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
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:
"Bill Clinton thinks our economy can only crawl along at 2.3%
growth into the next century. He's wrong. Bob Dole knows -- and you know
-- that our economy can do better. It's time to stop defending the slow-growth
status quo and implement a bold new agenda for change. With the Dole plan
for economic growth, our economy will achieve its full potential with 3.5%
-- or higher -- growth per year, putting our country back on the right
track and giving every American family the chance to achieve the American
Liberals, too, believe in economic growth. President Clinton repeatedly
expressed his commitment to high-growth in his acceptance speech before
the Democratic National Convention:
"My plan gives Americans tax cuts that will help our economy to
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:
"My tax cuts will not undermine our economy. They will speed economic
"That is the right way to cut taxes -- pro-family, pro-education,
pro-economic growth." (2)
"The key is productivity. If productivity growth in the United
States were to recover to something like its rates of the 1950s and 1960s,
practically everything would fall into place… it would make many, but not
all, of the problems discussed in this book fade away." (3)
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.
- At the current rate, we are adding the population of China to this planet
- Essentially, we add a city of 1 million people to the earth every three
and half days.
- It took 200,000 years to reach the first 3 billion people, but only
40 years to reach the second 3 billion.
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
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:
"Among the principles of sustainability are the following: Over
the long term, species extinction cannot exceed species evolution; soil
erosion cannot exceed soil formation; forest destruction cannot exceed
forest regeneration; carbon emissions cannot exceed carbon fixation; fish
catches cannot exceed the regenerative capacity of fisheries; and human
births cannot exceed human deaths." (7)
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.
Return to Overview
1. "Restoring The American Dream: Bob Dole's Plan for Economic
Growth," Executive Summary, Bob Dole Campaign Press Release, August
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 ), 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.