Keeping the Poor Poor

Against Anti-Growth Environmentalism


When environmentalists come out against economic growth – Bill McKibben called growth “the one big habit we finally must break” – they often are referring to the developed world. But with most of the world’s expected growth to occur in the poor parts of the world, such arguments are simply mathematical non-sequiturs. The reality is that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries. In other words, keeping poor people poor.

March 11, 2014 | Roger Pielke Jr

It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American.” Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalization. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

Economic growth is simply a metric that reflects the accumulation of wealth over time, usually based on universalized US dollars. Economists define economic growth in three parts: (a) growth in labor, which refers to an increase in the number of people working; (b) growth in capital, which refers to increases in the availability of things that can be used by labor in the process of producing goods (like food) and services (like surgery); and (c) increasing productivity, which can be thought of as improvements in the efficiency with which we turn labor and capital into goods and services.

We can use the three components of economic growth to better understand what it means to be “anti-growth.”

Anti-Labor Growth, The Neo-Malthusians

One sort of objection to growth sits squarely in the tradition of Thomas Malthus and is focused on global population. Neo-Malthusians most recently rose to prominence and influence in the 1960s and 1970s, with Paul Ehrlich the most famous US advocate for population control. Today the neo-Malthusian moment seems to have waned, likely due in part to the fact that UN population projections now foresee the end of population growth later this century, followed by a decline in some scenarios. Even so, the Neo-Malthusian movement has its adherents. As Alan Weisman wrote in a book released last year (see In Review): “From the instant we’re born, even the humblest among us compounds the world’s mounting problems.” Neo-Malthusians see anti-growth as limits on population.

Anti-Capital Growth, The Peak Earthers

Another branch of anti-growth thinking focuses not on the number of people, but rather their consumption of resources. The Peak Earthers, as I call them, present their views through a suite of concepts, such as ecological footprints, planetary boundaries, and natural capital. Such concepts reflect valid concerns, but it turns out that, with respect to limits on continued economic growth, humans have had a tendency to break through physical limits through gains in efficiency and substitution. A good example is “peak oil,” which seems ever on the horizon yet keeps retreating as we tap new petroleum sources. Peak Earthers see anti-growth, rather than efficiency gains and substitution, as a solution to resource constraints.

Anti-Productivity Growth, The Luddites

The term “Luddite” refers to an industrial protest movement of the early 1800s, and derives from Ned Ludd, one of the lead protestors. “Luddite” is commonly used to mean anti-technology, a reference to the fact that the original Luddites destroyed industrial machines – but that’s a misreading of history. What the Luddites were protesting was the effect of productivity gains resulting from the introduction of machines into factories as a consequence of the industrial revolution. Today, we see Luddite concerns in other sectors. For instance, in December 2013, The Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “Eight Ways Robots Stole Our Jobs in 2013.” Luddites see anti-growth as a way to stop the effects of technology on the economy.

When we break down the idea of anti-growth into its component parts, we very quickly see that “anti-growth” is not a particularly coherent concept. For instance, those favoring what is often called “sustainable growth” – such as using renewable energy technologies, rather than using fossil fuels, to power growing material wealth – would not fit any of the three categories presented above. Sustainable growth clearly is not anti-growth.

In the near future, economic growth and its consequences for the planet will be dominated by today’s poor countries. The OECD estimates that between 2013 and 2030 82 percent of economic growth will occur in what are today considered to be the “poor” parts of the world, with just 18 percent of growth occurring in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and a few other wealthy countries. Similarly, in January BP released its 2014 “Energy Outlook to 2035,” which projects that 95 percent of growth in energy consumption worldwide to 2035 will occur in poorer countries.

Some try to sugar-coat their anti-growth arguments by focusing their attention on the rich world. But with most of the world’s expected growth to occur in the poor parts of the world, such arguments are simply mathematical non sequiturs. The reality is that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries. The fact that very few, if any, anti-growth activists are openly demanding that poor countries remain poor tells us how powerful a force growth is in today’s global politics.

Ultimately, debates over growth tend to mask more fundamental debates about ideologies, values, and what kind of world we wish to see in the future. Breaking concerns about growth into its component parts helps to focus such debates on questions that can be addressed empirically, and those which cannot. So when you encounter an anti-growth advocate, ask him or her, which kind are you, Neo-Malthusian, Peak Earther, or Luddite?


