Category: Growth

Planetary and Public Health – its in our hands ?

From public to planetary health: a manifesto.

The Lancet (Horton et al, 2014) has just published  a manifesto for transforming public health.

You can read the full one page easy to read manifesto here.

This is a call for a social movement at all levels, from individual to the global, to support collective action for public health. Public Health has been widely defined in this manifesto and draws upon the ideas of Barton and Grant’s health map which has climate change, biodiversity and global ecosystems as the outer ring of the determinants of health.

The current definitions of public health, for example from the Faculty of Public Health,  draw upon Acheson’s 1998 definition “The science and art of promoting and protecting health and well-being, preventing ill-health and prolonging life through the organised efforts of society”.  However this definition may now be outdated as there is no mention of environmental or ecological determinants of health and no express action on planetary health at all.

Therefore this manifesto is an implicit call to redefine what public health means. Currently you can read the FPH’s approach to public health and fail to consider issues around climate change, biodiversity loss or the crossing of planetary boundaries which delineate a ‘safe operating space for humanity‘. This needs changing.

The main points within this manifesto  include a definition of ‘planetary’ , rather than ‘public’ health which they argue is an “attitude towards life and a philosophy for living… emphasising people not diseases, and equity not the creation of unjust societies”.  There is a strong focus in the manifesto on the unsustainability of current consumption patterns of living, based on the harms this has on planetary systems. They argue “overconsumption…will cause the collapse of civilisation”. Jared Diamond is worth a read on the collapse of civilisations,  and this argument is in line with his analysis.

Interestingly, an overt political statement is introduced: “We have created an unjust global economic system that favours a small wealthy elite over the many who have so little”. They attack the idea of progress, and of neoliberalism  including ‘transnational forces”, for deepening this ecological crisis and for being socially unjust. There is also a hint of the ‘democratic deficit‘ in which trust between the public and political leaders is breaking down.

The call is for an urgent transformation in values and practices based on recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness, a new vision of democratic action and cooperation.  A principle of ‘planetism’ is invoked which requires us to conserve and sustain ecosystems upon which we rely.

Finally they suggest that public health and medicine can be independent voices of conscience who along with ’empowered communities’ can confront entrenched interests.

So far so good, and in a one page document the detail is necessarily missing.  The principles outlined in this manifesto and the analysis focusing on neoliberalism and ‘entrenched interests’ point us in a direction. However, there is now a need for a map.

I am not convinced that public health, medicine and certainly not nursing, is sufficiently politically aware of the scale of the issue and the sheer force and dynamic of capitalism to even begin constructing the map. That may be an unfair criticism because the education of health care professionals is ‘ahistoric’ and ‘apolitical’ by nature,  they simply lack a sociological or political imagination underpinned by a critical theory of capitalism. And for good reasons.

However, if doctors and nurses are to engage with this manifesto and to debate and argue for an alternative world view, then there is an urgent need to understand the forces railed against them. This manifesto rightly points out the political nature of the issue and the authors no doubt have a clear idea what they mean, however I doubt very much if the majority of healthcare professionals really understand, or even perhaps care about,  the concept of neoliberalism.

In the UK we will be having an election in 2015, in which we will be offered similar versions of the system that is causing the mess. There will be little in the way of mainstream reporting or argument on radical alternatives to consumption or finance capitalism. Indeed parties will be arguing over who can best manage the system.  The only exception will be the Green party who are a fringe party, in terms of votes.

As an example of the scale of the problem, consider Bill McKibbens’  ‘three numbers‘ argument: 2 for two degrees, the threshold beyond which we should fear to tread; 565 gigatons of CO2 we might be able to put into the atmosphere and have some hope of staying below or around 2 degrees; 2795 gigatons which is the amount of carbon in current reserves, but is the the amount of carbon we are planning to burn!  Further, the wealth of investors is tied up in this number and would evaporate like petrol in a hot day should we globally decide that this reserve should stay in the ground. This is an example of an entrenched interest backed by neoliberal politics which is antithetical to global and governmental regulations. The current TTIP negotiations which is trying to establish a free trade area between the US and the EU,  possibly exemplifies the powerlessness of states in the face of lawsuits by corporations if George Monbiot is correct. TTIP is a public health issue and forms part of the backdrop to this manifesto.

I welcome this manifesto, and would urge public health bodies to become overtly political in their statements about public health, perhaps revisiting Acheson and redefining public health to include planetary health.

Following that observation, a new publication published in February 2014, appears to address the politics in an overt way. The Lancet – University of Oslo Commission on Global Governance for Health argues in a document called ‘The political origins of health inequity: prospects for change’ : “Although the health sector has a crucial role in addressing health inequalities, its efforts often come into conflict with powerful global actors in pursuit of other interests such as protection of national security, safeguarding of sovereignty, or economic goals.”

This then sets up political determinants of health which sit alongside the social determinants of health. Whether it goes as far as critiquing the underlying dynamic of various forms of capitalism remains to be seen.

Making our own histories – we can change things if we want to and are free to.

