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Limits to Growth

Limits to Growth
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Earth in Chains


The limits to growth debate dates back to the 1960s and 70s when a number of people argued that economic and population growth directly caused environmental decline and could not be sustained forever.Many books and articles on this theme unleashed a wave of controversy.

Although many of the key writers at the time were scientists or industrialists themselves, the environment movement was easily characterised as being anti-development. Nevertheless their warnings captured the popular attention, resonating with the experiences of communities facing obvious pollution in their neighbourhoods.

The limits-to-growth arguments have been largely discarded even by many environmentalists. This was due partly to the exaggerated pessimism of the early writers who prophesied imminent disaster that did not happen (at least in the short-term); partly to their focus on the depletion of resources such as oil and minerals, which has not manifested itself; and partly to the success of well-financed think tanks such as the Hudson Institute in debunking these arguments. The debates over whether there were limits to growth were no longer found in mainstream discourse by the end of the 1970s.

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Recent debate over limits to growth

Business groups have tended to emphasise the need for economic growth in their policies on sustainable development. Such views have also been reiterated by the ESD working groups.

In contrast, Ted Trainer, a well-known Australian limits-to-growth advocate, argues that our levels of resource use, production and consumption in Australia are already unsustainable. For example, Australians on average already use the equivalent energy of about seven tonnes of coal per person. If everyone in the world used this much, world energy production would have to be quadrupled. This would mean, he claims, that the world's supplies of coal, oil, gas and uranium would quickly run out, and the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would increase alarmingly.

Environmentalists Winin Pereira and Jeremy Seabrook (1991) also dispute the idea that high living standards, which they define as 'the widespread consumption of large volumes of goods and services', can be sustained. They argue that no matter how much recycling and reuse occurs, the energy component in all manufactured goods and services cannot be recycled and inevitably creates pollution.

Another argument for economic growth in high-income countries such as Australia is based on the pressures of the international system. It is claimed that economic growth is necessary to remain competitive, and to attain and maintain employment levels. This argument is valid, given the current economic system within Australia and internationally. Also, there seems to be no mechanism to share the available work equitably; mean-while, unemployed people are forced to undergo humiliations and deprivations of various sorts because of the prevalence of a work ethic that brands them as lazy or unworthy. This means that we seem to be locked into a system that requires everyone to be working at producing goods or services-whether they are needed or not-and that people need to be persuaded that they want these goods and services. There seems to be little scope and even less encouragement for people who prefer to work less and consume less.

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© 2001 Sharon Beder