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Earth Island Journal, 

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  • Roger:
    Is is fair to say that a considerable portion of modern “growth” is in fact the displacement of less efficient with more efficient goods? One extreme example, is my sons generation that seems to be deriving utility from virtual goods not physical ones. Wireless communication is displacing wired infrastructure: remember those massive switching stations that are now empty? Modern stove / heating technology in the developing world can displace “dirty” fuel saving lives and reducing carbon emissions. Seems like some growth provides win/win??

    By Geoff Lomax on 2014 03 11

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  • Roger:  When I taught at CU Boulder I was invited twice a year to lecture in a class called “Critical Concerns in the Environment.”  Al Bartlett was my debate opponent a number of times.  I would often begin by asking the question, “How many of you are willing to lock the poor into perpetual poverty in order to achieve you environmental goals?”  The class members began to argue with each other—they were split pretty evenly between those who cared about the poor and those who didn’t care enough about them to change their environmental goals.  There are a lot of McKibbens out there.

    By Phil Mitchell on 2014 03 13

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  • The trouble here is your economic metric.  It is all “stuff” centered.  Also “job” centered.  Jaron Lanier stuff v. info economy distinction is key. Will completely refocus this conversation.  As it is, with focus on the “stuff” economy, everyone is trying to get those jobs, making stuff and it’s truly inefficient.  Michael Lewis starts to approach this problem in the Iceland Chapter - :

    “The goal isn’t to get fishermen to overspend on more nets or bigger boats. The goal is to catch the maximum number of fish with minimum effort.”

    By Rezwan Razani on 2014 03 15

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  • Part 1 of 2

    Because you are a professor, I believe you must be well read, Therefore, I can only conclude that 1) you are aware of the researchers below and are intentionally taking the assertion in your thesis out of context and cherry picking information to support your argument or 2) you are not sufficiently well read.

    I think science educator Neil DeGrasse Dyson’s latest public comment addressed towards climate deniers is apt to quote here: “Science is not there for you to cherry pick”

    Most of the data that disproves your assertion is freely available on the internet. Anyone (ncluding yourself) can easily find the studies from environmental scientists and zero growth researchers and advocates. If you do find them, you will see that many of the most respected ones do not advocate for blanket zero growth as you are claiming. People like Nicolas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank argues that it is absolutely mandatory that climate pollution is significantly reduced at the same time as economic upliftment of the poor. This sensible picture of significantly reduced economic growth for the industrialized nations concurrent with (sustainable,green) economic growth for the global poor who remain below the poverty line is very different from the blanket thesis you argue.

    The zero growth and degrowth strategies proposed for various countries of the western world are to stop growth in the highest consuming (and highest carbon emitting) countries. Social research in the UK and other countries have confirmed that beyond a certain point of material wealth, happiness levels off. You and the readers here can find all the research references on my website:

    UK sustainability professor Tim Jackson has made this argument for years but, again, it’s not the distorted argument you have argued in your thesis. Most such researchers do not argue depriving the billions at the Base of Pyramid of economic growth, growth that is necessary to push them above the poverty line.

    Another case that directly contradicts your assertion is Oxfam’s Doughnut model, spearheaded by economist and senior research Kate Raworth which is being adopted by the development community worldwide….for example urban spatial planners are using this model to develop communities across South Africa, where I live. In Kate Raworth’s discussion paper, she provides evidence that supports that social development is eminently feasible within an ecologically responsible framework as defined by the planetary boundaries you cite above.

    I am surprised that, as a professor you have not researched your thesis very well before presenting it, because very easy research would quickly reveal that it is a false argument.

    Please continue on to Part 2

    By Gien on 2014 03 17

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  • Part 2 of 2

    It’s not at all about denying the economy. No sound environmental scientist is arguing that. Listen carefully, professor Pielke…

    Have you ever observed the two words below:

    Economy and Ecology

    There is something which every neo-liberal, right leaning academic has missed seeing about these two terms, terms which in your world are seen as contradictory…

    Etymologically, ECOnomy comes via Latin from the Greek words oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’

    Etymologically, ECOlogy comes from Greek oikos ‘house’ + English -logy.