Musing on the freedom to act in society, and on the nature of capitalism and its pernicious effects upon us, it might do to consider that we are free to change and we are not free to change. Capitalism at once exists and acts and feels like a cage while at the same time does not exist and is also only a product of our own imaginations and our social relationships that we have chosen to engage in. This matters because real lives are affected by the decisions that others in positions of power take, and they take these decisions as if capitalism is immutable, all pervading, inevitable…as a fact of life. This then justifies the use of batons, tear gas and surveillance drones in civil society and in putting down protest, and it justifies fixing the legal, financial and political framework so that big money fulfills big money’s needs.

In response to a recent email exchange I engaged in, a suggestion was made to me that there is a tendency to ‘objectify’ capitalism in many discussions – to make it seem indeed like a cage – a thing that has its own almost material existence and ‘essence’. This means that we may talk about capitalism as if it has objective existence and also a fixed nature. Capitalism is, in Emile Durkheim’s phrase, ‘sui generis’ – ‘of its own kind’. This derives from thinking that capitalist society over time replaces individuals with others, yet the ‘essence’ of society will not necessarily change. Over the course of a few decades, many individuals die and are replaced, however, the society retains its distinctive character. It is a thing of itself existing independently of individuals. An entire society that is built in this manner has its own ‘essence’. It has this ‘essence’ before any individual currently living in it is born, and is therefore “independent of any individual” existing almost as an ‘objective fact.’ We acknowledge this objective existence when we use such phrases as “Society today is worse/better than it was back in the day when…”

Some commentators might use different labels for capitalism. For example ‘casino capitalism‘ or ‘responsible capitalism‘ which reflects thier differing understandings of what capitalist society might be like. This tendency to label and to treat it as an objective fact, however, may overlook the fact that capitalism, like any ism, is dynamic and on the move. Historically that has been true: we have seen mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, post industrial or financial capitalism. Nonetheless and however it has been labelled, we must remember that capitalism is not an ‘objective fact’, although it can certainly feel that way especially to those who feel the full force of economic decisions made in far away board rooms.

Capitalism is a dynamic ever changing social system which finds expression and manifestation in human social relationships. The ‘objectivity’ of capitalism is a chimera; we may reify it and miss the essential nature of human decision making and social relationships that underpins it. Susan Strange argued “economists simply do not understand how the global economy works” due to a poor understanding of power and an over-reliance on abstract economic models. In other words, economist are apt to treat capitalism and the working of markets based on a false premise: that there is a objective system that can be understood theoretically using mathematics and a theory of self interested utility maximising rational actors, the ‘homo economicus’ of JS Mill and Adam Smith. To be fair to Smith he tempered this view in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

What economists often miss is that what we are talking about here is a set of human relationships characterised by an imbalance of power.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx). What have ‘we’ been given and transmitted from the past? Anti capitalist sentiment such as some of us in the sustainability or others in the Transition Towns movements express, are confronting Big Oil, and a cluster of high carbon social systems (John Urry) which are based on certain capitalist relations of production. ‘We’ ignore capitalist class relations at our peril. ‘We’ may confront power elites who have made, and are trying to continue to make, history in their own image: how that history will pan out depends on our collective and individual responses to Power, e.g. the Military-Industrial-Security complex, the World Bank, IMF, OECD, G8, Davos, Bilderberg (?), EU and other Regional blocs, the Trioka, the Corporate Class Executive and the Political Power Elite. We, e.g. ‘anti-capitalists’ or the Transition Towns or Environmentalists, are trying to remake history; history as we please, but within a certain socio-political context and power play not of our choosing. We do not have ‘self selected circumstances’ and that is what makes capitalism feel like a cage. Ask yourself: who has the guns?

For an example of circumstances being shaped by the powerful, note how successful the right wing press has been in sowing the seeds of doubt in the population about climate change,  and also for blaming the poor for their position while supporting austerity in the midst of one the greatest transfers of wealth from poor to uber rich (the 0.01%) we have seen, and the movement of private bank debt to sovereign public debt. There is ample evidence that the neoliberal agenda, which unites many of groups mentioned above, are antithetical to a ‘no growth economy’ and to social democracy.  In the West, there is only one game in town: growth based on neoliberal economics.

There are countervailing voices, e.g. Paul Hawken’s ‘Blessed Unrest’,  but some are increasingly despairing, Will Hutton articulates this well.

The post financial crash shifts of 2008 are playing out, but we don’t know in 10 years what this will look like. So far however, report after report shows the wealthy elite entrenching their power and wealth* while the occupy ‘movement’, the indignados, the precariat, come under increasing demonisation, e.g. skivers v strivers, surveillance and crack downs, using para militiary type tactics. The monolith of Capitalism stands while we crash against it.

Capitalist social relationships are backed by ideology and often force. Some argue it is the best of a bad lot, and that like democracy it is the worse system we have except for all the others, that it is the only game in town. Marx himself marvelled at its ability to produce abundance. However, is this really the best we can do? Is this really the best world in the best of all possible worlds? Growth capitalism, and there is no other sort, is leading us towards ecological disaster, while the social determinants of health result in inequalities in health whereby millions die prematurely and needlessly because of our socio-political arrangements.  Many of us bluster and blog and rage and rant and protest, some of us quietly get on with living differently, remaking our social relationships as best we can.

