Crossposted from Znet

“Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth.” So begins Prosperity Without Growth[1], the report of the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission.  Questioning growth has been the obsessive focus of many for decades. Questioners make important points. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been, at best, a very rough proxy for wellbeing, often not even that. For this and other reasons many liberals, progressives, and leftists consider a “steady state economy” part of building a good society.  For all that critics of growth get right, they focus in the end on the wrong thing, on growth rather than waste.

The weakest arguments against growth are estimates of earth’s carrying capacity, the argument that this planet cannot sustain continued expansion in GDP.  “Prosperity without Growth” quotes Herman Daly:

“The idea of economic growth overcoming physical limits by angelizing GDP is equivalent to overcoming physical limits to population growth by reducing the throughput intensity or metabolism of human beings,” wrote ecological economist, Herman Daly, over thirty years ago. First pygmies, then Tom Thumbs, then big molecules, then pure spirits. Indeed, it would be necessary for us to become angels in order to subsist on angelized GDP.”

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This confuses low resource use with literal shrinkage. Regardless of whether more GDP is desirable in the long run, it is waste, not GDP, that is currently destroying the ecosystems on which our societies and economies depend.

Because the carrying capacity trope is so popular, a detailed discussion follows the end of this essay. For those this does not satisfy, “Cooling it: No Hair Shirt Solutions to Global Warming” deals more comprehensively with disconnecting growth from ecological disaster. Very briefly, without the evidence included in the longer section, we can greatly increase the efficiency with which we use energy without “angelizing”.

For example, an electric car powered by renewable energy has a life cycle energy consumption less than one/eighth that of an average gasoline powered car, and life cycle emissions hundreds of times less. Buildings can be duct sealed, weather sealed and insulated. In many cases they can use solar thermal panels for heating. In most new buildings windows and building structure can do double duty as solar collectors and storage. Electrically powered ground source heat pumps can step in where direct solar is not practical; solar or wind energy thousands of kilometers from the building can drive them. Overall rich economies could produce about five times the GDP per unit of energy compared to current U.S. practice. Documented wind and solar potential worldwide could then provide energy (mostly in the form of electricity) to support a GDP 1.5 times that of the U.S. for all 9.5 billion people we expect the world to hold by then.  We can document similar potential for sustainable food production. Again, evidence can be found in the section at the end of this essay, and in the longer on-line book. 

Prosperity without Growth makes the usual reply to technical capacity arguments, that increased efficiency will lead to rebound, a paradox first propounded by William Stanley Jevons in 1865.  This reply claims that using energy more efficiently will make it more valuable, leading to increased use – true but exaggerated. Very seldom does this phenomenon push back more than a percent or two of savings when those savings come from real social changes rather than a side effect of market choices. But the main point is that we will not win either an efficiency increase, or a switch from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy without radical social transformation.   Such changes can certainly include limits on total annual growth in energy use.

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A second reply: GDP growth and environmental damaged have not diverged much in actual economies. The answer: neither have zero or negative economic growth combined with increases in real prosperity.  Either a steady state economy, or a growing GDP combined with environmental improvement require radical change. There is no self evident case for privileging one path over the other.

Let’s look at a stronger argument, made both by Prosperity and by growth critics in general — that GDP is a poor measure of prosperity. Amartya Sen distinguishes three definitions of prosperity: opulence, utility, and capability for flourishing.

My own example of Amyarta Sen’s opulence (for which he bears no blame): a rich man builds a 40,000 square foot mansion. During the course of building that mansion the crew accidentally runs over and kills a woman leading to criminal and civil investigations. The home is completed.

Most of the time the billionaire lives in only a few thousand square feet of this home, and uses another 5,000 square feet once a year for a grand party.   Opulence measures the price of this mansion, plus various direct costs resulting from the death of the woman. Opulence, as Sen defines it, tracks GDP.

