day, and (more acutely) in which the study of classical languages would disappear and that of history be neglected, since it records “the disgrace of humanity, every page being crowded with crimes and follies.” But although there was great faith in civic and intellectual progress, the emphasis on material progress—economic growth—was not to come before the second half of the 19th century; only then did the possibility of rubbing the magic lamp of technology to produce unlimited prosperity become one of the main props of social prophecy. This theme survived even the world Depression of the 20’s and 30’s. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes, in his essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” celebrated the approaching solution of the “economic problem” and announced the impending arrival of the problems of technological unemployment and leisure.
To look at the prophetic tradition historically is to realize that futurology may be revealing chiefly of the social and cultural assumptions of its authors: that one of the best guides to the preoccupations of any generation or any society may be its fears and hopes about the future. Indeed, just to glance at some recent products is to realize how quickly intellectual fashions now oscillate: man’s future (if one is to believe the professional social prophets) is changing almost on a year-to-year basis. Dennis Gabor, in his unassuming but shrewd Inventing the Future, published in 1963, concentrated largely on following the trail laid by Keynes. He explored some of the social implications of technology and automation. In 1967 Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener in their The Year 20002—modestly subtitled a “Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years”—dealt with politico-social developments but also put much emphasis on the nuclear balance and its consequences for the world military situation. Both books discussed population increases. Neither book as much as mentioned, let alone discussed, pollution, and only Gabor referred to the drain on the world’s natural resources of raw materials, and that very briefly.
Now, five years later, it appears that the world’s long-term future has suddenly changed. We no longer live under the shadow of nuclear war. We no longer live under the threat of enforced idleness brought about by automation. We are no longer faced by the danger of domination by an all-knowing because all-computerized bureaucracy or by a military-industrial power elite (to quote some other prophetic visions of the recent past). Instead we are told that we are living in the shadow of an overpopulated, overexploited, overproducing, and overconsuming world. Tell me who your futurologist is, one is tempted to conclude, and I will tell you what your future is.
Is this too facile or cynical a view? Futurology is, after all, one of the social sciences now. It is practiced by reputable academics. It uses all the paraphernalia of science, mathematical models, and computers. This is neither the nightmare world of the medieval prophets of doom nor the inspired guesswork of dilettante essayists. To try to dismiss The Limits to Growth as an example of cultural fashion may therefore be a sign of an unwillingness to face up to the “predicament of mankind” (to quote the portentous title of the Club of Rome’s project), evidence of moral cowardice hiding behind a parade of historical knowledge.
Hence the importance of looking at the methods used in The Limits to Growth. For what makes it distinctive, after all, is its claim to have found some sort of scientific basis for its social prophecies. If its recommendations had been put forward by an old gentleman with a white beard parading up and down Times Square carrying tablets of stone, no one would have paid any attention. It is because this study typifies what is very much the approach of the 70’s—and is by no means the worst example of methods being applied wholesale to predict the future of industries, cities, and the world—that it is worth analyzing in detail the way in which it reaches its conclusions.
This emphasis on the how of futurology may seem like unnecessary pedantry. However, it is no more pedantic than asking how Roman soothsayers arrived at their prophecies. To discover that they consulted the entrails of a slaughtered ox is to put the value of their prophecies into perspective. The fact that modern social scientists tend to consult the entrails of computers hardly changes the principle of the situation. This is all the more so since the attraction of The Limits to Growth, the reason it has provoked so much discussion, lies in its claim to be able to put figures to its prophecies—much as in the Middle Ages prophecy tried to reinforce its credibility by naming a specific year for the coming of the Antichrist, or the end of the world. It is this which largely distinguishes it from most previous exercises of the same kind.