We are free but everywhere we are in chains.


*the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare.

Ecocide – a necessary but insufficient step to sustainability?

Ecocide – a necessary but insufficient step?

Polly Higgins proposes a new law against peace: Ecocide. The hope is that international law will make capitalism adopt greener practices and turn it away from such rapacious and dirty economics such as that of the Athabasca tar sands extraction. Will ecocide take us beyond capitalism or merely make a dirty economics clean? Can ecocide help the transition to a no growth economy or merely make the growth economy cleaner in environmental terms. Growth is the key point. Current capitalist growth is the father of its bastard child ‘ecocide’, if we eradicate this bastard we still have the father to contend with. Without growth we don’t have capitalism. With dirty capitalism we have dirty growth, and we have ecocide, without ecocide we have green growth. But in both cases we have growth, which means capitalism and its spawn: inequality and resource depletion. Ecocide will channel capitalist dynamics into greener activities but will not necessarily help make those green activities sustainable or diminish the dynamic for growth.

David Harvey spells out the internal dynamic of capitalism: the surplus capital accumulation problem which predicates capitalism upon growth. Growth brings more and more resources into play and growth on a finite planet transgresses the safe operating spaces for humanity. So unless the legal framework goes beyond making growth green, making growth itself illegal, we will not have solved earth’s sustainability issues. All we have done is channelled energy into a cleaner, greener demise. The law might want to address making capitalism itself illegal and focus instead on problems of distribution and exchange as well as on production. Not to do so will allow inequality and resource depletion to run in the space that ecological degradation leaves behind.

Growth and Doubling and the competition for resources

Growth, doubling and the competition for resources

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Daniel Ben-Ami has written a good book challenging those of a green persuasion and those he calls ‘growth sceptics’ “Ferrari’s for all” is the title. Well worth a read. I believe there are flaws however mainly around the failure to address CO2 emissions related to growth and an almost panglossian belief in human ingenuity and progress. The key message is that economic growth and development has delivered huge advantages for humanity (let’s put aside the worlds’ poor for a moment) and is a precondition for dealing with the challenges that lie ahead.

However this is inductive logic, basing future predictions on past patterns. Whatever the historical record shows in the past, it may not be replicated in the future. In addition, growth itself may contain the seeds of its own destruction. See for example some counter arguments on growth:

To quote from the article: ‘But the key problem concerns the doubling time. Suppose an economy grows by 3%. It will double in capacity in 23 years, but it will consume as much in that time as in all previous doubling periods put together. For that reason, either there has to be a massive expansion of available resources, or the growth model becomes unsustainable.  Read more:

However the political realities are that the main parties in the UK (and the US) are wedded to the idea of capital accumulation based on market competition as an economic imperative and is the only model for economic activity: they believe that growth relieves poverty, they believe that what is good for business is good for society, free markets tend towards equilibrium and that competition leads to fairness. China and India are following their own models – not quite the same but still based on capital growth while ignoring the doubling principle.

So growth is probably here to stay until the physical realities and the ensuing struggle for resources (China uses 30% of the earth’s copper according to a BBC newsnight report) intervene.

Now why should any of this bother a healthcare professional?

How much is enough?

Robert and Edward Skidelsky, father and son, address the question ‘How much is enough’, in their recently published book (2012). Robert Skidelsky, professor of political economy, and Edward, lecturer in philosophy, wish to suggest what might the elements of a ‘good life’ accepting that this indeed can be known. Following on from this they suggest that the goals of economic policy should be directed to foster the good life, if we can know what that is, rather then directed towards encouraging mindless GDP growth for growth’s sake. They do this through briefly exploring the work of the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes and through examining the long traditions of philosophical thought. They critique current economic thinking, measurements of happiness and examine some weaknesses of environmentalism.

Underpinning their argument throughout is the notion that wealth is not the ends of a good life, it is merely a means, and not the only or exclusive means at that. In addition to this failure to identify what the ends of economic policy should be, current economics and culture conflates needs and wants thus failing to make the distinction between the two. Policies aimed at the relentless pursuit of money, are then counterproductive because they fail to direct us into asking when we have enough and what a good life is.

Wealth is not what they would classify as a ‘basic good, and is not automatically an element of ‘the good life’. This might seem counterintuitive and goes against the grain of a ‘euromillions lottery, celebrity-obsessed, consumerist culture’. However, many already know that the ‘love of money is the root of evil’ even if they often fall victim to its lures.


The argument is of course highly relevant in cultures which have elevated money making and economic growth as ends in themselves. The results of so doing are environmental damage, social division and a diminution of human flourishing, or as Skidelsky and Skidelsky say eudaimonia’.

They leave it until chapter 6 to outline what they consider are the ‘elements of the good life’, which they say could apply across cultures and across time.

So what are these elements (the basic goods) and how do they go about deciding what they should be? Accepting that the choice of these goods could be arbitrary, they argue for inclusion criteria to prevent this. There are thus 4 inclusion criteria to use to choose the ‘basic goods’.

1.    Universality. Basic goods apply across time, cultures, and not just from a localised, time-bound definition of them.