However, suppose we look at the death of the woman during construction and assess an additional cost in building the mansion. The woman killed had a life ahead of her she could have enjoyed. Her friends had time they could have spent with her. Those friends not only lost that joy but saw it turn to sorrow.  While no number can compensate for this, it seems that a rough estimate is better than assigning a cost of zero. In fact civil litigation in our current society tries to serve this purpose. But of course many social costs cannot and should not be litigated. Subtracting our best estimates of social costs from economic gains seems worth doing, even if those estimates are far from perfect.

We can also adjust benefits in looking at the example of this mansion. The rooms that are never used should be subtracted, perhaps leaving a tiny value for the possibility they will be used someday. Similarly the 5,000 square feet that will be used once a year could be valued lower than the rooms that are used daily.

Defenders of GDP would argue that the house should still be valued at what people are willing to pay. Trying to evaluate the details of how the house is used and the woman’s death are both too subjective. The latter, a GDP defender would argue, should be left as a criminal, civil and ethical matter, with losses left to next years GDP and all the years thereafter.  Critics of growth may well agree with this – suggesting that GDP and this type of netting are equally subjective.  

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Fundamentally, this type of adjustment to both costs and benefits is an attempt to measure utility. Such measurements do involve judgment and subjectivity. But so do all broad economic measurements.  Defenders of utility will argue that however imperfect measurements of utility are, we really do need them to build a better society.  Even an imperfect number tells us that everybody (even the billionaire) would have been better off if a smaller crew had built a 7,000 square foot mansion; that smaller crew might have noticed and not killed the woman. It would have even been better if the rich man had built a 2,000 square foot home, and financed a 5,000 square foot event center he could have used once a year, and rented out the rest of the time. Possibly a better society might have fewer (or even no) billionaires who could afford 40,000 foot mansions.

Growth opponents suggest focusing on social measures of capacity to flourish rather than mansions. We can look at life expectancy, days sick vs. days well, infant mortality, malnutrition, obesity,  access to clean drinking water, basic sanitation, economic security, leisure, and even surveys of personal happiness.  And critics are right that these measure prosperity better than any measure of growth. The problem is that “real prosperity” indexes focus upon ends at the expense of means. Growth does not equal prosperity, but it remains one of the means toward improving the capability to flourish. Putting ends and means in opposition is like trying to decide whether it is more important to breathe out or breathe in.  

Gus Speth, Bill McKibben and “Prosperity without Growth” have all pointed out that GDP up to around $15,000 per person does roughly track these real indicators. But past that there seems no relation.  The first fact is as interesting as the second.  

The flaws in GDP don’t start at $15,000 per person, so its usefulness up to that point indicate that this type of highly imperfect measure can correlate to real prosperity. Further it is not that individual income increases above $15,000 per person don’t sometimes result in individual happiness; it is just that social costs seem to exceed individual gains past that point. Maybe the goal is making sure costs of growth don’t exceed benefits – disconnecting growth not just from ecological damage, but from social damage.

Redefining Progress has proposed an alternative measure to GDP, their Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI[2]. This statistic adjusts the same inputs that make up GDP by subtracting pollution, crime, inequality lack of leisure and so on, We will probably find correlations between GPI and real prosperity well past the $15,000 per capita limit that applies to GDP.

We need a scalable measure because the global house has many mansions. It is important to know how healthy or happy the world, a nation or a region is. But we need to be able to focus on the components that help create that happiness, on the inputs that lead to health, leisure and real quality of life.

Many critics of growth are former moderates like Gus Speth, who in his book “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability” has openly rejected the capitalist system, saying its dependence on eternal expansion makes it incompatible with global survival. Yet I think they misunderstand the flaw they are criticizing. The problem is not growth, but growth for a few, and the waste that springs from it. Through most of the history of capitalism, possibly right up to the early 20th century, grabbing resources by force provided profits not just for capitalists, but for large portions of the working classes.  Not solely the very rich, but most white Americans benefited from grabbing land from Indian nations and Mexico. (Possibly they also benefited from slavery and gunboat diplomacy in Latin America.) After the First World War, the case seems more doubtful. After WWII it seems extremely likely that only the very rich in the U.S. benefited from U.S. foreign policy.

