Limits to Growth at an Inflection Point?

I’ve felt that at the root of the global financial collapse we’d find energy — mainly the end of cheap oil. Energy is the basis for real economic activity, and we seemed to be reaching oil supply limits by summer of 2008 just before the economic collapse hit its stride. 1979 was the year we reached per capita global peak energy.  Maybe 1979 was the year we hit the true limits to growths and didn’t realize it. Or didn’t want to face it?

There are gazillion words about the collapsing global economy (which may be the end of cheap credit?). But nobody seemed to be connecting the dots between the end of cheap oil and the economic collapse. Until good ol’ The Long Emergency author James Kunstler nailed it in “What Next?”

The Peak Oil story was never about running out of oil. It was about the collapse of complex systems in a world economy faced by the prospect of no further oil-fueled growth. It was something of a shock to many that the first complex system to fail would be banking, but the process is obvious: no more growth means no more ability to pay interest on credit… end of story, as Tony Soprano used to say.

….The last desperate act of the banking system in the face of Peak Oil’s no-more-growth equation was to engineer species of tradable securities that could produce wealth out of thin air rather than productive activity.

In a nutshell. Thanks, Jim.

And speaking of limits to growth, about a week later I was astounded to read (in the NY Times no less) what appeared to be a major turnabout for highly visible economics author and economic globalization proponent Thomas Friedman in The Inflection Is Near?

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

Holy Ecology, Batman, is the Limits of Growth message making it into the mainstream minds? This out-of-character-for-Friedman column brought up a similar response in Asher Miller, executive director of Post Carbon Institute. In a post titled “Hot, Flat, and Confused,” he write, “When people like Friedman…are all talking about the end of growth, now that gives me some hope.”

My hope was dampened somewhat into realism when our cohort  Michael Brownlee in Boulder wrote about attending Friedman’s talk about his new book Hot, Flat, and Crowded:

He laid out his main arguments from his new book, which hinge on the premise that in order to meet the challenge of climate change we need to make our top priority developing technologies which will result in “a cheap and abundant, clean and reliable source of electrons and molecules” that will (among other things) end our dependence on fossil fuels….

That’s right, this is the quintessential “Techno-Fix” position, the quasi-religious belief that technology will solve our problems, allow us to continue to fuel economic growth by some means other than fossil fuels, and maintain our current way of life. (“Our current way of life,” means, of course, the Western way of life typified in America.)…

In the face of growing global crises of climate change, resource depletion and economic collapse, placing all bets on Friedman’s fabulous as-yet-uninvented technology is at best wildly speculative. At worst, it is deeply and dangerously wrong-headed.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction: for a well-known economist/writer to say such a (taboo!!) notion in public widens the conversation. Which we desperately need as the Obama administration seems bent on returning us to “economics/business as normal” by pumping up the debt, which got us here in the first place.  As James Kunstler asserts in  “Full Commanding Denial”:

[W]e can’t possibly return to the easy credit and no money down “consumer” economy no matter how many nominal dollars get shoveled into the fiery furnaces of banks too-big-to-fail…. Everything that we’re doing right now is engineered to avoid reality, to sustain the unsustainable, to recover the unrecoverable, when the mandate of reality compels us to face our losses in order to move on to the next chapter of a collective American life. The next chapter would be a society that runs on a much more local and modest scale, centered on essential activities like growing food, requiring harder physical work, and focused attention — in other words, the opposite of a society lost in abstractions, long-range daisy chains of off-loaded responsibility, and incessant pleasure-seeking.”

The limits to growth. Debt growth, consumption growth, population growth. Most people alive today have only known growth. It’s a huge mindshift to even consider contraction, much less see it as beautiful, as a gift. I’m glad to see some cracks in the denial. We’ll arrive where we’re headed a whole lot more easily if we don’t resist it.


  1. Sweet blog. I never know what I am going to come across next. I think you should do more posting as you have some pretty intelligent stuff to say.

    I’ll be watching you.

  2. “Hope springs eternal.” But finding clean cheap energy will only drive the planet further into population overshoot and push off the inevitable requirement to live sustainably, i.e., within the Limits. This is wrong-headed hope. Borrowing from poet William Stafford’s reminder, perpetuating the Hope-Growth paradigm is “following the wrong god home.” The full poem is below. The last stanza feels poignantly relevant to these times.

    A Ritual To Read To Each Other

    If you don’t know the kind of person I am
    and I don’t know the kind of person you are
    a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
    and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

    For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
    a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
    sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
    storming out to play through the broken dyke.

    And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
    but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
    I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
    to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

    And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
    a remote important region in all who talk:
    though we could fool each other, we should consider–
    lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

    For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

    William Stafford

  3. Stuart M. says:

    Jeeeez…My dad just sent me an article by Thomas Friedman in which he is pushing nuclear fusion: “Are we on the brink of a fusion revolution?” I guess he is back in the “pie-in-the-sky” mode. “But we also need to make a few big bets on potential game-changers: systems that could give us abundant, clean, reliable electrons and drive massive innovation in big lasers, materials science, nuclear physics and chemistry that would benefit, energize and renew many U.S. industries.” Hope springs eternal…

  4. Stuart M. says:

    I read Thomas Friedman’s book “Hot, Flat and Crowded”. I recall his main concern was global warming and a world that was becoming uninhabitable due to ever-growing pressures on world resources (caused by increasing population and living standards). I have the book right in front of me now. On page 40 Friedman comes close to saying “Peak Oil” (maybe without realizing it): “Soaring oil and gasoline prices, though, are only one of the things that happen when global flattening meets global crowding.” Isn’t this Peak Oil? He goes on to list all the other commodities that are coming under pressure, very reminiscent of Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything. My purpose here isn’t to defend Friedman. I agree with Asher Miller that some of Friedman’s technological fix suggestions, like finding abundant renewable energy sources, are too pie-in-the-sky. But other suggestions like increasing energy efficiency (used to be called energy conservation) are very doable.

    I think we have a tendency sometimes to want to say “I told you so!” or accuse someone of being a “johny-come-lately.” That’s understandable especially when one has been a lone voice in the wilderness for so long, often the subject of ridicule. But I think we would do better to try to welcome people like Friedman into the cause. Maybe he would be more receptive to some of the Post Carbon Institute’s ideas if he were sent some of their materials?

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