Why We Need Limits Not Growth

The connection between unlimited growth, earth exploitation, and the key to a happy life.

Micha van Amsterdam
Climate Conscious


Image: RobUrt via Twenty20

We’re addicted to growth. We want to grow as persons. We want to grow our knowledge and grow our skillset. We want to grow in our endeavors and grow our businesses. We feel that this is the right thing to do.

Growth seems natural. Imagine a seed that slowly germinates and starts reaching towards the sky, over the years maturing into a large tree firmly rooted in the soil. We associate growth with wealth and wisdom.

This idea of everlasting expansion is so deeply embedded in our culture that any voice that questions this concept of unlimited growth seems almost irrational.

Take knowledge, for example. Never in the course of history has there been such a vast collection of information available for us to consult. Surf the internet, log into your Medium account, and you’re guaranteed to be spammed with the most incredible variety of stories on all kinds of topics, begging to be read. Yet, we cannot read everything. Learning something new means forgetting something old. Information does not equal knowledge.

This is the problem with our information era: too many options, too many diffusions of ideas and concepts. There’s so much input fired at us with an overwhelming speed that it’s hard to keep track of what matters. We love to get sidetracked. We love to dissect the whole into tiny fragments, atoms, and particles and then forget to put everything back together.

Lost in a flood of details, we forget the bigger picture. We forget the river. Because we want to move forward. So, we keep paddling against the stream. If we just could get out of that water for a moment and take a look from the sideline. We would notice that there is a spot in the river where there is no current. We could navigate to that spot, relax and enjoy the view. But I guess we love the struggle. We love the idea of beating the river.

The start of unlimited growth: the Industrial Revolution

This information overload is an effect of a bigger issue of our times: the idea of unlimited growth. We need to trace the rise of growth as a national religion back to this one true revolution of the past 200 years: the Industrial Revolution. It marked the start of our modern times.

The impact of this revolution had an unprecedented effect on the Western world: increased production, increased industrialization, increased innovation, increased access to information…increased everything. The climax of these leaps in innovation and technological progress might be the development of computing and the microchip. In a time span of some 100 years, we have evolved from an analog to a digital society.

It almost seems like a wonderful thing. Mankind once more has established a new milestone in its grandeur of evolution. The promise of technology as a solution towards climate change, social injustice, or even the concept of an egalitarian society has become the dominant vision of a sustainable future.

Politicians left and right alike all agree that growth is the marvelous solution, the magic formula, so to say, to cure all the evils of the world. Alas, this kind of thinking is merely a delusion. Richard Douthwaite dismantled this contraption already 30 years ago in his seminal ‘the Growth Illusion.’

“All parties have accepted growth as the national goal and believe that decisions made in the market are the best way of speeding it along. I think if this type of thinking continues, our future will be one that none of us has sanctioned and very few desire.”

Side effects of growth

We have gotten accustomed to these high living standards. We’re not settling for anything less. The truth is: we’re living beyond our means.

A system obsessed with eternal growth has some serious side effects: increasing pollution, increasing resource depletion, increasing (over)population, increasing industrialization, and increasing pressure on our agricultural systems, to name a few.

“Increase in the world cattle population, releases from rubbish dumps, and increasing demand for oil and gas; they all increase the methane concentration in the atmosphere. Another culprit is nitrous oxide, a byproduct of nitrogenous fertilizer use, of the burning of fossil fuels and biomass fuels, and of the conversion of land to agriculture. But the biggest contributor of all, over 66 percent, is carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, and new types of land use.” (Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion, 1992)

We can even go back further in time. Almost 50 years ago, in 1972, the Club of Rome made an extensive study about this, published in a report called ‘the Limits to Growth.’ It’s as relevant as ever. Why did we forget about this? Too much information, I guess.

“All the evidence available to us, however, suggests that of the three alternatives -unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth- only the last two are actually possible.” (the Club of Rome, the Limits to Growth, 1972)

Don’t say we haven’t been warned.

The economy as a growth catalyst

We clamp on to this growth thing because of economics. We are told it’s good for the economy. Because, according to the specialists, only economic growth can lead to prosperity in society. Prosperity then, according to this dominant theory, leads to a higher living standard for the people. The extra purchasing power gained by the consumer can be used to solve environmental issues through outsourcing and taxation.