The profits a rich nation can gain by investing money at home instead of bullying other nations have risen. Part of this is that technology has improved to the point that there are huge marginal gains in general from innovation. As or more important is that greater intensity of resource use is combined with a breakneck speed of change. This makes suboptimal uses of resources almost inevitable, which allows large potential returns on strategic social investment.

For example, in 1943 Buckminster Fuller proposed a version of his Dymaxion Car that would have run at an efficiency of 40-50 MPG[3]. Similarly, he formed an alliance with the International Machinists Union (IAM), to produce the Dymaxion house[4], an inexpensive mass produced thousand square foot water and energy efficient home that was luxurious by the standards of the day. It included central heating, cooling, and vacuuming. It was designed so that the entire house could be cleaned in half an hour. (Buckminster Fuller was one of the few men of his generation to take housework seriously.) Wichita,” proclaimed IAM president, Harvey Brown, “can become the Detroit of housing”.

One of the titans of the labor movement of the post-war period, Walter Reuther, supported conversion from a wartime economy to publicly funded housing, education and healthcare[5]. The labor movement in general at that time supported public financing to produce less expensive housing and transportation. Consider the percent of our income we U.S. consumers spend on housing and transportation today, the cost of healthcare in this country: would we not have been better off if labor had had its way, and money had gone to these purposes instead of the cold war?

Similarly, in the 70s, Barry Commoner pointed out that instead of burning fuel separately to produce high temperature heat for electricity and low temperature heat for water and space conditioning, we could decentralize power plants and use the waste heat from electricity production for low temperature purposes[6]. This combined production of heat and power is widely used in Europe today. He also recommended that the U.S. government buy solar cells in any application where the life cycle cost would save money compared to using fossil fuels. That increased market would have spurred faster photovoltaic solar cell development and earlier solar cell price drops.

These are examples of paths not taken. The sustainable energy and agriculture described in the special section on “Growth and human survival” after this main essay provides examples of paths still open to us. Given the deadlines we face for changes, talk of all these technologies often brings the question of how such things can be adapted in time. The answer is that the huge amount of money we currently spend on war could easily finance the transition to sustainability with hundreds of billions left over.  We are starting to see a tentative alliance between environmentalists, labor and civil right activists. This alliance also needs to include peace activists.

Growth can take as many constructive paths as destructive ones.  A shorter work week, less private and more public consumption in health, education, pensions and infrastructure, more economic equality can be part of growth and no-growth paths alike. Stopping growth will require at least as radical a change as channeling it in the right direction. Channeling it may well be the more constructive choice.


End of main essay

Growth and human survival – detailed supplementary section

To show that growth need not threaten human survival, we’ll project a GDP increase through 2050 far beyond any reasonable expectation. Assume that by 2050 per capita world GDP is 1.5 times that of the U.S. today. This allows a spot check of various resource constraints.


We start by considering energy as a GDP input. In round numbers, the U.S. consumes less than 4 Terawatts to support about 300 million people[7]. World consumption at the U.S. rate would amount to around 93 Terawatts. (Actual current world energy use is below 16 Terawatts.) A projected 9.5 billion population in 2050 brings this to 127 Terawatts. A 1.5 per capita multiplier results in approximately a 190 Terawatt total.  Does this unrealistic level of GDP increase really require that much energy?  

One reason why not: we need to produce most sustainable energy in the form of electricity. We have no practical means of transporting low grade heat long distances, and we can’t produce liquid or gaseous fuel sustainably on a large scale. Just substituting electricity for other forms can save energy, though we will look at other efficiency improvements.

Take long-haul ground freight transportation: an electric train moves freight with about 1/20th the required energy input that a diesel-powered truck consumes per ton mile. The U.S. could substitute electric trains for about 85% of long haul trucking[8], using trucks only to deliver freight to and from stations. A combined system of electric freight trains and short haul trucks (no more efficient than our current ones) could deliver freight for one fifth the energy per ton mile of our current long haul trucking system. And though trucks will never match trains for energy efficiency, we might cut their energy use in half, which would reduce energy requirements to one tenth of that needed today per ton mile for long haul freight trucking.