For although recent exercises in prediction have tended, like Kahn’s and Gabor’s, to prophesy rather different futures, all the specific themes of The Limits to Growth have predecessors. The emphasis on the need to prevent population growth goes back at least to Malthus, in 1803. The emphasis on the dangers of unlimited economic growth was contemporaneous with the first signs that mankind could even contemplate emancipation from subsistence living: “He who has enough to satisfy his wants,” wrote a medieval scholar of the 14th century, “and nevertheless ceaselessly labors to acquire riches . . . all such are incited by damnable avarice, sensuality, or pride.” More recently, this theme has been taken up by Galbraith and E. J. Mishan, among others. Finally, warnings about the threat to the world’s resources also have a long ancestry. Interest in ecology is not an invention of the 70’s: in 1949, Fairfield Osborn wrote his Our Plundered Planet, calling for a “complete revolution in man’s point of view toward the earth’s resources and toward the methods he employs in drawing upon them,” as well as prophesying disaster if the exploitation of nature continued unchecked. So, all in all, no sort of originality can be claimed for any of the predictions in The Limits to Growth, but only for its manner of making them.
How, in fact, are these predictions made? The MIT team which produced the study devised a “world model . . . to investigate five major trends of global concern—accelerating industrialization, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and a deteriorating environment.” The model, they concede modestly, is “like every other model, imperfect, oversimplified, and unfinished.” However, less modestly, they announce it to be “the only formal model in existence that is truly global in scope” and “that has a time horizon longer than thirty years.”
But no model is better than the assumptions on which it is based. The actual physiology of any model—the mathematical equations expressing the relationships among the different factors being analyzed which are then fed into a computer—is a matter for experts to discuss. But its flesh-and-bone structure—the facts and theories on which these relationships are based—is comprehensible bv the layman. Basically the whole exercise revolves around looking at past trends and projecting them into the future, on the assumption that these trends and the interaction among them will remain unchanged. Thus, if it is found that a particular factor has been growing exponentially or geometrically, i.e., doubling itself every few years or decades, it is assumed that this will continue. Population is a case in point: it is currently doubling itself every 33 years, with the result that the present world population of 3.6 billion is expected to be 7 billion by the year 2000.
Trends, however, are not immutable. Anyone trying to carry out the same sort of exercise in population predicting in 1940, on the basis of the trend of the previous decade, would have come a cropper. Extrapolating that trend would have produced a world population of 4.4 billion by the end of the century. The same is true of the other factors in The Limits to Growth model. Again, predictions about the point in time at which the world’s resources of either food or raw materials will be exhausted, assume constant trends on both the demand and the supply side, a very bold assumption indeed. Anyone writing in the late 19th century, it has been pointed out, might well have argued that the production of fodder for transport animals put a limit to the growth of the United States economy. Similarly, extrapolating existing trends is an entertaining parlor game which (if one chooses one’s base year carefully) can be designed to produce almost any wished-for result. It would not be too difficult to show that at the present rate of growth, by the year 2000 every new graduate student will be either an ecologist or a futurologist. It is perfectly legitimate, of course, to use the technique of extrapolating as a demonstration of what might happen, without any pretense of predicting what will happen—simply as an illustration of the kind of changes that are likely to be required to prevent present-day trends from causing possibly undesirable or disastrous consequences. And if The Limits to Growth were presented simply as an exercise of this kind, and no more, it would be difficult to quarrel with it.
But if it had been presented in this tentative way, it would not have gained the attention and publicity it has already attracted. As it is, the text veers disconcertingly between warning the reader against taking it too literally and then ignoring its own cautions. Thus at one point we read of “the inexorable progress of exponential growth.” It is almost as though exponential growth has suddenly become the Red Dragon ravaging the earth in some apocalyptic vision. Later on, we learn that the growth curve of resource consumption “is driven by both the positive feedback loops of population growth and of capital growth.” This time feedback loops appear to have taken on a life of their own like the Tyrant of the Last Days. As in Marx and other social prophets, history itself is on the march.