2.    Finality. They are goods in themselves and not a means to an end. Keep asking the ‘what is it for’ question. Money, what is it for? To buy food. Food, what is it for? For life. Life, what is it for? Well, life is not ‘for’ anything, it is not a means to an end, it is an end.

3.    Sui Generis. That means it exists on its own and is not part of anything else. So, ‘freedom from cancer’ is part of larger whole, the good of ‘health’ generally.

4.    Indispensable. Anyone who lacks a basic good can be deemed to have suffered serious harm or loss. Another way is to think of basic goods as needs.

In establishing these criteria of sufficiency, the task is to treat a ‘good’ as basic only if its lack constitutes serious harm or loss, for it is “…only such goods whose possession could be thought to constitute ‘enough’ ” (p153).

In choosing these basic goods they acknowledge that there is fuzziness, room for argument and overlap, but in such matters as this they argue for “honest roughness is better than spurious precision”. (p 154).

The seven basic goods:

1.    Health.

2.    Security.

3.    Respect.

4.    Personality.

5.    Harmony with nature.

6.    Friendship.

7.    Leisure.

Of course each of these need defining and argument, but maybe that is the point. However tempting it may be to descend into a hermeneutic vortex of relativist definition seeking, and as much fun as that might be in academic discourse, this list could be used as a basis for some universal agreement about how much is enough for a ‘good life’. An interesting exercise would be to gather people of faith and those of no faith to discuss the criteria and the seven basic goods. This would highlight subjective definitions of what for example ‘respect’ means. The list itself is difficult to argue with, who does not want health and security?

Herein lies a problem and that is ‘Politics’. The political class, the capitalist class, have yet to show any signs of social solidarity and thus a desire for the development of these basic goods. The marketisation of society, the commodification of all things, continues apace while the main political parties bow down to the God of growth. The Skidelskys resurrect  Keynes who thought that capitalism was a necessary if nasty route to prosperity and well being. He thought increased GDP would provide ‘enough’ and would usher in a shorter 15 hour working week. Yet despite increased national wealth we are now working longer hours. It is however the spirit of Hayek and the triumph of neoliberal free market ideology which has been unleashed upon Western economies. Hayek would want governments to go even further in their attempts to wither away the State. However without a strong civil society and a strong state, the 7 basic goods have no chance of being realized. They are just too vague and do not serve the interests of capital which requires the increase of profit, driven by competitive advantage.

Skidelsky, R., and Skidelsky, E. (2012) How much is enough? The love of money, and the case for the good life. Allen Lane, London.

Buy Nothing New For a Year: Biophilia – Love of Life or Living Systems

Buy Nothing New For a Year: Biophilia – Love of Life or Living Systems

Ferrari’s for all? Why this may be wishful thinking.

 A critique of ‘Ferrari’s for All – In defence of economic progress.’  By Daniel Ben-Ami (2010)



As the name indicates, this book is a justification for further economic growth and progress. It is based on the idea that humanity is apart from nature (human exceptualism) and is capable of enormous technical, cultural and progressive ingenuity. Humanity should strive to achieve more in terms of economic development so that everyone should have access to a Ferrari (if they want it). It is a counter to what he terms ‘growth scepticism’, i.e. the “tendency to undermine economic progress by indirect means” (p3). What follows is a critique of the arguments around economic growth v limits put forward in part two of the book. It will argue that Ben-Ami’s faith in human progress is based on inductive reasoning, ignores a key statistical problem, and is over confident that limits (on energy supply for example) can be overcome. His faith in growth is thus based on wishful thinking and a confidence in the statistical analysis of a few commentators (notably Bjorn Lomborg). However, the notions of ‘scarcity’ and ‘limits’ are themselves problematic and need further exploring.

This is a book in two parts. The first deals with ‘growth scepticism’, which he argues has become a pervasive discourse in culture and politics as part of a ‘general mood of social pessimism…from the 1970’s onwards’ (p7). Growth scepticism is the ‘tendency to see economic growth and popular prosperity as problematic’ (p11). It may have several elements: a deep ambivalence on the part of ‘the elite’ to economic growth and progress; it may be expressed in terms of ‘limits’ (natural, social and moral); it may be a humanistic critique of materialism. Related concepts are ‘Affluenza’ (James 2007) whereby ‘consumption makes us mentally ill’ and ‘sustainability’ which focuses on environmental degradation and resource use (Spedding 1996). The second part is the counter argument to growth sceptics. 


First we need to deal with what is meant by ‘growth’.  Economists often refer to growth as growing ‘value’ (often measured in GDP terms). Environmentalists may focus on growth as growing the ‘quantity of stuff’. They are two quite different things which may or may not be related. House price value is an example of value growth without an increase in the quantity of stuff. A third use of growth is that of population growth. Ben-Ami appears to be making the case for growing GDP (value) and for growing ‘stuff’ while accepting rising levels of population growth for the next 30 years. So what follows refers to all meanings. Limits to growth include both the material and energy that are extracted from the Earth, and the capacity of the planet to absorb the pollutants that are generated as those materials and energy are used. Streams of material and energy flow from the planetary sources through the economic system to the planetary sinks where wastes and pollutants end up. There are limits, however, to the rates at which sources can produce these materials and energy without harm to people, the economy, or the earth’s processes of regeneration and regulation. Ben-Ami argues that limits can be overcome by human ingenuity based on economic development as a precondition for this ingenuity and creativity.



