There Really Are Limits to Growth

It is still fashionable today to ridicule the report the late Donella Meadows and her associates at MIT prepared for The Club of Rome, “The Limits to Growth” and successor reports. Yet it is patent nonsense and an affront to common sense to pretend that economic growth, the fundamental basis of modern capitalism, can continue indefinitely, and at a geometric rate at that. To suggest otherwise is purely willful, an ideological, indeed a theological claim. I am not interested in endless examination of philosophical or even cultural terms or buzzwords. It serves no purpose to try to come to an agreement as to whether a particular label is rooted in this-or-that origin. Are neoconservatives an outgrowth of left-liberals switching from left to right? I really don’t care. But it is important to recognize that certain positions are ideological, quasi-religious in nature.

Consider the Toyota Motor North America executive who praised the efforts of Toyota to “be green” so as to benefit the environment, while at the same time declaring that “This is one of the few countries on earth where we have more cars per household than drivers. Isn’t that great?” and apparently failing to apprehend the irony.

Still another Toyota North America executive noting that right now there are about three-quarters of a billion cars worldwide, points out that by 2050, if market trends continue, “we could conceivably have 2 billion or even 2.5 billion cars.” Thus do major executives of the current darling of the supposedly environmentally sensitive fly in the face of reality. If by some strange mechanism, currently not even imagined, there actually should be 2 billion cars sometime in the future, they will not be on the road. If world petroleum extraction rates are set to begin declining within the next ten or twenty years, if they have not already, contemplating and actually believing there might be a three-fold or more increase in the number of cars is folly at best. More cogently, one might expect at least cognitive dissonance.

Denial is a powerful psychological force. Logic apparently is not. Capitalists simply cannot imagine anything other than a continuation of present trends, allowing for minor periodic fluctuations in the inexorable climb to greater and greater production, and greater and greater profits. Of course, given that finance capitalism is the true mechanism in the developed world, capitalists would not at all mind if they were not called upon to produce anything at all except compound interest and leverage. This is directly counter to the dogma of capitalist ideology, but then Henry George said so in Progress and Poverty well over a century ago: “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent (emphasis mine).” From the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1946, p.10..

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