    So the one thing that you miss seeing
    is that BOTH words, which the right wing media is fond of portraying in a contradictory, dualistic and antagonistic way
    are actually derived from the same Greek root….oikos, for house

    You see, we ALL live in two homes
    the small home…the rectangular box we return to each evening and
    the larger home, our ecology
    and as Canadian author Margaret Atwood said: “There’s no point worrying about the economy if there is no ecology”

    The fundamental problem with the world
    is that economy has become an abstract, symbolic pursuit devoid of any real connection to the real world

    Do not tell the layman or the environmental scientist
    that the economy doesn’t matter
    because you then insult both their intelligence
    Of course it matters! ...THAT…is really the non-sequitur!
    Do you think that any person living in a modern society is not aware
    that they have to put food on the table or they will die?
    So we have established that we ALL need the economy, the means to put food on the table
    we also need our ECOLOGY…that which provides everything…all the natural capital that we humans use to build anything with…our food, our clean air, our clean water, all the material to build the world we now live in.

    Economics has, up until recently been operating in a vacuum, as if there is no consequence to how much and the ways we extract resources and the ways we pollute our planet.

    Science, purposed through technology has accelerated the ways by which we extract resources and manufacture goods and services and the hypocrisy is that the same science that has made this entire modern world possible is now rejected when the exact same methodology is applied to raise ecological concerns. I must again inject Neil DeGrasse Dyson’s quote here: “Science is not there for you to cherry pick”

    You can’t have it both ways. If you accept the methodology of science, the countless scientists whose work has produced everything you now depend on (because you aren’t complaining about your car or your cellphone are you?), then you must also realize that these same scientists are also producing thousands upon thousands of studies in every conceivable field ranging from climate change to biology which all point to the dangerous impact the scale of humanity is having on the planet.

    Therefore, in this brief writing, I argue that your thesis is not only wrong, but misleading in its intent. As a human being, you have an obligation to be truthful to others and to create an atmosphere of compassion. As is often said, be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.

    By Gien on 2014 03 17

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  • Hi Roger,
    while I believe you are well-intentioned, your assumptions are incorrect.  As it turns out, nothing offers more immediate and effective relief from poverty and economic growth and environmental improvement than lowering fertility rates - which as it turns out is what most women want at least a choice on when given sufficient rights. To argue otherwise is as malicious as it is ignorant and continues to ensure avoidable impoverishment.  You may like to review this short video which outlines the successes in Tunsia and Botswana where fertility rates have dropped from around 6 to 2 while incomes have increased 10-20 fold.

    And Dr Jane O’Sullivan further makes this relationship abundantly clear in this report.
    Abstract:  “This study takes a retrospective look at the time course of total fertility rate (TFR) and per capita wealth among countries, relating it to family planning initiatives and other factors thought to influence either fertility or wealth. It was found that countries that implemented strong family planning programs achieved fertility reduction much faster and earlier than comparable countries that did not. Fertility decline typically preceded marked increases in wealth, but per capita wealth growth usually accelerated when fertility fell to between two and three births per woman. The negative relationship between TFR and GDP per capita tends to be deeply concave for those countries that have achieved low fertility. Higher fertility countries in the same region tend to follow a parallel course, but at a slower pace, and most with current fertility above three are yet to see sustained wealth increase. In the absence of significant income from oil or other resources, fertility reduction appears to be a necessary if not sufficient condition for sustained economic growth. Causation runs in both directions, with prosperity and development of education and health services enhancing the reduction in family size, but interventions to promote prosperity are less cost-effective in priming this cycle than interventions for fertility reduction.”

    By Matt Moran on 2014 03 23

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  • Hi again Roger,

    you may like to also review the information provided by the Sustainable Population Party here:

    In general, the idea is to lift people out of poverty, while reducing overall impact.  This can only be done by lowering fertility levels.

    kind regards

    By Matt Moran on 2014 03 23

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  • Invite all readers interested in solving our global problems to view and understand this lecture.

    “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” - Dr. Albert A. Bartlett

    Trying to grapple with the global multi-dimensional problem using economic theory is like trying to use palmistry to diagnose and cure a human illness. The very basic fact is that our natural and man-made ecosystems are not coping with the current human load/densities. Examples of this fact are abundant should there be any doubt.

    “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” - Albert Einstein
    “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.” - Ayn Rand

    By Robert Scottu on 2014 03 24

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  • Arguments with anti-growth environmentalists are literally academic.  Nothing can stop human economic growth.  Not in the developed world.  Not anywhere else.  Suppose climate scientists were telling us that we had to give up our cellphones in order to avert a climate catastrophe in 2070.  How many people would give up their cellphones?  Not a lot.  Environmentalists like Bill McKibben want us to renounce the energy sources that made the great leap forward in human prosperity of the twentieth century possible.  That just won’t happen, even if the skies eventually do rage and the seas do rise.  We can adapt to higher sea levels and wheat fields on the tundra, but not to zero economic growth.