More seriously, The Limits to Growth deals in aggregates: that is, global statistics about population, production, and so on. But global statistics can be actively misleading. For instance, the brute statistics of the Gross National Product (GNP) can conceal as much as they reveal. These statistics tell us the income-per-head of population. But they tell us very little else. They do not tell us how that income is distributed. They can be actively misleading about comparative standards of living. For example, a country where children under five are looked after in nursery schools would appear to have a higher standard of living than a country where they are looked after at home, since teachers’ salaries are recorded in the GNP statistics but the efforts of mothers are not. Also, global GNP figures mask what may turn out to be crucial trends for the future. Thus, unless the GNP figures are broken down, it is quite possible to miss the trend in advanced industrial countries away from manufacturing and toward service industries, a development which is surely crucial for future prospects. Again, The Limits to Growth ignores the growth in the proportion of the GNP spent on health and education in the North American and Western European countries: trends which (if one were to use the same technique as The Limits to Growth does) would lead to the conclusion that soon after the year 2000 the entire population of these countries would be either in the hospital or in school.
In fact, it is tempting to go much further still in drawing up an alternative exponential vision. In place of an apocalyptic view of a globe ravaged by famine and environmental decay, it would not be too difficult to sketch out a vision of a world where the main problem was to persuade people to work in factories—where the revolt against materialism had gone so far as to produce a pot-smoking population too dozy to engage in either procreation or production. Looking at the phenomenal increase in conviction rates for pot-smoking in recent years, any school-child—let alone a computer—could produce the appropriate statistics to support the alternative vision. It would, of course, be an utterly absurd one. But why assume that it is any more absurd than the one sketched in The Limits to Growth} Arguably, it is less so. For the MIT team viewed as historic and immutable some trends which may already be changing: indeed, the whole exercise is itself part of this reaction—one of many symptoms of the current interest in ecology, the environment, and so on. If anything, then, it would be more reasonable to look at the beginnings of what might be the trends of the future than at what could conceivably be the exhausted trends of the past. (This is exactly what Kahn and Wiener did in their futurological exercise. Taking their cue from Keynes, they speculated about the possible evolution of a society where the “puritan ethic” has become “superfluous for the functioning of the economy” and as a result “the conscience-dominated character type associated with it would also tend to disappear. Parents would no longer be strongly motivated to inculcate traits such as diligence, punctuality, willingness to postpone or forgo satisfaction. . . .”)
There is another oddity about The Limits to Growth: typically, it conveys a medieval sense of doom about the environmental plagues that are foreordained to descend on mankind unless we quickly repent and repudiate the false god of economic growth; there is no truck with technological toys like nuclear fusion or solar energy which might rescue mankind from this cruel choice; for once technology is now the wild card in the pack of cosmological poker.
Yet in sharp contrast to all this, the unspoken assumptions built into The Limits to Growth reflect a quite astonishing optimism: a belief in the perfectibility of man which belongs to the heyday of 18th-century optimistic rationalism. Thus its projections assume that there will be no major world war—to kill off some of the surplus millions—in the next 130 years: in short, the book’s calculations are based on the belief that, for the first time in centuries, the world will live in peace. More fundamental still, while rejecting scientific technology as the savior-to-be, the study characteristically shows an infinite and pathetic faith in mankind’s social technology. It assumes that, once its warning is heeded, mankind will be able to carry out the social revolution demanded to implement its recommendations.
Is there any reason, though, for taking these recommendations any more seriously than the methods used to support them? If futurology appears to be closely related to astrology or medieval prophecy, why bother to discuss its conclusions at all? The answer is that to ignore the future implications of present-day trends is as irrational as to assume that these trends will continue unchanged. To dismiss the need for some sort of futurology—even if we repudiate the name and the excesses of some of its popularizers—is to assume that there is some cosmic self-steering mechanism which will see us right in the end.
