Higgs quotes the Quaker Kenneth Boulding: Anybody who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. Actually only the first four chapters deal with arguments about whether endless growth is possible. The rest of the book looks at why people can believe that it is.
To refute the possibility of endless growth Higgs looks at two finite resources – food and oil. Most fertile land is already under cultivation, and any expansion will be at the expense of other animals and ecosystems. Nor can the output of current farming land keep expanding, indeed Higgs argues that in many areas although output per agricultural worker has increased greatly, output per acre has not.
In respect of oil she points out that although there may still be considerable reserves, the amount of energy needed to tap them is becoming prohibitive. In the case of some tar sands, the amount of energy required to extract the oil is up to 70% of the energy obtained.
Why are so many people so committed to the idea of growth? Higgs discusses the concept of the pie – we could reapportion the pie to give people more equal shares, but this would mean that the better-off would lose out. Not wishing to do this, they demand a bigger pie.
Higgs also gives much space to the role of debt in society. Most countries seem to be in debt, and they hope to grow their way out. However, whether due to unrealistic expectation, diversion of funds for military purposes, corruption, or unhelpful conditions accompanying the loans, countries may fall deeper and deeper into debt. Thus they become more desperate to “grow their economy”.
There is much more in this book, which is not always an easy read – it includes 80 pages of appendices and notes. However, it is worth persevering with.
Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet by Kerryn Higgs, Published by MIT Press 2014
Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting