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Collision Course

Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet

Kerryn Higgs
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Collision Course
    Book Description:

    The notion of ever-expanding economic growth has been promoted so relentlessly that "growth" is now entrenched as the natural objective of collective human effort. The public has been convinced that growth is the natural solution to virtually all social problems -- poverty, debt, unemployment, and even the environmental degradation caused by the determined pursuit of growth. Meanwhile, warnings by scientists that we live on a finite planet that cannot sustain infinite economic expansion are ignored or even scorned. InCollision Course,Kerryn Higgs examines how society's commitment to growth has marginalized scientific findings on the limits of growth, casting them as bogus predictions of imminent doom.Higgs tells how in 1972,The Limits to Growth-- written by MIT researchers Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens III -- found that unimpeded economic growth was likely to collide with the realities of a finite planet within a century. Although the book's arguments received positive responses initially, before long the dominant narrative of growth as panacea took over. Higgs explores the resistance to ideas about limits, tracing the propagandizing of "free enterprise," the elevation of growth as the central objective of policy makers, the celebration of "the magic of the market," and the ever-widening influence of corporate-funded think tanks--a parallel academic universe dedicated to the dissemination of neoliberal principles and to the denial of health and environmental dangers from the effects of tobacco to global warming. More than forty years afterThe Limits to Growth, the idea that growth is essential continues to hold sway, despite the mounting evidence of its costs -- climate destabilization, pollution, intensification of gross global inequalities, and depletion of the resources on which the modern economic edifice depends.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32091-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxvi)

    Since the middle of the twentieth century, the scale of the human enterprise has rapidly escalated, and with it the exploitation of the natural world as a source of raw materials and a sink for the disposal of waste. Though the roots of this explosion lie in the history of the last five hundred years at least (in the rise of capitalism, European colonialism, Enlightenment science, and the Industrial Revolution), the associated disruption of the global biosphere has become evident only over the last half century.

    This book is about the story of this growth, its astonishing acceleration since World...

  6. Part I: Growth and Its Challengers

    • 1 Economic Growth: Origins
      (pp. 3-14)

      Explosive economic growth is new in human history, and this chapter looks at how it was unleashed in three distinct but related historical developments, with Europe at their center.

      First, there was the 500- to 600-year period of Europe’s colonial expansion, which enabled Europeans to accumulate great wealth without commensurate cost by appropriating land, resources, and the slave labor of millions, and to solve numerous resource constraints by simply moving on to new frontiers. Second, there were 250 years of coal-based industrialization, which coincided with a massive development of technological capacity (known as the Industrial Revolution), a great wave of...

    • 2 Economic Growth: Perceptions
      (pp. 15-32)

      Ecological economists see economic growth very differently from mainstream economists and most policymakers. First, and most fundamental, is the question of which is primary: the economy or the planet’s ecological systems? The answer chosen is crucial, since all questions of the limits, boundaries, and scale of the human economic enterprise hinge on whether or not the economic system can be theorized independently of its physical and natural context.

      Many standard economics textbooks introduce students to a diagram of “the economy” that includes only the relationship between businesses and households (producers and consumers), depicted as a circular flow and not represented...

    • 3 The Limits to Growth Debate: Precursors and Beginnings
      (pp. 33-50)

      From the end of World War II until the beginning of the seventies, world economic growth exceeded anything ever before seen, with particularly explosive growth in Europe. Earlier growth, even in the nineteenth century, stood still by comparison.¹ In the last decade of the twentieth century, the annualincreasein world real GDP equaled something like the entire global economy of 1900, $ 1,000 billion in 1990 US dollars.² The world’s economic output increased about twentyfold in the twentieth century and, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “exceeded the cumulative total output for the preceding recorded human history.”³ It...

    • 4 The Limits to Growth and Its Critics
      (pp. 51-62)

      Soon after the Club of Rome was founded in 1968, it instigated theLimits to Growthproject. The Club of Rome was an exclusive think tank, the creation of the Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei in association with the Scottish scientist Alexander King. They brought together a select group of prominent, mostly wealthy individuals who wanted to address what they called the problematique, translated as

      “the predicament of mankind”: how could growing populations, locked into ever-expanding industrialization, avoid immense (if not terminal) environmental degradation, exhaustion of the resources on which everything depended, and the social chaos that would be likely to...

  7. Part II: Chasing Growth

    • 5 Growth and Consumerism
      (pp. 65-78)

      As outlined in chapter 1, one great innovation of capitalism that set it aside from all earlier trading systems was the wholesale application of the economic surplus to the expansion of production, setting in train a regime of accumulation, a dynamic of ongoing growth, and a route to what looked like ever-increasing wealth. It established a system that depends on expansion just to keep going.

      The basic financial apparatus for corporate capitalism had already been created during the mercantile era—the limited liability stockholding enterprise. The Australian journalist Murray Sayle, writing about the symbiotic relationship between the capitalist system and...

    • 6 The Rise of Free Market Fundamentalism
      (pp. 79-104)

      The emergence of neoliberal economics has radically increased the share of wealth that business is able to capture and drastically altered the ideological climate in favor of business. It has become the philosophical framework that dominates policy thinking almost everywhere, curbing democratic intervention from elected governments and limiting the space for critics of growth—indeed, for critics of any aspect of environmental degradation. The market has increasingly been accepted as the primary institution needed to take care of all aspects of public activity.