Many personal decisions and nearly all public-policy decisions are an attempt to shape the future, using some sort of crystal ball: whether it is investing in savings for a comfortable old age (implicit in which is a prediction that state pensions will be inadequate) or investing in highways (implicit in which is a prediction that the automobile is here to stay). The trouble with this sort of instinctive futurology or prediction by hunch is that, inevitably, it does not make its assumptions explicit. And because the assumptions are not clearly spelled out, they are usually not discussed but taken for granted, although they may turn out to be unrealistic or unrealizable hopes. This sort of approach can easily slip into the Panglossian view that everything will eventually turn out for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The kind of social prophecy epitomized by The Limits to Growth is a reaction to this approach. It reacts by swinging in the opposite direction, and by assuming that mankind has the knowledge, will, and ability to engage in social engineering on a global scale. In doing so, it oversimplifies as much as those who reject the need for any sort of attempt to look at future options.
In fact, futurological studies are of value, provided that they are seen as sketches of one (among many) possible options. Kahn and Wiener adopted this approach in their book, where they presented a number of speculative, alternative futures. This method allows us to examine the implications of alternative policies and avoids the trap of confusing what might conceivably happen with predictions about what will happen. It also permits us to acknowledge the complexity of social engineering—to take into account that policy decisions often produce unexpected side-results—instead of forcing everything into the mold of prophetic oversimplification. In contrast, The Limits to Growth assumes that while the side-effects of technological change can be assumed to be harmful (in terms, for example, of increasing pollution or depleting resources of raw materials) the side-effects of social change can be assumed to be neutral or beneficial.
Take the case of population policy, where The Limits to Growth does little more than express the consensus of most Western opinion.3 In practice, the case for limiting population—for adopting zero population growth as the object of policy—rests much more on value judgments about what makes for a tolerable life-style than on pseudo-scientific predictions. Hence, the real difficulties faced by governments in underdeveloped countries which wish to bring the birth rate down: these difficulties reflect not so much technical problems about diffusing birth-control methods as the existence of social values which put more emphasis on large families than on rising living standards.
It is not necessarily impossible to change social values: for example, in the grossly overcrowded island of Mauritius, there has been a 40 per cent fall in fertility in the last five years. However, the unfortunate paradox—from the point of view of the “global equilibrium” thesis—is that it may well be possible to limit population growth in the underdeveloped countries of the world only by inculcating precisely those values which the developed countries are being adjured to abandon; that is, by offering the prospect of ever-growing material prosperity and by preaching the importance of rising living standards and showing that birth control is the means to achieve them. Arguably, the best weapons in the battle against overpopulation are precisely those products of Western civilization—television sets, washing machines, and cars—which are often seen by the prophets (none of whom has as yet, though, abandoned detergents in favor of beating his washing with flat stones in the local stream) as undesirable luxuries, foisted upon an innocent public through the machinations of Madison Avenue advertising agents.
But introducing new ideas about the possibility of rising standards of living is rather like introducing rabbits into a new continent. Ideas also breed, and once established may prove difficult to eradicate. Why should we assume that it is possible to carry out two major social revolutions in the space of a few decades, first to establish a culture of material progress and then to replace it with one of non-growth? Yet this is the astonishingly naive assumption buried in the equilibrium model. A successful population-control policy could conceivably have other undesirable side-effects as well. In practice it means exploiting the revolution of rising expectations. But there can be absolutely no assurance that a population policy can by itself satisfy the expectations aroused. Prosperity achieved usually tends to fall short of prosperity hoped for. If so, it may well be that the cultural changes required in a successful population policy will also increase political instability in developing countries. Standards of living will rise as birth rates fall, but will they rise fast enough to satisfy the new-found appetite for economic growth? And if not, will the often rather fragile political structures be able to deal with the resulting discontents? Once politicians there begin to auction off promises of faster economic growth—on the Western model—will there not be increased friction, resulting perhaps in revolutions and periodic coups d’état? This already seems the pattern in many developing countries. It could well become accentuated.