Light rail electric passenger trains which utilize a large percent of their capacity can gain similar efficiency increases. But in areas not suitable for mass transit where passenger rail utilization would be low, electric cars can travel 9 miles per kWh[9]. This translates into 217 MPG after considering generation, storage, transport and battery losses. (In other words you get the same miles per unit of energy running an electric car on wind power that you would  driving a  217 MPG gasoline powered car. Emissions are much lower than that.)  

Simply switching generation from fossil fuels to renewable sources also provides a substantial savings, because we typically burn two to three units of fossil fuel to produce one unit of electricity, though the best combined cycle gas turbines waste less than this.

Although new buildings can use efficient construction combined with passive solar to reduce heating and cooling consumption by 90% or more[10], potential savings and solar supply in existing buildings are much smaller. Both new and existing buildings can install ground source heat pumps which provide 3-6 units of heat or cooling for each unit of electricity input[11]. (If the gas used to heat buildings instead drove efficient electricity generators to run heat pumps this would still save a little natural gas. But only renewable electricity is truly sustainable in this context.) Direct solar heating is a better option still. Unfortunately, many existing buildings are not correctly positioned to take advantage of either passive or active solar gain.  Depending upon local climate, even many new buildings are better off using direct solar as an energy saver than relying upon it for 100% of space heating and cooling.) 

Similarly in industry, savings can be made through the very opposite of “angelization”. For example, a large percentage of manufacturing output produces parts and materials for building construction. One and two story buildings can be constructed from alternative foams[12], (whose global warming potential and impact on the ozone is a fraction of conventional foams) and from alternative cements, (such as GranCrete[13], which has about one third the greenhouse impact of Portland cement). Other examples of construction techniques that lower embedded resources in buildings are straw bale construction, Superblock and various other forms of earth construction.

For more on efficiency read my online book “No Hair Shirt Solutions to Global Warming” at We can produce four to six times more GDP per unit of energy than the U.S. economy currently does.  Even a fourfold reduction in energy use per unit of GDP means we will need less than 48 Terawatts in 2050 for our hypothetical massive GDP increase. That efficiency increase also means we can afford to pay about three times as much per kWh as today and still keep total energy costs the same per unit of benefit. So where can we get sustainable energy (mostly electricity) at the equivalent of 24 cents a kWh or less?

Well, we might start with wind energy.  According to Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson[14], probably America’s leading experts on wind energy potential, possible world-wide production may be as high as 72 Terawatts. Similarly, according to the DESERTEC project[15], about 4% of world desert land could produce 52 Terawatts.  In reality of course a sustainable energy system would mix solar and wind power, along with small amounts of amounts of hydro and geothermal power which would be used mainly for stability. 

Long distance HVDC lines could move power to where it is needed. According to the DESERTEC studies, about 90% of the world’s population lives within 2,700 kilometers of a hot desert, and a similar percentage within 2,700 kilometers of large scale wind resources. Thermal storage would be used to turn the solar power into baseload. Advanced batteries would further stabilize the grid.  Very small amounts of fossil fuels or biofuels, representing less than 1% of production, but a  higher percentage of capacity, would act as the last ditch stabilizer when other types of shaping failed.   Even current technology could build this for less than 20 cents per kWh. Economies of scale in the solar technology could probably lower total grid cost to 15 cents per kWh or possibly much less. Also, as electrical storage costs came down, and photovoltaic batteries of the kind rich people put on their rooftops dropped in price, we might be able to generate a great deal of electricity from rooftop and parking lot solar cells.

Obviously, electricity does not represent the only form renewable energy would take. Wherever possible, direct use of the suns energy would provide space heat, hot water, and even some industrial energy.  Small amounts of biofuel derived from waste straw, brush clearing and other types of organic matter whose use does not rob the soil would also contribute. Past a certain point, straw can’t be absorbed by soil, and is currently burned, contributing black carbon to global warming. Converting this to fuel is genuinely sustainable. Brush clearing is a comparable phenomenon in forestry, because we’ve disrupted forest ecosystems badly enough to necessitate brush clearing from some forests. Otherwise brush will act as tinder, converting small fires to big ones. In the long run, once enough brush has been cleared these forest ecosystems may be able to revert to a natural fire cycle. In the mean time, the brush cleared from them is a truly sustainable fuel. Beyond renewable energy, the atmosphere may be able to tolerate small amounts of fossil fuel use.    