Progress and Nature

A core theme within the book is the Enlightenment idea of progress, with Frances Bacon’s entreaty to understand nature in order to better control it: 

‘Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule (Bacon 1620)’.

Barton Perry (2011) thus adds “Observe nature in order that you may use nature, thus converting it into the habitation, instrument, and treasure of man. Here is the supreme maxim of our modern world, and the chief ground of its peculiar confidence and hopefulness”.

This thought is a corrective to the naturalistic fallacy which conflates the ‘is’ with the ‘ought’,  the ‘natural is’ with what ‘ought to be’, often indulged in by those (often ‘greens’) who use the words such as ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ in advertising their products. Arsenic is a ‘natural’ product and Human faeces can be described as ‘organic’.  Humanity has progressed by recognising that nature has to be tamed to ensure natural processes, elements and other species do not destroy us. The natural (Hobbesian) world is not necessarily a good template for human society. Thus Ben-Ami argues: “Environment: subjugate nature” (p123).

Humans are apart from nature and have demonstrated their continuing mastery over it. This is both true (to a degree) empirically and is also a value statement. Whether we should continue to control is a value position, whether this is hubris also remains to be seen. Nature has a knack of reminding humanity who is in control. As a value statement other commentators  may wish a little less control and a little more conservation. 

Growth is good

In his introduction, Ben-Ami states “Here is the good news. Over the medium and longer term…seven billion (people) are living longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than at any time in history” (p 1). He argues that infant mortality is down in many countries (see for Hans Rosling’s statistical evidence on this sort of improvement), technology advances at astonishing rates, the average age for chronic disease increases, working hours are down, we are better educated and better connected than ever. This is down to human ingenuity, the pursuit of progress and growth. Ben-Ami acknowledges that the world is far from perfect, he is not wearing rose tinted spectacles, and much of what he states may well be factually correct and for many of us in rich countries at least is demonstrably correct.

Despite some (albeit gross) setbacks – e.g. nazism, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the continuing social inequalities – humanity has made enormous progress especially since the industrial revolution. The best way to address the challenges is to go for economic growth which encourages affluence. This is the “precondition for resolving challenges..rather than their cause” (p3).

The main points argued are:

  Growth 1: Humanity has gained enormously from economic growth.

  Growth 2: is correlated with technological and scientific progress.

  Growth 3:  can put humanity in a stronger position to deal with population and environmental challenges as it provides more resources combined with human ingenuity.

  Growth 4: Economic Inequality in itself is not an argument against growth. An answer is to raise the living standards of everyone so that poor countries should experience economic transformation such as that enjoyed by rich countries.


The growth sceptic case is based on limits which Ben-Ami argues:

  Limits 1: What appear to be fixed natural limits can be overcome. nature is to be subjugated, more control is needed not less.

  Limits 2: ‘Scarcity of resource’ and ‘overpopulation’ are myths.

  Limits 3: Moral limits are not imposed by affluence and materialism: The pursuit of happiness ought to be linked with progress, affluence is worth pursuing to achieve more happiness and does not make us ill. Sustainability is inherently conservative and privileges the elite.

Addressing limit 3 is for another paper. In ‘Chapter 6: Better than ever: Growth benefits humanity’. Ben-Ami points out that in 1800 the average life expectancy was 30 years, by 2000 it was 67 and rising. This is based on economic growth as a precondition for this progress. To refute his thesis it is not necessary to gainsay the facts. Let’s accept that growth arguments 1, 2, and 3 above are valid: humanity has gained, science and technology go hand in hand with economic development and thus humanity becomes better equipped to deal with the challenges. The historical record and current technological and scientific advances testify to these facts. Growth argument 4 is a political not an environmental argument, but may be subject to the limits he refutes for growth arguments 1, 2 and 3. In other words if there are limits, the political arguments for inequalities will be put in jeopardy as the populations struggle for scarcity within changing climates.

Inductive logic

Ben-Ami’s argument and statistics may be grounded in current and past reality. However, drawing from past patterns and history to suggest a future pattern is inductive logic and may be a very poor predictor. Inductive logic leads to inferences which are based on past patterns and observations, it is a kind of thinking (e.g. growth is good) that draws conclusions from a finite collection of specific observations (growth has been good). The premises of an inductive argument indicate some degree of support (inductive probability) for the conclusion but cannot confirm it. For example, “All swans are white” is an inference based on observations of thousands of white swans. Inductive logic is seductive because it encourages us to think that what has been, what is being observed, what is, will always be. Taleb (2005) quotes David Hume to illustrate the problem of induction “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion” (p117). Just because humans have been successful based on growth in the past does not mean that they will be so in the future. There may well be a human ‘black swan’ waiting to be discovered.

