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What Does It Mean to be Anti-Growth?

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Roger Pielke, Jr.’s What Does It Mean to be Anti-Growth? has earned a spot on the Wall of Shame for avoiding such annoying realities as science and facts. Be sure to read this and participate in the reader poll on the subject at Earth Island Journal. His premise:

“It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth…. I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.”

Pielke, it seems, wants to dream the impossible dream - that sustainability doesn't have to involve any difficult choices; that we can have perpetual growth as long as we tint it green. Hard to believe, but Pielke is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado. Perhaps his pro-growth perspective comes from his position as director of CU’s Center of Science and Technology Policy Research. As long as we continue our attempts to push through the natural limits to growth on a finite planet, people will be pinning their hopes on technology to solve the myriad crises created.

It’s very difficult to discredit the laws of physics using science, so it’s only natural Pielke would turn to less impressive tricks. Rather than waste any more of your time than necessary on this professor’s writing, I won’t detail all the sleight-of-hand used; just keep your eyes open for any signs of facts, science or logic in his arguments.

His case seems to be built on three things:

  1. He can come up with 3 disparaging labels for the categories into which he believes he can neatly fit all of the true sustainability (anti-growth) advocates.
  2. “Sustainable growth” advocacy doesn’t fit those categories (So what? It’s an oxymoron).
  3. “Poor” parts of the world are where most of the economic growth of the future is expected to occur (therefore, for some reason, it MUST be possible).

Sure, we all want the people of developing nations to have the opportunity to live good lives. That doesn’t mean we should, or even can, make the same mistake we made in the current industrialized world – focusing on economic growth rather than economic health. A professor in Pielke’s position really needs to recognize this, because nowhere does he prove that perpetual economic growth is possible on a finite planet. His commentary also fails to mention the concept of degrowth, which recognizes that developed economies need to contract in order to leave room for the developing world to partake of some of the world’s resources.

There is plenty of proof that the current size of the human enterprise (economy and population) has overshot the capacity of the planet, with dire consequences that are becoming increasingly apparent. I wouldn’t be so hard on Pielke if not for his position as professor of environmental studies. I expect someone in his position to know better. We need people in his position to know better.

Earth Island Journal, which published this embarrassing piece of unscientific nonsense, also included in its April issue an “opposing view,” We Can't Grow On, written by John DeGraaf, co-author of What’s the Economy For, Anyway? It does a decent, though not comprehensive, job of debunking Pielke. For more on why perpetual economic growth is impossible, and why dreaming the impossible dream is ill-advised, explore the links on our More About Limits to Growth page.

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  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Wednesday, 05 March 2014

    I should probably have highlighted the fact that being anti-growth without changing much else DOES imply keeping poor people poor. However the planet is anti-growth, now that we've maxed out on it, so we need to make other changes to provide good lives for the poorest populations on Earth. Trying to keep growing the global economy won't help them, because it just can't happen.

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