What a great solution. Of course, we love it. Pay a government or a multinational to make the world a better, sustainable place. Suits us. We can keep living our uninvolved life. All we have to do is passively consume these new luxurious green technologies.

The consequence of materialism

From the Industrial Revolution sprang a materialistic society. Today, we define ourselves by the possessions we own. This did not evolve overnight. A lot of things happened between the first steam engine and the rechargeable lithium-ion battery in your electric car.

Can we really only think of some marketable product as the solution to our problems?

Once we objectify everything, ranging from health (pills) to education (prelude to a career), we create an abstract version of reality. We reduce the world to fragments of industrialization. Landscapes become industrial zones, mines, or agricultural fields. Everything around us is evaluated only for its economical context.

Here is how Wendell Berry describes it in his essay ‘Paragraphs from a Notebook’:

“The scientific-industrial culture, founded nominally upon materialism, arrives at a sort of fundamentalist disdain for material reality. The living world is then treated as dead matter, the worth of which is determined exclusively by the market.”

Maybe we should take a step back and forget about progress for a while. The evidence is all around us. A consumer-based, materialistic society always craves for more resources. It can never be sustainable. In fact, it is the opposite: it’s destructive.

Steady-state economy

I am convinced that the only valid alternative is to reduce our needs. We need to embrace a simpler life, bordered by limits and steadiness. We need to adapt to a human scale and a steady-state economy. Because what we have right now doesn’t work anymore.

“Our experience in all these decades past with operating a celestial economy has, for the greatest part, been a failure: we tried playing God, and it didn’t work.” (Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale)

Kirkpatrick Sale proposes in ‘Human Scale’ a vision of an alternative organization of society: a human-scale economy.

“…a world of smaller, more manageable, more human enterprises that provide us with all our needs and most of our wants without sacrificing anything substantive in our true material standards. It is founded on the all-important concept of the “steady-state” economy, one of stability rather than growth, preservation rather than production.”

Standard of Living vs. Quality of Life

The good thing is: switching to a society based on stability and steadiness instead of growth will probably make our lives more worthy and fulfilled. It turns out that we don’t actually need all those possessions and gimmicks of planned obsolescence. All this stuff, all this technology, doesn’t make us any happier. It neither makes the world a better place to live in.

This is the difference between ‘standard of living’ and ‘quality of life,’ which we seem to confuse so often.

“Standard of living is the per capita rate of consumption of purchased goods and services. In other words: it describes the rate at which we will use up the earth’s limited resources. So effective has our indoctrination been that it is hard to accept the notion that a higher standard of living might, in some circumstances, be a bad thing.” (Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion)

The ‘standard of living’ thus, is only a construct used by politicians, scientists, and economists as a pressure tool to prove the necessity of ever-increasing growth.

Factors of a good life

Douthwaite then moves on to cite a study by Dutch economist Roefie Hueting, who researched the factors that determine the quality of life. The majority of those factors have nothing to do with the economy or money. Well, this shouldn’t be a surprise by now.

Here are some of the things we believe to be the fundamentals of a good life:

  • A healthy, qualitative environment,
  • Plenty of time for leisure
  • Good and satisfying working conditions
  • A vision of a safe future
  • Health
  • Strength of family, friends, and community
  • A satisfactory religious or spiritual life
  • Cultural activities
  • A high standard of education
  • Equality

What a fine list this is, indeed! These are all things worth pursuing and well within our means. None of them asks for further deterioration of our planet. None of these needs a further plundering of our natural resources. None of them is dependent on an unrealistic, unlimited growth.

Unlimited growth, including the further development of big-scale, exploitative technologies will not save us from an environmental breakdown. In fact, it will only increase the problems. The only true option is to decrease our activities, minimalize our ways of living and embrace a stable economy based on sustainability and limits.

“The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence. (Club of Rome, the Limits to Growth)



Micha van Amsterdam
Climate Conscious

Simple, sustainable lifestyle design, self-sufficiency and local, perennial culture.