As for successful civilisations, no doubt the Romans, Babylonians and Easter Islanders thought the same of theirs until their own black swans emerged. The fact that a civilisation demonstrated a degree of mastery over its environment and enjoyed affluence is no measure of its continued success. Time frames are important especially as humans are poor at judging it. A successful civilisation of 200 years may seem to be so from the point of view of a human lifetime. An analysis over a 2000 year time frame may prove it otherwise. The time to judge whether the carbon based Western industrial revolution is a success is not 2010, we may need to come back to that judgment in 2050-2100. Climate change may be a black swan. Ben-Ami’s theory cannot be verified by reference to the current facts, the stacking up of empirical data does not confer certainty. Science itself operates within uncertainty.

To be fair Ben-Ami does not claim any certainty for human progress.  Ben-Ami accepts this logic: ‘it is not possible to predict with any degree of accuracy exactly how history will unfold’ (p 96). What carries him forward is faith in human ingenuity and progress leading to the building of resilient societies. He argues “the environmentalists case (on limits to resources and population) is refuted by the historical record” (p127) but he does not follow this through. We may wish to accept that the record has shown that limits to resources and population growth have not been the problems envisaged by some in the 20th century, but this does not mean they will not be so in the 21st. 

We have to ask whether our incredible ingenuity will be able to meet the increasing demands made upon our resources. For example, can we provide the energy needed (at western consumption levels) for 9 billion by 2050? Population estimates are that it will peak at around 8-9 billion by 2050 (UN 2007) and may fall after that. Whether GDP can continue to increase in line with population levels remains to be seen. Hamilton (2003 and 2010), Jackson (2010), Meadows et al (1972, 2004), Pielke (2010) and Simms et al (2010) outline the challenges.

A statistical challenge to growth

The first challenge is a statistical one, i.e. one devoid of value or judgment, it is the numerical expression of exponential growth.  For more than a century, the world has been experiencing exponential growth in a number of areas, including population and industrial production.  In 1650, the world’s population had a doubling time of 240 years. By 1900, the doubling time was 100 years. In 1972 when The Limits to Growth was first published (Meadows et al 1972), there were under 4 billion people in the world. Today, there are more than 6 billion. An important concept is that of doubling time: A quantity, growing according to a pure exponential growth equation, doubles in a constant time period. There is a simple relationship between the % rate of growth and the time it will take that quantity to double:

            Growth Rate  (% per year)        Approximate Doubling Times  (years)

                        0.1                                                                        720

                        0.5                                                                        144

                        1.0                                                                        72

                        2.0                                                                        36

                        3.0                                                                        24

                        4.0                                                                        18

                        5.0                                                                        14

                        6.0                                                                        12

                        7.0                                                                        10

                        10.0                                                                        7


If the world economy grows at 3% we will have doubled capacity in 24 years. Growth from a small base can show this exponential feature. For example China’s economy grew at nearly 10% in the third quarter of 2010 (Trading Economics 2011) which means at this rate it will double GDP in 7 years!  Its demand for copper (for example) may double in 7 years (without substitution or efficiencies in copper use). There is only so much copper in the world, so where is the limit? Mining for copper will also be affected by the technical developments, and socio-political choices made across the globe and so its scarcity will be determined by various political and cultural factors. Overarching these decisions, exponential growth cannot occur in finite systems…there are limits. China’s growth rate of 10% each quarter is not being sustained. Ben-Ami does not discuss this statistical relationship or its implications for growth and resources. Let’s look at energy needs.

Energy and Growth

Pielke (2010) argues that ‘the world needs more energy’ (p62). He uses the concept of the ‘quad’ to estimate the needs. ‘Quad’ stands for 1 quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) British thermal units (Btu). A Btu is the amount of energy required to heat one pound of water by one degree F. Pielke illustrates this by comparing it to power plant generated electricity.  One quad is equivalent to 11 gigawatts (GW) over one year. 11 GWs is the amount produced by 15 typical power plants (each generating 750 megawatts). The USA consumes about 100 quads of energy each year (Pielke 2010 p63), the equivalent of the output of 150 power plants (1 quad produced by 15 power plants).

The USA uses 100 quads and can generate the energy to do so. Countries such as Afghanistan will of course (currently) use far less than 100 quads per year. For us to provide ‘ferraris for all’ Afghanistan will need to move towards the USA’s (per capita) quad consumption level. Even ignoring the fact that even in the USA this level of energy consumption exists in the context of gross inequities, can they do it?  

The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimated that the world would consume in 2030 678 quads of energy based on a GDP growth rate of 1.5% per year. If 15 power plants produce 1 quad then 678 quads would require 10,170 power stations. Estimates for actual global GDP growth is twice that amount (20,340 power stations). If demand were to increase by 2% pa to 2030 the world would need 755 quads. Ben-Ami wants growth, predicated upon growing energy demand. This calls for increased energy efficiency and/or supply to meet demand.  To reach 775 quads on current levels of energy efficiency would require 3,700 new power plants. That is one new power plant every day for the next 10 years at current levels of energy intensity.

