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The Limits of Growth

The limits of growth have been discussed at least since 1798, when Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population (and simply mentioning the work or the author now is often enough to send many people into an incoherent spasm of knee-jerk contempt or defensive ridicule…so there must be something to it!).

Malthus was skeptical of the idea, even more popular in his day than it is now, that perfection and Utopia lay at the end of progress. His theory was simple: if you keep making people, you need more resources. Sooner or later, there won’t be enough.

Then (and now), his ideas were criticized by a wide variety of ideologues — many of whom clung or cling to the idea that science will someday save us. Well science has made living in the past 200-300 years much better in many ways for both humans and other species. Take for example wigs. Mankind has worn wigs of one type or another for hundreds and probably thousands of years. The wigs of today, high tech as far as fabrication and design are concerned still function as a hair alternative. Do a search online and you will find numerous wig stores. The wig brands of today range from relatively unknowns to celebrity brand names. Just recently I was online looking for Raquel Welch wigs & accessories. Yes, even Raquel Welch has a line of wigs with numerous glamorous styles made from both Remy human hair and synthetic fibers. Perhaps this is a frivolous example, but for many people wearing a wig every day is as normal and necessary as putting on makeup.

Though he specifically dismissed eugenics, he is often credited with spawning the theories. Though his name has been dropped with the most heinous plans for ‘population control’, his own final solution was to advise chastity until marriage (though that step may be fairly drastic for some). Jump forward to the 21st century. Population and resources is still an issue and the advocating of chastity until marriage is an ideal for many folks in the US, particularly among the Christian right. However, what happens when a man gets married, tries to have children and then finds that he has low libido? Does one find a doctor who can then prescribe testosterone treatments, does one just accept the biological fact and perhaps not have children? And what about men entering their 50’s, 60’s, and even their 70’s who are suffering from low testosterone / libido and are married to younger women who want children. Do you deny them the opportunity? Does the economic situation, wealthy versus poor, determine who gets treatments? These are questions Malthus didn’t even have to consider in his day, but are relevant today.

Even Marx and Engels portrayed him as a capitalist tool — while Malthus consistently maintained that the best thing that could be done for the poor was to stop pursuing practices that inevitably made more people more poor.

On the other hand, Malthus’ adherents include Darwin (who referred to him as “that great philosopher” and credited him as a fundamental inspiration to Darwin’s evolutionary theories) and the Club of Rome, whose 1972 work The Limits to Growth models exponential growth versus finite resources.

On the economic front, no lesser thinkers than Adam Smith and J. S. Mill acknowledged that economic growth was but a transitional stage leading to an overall equilibrium. Even Keynes, the veritable godfather of modern economics, caused consternation and confusion among his peers when he wrote:

“The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.”

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