To make this point is not to indulge in a prediction that it is bound to happen. It is simply to suggest that it could happen. Again, to say that population equilibrium could result in political and social disequilibrium is not to argue against adopting population-control policies. It is to indicate that there may be a price to pay. For there is little point in constructing a global model which ignores the possibility (it is no more) that achieving an ecological balance may cause a social imbalance. This is to leave out of account the complexity of the real world and, by doing so, to lose what is surely the real point of futurology: not to predict the future but to encourage thought and thus prepare people for the many possible and plausible eventualities.
If there is a fairly widespread consensus about the desirability of limiting the world’s population—despite the lack of knowledge about all the potential consequences—there is no such agreement about the proposal for seeking to stabilize economic growth within the next two decades. Here The Limits to Growth crystallizes what is very much a mood of the 70’s and has clothed in statistical language the emotional vocabulary of the revolt against the cult of economic growth.
This revolt was entirely predictable. The circumstances which provided the soil of the cult—the years of Depression and mass unemployment—are now part of historical folklore. For anyone under forty they are no longer part of felt experience. More important still, perhaps, it has become apparent that economic growth is no cure-all. It does not in itself guarantee an end to poverty. It does not cure racial stress and conflict. What is more, it has unpleasant side-effects: congested streets, blighted city centers, polluted lakes and rivers.
Accepting all this, it is possible to draw two quite different conclusions. The first is that the emphasis on economic growth was exaggerated, that too much was hoped for from it, and that, however desirable, its benefits must be seen alongside its debits in a complex socioeconomic balance sheet. The other is that economic growth is positively undesirable, that the damage it inflicts quite clearly outweighs the possible advantages.
The sort of ecological doomsday approach typified by The Limits to Growth tends to support the second view. Just as growth was once seen as the magic formula, so now non-growth replaces it: one oversimplification takes over from another in a depressing dialectic of slogans. The emphasis on repudiating worldly goods is, of course, drawing on a very deep well of Western tradition—and the final irony is perhaps that what is basically a religious impulse now feels obliged to reinforce itself with “scientific” predictions from a computer, the 20th-century version of the apocalyptic vision. But in the past the choice was seen as a personal one. It was the individual who chose to join a mendicant order of friars or give a part of his income to the poor. Now, however, the choice is presented as a communal one. It is society as a whole which is expected to take a pledge of voluntary poverty (or, more accurately, to abstain from enriching itself still further). And the sanction is not the traditional one of retribution in the next life but ecological catastrophe in this one: present affluence and future squalor, the contemporary version of visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons.
All this may seem exaggerated. The proposed “stable state” average income per head of population—$1,800 a year—is well on the comfort side of poverty. But unfortunately the habit of the social prophets of talking in global terms conceals, as usual, some of the very real problems involved. As The Limits to Growth coyly puts it: “A drawback of this approach is of course that—given the heterogeneity of world society, national political structure, and levels of development—the conclusions of the study, although valid for our planet as a whole, do not apply in detail to any particular country or region.” Yet if they cannot be applied to “any particular country or region,” it is difficult to see their usefulness, particularly in the case of something as specific as the average income of the world’s inhabitants. For how is the “average” to be arrived at? Extrapolating existing trends, the world average income would indeed be about $1,800 by the year 2000 or shortly before then: however, this would range from well over $6,000 per head in North America to less than one-tenth of that figure in Africa and Asia (which will contain two-thirds of the total population).
In short, to talk of aiming at an economic equilibrium without discussing its political and social implications, is to indulge in meaningless rhetoric. Such an equilibrium could be achieved with only two alternative sets of assumptions. The first is that, broadly speaking, the global distribution of income will remain in the future much what it is now. The other is that there will be a massive redistribution of income from the rich nations to the poor nations. It is difficult to know which is the more unrealistic.
