The notion of ever-expanding economic growth has been promoted so relentlessly over the past decades that growth is now entrenched seemingly as the natural objective of all human effort. Politicians and economists have turned “growth” into a mantra. The public is convinced that growth is the natural solution to virtually all problems: poverty, debt, unemployment, and even environmental degradation caused by the pursuit of growth. Meanwhile, warnings by scientists that we live on a finite planet that cannot sustain infinite economic expansion are ignored if not reviled.
In Collision Course, Kerryn Higgs examines the story of how the predominant commitment to growth has become institutionalized, and illustrates the mechanisms that continue to marginalize scientific findings on the limits of growth. Higgs tells how the 1972 study The Limits to Growth concluded that unimpeded economic growth was likely to collide with the ecological realities of a finite planet. Although the book’s arguments received positive responses initially, before long the dominant narrative of growth as panacea took over.
Higgs explores the well organized and funded resistance to any ideas about limits, traces the propagandizing of free enterprise and the free market, and illustrates the powerful influence of corporate-funded think tanks to denigrate any calls for limits and marginalize environmental and other dangers resulting from growth.
If modern society has a core taboo it is against speaking favorably of limits, especially with respect to economic growth. To accept limits, to even question the notion of ever-expanding economic growth, is to challenge a myth that has sustained the industrial world for decades. As Higgs makes clear, such sustaining has been upheld by massive and sloppy exploitation of resources, taxpayer-funded subsidies for business, resistance to any sort of regulations, and widespread externalization of costs.
The anti-limits propaganda apparatus is so powerful today that it even dares to oppose science in order to defend growth. This is especially evident in the denial of climate change and the attack on climate scientists financed by the fossil fuel industry.
Collision Course is a wake-up call both for understanding the concept of limits, as well as the larger propaganda framework that maintains the status quo approach to economic growth. What can be done about any of it remains speculative, but Higgs’ book is an important reminder of the inconvenient realities of limits, as well as a necessary analysis of the way public understanding of the global predicament has been systematically subverted by propaganda for decades.
Kerryn Higgs, Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. MIT Press, (2014)
by Kyle Gardner