Is Unlimited Growth Ethical?

This political cartoon  satirizes the idea that we can continue to grow in population unlimitedly

This political cartoon satirizes the idea that we can continue to grow in population unlimitedly

One principle that Environmental Ethics is based upon is the idea that there cannot be unlimited growth, population-wise or economy-wise, because our resources are finite and the future generations who need them will no longer be able to survive without them. This is commonly factored into the Stewardship view but it can also be seen as an Environmental Wisdom worldview. Despite this widely accepted idea there are still some who oppose the idea that there are even finite resources. One such person is Julian Simon. Do his ideas have merit? Other thinkers such as Thomas Malthus and Garret Hardin disagree and think that there are certain steps that need to be taken in order to save ourselves from ecological ruin.

Despite human society being only a small fraction of the entire time line of the Earth’s history, a mere couple hundred thousand years out of 4.6 billion years that the Earth has been around, there are significant damages that have already been done to the environment. Despite this Julian Simon, an economist, believed that even the very thought of our Natural Resources being depleted is folly. In his mind human ingenuity coupled with technological innovation spurred by times of scarcity will ensure that the resources that we do have will be able to be extended indefinitely and we will never truly run out of the sources of energy that run our world. His is a view that many free-market Libertarians hold: one that leans towards a Planetary Management worldview.

Julian Simon, an economist, believed that human ingenuity would push us beyond any possible limits of consumption.

Julian Simon, an economist, believed that human ingenuity would push us beyond any possible limits of consumption.

He argues that we even have the semantics of the word “finite,” mixed up-since we do not know the exact number of resources we have on Earth such as tons of coal or copper then there is no way for us to claim that it is finite. He is an advocate of recycling when needs necessitate, but his optimism in the face of certain vital resources is never wavering.

On the flip side, there are those thinkers such as Thomas Malthus who postulated that food supplies grow at an arithematical ratio while population growth tends to increase in a geometric ratio. He believed that misery and vice would befall those nations that could not control their population relative to their food supplies. His doomsday scenario saw that, if death and birth rates were not kept under check, there would be massive blows to the population of the world from the lack of food. Malthus’ theory still holds up today as a model for supply of food versus population yet those who vigorously believe in the free-market such as Simon disagree with the innate failings of humanity to provide food for its people. In his view, people such as Norman Borlaugh will be able to continue to push humanity to unlimited production.

Irrigation circles such as these in Colorado, were part of the genius of Norman Borlaug

Irrigation circles such as these in Colorado, were part of the genius of Norman Borlaug

Other thinkers such as Garret Hardin also disagree with those such as Julian Simon who are relentlessly optimistic about humanity’s future. Simon’s belief in an Earth that is akin to a spaceship or a lifeboat is rejected by Hardin who believes that humanity’s equity is naturally uneven by the fact that poorer countries starve and richer countries thrive but the population rates for them are rampant and stagnant respectively. Hardin has already accepted that our resources, food specifically, are limited and that a common solution proposed, creating a world food bank, would create more problems than it would solve. In his opinion, although it seems morally abhorrent to many, the best bet for our society is to let only those who can afford it, consume the limited resources we have, or opt for strict population control.

Garret Hardin emphasized the difference in population growth between post industrial and industrial countries

Garret Hardin emphasized the difference in population growth between post industrial and industrial countries

The Tragedy of the Commons is one theory that Hardin believes that states that there can be no common resource, such as a global fishery, without humans exploiting it to its limits. In his opinion there should be an acute awareness of the commons and why people need to preserve it. Unlike Simon he sees a limit to the amount of clean air, water and unpolluted land that is available to humans regardless of technological advances. Growth, to him, must be limited otherwise the problems we have now will only become worse. The World Food Bank, he believes, is another commons that will just become abused as much as the other commons of today. He is also skeptical of the long-term success of the Green Revolution, pointing out that growth of the food supply cannot happen without limits due to the basic idea that resources such as soil, water and fertilizers are not infinite.

Bison skulls piled up high after the American plains were hunted dry. The Bison population of the United States is one common resource that was abused.

Bison skulls piled up high after the American plains Bison was hunted almost to extinction. The Bison population of the United States is one common resource that was abused.

I agree more with Hardin on the idea that our resources are limited and technological advances cannot chase them forever but I disagree that the only solution to the over-utilization of resources is limiting population growth. I think that the De-growth movement portrays the idea that economic growth can be limited, decentralized and economies will still be able to function albeit in a different sense.

The De-Growth movement focuses on getting back to basics and relaxing the charge for unlimited growth

The De-Growth movement focuses on getting back to basics and relaxing the charge for unlimited growth

The De-growth movement mainly focuses on down-scaling production and consumption. Those who call themselves ‘degrowthists’ aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means by sharing work, consuming less and devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community. In general, they feel that society’s ethical problem lies in the idea that you are not considered successful unless you are wealthy and rich and can afford to consume. In the minds of people such as Mark Albion, economist and author of “The Good Life,” there is a particular happiness that can only be achieved by living simply and within your means.

Mark Albion wrote The Good Life and as an economist believes that there should be less emphasis on consumption and more on living happily

Mark Albion wrote The Good Life and as an economist believes that there should be less emphasis on consumption and more on living happily

The Degrowth movement itself may seem out of reach in terms of its attainability for the general public but it is not overly difficult to attain as a goal. The alternative looks something very much like that laid out in “The Impossible Hamster,” a video put out by the New Economics Foundation. By using common sense one can see that, like a hamster that doubles in growth periodically without stopping, our economy can only grow for so long without our planet collapsing.

There are some people who recognize that there is already simply too much over-consumption and overproduction today, such as Chris Jordan, whose art pieces depict mass consumption such as the number of gallons of gasoline burned yearly or the number of junk mail leaflets mailed out daily to people across the United States. More of this is evident in the damage done to remote reaches of the planet like Midway Island where Jordan photographed dead sea birds who had consumed the multitude of plastic in the ocean surrounding the island.

This piece, titled 'Plastic Cups,' shows the number of cups used on US airline flights in 6 hours, one million

This piece by Chris Jordan, titled ‘Plastic Cups,’ shows the number of cups used on US airline flights in 6 hours, one million

There are many ecological problems that face ethical consideration but the growth of humanity seems to stir up much controversy for its ethical implications. I think that there is a lot to consider in terms of the solutions of overpopulation and overconsumption. We must remember that, despite those who advocate for unlimited growth like Simon there is only one planet Earth (for now) and we must care for it at the present moment. I realize that this leans more towards a Stewardship worldview, but I also maintain that my sentiments truly also lie with the bio-centric tendencies. I think that there should be a place in the future for animal and other non-human entities to live. My one question would be how to accomplish this, because I don’t know for sure there is a clean solution to figuring out what is more vital-another acre of farmland or one of wild nature. With luck, we can one day come to a middle ground.

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