Leaving all moral arguments aside, it is not conceivable that the developing countries would be prepared to bring their growth rate to a halt while enormous disparities remained between their standards of living and those of the advanced Western nations. So the latter would either have to tolerate continuing growth in other countries or repress it in much the same way as traditional colonial powers dealt with native rebellions. Alternatively, the Western nations would deliberately have to cut back on their own standard of living in order to lessen the gap. Just to state these implications is to suggest that the advocates of the stable state are engaging in the luxury of mental self-flagellation, publicly confessing their own sins in the sure knowledge that they will not be asked to travel along the road of repentance themselves (the religious phraseology comes naturally in discussing what is essentially a neo-religious phenomenon).
Of course it may be unfair to push the arguments of the stable-state advocates to their extremes. However, even assuming charitably that they do not really mean all that they say, assuming also that they are simply using their slogans to dramatize the case for less emphasis on economic growth rather than for total abstention, assuming finally that they realize that most of their arguments will sound like a blasphemy to two-thirds of the world’s population, it is worth looking at some counter-speculations. For after all, there may be some disbenefits to non-growth, just as there are some disbenefits to growth.
Here, writing from Britain has its advantages. For Britain is not only a country which is currently enjoying the “stable state” standard of living—that is, an average income-per-head not too far away from $1,800 a year. Equally it is an example of a society which, quite involuntarily, has for the past few years had a non-growth economy (only now is the economy picking itself up from the floor where it has been for so long). What is more, it is a society which has a strong political system, a homogeneous social culture, and despite the presence of colored immigrants, no racial conflicts on the United States scale. Here, if anywhere, there should be the model of the global-equilibrium society.
But if Britain is indeed to be taken as a model, then the prospect is gloomy. The experience of Britain would suggest that a non-growth society can produce as many and as unpleasant stresses on the social and political economy as industrial growth can impose on the ecological and natural resources of the globe. The stable-state advocates argue that growth does not guarantee greater social equality or justice. But the experience of Britain shows that stagnation (even under a Labour government ideologically sympathetic to equality) is no more helpful. Resentment of continuing inequalities is compounded by resentment of unemployment and of the failure of living standards to rise. For poverty is not just relative. Rising standards can and do mean better food, better housing, and better clothes for people. And at the current British standard of living—the “standard” for the future, let it be remembered—these sorts of improvements still matter very much. Although Britain probably has better housing conditions than most Western European countries, 13 per cent of households still lack private bathrooms and 12 per cent still live in houses or flats officially classified as unfit for human habitation. More than a third of households have no refrigerator or cooling machine, 55 per cent have no car, 65 per cent have no telephone, and 70 percent. have no central heating.
By the standards of Africa and Asia these are not symptoms of deprivation. But neither are they symptoms of an over-gadgeted, over-cosseted society. More important, the experience of the 1964-70 Labour government suggests that if the aims of policy are to be to increase equality and to spend more on social services like health and education, then it is only politically possible to achieve them at a time of economic growth (which is not to suggest that economic growth in itself guarantees more radical social policies; it may be a necessary, but is certainly not a sufficient, condition). The Labour government did not manage to achieve growth, failed to secure its other aims, and was defeated at the polls. What is more, there was a noticeable crisis of confidence in the political system as such and some signs of rising social tension, as shown in the increased number of strikes.
It is, of course, possible to argue that such social stresses reflect the pains of growth and not of stagnation. This is the position of E. J. Mishan, for example, who maintains that the British people were happier and more contented in 1951 while still in the postwar era of rationing and austerity.4 This, as he himself recognizes, is an unresolvable argument since no one is in a position to measure happiness and contentment. However, there are some points which need stressing. The first is that it is clearly nonsense to present the argument as though it were a straight choice between growth and non-growth. Growth in Britain, as everywhere else, has had many unpleasant effects: the destruction of old buildings and communities, pollution by noise and fume, and, possibly, the introduction of a more hectic and therefore less satisfying life-style for some people. But it is perfectly logical to concede all this to Mishan and yet to repudiate his conclusion, since equally clearly growth has brought many advantages to a great many people in Britain. The real question is whether the penalties of growth outweigh the advantages. Here it is worth stressing that the majority of the British people have repudiated the anti-growth verdict: over the past 20 years at successive general elections they have consistently voted for the party which, in their view, would deliver the fastest growth rate. It may be that the British voters are misguided about what makes them happy and contented; equally, though, it may be that they are better placed to know than Mr. Mishan. The other point that needs stressing is that the balance sheet of advantages and penalties of growth may well work out differently for different sections of a community. Thus growth tends to threaten traditional middle-class values: it is felt to be disruptive and unpleasant precisely because it turns minority privileges into majority ones—because it means crowded roads, crowded beaches, and so on.
