Myth: Growth is good.

Fact: Economic growth allows the population explosion and environmental destruction.


Many people believe that economic growth is healthy. Indeed, high growth would solve many problems, like poverty, the trade deficit, the debt, etc. But it is impossible for economic growth to continue in a world of limited resources. The population explosion -- which has been created by improved science and productive technology -- is already running into declining resources in grain, seafood, meat, and fresh water. The result will be mass starvation and pitched competition for survival. The alternative is a sustained economy, which holds both the population and production levels constant.


Most Americans -- all across the political spectrum -- view a growing economy as desirable. During the 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole tapped into this belief with the following words:

Liberals, too, believe in economic growth. President Clinton repeatedly expressed his commitment to high-growth in his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention: Even the world's most respected economists extol the benefits of high growth. In his book The Age of Diminished Expectations, Paul Krugman describes the solution to many of America's economic woes: Virtually all economists agree that higher rates of growth would solve stagnant wages, poverty, national savings, the trade deficit, tax collections, the federal debt, etc. And they are not wrong; the benefits of growth are not a myth. Our economy is structured to thrive only when it grows.

The irresistible force meets the unmovable object

But that, critics argue, is the problem. It is a fact that a consumption-based economy cannot continue to grow forever in a world of limited resources. It is also a fact that our economy is designed (albeit unwittingly) to stagnate and even deteriorate when growth is not possible. So the only real question is: when will trouble strike?

Environmentalists say trouble is striking already. At the heart of our problems is the population explosion:

World population growth (4)

                   Year        Length of
Population         reached     Interval
1 billion          1804         200,000 years after rise of modern humans
2 billion          1927             123 years
3 billion          1960              33
4 billion          1974              14
5 billion          1987              13
6 billion est.     1998              11
7 billion est.     2009              11
8 billion est.     2021              12
9 billion est.     2035              14
10 billion est.    2054              19
11 billion est.    2093              39

There are several dramatic ways to describe the population explosion:

The population explosion has become so critical that economists and politicians can no longer ignore the potentially devastating effects it will have on the economy, society and the environment. The effects on the environment have drawn the most attention, as a growing population pulls more resources out of the land and water and turns them into waste.

What is driving the population explosion? Essentially, the economy. In the 18th century, Thomas Malthus made the first observation that populations tend to expand rapidly, and the only thing keeping them in check is the limited food supply. Malthus wrote that populations grow geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16…), whereas the food supply grows only arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4…). Malthus predicted that when the population reached the limit of the available food supply, deadly competition for survival would break out, and society would deteriorate. This has not only been observed at various times in human history, but among animal populations as well. Although Malthus would later become notorious for his cruel proposals on welfare policy, his basic theories on population dynamics are nonetheless accepted as valid by almost all population scientists today.

However, the disaster Malthus predicted did not happen. He underestimated the results of the Industrial Revolution (which greatly boosted food production) and the Scientific Revolution (which greatly boosted individual survival). Thus, his native British population was actually growing faster in 1901 than in 1801, shortly after he made his dire predictions. And the population even enjoyed a higher standard of living.

In other words, human population size has been checked for the last few hundred thousand years by its low technology and food-gathering capability. For example's sake, let's suppose that early humans could exploit only 5 percent of the earth's finite, exploitable resources. The Industrial and Scientific Revolutions increased that capability, raising their exploitation of resources to 25, 50, 75 percent. The population exploded because science and technology made it easier to harvest the rest of the world's resources, not because they were creating new ones. This is an important distinction to make, because many people mistakenly put their faith in science's ability to solve the world's shortages. However, not all the science in the world will make the planet grow.

Malthus, living in the 18th century, had no idea of the quantity of the world's resources, or what percentage of it the population was consuming. Not surprisingly, his predictions were inaccurate. Today, however, scientists have a superb measure of the world's resources and our usage of them. In fact, the population chart above is based on this knowledge. The reason why that chart shows population growth slowing down in the last half of the 21st century is because the limits of many of our resources will have been reached by that time, and populations will no longer be expanding, but competing for what's left.