What about past 2050? Looking that far ahead it is reasonable to go beyond today’s technology. There is many times the wind energy in the stratosphere than exist at the 80 meters of the Jacobson and Archer study cited. Flying energy generators (FEG) may well be able to tap that energy by then. FEGs are tethered helicopters that rise as high as 30,000 feet to tap the increased power in high altitude winds, and send electricity back down the wire to which they are tethered. In small scale demonstration models, a tiny percent of the electricity they produced was used to keep them aloft; even at low altitudes they generated net energy. The cables to reach higher and produce much more net electricity have been commercially available for years.  Sky WindPower[16] claims to be ready to build and deploy commercial models.

In addition, by 2050, rooftop, parking lot and roadway solar cells are likely to be practical on a much larger scale than today.


Can we feed 9.5 billion people sustainably? 

Of the slightly less than 1.2 billion hectares used to grow row crops and edible tree, bush and vine crops, about 993 million hectares provide pulses, nuts, grains and roots that are fed to humans and animals[17]. In 2050, when the world has about 9.5 billion people, that will average out about 1,045 square meters per person.  Assuming (as is good practice) rotation of a legume with a grain, nut, seed or root crop, combined crops can yield anywhere 40 to 65 grams of protein per meter annually[18]. A conservative midpoint of 46 suggests that half that land could feed the 2050 population of this planet a vegan diet.

We also have slightly less than 3.4 billion hectares of pasture and meadow[19]. Dairy cattle or goats, grazed on less than 20% of that land could produce half 2050 protein needs in the form of milk and milk products[20]. So a quarter of the current land used to produce grains, pulses, nuts and root crops, plus a fifth of the land currently used to graze animals could provide all our needed protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates if we stuck to a vegetarian (but not vegan) diet.  Some of both remaining row crop and grazing land could add fowl, farmed fish, and red meat to this, while still using less land and fewer resources to feed 9.5 billion people than we use to fail to feed 7 billion people now. Fruit and vegetables could be grown on land used for that purpose now. If necessary we could also use space we currently devote to yards and landscaping. 

In terms of water and soil use, a rotation of legume, grain, fiber crop (such as hemp), and green manure combined with organic or low-input methods can be sustainable, building soil rather than eroding it. Irrigation water can be kept within sustainable limits. Building the soil by itself reduces water use a bit. And drip irrigation or high precisions sprinklers can reduce water use a great deal more. If that is not sufficient we can capture runoff, and use renewable energy to desalinate it – recycling irrigation water. And if that is not enough, we can build greenhouses which increase production per acre, and allow more complete capture and reuse of both runoff, and water lost to evaporation. Eliminating all or most fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides combined with the soil building also greatly reduces energy use and greenhouse emissions. The size of the latter reduction depends upon how close to vegetarian our diet becomes.

Conclusion to special section

We could supply both the energy to drive huge amounts of economic growth, and have land and water resources available to sustainably feed a population of 9.5 billion. We could do this in spite of the fact that we damage our world horribly at present to supply a much smaller world economy which fails at providing a minimally decent life for much of our current population.



[1] Tim Jackson; Prosperity without Growth: The transition to a sustainable economy; The  Sustainable Development Commission; March 2009;

[2] Redefining Progress‘s Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI); June 2, 2009;

[3] J. Baldwin, WNET: Bucky Fuller Dymaxion Car. ~1996, WNET (PBS Tristate Area/Internet Collaboration), 7/Oct/2005;

[4] Margaret Raucher, Walter P. Reuther Library/Personal Collections. 2002, Housing, Walter P. Reuther Library of Wayne State University, 17/Apr/2005 .

[5]  Irving Bluestone, “Time 100: Builders and Titans: Walter Reuther,”. Time Magazine 7/Dec 1998, Time Inc.,17/Apr/2005 .