      Modern economics is usually seen as originating with Adam Smith’sThe Wealth of Nations, published in 1776,...

    • 7 “Development” and Globalization: Exporting Growth
      (pp. 105-124)

      As indicated in the introduction, the world beyond Europe was progressively overtaken by the expansion of the past five hundred years. Unlike many of his disciples of more recent times, Adam Smith was alert to the uneven distribution of benefits from this protracted series of events. A late eighteenth-century witness, aware of the extraordinary commercial success of the colonial enterprise for the metropolitan powers, Smith did not observe any concomitant new-found prosperity among the conquered. Quite the reverse:

      The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two...

    • 8 Growth and “Sustainable Development”
      (pp. 125-134)

      Sustainable development emerged as an international policy objective from the time of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also known as the Brundtland Commission, which met in the mid-1980s and filed its report,Our Common Future, in 1987. The definition it advanced has been much debated:

      The concept of sustainable development provides a framework for the integration of environment policies and development strategies. … Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future. Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth, it recognises that the...

    • 9 Growth and Its Outcomes for the Poor
      (pp. 135-162)

      China and India are regarded as success stories for economic growth in the developing world over the past twenty to thirty years, but there are disturbing indications that growth has not relieved extreme poverty in India and that the improvements in China are not being shared equitably. In both countries, the pursuit of growth is accompanied by serious environmental damage and the dispossession or forced removal of tens of millions of the poorest people.

      Dispossession has been part of the transformation of subsistence farming into profit-making agriculture since the earliest British enclosures turned farmland over to sheep grazing. Sir Thomas...

  8. Part III: Persuading the People

    • 10 Propaganda: “Business Finds Its Voice”
      (pp. 165-186)

      The big corporation entered the US economy at the end of the nineteenth century and soon began to adopt professional public relations in its struggle with its opponents: first to counter popular resentment at the destruction of pre-corporate patterns of ownership and everyday life, then to contain dissatisfaction with the cataclysmic failure of the corporate economic system from 1929 to the beginning of World War II. Corporations applied the new advertising techniques, so successful in the incitement of consumption as a guarantee of ongoing growth (see chapter 5), to the promotion of the capitalist system itself. They proposed what they...

    • 11 Sleight of the Invisible Hand
      (pp. 187-210)

      In the first seven decades of its efforts at keeping the US public on its side during the twentieth century, capital pushed the concept of free enterprise as the very foundation of American prosperity. The market researcher Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) found in 1960 that “free enterprise” was a more persuasive and acceptable term than “capitalism.”¹

      In the early years of the twentieth century, some of these propaganda campaigns met with success. The distaste for big business that arose as corporate forms of business transformed small-town life was effectively countered. After the setback of the 1929 crash, the task became...

    • 12 The Free Market Assault on Environmental Science
      (pp. 211-238)

      In chapters 10 and 11, I traced the step-by-step creation of channels of propaganda and direct influence by corporate America, and their spread to other countries. I have also indicated the process whereby pro-corporate ideology was internalized in popular belief and became the commonsense way to see the world. Economic growth is intrinsic to the corporate system so that, even when growth itself is not the overt topic of the propaganda, it remains an underlying objective. This is particularly true of the battle to continue burning the fossil fuels on which the entire productive apparatus currently depends.

      The core rhetorical...

    • 13 International Brakes on Environmental Priorities
      (pp. 239-254)

      By the 1970s, neoliberals had accepted the Chicago school’s repudiation of antitrust policies and its willingness to allow monopoly and cartel to operate without regulation or constraint.¹ Ideological support for such entities facilitated the emergence of the global financial market and integrated global production, in which dispersed elements can be designed, made, and assembled separately and incorporated into vast global chains of production and distribution. These in turn demanded a modified international rulebook.

      Thus, while free market think tanks were cornering the policy debate inside the various nations of the developed world—and making inroads in a few others, such...

  9. Part IV: In Conclusion

    • 14 The Limits to Growth after Forty Years
      (pp. 257-270)

      WhenThe Limits to Growthfirst appeared, its message was taken seriously for several years. However, the efforts of the US presidents Nixon and Carter and the Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau died away with their tenure in office. Carter’sGlobal 2000was ignored by President Reagan and played no part in anyone’s planning for the future. The UN environment agencies that were founded in the 1970s, though they have since assembled immense amounts of data and plugged away with conferences, projects, and reports, were gradually overshadowed by the trade-oriented institutions of the neoliberal “revolution” that took hold in the...

    • 15 Conclusion: The Planet and the Pie
      (pp. 271-284)

      As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, what is new about the pursuit of the study of history in the twenty-first century is the need to address the intersection between natural history and human history, something we have never really faced on a global scale before.¹ The key to this need for alignment and mutual enlightenment between natural and human history is the concept of scale, an insight brought to prominence by the ecological economists. Herman Daly and his colleagues perceived that the scale of the human project in relation to the scale of the planet had reached a new ratio...

  10. Appendix: Selected Critics of Growth, 2013
    (pp. 285-292)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 293-324)
  12. References
    (pp. 325-368)
  13. Index
    (pp. 369-384)