The following chart shows that we have already hit the limit of grain, seafood and meat resources. Indeed, despite growing demand, they are already in decline:

World production trends per person of grain, seafood and beef and mutton (1950-1993) (5)

                Trend per person:
                Growth   Percent   Decline   Percent
Foodstuff       Period   Growth    Period    Decline
Grain           1950-84    +40%    1984-93   -12%
Seafood         1950-88   +126     1988-93    -9
Beef & Mutton   1950-72    +36     1972-93   -13

Add to this the fact that the world's water basins are generally being drained faster than the hydrolic cycle can refill them, and it's clear that expanding populations and shrinking resources are going to become the world's number one problem in the very near future.

Just how much of a problem can be seen in a famous 1994 Cornell study. (6) A team led by Dr. David Pimentel found that the world will probably be able to handle no more than 2 billion people by the year 2100. They arrived at this conclusion by considering the future "carrying capacity" of the land -- that is, the amount of available resources needed to sustain a level population. These resources primarily consist of fertile land, fresh water, fossil fuel energy and a diversity of helpful natural organisms. Changes to some of these factors are quite predictable -- for example, humans are expected to run out of fossil fuel in the next 35 years. (The Cornell team used the most optimistic figures for their calculations.) The team found that the carrying capacity at the turn of the next century would provide only 2 billion with a modest but comfortable standard of living. But, as you can see from the population chart, current population trends should reach 11 billion by then.

To avoid massive starvation and deadly competition will require a drastic change in our current habits. Dr. Pimentel notes: "Even if we adopt a zero population growth strategy tomorrow -- a little over two children per couple -- the world population will nearly double. It wouldn't stop growing for 60 years."

The alternative: a sustainable economy

Without question, humans need to curb their populations and sustain their economies. If humans don't do it, nature will, and it's a sure bet that humans will be kinder to themselves than nature would be.

What are the principles of a sustainable economy? Lester Brown, President of Worldwatch Institute, writes:

To sustain an economy, we need to look at the relationship between population growth and science/technology. We cannot reasonably call for the curtailment of science and technology -- on the contrary, greater productive efficiency will help us decrease the resources we need and help sustain our economy. It might be possible to hold production itself to a sustained level, and let the population adjust itself to this artificially created carrying capacity. But this would probably be just as harsh as a naturally created one. Therefore, unfortunately, it is population growth that needs to be curtailed. And this introduces the controversial topics of birth control, abortion and reproductive freedom.

"You have to take your choice," explains Pimentel. "People say that they should have the freedom to reproduce. I'm sympathetic to that view. But you're going to either lose some of that freedom, or your children and your grandchildren will lose some of their freedoms -- freedom from starvation, freedom from disease." (8)

In a sustainable economy, birth control would keep the population to a reasonable level. Public policies would hold production to a level that allowed a sustainable environment. As you can see, these policies would incur intense conservative and libertarian opposition, because they interfere with religious morals and/or notions of individual freedom, both reproductive and economic. Unfortunately, if society allows unrestricted individual freedom on these issues, the results will be runaway growth, followed by environmental and economic catastrophe and a pitched competition for survival. It is doubtful that anyone would have success selling these policies to the rest of the populace.

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1. "Restoring The American Dream: Bob Dole's Plan for Economic Growth," Executive Summary, Bob Dole Campaign Press Release, August 5, 1996.

2. Bill Clinton, nomination acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention, United Center, Chicago, Illinois, August 29, 1996.

3. Paul Krugman, The Age of Diminished Expectations (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995 [1990]), pp. 207,210.

4. Population Division, Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, World Population Growth from Year 0 to Stabilization, (United Nations, New York), mimeograph, 6/7/94.

5. Lester Brown et al. (eds.), Vital Signs 1994 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), p. 20.

6. David Pimentel, Marcia Pimentel, Rebecca Harman, Matthew Pacenza and Jason Pecarsky, Population and Environment, May, 1994.

7. Vital Signs, p. 16.

8. Pimentel.