Questioning the Sustainability of ‘Perpetual’ Economic Growth


Part of living lightly involves acknowledging that some of our ideas that have served us well in the past are no longer appropriate for the times we are moving into.  One of these sacred cows is the concept of perpetual economic growth.  The problem is not economic growth in and of itself, but rather continual and infinite growth.

To illustrate how perpetual growth is a problem, I take as my starting point that the Earth is a closed finite system.  This means there are limits to the amount of resources we can extract from the Earth and the amount of waste we can pollute, beyond which the biological processes of the planet and our human societies that depend on them come under threat.

So is there any evidence that we’ve reached these limits?  I am persuaded by the thousands of peer-reviewed academic publications from scientists around the world, conducting independent research across numerous scientific disciplines, which consistently point to this conclusion.

Economic activities such as industrial production, agriculture, transportation, and material consumption necessarily consume resources and produce a carbon footprint.  It is not hard to understand that resource and pollution limits will be reached if these economic activities continually expand.

To reduce carbon emissions to the degree mandated by the scientific community, we reach the uncomfortable but inescapable conclusion that we must stabilise economic growth.  This goes against all our instincts and theories about prosperity, but the logic is clear.  On a finite planet, bound by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, perpetual economic growth is impossible without the severest of consequences human societies and the ecosystems that support them.

The magnitude of this task cannot be underestimated.  Moving away from the perpetual growth model will challenge entrenched economic interests, political institutions and social relationships.  It will challenge our beliefs and force us to re-evaluate our relationship with other people and the natural world.  There will be an up-front cost in making this transformation, but the cost of avoiding this choice will be far higher.

This does not mean we should leap reflexively to the discredited ideologies of the nineteenth century.  Socialism, like capitalism, is underpinned by the development paradigm premised on perpetual growth, making it equally unsustainable.  The revolutionary ideologies of the industrial revolution must be discarded in favour of the green revolution, comprising new evolutionary responses to a world shaped by climate change and energy insecurity.

The good news is that we already have the tools to make this transformation.  We have the technologies, knowledge and ingenuity to find creative solutions.  The make these work, however, each and every one of us has a responsibility to learn and understand not only the impacts on our own narrow interests, but also the social, economic and environmental dimensions of the green revolution for our community, our country and the globe as a whole.  Thus informed, we are likely to make better decisions and come up with better solutions to the problem of growth.

In summary, rather than deny there is a problem, we need to be honest about our current predicament, educate ourselves about possible alternatives, and work together to build the foundation for a post-growth economy.

***A version of this article was published in the Border Mail under the title “A step forward will reduce footprint” on the 25th September, 2010, p. 70.


Resources for Further Reading:

Let’s start the discussion and imagine some alternatives to perpetual economic growth…

Brown, James et al, Energetic Limits to Economic Growth, BioScience, January 2011, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 19-26.

Recent issues such as climate change, the global decline in population growth rate, the depletion of petroleum reserves and resulting increase in oil prices, and the recent economic downturn have prompted renewed concerns about whether longstanding trajectories of population and economic growth can continue This article integrates perspectives from physics, ecology, and economics with an analysis of extensive global data to show how scientific laws governing the flows of energy in the biosphere affect socioeconomic activity.

Needs and Limits: Replace Capitalism’s Economic Logic

Needs and Limits founder Frank Rotering: “The aim of the “needs and limits” initiative is to help humankind reverse ecological overshoot and to achieve sustainable well-being.  This shift requires that we radically alter the way we determine key economic outcomes such as production quantities, resource and waste flows, and population levels. For most economies today, these outcomes arise spontaneously from the logic of capitalism, which is rooted in corporate profits and manipulated consumer wants. The approach suggested here is to replace this logic with one based on human needs and natural limits, and to derive economic objectives explicitly from these new principles.”

Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

CASSE website: “Perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. Growth, especially in wealthy nations, is already causing more problems than it solves.  Recession isn’t sustainable or healthy either. The positive, sustainable alternative is a steady state economy.”


Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.


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