I will leave why growth should stop until later in this post and will start with why growth must stop. Not everyone agrees that growth must stop; in my experience most of those who argue that growth can go on forever are economists. As Kenneth Boulding (himself an economist) put it: Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. I have not taken a straw poll on this, but I suspect that there would be a divide between physical scientists on one side who see ultimate physical limits to growth and some (not all) economists on the other side who believe that human ingenuity and innovation can continue to deliver every increasing growth on a finite planet.

Rather than rehearsing the arguments in detail here, I will point to some of the reading I have done in this area for those whose feet are at the beginning of this path. The “golden oldie” of course, is the original Limits to Growth book (The Limits to Growth: a report for the Club of Rome's project on the Predicament of Mankind by Donella H Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III, 1974). For those of you thinking as you read “but wasn’t that disproved?”you could also read The Limits to Growth Revisted by Ugo Bardi (Springer, 2011), as Bardi spends a significant amount of his book reviewing the controversy. Some of the authors of the original book have published updates, and a 2007 review by Graham Turner of the CSIRO is in the “Things to read” section of this web site. A wonderful look at the physicist versus economist worldview is given in a blog by UCSD physicist Tom Murphy “Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist”. Finally, the most comprehensive real world look at economic growth I have seen is the report from the UK New Economics Foundation “Growth isn’t possible. Why we need a new economic direction” which is also available on our Things to Read page.

Finally, there is a major and extremely important equity issue. The issue exists within and between the rich countries, but is most obvious between the richest and the poorest countries. Economic growth has been the key driver in the move out of poverty for a good proportion of the earth’s population, and there are still millions of people living in poverty whose material circumstances are desperate. The conventional argument is that continuing growth in richer countries also benefits poorer countries, but this argument ignores the resources limits to continued growth. Can you imagine trying to explain to the inhabitants of a very poor country that the resources needed for them to enjoy their place in the sun of prosperity are not available because the already rich people have used them to get even richer? Economic growth should stop in the rich countries so that it can continue for a while where it is most needed.