Energy and carbon Intensity

Energy intensity is the amount of energy required for a unit of economic activity (measured as GDP). Thus it is a standard for energy use per unit of productivity. Carbon intensity refers to the carbon produced for each unit of productivity. Since carbon emissions and energy consumption are currently so strongly coupled, the two terms can effectively be viewed as roughly analogous (Simms et al 2010). A GDP rise suggests more units of production (and services) each using an amount of energy and producing carbon emissions.  If we are concerned at all about CO2 emissions and carbon intensity and we wish to reduce them then the ‘Kaya identity’ suggests we have 4 ‘tools’ :

1.  reduce population.

2.  reduce GDP.

3.  become more energy efficient.

4.  switch to less carbon intensive sources of energy.

Points 1 and 2 will not be addressed within the next 50 years (Pielke 2010), points 3 and 4 are enormous technological challenges (Simms et al 2010, Jackson 2010). If the world economy grows at 3% the current energy supply will have to double in 24 years unless we become more energy efficient and less energy intensive. Ideally we would want to reduce the amount of energy needed for each unit of GDP (reducing energy intensity). It is a given, Pielke argues, that population will rise, as will policies directed towards GDP growth (as advocated by Ben-Ami). Therefore we will need to increase diversification of supply and become vastly more efficient (with less energy intensity). Simms and Johnson (2010) argue “many of the technologies that make up the global energy system are mature technologies and their current efficiencies are at or almost at their practical maximum” (p103). Pielke argues (p75) that energy intensity has reduced. If 1980 = 1 then 2006 = 0.7. What is required is a projection of the ability to reduce this even further to reduce the need to generate and thus we fall into unknown territory. If Simms et al (2010) are correct, we may have already seen the majority of efficiency (and thus intensity gains) already.

Ben-Ami does not address these issues and thus ignores the fact that with a rising population and rising GDP the need to address energy efficiency and carbon intensity of supply becomes even more acute. Therefore the burden on human ingenuity and progress to deliver this without increasing CO2 emissions is intense. Pielke argues (p79) “the bottom line is that to stabilize (C02) at low levels will require advances in the decarbonising of the economy beyond that observed over the past decade and even the past century”. However If we require a new power plant every day for the next 10 years and these power plants use fossil fuels this is indeed a challenge. Ben-Ami may of course be unconcerned about CO2 emissions in the dash for growth hoping that technological advances will deliver both a reduction in CO2 and energy efficiency (reductions in energy intensity and carbon intensity).

We could of course argue that Pielke and Simms et al are also using inductive logic, basing calculations from the historical record. It may still be possible to increase the advances required so that we outperform the last century and the last decade. The jury is out, but Ben-Ami supplies no figures or estimates on this issue either. He does supply hope in human nature.

Pielke also argues that energy is necessary for development but is also a cost. In 2008 direct fuel costs 8% of world GDP (based on $60 a barrel for oil). The money needed to buy oil cannot be used for education, health or housing. Pielke may not be a growth sceptic but he demonstrates the scale of the energy problem indicating that there are limits based on policy decisions around de-carbonising the economy. 

Limits – Ecosystems and Climate change

Jackson (2009) is firmly within the growth sceptic camp. He argues current business as usual growth economics cannot continue because we have finite resources and that ecosystems are collapsing under the pressure of rising consumption (which also adds little to human happiness). He largely bases his arguments on the cases put forward by such as Meadows et al (1972 and 2004), McKibben (2007), the Millennium Ecosystem Assessments (2011) and Stern (2007). He argues “it is …estimated 60% of…ecosystems services have been degraded or over used since the mid 20th century” (p13). An ecosystem service is nature’s provision of food, water, climate regulation and waste disposal (MEA 2005). Ben-Ami has a problem with this idea. His point is that this leaves humanity out of the picture (p149), that nature does not provide, it is human labour that turns nature into food for example. This seems to miss the point, for without nature in the first place humans would have nothing to work with.

Jackson also makes much of the need to decarbonise the economy to deal with climate change. As argued above, as population and GDP grows so does carbon emissions. If we wish to reduce CO2 emissions (to those recommended by the IPCC) we have to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy. Ben-Ami makes little of CO2 emissions and growth assuming (hoping?) we can decarbonise the economy quickly enough (to reduce carbon intensity). Choat (2010) argues that a “standard feature of more mainstream economists’ efforts to take climate change seriously is an effort to show that it is, while not easy, manageable for us to make the transition from our current carbonised economy to a much less carbon-intensive one, which could otherwise carry on much as before”.

Commenting on Jackson, Choat (2010) states that, in 2007, a global population of 6.6 billion had an average income level of $5,900, with a carbon intensity of 760 grams of CO2 per dollar. This produced 30 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

The IPCC’s target for 2050 is 4 billion tonnes of CO2per annum. In order to reach that, assuming a population of 9 billion and per capita income growth of 1.4 per cent a year (the same as between 1990 and 2007), we get the following equation: 4 billion tonnes of of CO2 = 9 billion X around $10,700 income X a carbon intensity of round 36 grams per dollar. That’s a 21-fold improvement on 2007 levels of intensity. Whether we can achieve this is the question. Pielke and Jackson appear to be skeptical that we can achieve this

Therefore carbon emission targets are setting tough limits to GDP growth at current levels of both energy intensity and carbon intensity.