    By Ian Coleman on 2014 05 22

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    • Nothing can stop human economic growth.  Not in the developed world.  Not anywhere else.

      So, what you are essentially saying is that humans are no smarter than a dish of bacteria.

      You may be correct.

      By Robert Scottu on 2014 08 03

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      • Nothing can stop human economic growth.  Not in the developed world.  Not anywhere else.
        So, what you are essentially saying is that humans are no smarter than a dish of bacteria.
        You may be correct.

        ... not much smarter, cf. Spinoza, and I agree with him. We have to cope with this. Unless we will spend and spoil more and more, for nothing.

        By Robert on 2014 08 06

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      • I think that human beings are smarter than a dish of bacteria.  I regret that I left you with the impression that I thought the opposite. 
        Come on people.  Bill McKibben owns a computer and a cell phone.  He charges fees for his work and collects royalties from his writing.  I’ll bet he owns a house and I’ll bet there is hi-def television in it.  He probably owns a motor vehicle.  He has children, and they wear clothing made in China.  Bill McKibben is smarter than any five good-sized petri dishes full of bacteria.

        By Ian Coleman on 2015 09 20

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  • Breaking down the anti-growth intellectual obstacles to sustainable growth will ultimately reveal pretty sleazy attempts to perpetuate or rehabilitate revolutionary Marxism—to repaint fading red with bright green.

    In fact, a sustainable and practical environmental program needs to be reconciled with traditional political frameworks. The Euro-Greens seem to have largely done this by governing credibly in coalition with Christian-socialist (“Black”), Social-democratic (“Red”), and even Free-democratic or liberal (“Yellow”) parties despite having some exotic origins. The German Greens have problems with nuclear energy but, then, who would not given ongoing problems with nuclear weapons.

    The key to actual and future coalitions has been repudiation of Soviet Communism and embrace of the sort of ordered social mobility associated with Social Security and the Welfare State rather than with “Neo-Liberal” predatory or reactionary economics. 

    A refractory problem remains: reconciling technology development and diffusion with Anglo-American financial enterprise based on the eternal struggle of political elites to replace profits with monopoly rents—market and government concession-tending and political corruption which “converged” on Soviet agricultural economics during the Cold War.

    This is a kind of reactionary “stability” today that invariably subverts republican democracy, protects economic privilege, and replaces science with aesthetics, legalism, and ultimately nationalistic racism. Moreover, the term “stability” becomes just a euphemism for oppression and aggression inasmuch as replacing deliberative market and government allocation of resources with secretive monopoly rent-sharing (whether the aesthetics are Whig or Proletarian) is economically destabilizing—“Bubble Economics”.

    Here, then, is the political problem for those of us favoring “sustainable growth” including, say, “high-energy” Africa, 4Gen nuclear reactors and fuel cycles, synthesizing gas and high-cetane liquids from low-grade fossil and biomass feedstock, as well as other initiatives detailed at the Breakthrough Institute: Legitimating that sort of sustainable growth will take defining some of its implicit values by repudiating something other than just retread reds—even those seemingly in one’s own camp, specifically, the Trotskyite pseudo-technocrats of the anti-Semitic LaRouche “movement”.

    But, I think the most important stepping stone in the US will be alignment with those in all parties who support a national economic security and international security agenda radically and rapidly evolved away from the agro-military pork barrel and the Washington consensus on fiscal and trade policy.

    Which brings me to the nut of things: Public finance for very large, complex, or extensive projects—not “stimulus” for financial bubbles and indemnity for larcenous bond-lawyers and paper-hangers who hang out around the black budgets as well as other vestiges of the WWI petroleum marketing cartel and WWII arms industry—both of whom claim special expertise in military, diplomatic, technology, and financial affairs.

    The bond-lawyers and paper-hangers (“To Big To Jail!) are more effective lobbyists, hence destroyers of sustainable growth and every sort of security other than their own, than the threadbare intellectuals cited by Pielke.

    Viewed in admittedly crude political categories, almost everything out of the Breakthrough Institute sounds like baiting traditional political thought and alignments while protecting unpatriotic as well as unscientific factions of the plutocracy.

    By John Robert BEHRMAN on 2014 07 29

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  • Seeing their logic, it amazes me that Malthusians have not encouraged scientists to find a way to make children stop growing. They consume less than adults. But they believe there is a more effective way: kill people in poor countries through their irrational laws and regulations.