To share these traditional values—and to fear their erosion—should not necessarily mean accepting the anti-growth argument, though. Arguably, only when the majority of a population have achieved middle-class standards of living will they also accept middle-class standards of values—and be prepared to give priority to, say, anti-pollution measures over consumer durables. In the meantime, lamenting the consequences of the popularization of prosperity begs precisely the same questions on a domestic scale as it does on the international scale. Do the anti-growth advocates assume that the existing social and economic structure of society will somehow be frozen—and that the present inequalities (which in Britain, as elsewhere, are considerable) will become happily accepted? Or do they assume a political system which insures that non-growth does not become a synonym for perpetuating existing inequalities—that economic stagnation can be reconciled with social change?
It is at this point in the argument that the advocates of global equilibrium throw up their hands in horror at the assumption that such minor political problems as the distribution of income among countries or within individual societies cannot be overcome under the threat of catastrophe. Suddenly it appears that although the technologists and scientists cannot solve the problems of increasing food yields, recycling raw materials, or stopping pollution, politicians can square the circle of reconciling everyone to the social and economic consequences of global equilibrium.
This, of course, is a nonsense assumption. If anything it would, on past experience, be much more plausible to make the opposite assumption: that the social consequences of trying to achieve a global equilibrium would lead to conflict, the collapse of existing political systems, and, most likely, war between societies competing for their rations of fixed resources. Even conceding that eventually it might be possible to enforce an equilibrium, the costs of doing so might well be heavier than the (in any case problematic and uncertain) costs of refusing to be panicked into taking the ecological doomsday slogans at face value.
No one can be certain that these slogans are wrong, any more than their proponents can be certain that they are right. Indeed it is probably worth taking out a collective insurance policy on their turning out to be at least partially right: by taxing polluters, by spending more on environmental preservation, and so on (all policies, it must be stressed, which are urgently desirable in themselves and worth pursuing in order to make life more pleasant here and now even if there were no threat of ultimate catastrophe). What is really wrong—alarmingly wrong—is the fact that they are slogans, and no more. Just as the 50’s and 60’s spawned the slogans reflecting the fear of a nuclear holocaust, so now the 70’s have produced the slogans born of the fears of an ecological cataclysm, and no doubt the 80’s will make their own, distinctive contribution.
It is not ignoble to be afraid of being blown up by an H-bomb, any more than it is ignoble to fear the degeneration of the physical world in which our children will live. Indeed it is right to be angry and aroused. But it is desperately important that complex problems should not be reduced to the simple symmetry required of systems analysis. This is, if anything, the final surrender to technology—to adjust our own vision of our problems to the technical necessities of feeding them into a computer. For the inevitable result is to produce an equally simple answer, whose very simplicity makes it unfit as a guide to action. To the extent that the complex interaction of economic, ecological, social, and political factors makes prediction hazardous, the best prophets are those who allow for uncertainty: who do not sell the future like a patent medicine but persuade mankind to make continual running adjustments to what, after all, is a continually changing future.
1 Donnella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, Universe Books, 205 pp., $6.50 clothbound ($2.75 paper).
2 The Kahn and Wiener book, along with Toward the Year 2000, a report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on the Year 2000, is discussed in “The Year 2000 and All That,” by Robert A. Nisbet, COMMENTARY, June 1968—Ed.
3 See “The Population Controllers,” by Samuel McCracken (May)—Ed.
4 COMMENTARY, Letters from Readers, January 1972.