Confronting Limits to Growth

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Confronting Limits to Growth

Economics and Culture in a Post-Growth World

Goals of economic growth often go unquestioned in mainstream economic theory and in platforms across the political spectrum. But the books below argue compellingly that unlimited growth on a finite planet is impossible long-term. Many contemporary ecological, economic, and political crises indicate that the industrial growth economy is hitting hard limits. As these crises seem likely to become more severe this century, the important question is not "How do we grow the economy?" Instead, these books explore "How do we re-orient our economies and societies to a post-growth reality?"

Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It and Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy by David Fleming; edited by Shaun Chamberlin

Lean Logic is the brilliant product of Fleming's lifetime of exploration into fields as diverse as history, science, economics, anthropology, art, culture, myth, literature, poetry, and philosophy. This unusually imaginative dictionary contains over 400 essay-entries on eclectic yet interrelated topics such as "Growth", "Debt", "Lean Economy", "Play", "Religion", "Carnival", "Land", "Eroticism", and "Utopia". Throughout these entries, Fleming explores how our growth-based economy is destroying the foundation on which it depends and offers an inspiring vision of economics and culture in a post-growth world. While he honestly acknowledges the severity of our predicament, instead of inducing despair, he focuses on the "need to build a sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow."

The entries of Lean Logic, each one carrying links to others, are best read not alphabetically but in a "choose your own adventure" style. For those interested in a shorter and sequential read, Surviving the Future contains a narrative of select essays from Lean Logic.

The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered by John Michael Greer

Greer critiques the premises of contemporary economics and its mistake of confusing money with wealth. Outlining an economic paradigm based in ecological reality, he distinguishes three areas of the economy: primary (nature), secondary (man-made goods and services), and tertiary (financial). Contemporary economics neglects the primary economy, falsely assuming there is an unlimited abundance of natural riches, whereas it treats the tertiary economy as if it produced real goods. Recent responses to economic crises have focused on inflating the tertiary economy to new heights, but have done little to address deepening problems in the primary and secondary economies. Recognizing these shortcomings, he suggests policy initiatives and individual actions that will lessen the impact of energy and resource constraints, pollution, and financial turmoil.

The End of Growth: Waking Up to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg

Heinberg argues that the global economy is reaching a fundamental turning point - the end of growth. The overall long-term trend in the physical economy will be contraction, even if abstractions of modern finance are able to carry on the illusion of growth a little longer. He outlines factors stalling growth: depletion of fossil fuels, metals, rare minerals, and other nonrenewable resources; water and food crises; climate change; pollution and environmental degradation; and crushing levels of debt. He also dismantles common arguments that enough innovation, new technology, substitution, energy alternatives and efficiency can allow the economy to grow indefinitely. Concluding on a positive note, he offers ideas on how policy-makers, communities, and families can transition to life after growth.

The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update by Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows

In the 1970s, three MIT scientists created a computer model that analyzed global trends such as resource depletion, consumption, industrial capital and output, population, food, pollution, and climate. In the first edition of The Limits to Growth, they concluded that if the industrial economy continued on the path of exponential expansion, it would hit limits during the first half of the 21st century. However, global society had the option to pursue other courses, some which could reduce overshoot of the carrying capacity of the planet and avert collapse. Contrary to claims of critics - mainly economists and technologists - who lambasted the study, the scientists did not make a specific prediction, only analyzed a range of possible scenarios.

In this newest edition, the scientists review relevant data from three decades after the first edition and provide updated scenarios. (More recently, some research has sadly suggested that global society has closely followed the "business-as-usual" scenario that they warned against; options are now much more constrained than in the 1970s.)

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher, forward by Bill McKibben

Although first published in 1973, this collection of essays on the fallacies of conventional economic wisdom remain relevant today. Among many assumptions that Schumacher critiques is the treatment of non-renewable natural resources, especially fossil fuels, as expendable income instead of capital. He also highlights the distinction between primary (Earth-provided) and secondary (man-made) goods and services - often neglected in modern finance which provides a price tag for all goods and services and pretends they are of equal significance. Critical of "bigness is better" industrialism, Small Is Beautiful articulates a vision of an economics rooted in ecology, that fosters healthy local communities and individual creative fulfillment - not excess material consumption.

The Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future of Our Economy, Energy, and Environment by Chris Martenson, PhD, MBA

Economic researcher Chris Martenson outlines unsustainable trends in the economy, energy, and the environment that are converging and contributing to deepening crises worldwide. He examines the depletion of factors essential for economic growth - such as fossil fuels, metals, rare minerals, topsoil, fresh water, fisheries, and biodiversity - and also explains how energy alternatives and new technologies are not enough to rescue us from these limits to growth. Yet our monetary system functions on the assumption that there will always be future growth to repay debt. Financial crises are therefore likely to become more prevalent and severe, and the kinds of responses that enabled recovery in the past are less likely to work in the future. He concludes with practical suggestions of how individuals and communities can become more resilient amidst turbulent times.