April 2021

Can economic growth continue forever? If not, what can stop it?

These questions are simple to ask, but their answers are momentous. Past answers have varied tremendously: Will we run out of fertilizer? Or timber? What about rare elements? Will we grow overpopulated and outpace the food supply? Or will climate change bring a lasting economic reversal?

What if there were no truly insuperable limits to growth in our near future? Yes, all things must come to an end, but it might still be that we’re nowhere near it. If so, failure to grow could have more to do with public policy and other social conditions, and much less to do with physical necessity.

Our lead essayists this month, the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy and Brigham Young University at Hawaii’s Prof. Gale Pooley, are among the optimists. They suggest that we live not in an age of growing resource scarcity, but in an age of superabundance—the term that they use for a situation in which the growth in material abundance outpaces the growth in human population. 

Still, it should not be forgotten that rapid economic growth is an unusual situation in the history of the world; for most of recorded time, growth was either negligible or glacially slow, and it came with frequent reverses. It might be more plausible to expect that growth will return to the mean—which would suggest that rapid growth of the type we’re experiencing now isn’t likely to last.

On this view, natural limits are likely to reassert themselves, and indeed, these limits may already be discernible. Our panel of response essayists this month includes Dr. Katherine Trebeck of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, who will be writing with Prof. Dirk Philipsen of Duke University, as well as Prof. Giorgos Kallis of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Barcelona. Each takes the view that natural resources pose genuine, near-term limits to economic growth.

Following the formal response essays, we will feature a discussion in which all participants may ask questions of one another and reply; comments will also be turned on throughout the month so that readers may join the discussion.

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Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Giorgos Kallis argues that we shouldn’t want economic growth to continue indefinitely. Nor will it do so. The relentless pursuit of economic growth will eventually lead to a collapse. Better, says Kallis, is to aim for prosperity without growth, which he calls “the defining challenge for twenty-first century economics.”

  • Katherine Trebeck and Dirk Philipsen say that the relentless pursuit of economic growth is harmful in the long term. While poverty should be alleviated, there is such thing as material sufficiency, and unfortunately, markets don’t always point at it. Often, they encourage us to substitute harmful products for beneficial natural goods. Developed economies should reposition themselves to provide economic stability, human dignity, environmental protection, and healthy communities.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.