[6] Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power: Energy and the Economic Crisis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).

[7] 101.6 Quads in 2007 translates into substantially less than 4 Terawatts.

Energy Information Administration; International Total Primary Energy Consumption and Energy Intensity; United States, Recent Months and Years-to-Date, and Years 1973-Present;  Table 1.1 ; Dec-31-2008;   

[8] Gar Lipow, Upgrade freight rail: Save 12 percent of oil, 4 percent of emissions, and jumpstart renewable grid, Grist, Jan-14-2009; < >.

[9] For example, the Aptera travels 100 miles on a 13 kWh battery.  Since electric autos can’t use full battery capacity without risking damage, this translates to at most 11 kWh to traverse 100 miles – 9 miles per kWh.   A fully renewable grid would lose electricity in transmission and storage, and batteries also lose electricity in charge, and discharge; so this translates to 217 miles per gallon, more than eight times the average efficiency of the U.S. car and light truck fleet. Driven by renewable electricity, that would produce hundreds of times fewer emissions per mile than gasoline engines.

Jeremy Korzeniewski; Full Aptera specs released at TED; Autobloggreen; Feb-3-2009 < >

[10] Jürgen Schnieders, CEPHEUS – Measurement Results from More Than 100 Dwelling Units in Passive Houses. May 2003. Passive House Institute,23/Dec/2003

An 80% reduction compared to German standards is more than a 95% reduction compared to the U.S. per capita average.

States Census Bureau, “Section 19 – Energy and Utilities,” Statistical Abstract of the United States 2002. December 2002. United States Census Bureau .p847

Table No. 1350. Energy Consumption and Production by Country: 1990 and 2000

So this is a 90% savings, compared to U.S. standards. Actually it is a bit more, because the 80% savings compares to tougher requirements for new German homes, not average use.

[11] U.S. Department of Energy; Energy Savers: Geothermal Heat Pumps; Feb-24-2009;

[12]> Eco-Therm, Frequently Asked Questions, Jul-2-2008 ,.

[13] GranCrete (Ceramincrete) reduces greenhouse gas emissions 67% compared to Portland Cement.

Steve Ban; Argonne’s Cleantech Efforts Are Bearing Fruit; Innovation; Feb/Mar 2008;


[14] 72 Terawatts from wind power

Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson, “Evaluation of Global Wind Power,”. Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres 110, no. D12 30-Jun 2005, American Geophysical Union, 20-Jan-2008>; .

[15] 14 Terawatts from 1% of world’s deserts (using existing CSP technology at 15% efficiency) could provide 100% of today’s energy consumption. Assuming world energy consumption multiples by 4 times that is still only 4% of today’s consumption.

Hartmut Grassl, Gerhard Knies, Hans Müller-Steinhagen, HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal, Klaus Töpfer, Anders Wijkman; Clean Power from Deserts: The DESERTEC Concept for Energy, Water and Climate Security;Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation TREC;2007;P 17;

[16> Sky Windpower,June 2, 2009,

[17]FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS; Prodstat Database; Crops; Area Harvested; World Total; All crops 2007;  (crop types separated out manually within personal spreadsheet); Data update June 2008; Accessed June 17,2009;

[18] Multiply pounds per acre by .110285 to convert to grams per meter.

Audrey H. Ensminger and James E. Konlande; Green Revolution; Food and Nutrition Encyclopedia: Vol I A-H; 2nd Edition; CRC Press 1997; P. 1104;

Dry beans 1,200 pounds per acre per year, 22% protein  29+ grams of protein per meter per year.

California Dry Bean Advisory Board; Commodity Fact Sheet – Dry Beans;  Bean Advisory Board; Dinuba, CA; California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom; May 2008;

< >.

[19] FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS; ResourcesStat database; Permanent meadows & pastures, world+, land area, 2007; updated Apr-2009; accessed Jun-17-2009; < >

[20] This translates pounds of milk very conservatively into grams of protein.

Larry Tranel; From zero to $300,000 in five years; Belleville WI;Graze; Apr-2008;.