Limits to Growth and Climate Change


John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

Classical economists like Smith and Ricardo pictured the world as largely empty of human activities. According to the “empty-world” picture of economics, the limiting factors in the production of food and goods are shortages of capital and labor. The land, forests, fossil fuels, minerals, oceans filled with fish, and other natural resources upon which human labor and capital operate, are assumed to be present in such large quantities that they are not limiting factors. In this picture, there is no naturally-determined upper limit to the total size of the human economy. It can continue to grow as long as new capital is accumulated, as long as new labor is provided by population growth, and as long as new technology replaces labor by automation.

Biology, on the other hand, presents us with a very different picture. Biologists remind us that if any species, including our own, makes demands on its environment which exceed the environment’s carrying capacity, the result is a catastrophic collapse both of the environment and of the population which it  supports. Only demands which are within the carrying capacity are sustainable. For example, there is a limit to regenerative powers of a forest. It is possible to continue to cut trees in excess of this limit, but only at the cost of a loss of forest size, and ultimately the collapse and degradation of the forest.  Similarly, cattle populations may for some time exceed the  carrying capacity of grasslands, but the ultimate penalty for overgrazing will be degradation or desertification of the land. Thus, in biology, the concept of  the carrying capacity of an environment is extremely important; but in economic theory this concept has not yet been given the weight that it deserves.

There is much evidence to indicate that the total size of the human economy is rapidly approaching the absolute limits imposed by the carrying capacity of the global environment. For example, biologists estimate that between 10,000 and 50,000 species are being driven into extinction each year as the earth’s rainforests are destroyed.

The burning of fossil fuels and the burning of tropical rain forests have released so much carbon dioxide that the atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas has increased from a preindustrial value of 260 ppm to its present value: 390 ppm. Most scientists agree that unless steps are taken to halt the burning of rain forests and to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the earth’s temperature will steadily rise during the coming centuries. This gradual long-term climate change will threaten future agricultural output by changing  patterns of rainfall. Furthermore, the total melting of the Arctic and Antarctic icecaps, combined with the thermal expansion of the oceans, threatens to produce a sea level rise of up to 12 meters. Although these are slow, long-term effects, we owe it to future generations to take steps now to halt global warming.

The dogma of growth

According to Adam Smith, the free market is the dynamo of economic growth. The true entrepreneur does not indulge in luxuries for himself and his family, but reinvests his profits, with the result that his business or factory grows larger, producing still more profits, which he again reinvests, and so on. This is indeed the formula for exponential economic growth.

Economists (with a few notable exceptions such as Aurelio Pecci and Herman Daly) have long behaved as though growth were synonymous with economic health. If the gross national product of a country increases steadily by 4 percent per year, most economists express approval and say that the economy is healthy. If the economy could be made to grow still faster (they maintain), it would be still more healthy. If the growth rate should fall, economic illness would be diagnosed.

However, it is obvious that on a finite Earth, neither population growth nor resource-using and pollution-generating economic growth can continue indefinitely. A “healthy” economic growth rate of 4 percent per year corresponds to an increase by a factor of 50 in a century. (The reader is invited to calculate the factor of increase in five centuries. The answer is 312,500,000!) No one can maintain that this type of growth is sustainable except by refusing to look more than a short distance into the future. Sooner or later (perhaps surprisingly soon) an entirely new form of economics will be needed – not the empty-world economics of Adam Smith, but what might be called “full-world economics”, or “steady-state economics”.

Although indefinitely continued industrial growth on a finite earth is a logical impossibility, growth is nevertheless the most sacred dogma of both economists and politicians, perhaps because of our fractional reserve banking system, which collapses unless there is growth. Anyone who challenges this dogma is treated as a heretic. For example, Professor Tim Jackson recently wrote an excellent book, “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet”, which challenged the concept of unlimited growth. He suffered for his heresy, although he was not actually burned at the stake: The Sustainable Development Commission (of which Jackson was the Economics Commissioner) was abolished by the British government.

If the world continues on the path of unlimited industrial growth, any chance of preventing catastrophic climate change will be lost.

Suggestions for further reading

T. Jackson, “Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet”, Earthscan, London,


A. Gore, “An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of

Global Warming and What We Can Do About It”, Rodale Books, New York,


P.R. Ehrlich and A.H. Ehrlich, “One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future”, Island Press, (2004).

N. Stern et al., “The Stern Review”,, (2006).

S. Connor, “Global Warming Past Point of No Return”, The Independent, (116 September, 2005).

J. Patz et al., “Impact of Regional Climate Change on Human Health”, Nature, (17 November, 2005).

L.R. Brown, “World on the Edge”, W.W. Norton, New York, (2011)


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 July 2012.

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