    By Eduardo Ferreyra on 2014 09 25

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  • I think the major problems with our society is GREED. How can any equality come from this?
    Another problem I see are people moving into animals territories and this causes killing of animals that are needed for a healthy environment. Every animal has evolved to take care of a part of nature killing animals brings us closer to KILLING ourselves.  People working against what the majority of people think should be the norm should be put in jail, example hurting our environment to make a profit or hoarding money, ruining our water needed for life. And people starting war after war.
    We have a good example of how a large society could get along and work together and this society where the American Indians everything in nature is sacred because we need all of nature to live. We should learn to live with everything in the environment.

    By Lori Wakefield on 2014 10 19

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    • Well GREED is a major problem, but it’s also very nuanced as it can be as simple as a moderate guilty pleasure to amassing billions of dollars more than a person can actually spend. 

      Bear in mind the the American Indians learnt the hard way on the perils of overpopulation - I leave it for you to look into that aspect of history.

      But, as I write in my petition, irrespective of what you believe to be the primary driver of the problem, ultimately, population growth is the backbone of growing inequality and all of our worsening conditions.  There is simply no denying that each additional person requires food, water, shelter, air and from there, each additional person has other needs.  When we examine the evidence in all honesty, we cannot escape the obvious fundamental issue of finite resources and the growing conflict as population to resource ratios become decreasingly favourable.

      My petition reads:
      “Many people believe that inequality is the most important and urgent thing to be addressed by societal reform. A peaceful and sustainable world must be one with less inequality. They usually focus on regulating excessive and unearned income, including economic rents. I am suggesting that corporate driven growth through endless population growth forces wages down and the returns to capital up, and that stabilising population automatically reduces inequality, at the same time as easing pressure on the environment. The evidence for this is a very strong correlation between population growth rate and the extent of inequality among developed nations, and for developing nations, the only ones which have lifted conditions for the poor (in terms of nutrition, housing, health care and education) have been those which first reduced family size and slowed population growth. All but one have done this through voluntary programs focusing on reproductive rights and child welfare.

      Currently, the environmental call to stabilise population is being opposed by the wealthiest both in and outside Australia (who seek to maximise returns to capital, even when this is not wealth creation but transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich) and from the extreme Left (who see population growth as strengthening the power of the proletariat, and who believe that all deprivation is due to inequality and not to real shortages of resources). It is time for this Left component to see that their goals are most powerfully achieved by ending population growth, and that they are playing into the Right’s hand by pulling the racist card against people who want to end population growth.

      A sustainable society requires a stable population. Its achievement doesn’t impede any actions to reduce environmental impact per person – quite the opposite. How this should translate into policies relating to family support and immigration is open for discussion but generally, the following would be a good start:

      a) Provide government incentives for births (baby bonuses) for only the first two children or remove these bonuses altogether and redirect the funds into helping our young avoid the pitfalls of the mistakes of youth including unwanted pregnancy.

      b) Balance immigration with emigration - the global average.  (Note, immigration is not about boats which make up less than 10% of our migrant intake.)  This would lower our currently unsustainable levels of immigration from over 300,000 a year to 70,000.  We’ve welcomed over 6 million people who were born overseas who’ve wished to join with us in sharing our values and lifestyle, we must start to appreciate the rapidly worsening conditions and extreme inequality that are occurring.  We lead the world in mammal extinction, we have an estimated 2 million+ un/underemployed, we have 1 in 8 living in poverty, a quarter of a million homeless on any given night and 2 million having to frequent food bank.

      c) Work in partnership with overpopulated nations to ease population pressures, resource scarcity, 3rd world conditions, improve women’s rights and access to family planning, education and health services.  For what we spend on resettling a single person here, we can be helping orders of magnitude more in situ.

      To get a more comprehensive picture on these issues, please feel free to view Dick Smith’s speech for which he was rewarded with a standing ovation (see youtube) or look at the more progressive parties such as the Sustainable Population Party who are demonstrating that this is the debate we most urgently need to have.”

      By Matt Moran on 2014 10 19

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  • This need to be change. Rich people getting rich day by day and poor getting poor. :(

    By Tushar Goyal on 2015 10 31

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    By Jerry Corley on 2017 09 15

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  • is it about rich dad and poor dad concept btw nice article

    By jhon on 2017 12 19

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    By Robert Hutchence on 2017 12 20

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  • everyone has to change then this will work. Golden Cydia is popular.

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