Is economic growth constrained?

For the series "300 words or something" we summarized for you Nature's article "Are there limits to economic growth? It's time to call time on a 50-year argument".

Is economic growth constrained?

The System Dynamics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge issued a dire warning to the world fifty years ago this month: continuing economic and population expansion would deplete Earth’s resources by 2070, resulting in worldwide economic collapse.

The study was dubbed “another whiff of doomsday” by Nature. Even in academic circles, it was near-heresy to imply that some of the underpinnings of modern society — coal mining, steel production, oil drilling, and fertilizer spraying — might cause long-term harm.

Those educated prior to the computer age were skeptical of modeling and argued that technology would save the world. “Whatever computers may say about the future, there is nothing in the history that gives any credit whatsoever to the concept that human inventiveness cannot in time escape material human obstacles,” said zoologist Solly Zuckerman, a former principal scientific adviser to the UK government.

The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, challenging the view that human activities have irreversible environmental effects. The book led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme. It’s time for researchers to end their debate and focus on the greater goals of stopping the destruction.

Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany argues that economies can grow without making the planet unliveable. Evidence shows economies can continue to grow even as carbon emissions start to come down. What’s needed is much faster adoption of technology such as renewable energy.

Economic growth is typically measured by gross domestic product (GDP). This composite index uses consumer spending, as well as business and government investment. When faced with a choice between two policies, governments are likely to opt for the quicker one – and that might often be the option that causes more pollution.

World Health Organization report says policymakers should spend more on making health care affordable for every citizen. Health spending does not contribute to GDP in the same way that, for example, military spending does. Both communities must do more to talk to each other, instead of at each other.

A major study into the causes of biodiversity loss will examine the role of economic systems. An upcoming revision of the rules for what is measured in GDP could lead to a closer link between sustainability and well-being.

In 1972, there was still time to debate and act on climate change; now, the world is running out of time. Green-growth and post-growth scientists need to see the bigger picture, writes BBC science correspondent Jonathan Agbostadtsen.

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Photo by Mike L

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