However, Ben-Ami is not convinced on carbon reduction or resource scarcity. He argues that the environment has improved as societies become richer and populations rise (Goklany 2006 and Lomborg 2001) and that we can solve climate change issues by more development not less.  He accepts the argument that resources are not becoming depleted and pollution is less of a problem, rejecting reports such as the Millennium Ecosystems Assessments.  For example, on pages 127 -132 he cites Lomborg’s ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ (TSE) to suggest 3 ways in which we deal with resource scarcity:

  existing resources are being used more efficiently.

  new supplies can be found.

  substitute resources can be used.

One key resource is Oil. Lomborg (2001 p128) argues that using the 3 mechanisms above (for example exploiting Canadian tar sands) that we have enough oil for 5000 years. Simms et al (2010) of course argue that we are entering an era of peak oil.

Ben-Ami also argues that humans are not only passive consumers of resources, we are also active producers who are able to find solutions. In sum, his point is that human ingenuity and creativity will find new ways, limits can be overcome and economic development is a precondition for this process. History ‘demonstrates’ this and shows that economic growth drives efficiencies and cleaner environments as argued by Kuznets (1955). However, Kuznets’s work is not without its critics (Yandle et al 2000). 

A problem is that economic growth and progress may well have been preconditions for prosperity but they may still also hold within themselves the seeds of their own destruction (black swans) which will only come to fruition as circumstances and time unfolds. History cannot be used to predict the future. Ben-Ami implicitly accepts this in his attack on the limits arguments. He has to show that limits do not exist, that they are not intrinsic to halting growth on a finite planet i.e. that limits are not the seeds of growth’s destruction. However, there are few statistics other than that of Lomborg’s work in the book to demonstrate that resources are not finite. Whether Lomborg’s statistical analysis is correct or whether the growth sceptics’ analysis of the empirical data on energy supply and resources are correct, is a key question. Lomborg’s work has itself caused a great deal of controversy both in terms of its analysis and whether it should have been published at all (Pielke and Rayner 2004). Ben-Ami’s key ideas rest on faith on human progress and uncritically accepting Lomborg’s analysis over other data (such as that produced by Rockstrom et al 2009). Pielke and Rayner (2004) suggest that the controversy over TSE illustrates how politics, values and science get intertwined in debate, they refer to it as “a political controversy over values masquerading as a scientific dispute… the debate over TSE tells us that, for the time being, the notion that science is the appropriate context for public disputes over issues that are ultimately disagreements over values remains firmly entrenched” (p356).


Other work not attended to by Ben-Ami include the debate around business models which are being questioned in any case by such organisations as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD 2011) and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB 2010) study.



It is tempting to frame the above debate solely around the dichotomy: ‘Growth v Limits’ as if the question of resource allocation can be addressed simply by quantitative analysis (e.g. is there enough oil?). Mehta (2010) argues that the notion of ‘scarcity’ itself (another way of addressing limits to resources) is problematic. First there seems to be a universal acceptance of scarcity (especially across three domains of water, food and energy) which needs challenging. Mehta argues “…scarcity is not merely a natural phenomenon that can be isolated from planning models, allocation politics, policy choices, market forces, and local power, social and gender dynamics” (p2). In other words, resource allocation, their finiteness and how they get allocated is part of a larger whole; a matrix of social, political and economic dimensions within which powerful players set agendas and material flows. To really understand this complexity, one needs to draw from various perspectives on access to resources such as those from political ecology, marxism and feminism. Focusing on the technical questions on the assessment of resources will miss the cultural, historical and political dimensions. What is required is the ‘sociological imagination’ (Wright Mills 1959) that links the myriad personal experiences within their historical contexts. So, for example, a personal concern over petrol prices and carbon emissions has to be located within the policy decisions and social meanings of personal travel and politics of oil extraction. Oil is only a scarce and expensive resource because of the socio-political context in which it is embedded. Mehta thus suggests that water “ simultaneously a natural element (H2O), essential for the ecological cycle, a spiritual resource…at holy river banks and oceans, a commodity which can be mined, bottled, sold and traded and a life giving element without which human survival is not possible”. (p3)

Therefore, Ben-Ami and the growth sceptics stand on various ideologies, philosophies and socio-political considerations which need exploring in detail as well as exploring the quantities.


It is not necessary to be anti growth per se and much of Ben-Ami’s argument may be valid in the past. However, there is an empirical question for the future that can be partly answered by quantitative measurement.  Do we have enough water, energy, food etc, to support the projected 9 billion people on the planet at current levels of western consumption patterns? Has the planet enough viable ecosystem services to deal with our waste products? Do industrial processes pollute to the extent that we are putting our futures at risk?  These questions can only be answered by research and continued study. They will also be affected by policy decisions (for example on population growth). Growth for its own sake has to be questioned. A sustainable economy would be interested in qualitative development, not always physical expansion (‘more stuff’). It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. We need to discriminate among the different kinds and purposes of growth. Questions need to addressed such as what the growth is for, who would benefit, what it would cost, how long it would last, and whether the earth has enough resources and the capacity to deal with waste (sinks) to allow for growth.







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