growth sustainability

Parliament revisits the limits to growth

I’m just on my way back from Parliament (well, last night. I wrote this on the train home) and the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Limits to Growth. The group has been set up to create space for discussion around the issues of environmental limits, and it marks something of a milestone. It’s the first time in years that there has been a formal mechanism in government to investigate the idea of limits seriously.

No surprises for guessing who the chair is – Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, but it’s an all-party group.

Now, you may be wondering why we need to revisit the limits to growth, a debate that many thought had been put to bed long ago. If you’re in that camp, then I invite you to consider just how well the original 1972 Limits to Growth report has fared in its projections. We do appear to be tracking the ‘standard run’ pretty closely.

And no, the report never did say that the economy would collapse by the year 2000, that’s among the many misconceptions repeated by commentators who haven’t bothered to actually read it.

Beyond the fact that the projections hold, there are reasons to look again at the whole general idea of limits to growth. One is climate change. In their launch paper, Limits Revisited, Tim Jackson and Robin Webster point out that the Club of Rome report barely mentions the climate. The most dangerous environmental limit of them all didn’t really get a look in, but as I was writing just yesterday, climate change fundamentally challenges our assumptions about growth.

Climate change is one of the nine planetary boundaries, which we’ve also explored at length here in the past. That’s not something parliament has set aside time to discuss in any detail, and it would provide an opportunity to look at biodiversity loss and the nitrogen boundary too.

Third, there’s an argument in macroeconomics about whether or not growth may be over anyway. Perhaps growth was a historical anomaly, driven by technology and resource extraction, and now doomed to fade away in the face of an aging population, debt, inequality, and falling resource quality. This ‘secular stagnation’ is another reason to look critically at growth, and investigate whether a stable economy is possible without it – like Japan is unwittingly modelling for us, perhaps.

As Caroline Lucas told the packed committee room, “it is widely assumed that growth means progress. What does it mean if that is fundamentally false?”

The All Party Parliamentary Group gives us a chance to investigate some of these questions, and perhaps to break through the taboos around growth and postgrowth thinking.

In particular, a couple of speakers mentioned the need for positive visions of the alternatives, rather than the anti-growth rhetoric of the degrowth movement. There’s a real messaging challenge around this whole topic, as it provokes strong reactions. I’m working on that challenge myself, along with Katherine Trebeck of Oxfam, and I will tell you more about that soon.

For now, I can recommend a visit to limits2growth.org.uk, where you can download a copy of Limits Revisited, a good round-up of why this topic is as relevant today as it was in 1972.

4 comments

  1. So much depends on what is meant by ‘growth’. Usually people mean growth of the economy i.e how big the pie is. It doesn’t address how many people are eating the pie and whether they are all getting a fair share or getting sufficient. The rapidly increasing population in the UK, Europe and the world means that unless the pie gets bigger, everyone will, on average, get a smaller slice i.e. get less well-off. But population growth is not pre-ordained and we could, quite quickly, bring it to a halt if people’s belief systems allow them to consider this, and women in particular wanted to give fewer children a better start in life.

    1. Population is one aspect of the growth question, for sure. It’s not pre-ordained, as you say, but it’s not just a matter of belief systems and family choices. Britain’s birth rate is already below replacement rate at 1.9 children per woman, but overall population also depends on the death rate – if people are living longer, the population will grow. And by some distance the biggest contributor to Britain’s population is migration.

      So I’m not sure we can bring it quickly to a halt – not without some controversial political choices.

  2. This is such an exciting development! Not surprising that Caroline Lucas would be onto this, but I’m really encouraged and quite surprised that members of Labour and SNP are co-chairs with her, and that there was so many attendees at their first meeting. I’m this week preparing a Post Growth Alliance post about this, which was submitted to us by Rupert Read of the Green House think tank. So keep an eye out for that! 🙂

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