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The limits to growth

Summary:
From Lars Syll In the postwar period, it has become increasingly clear that economic growth has not only brought greater prosperity. The other side of growth, in the form of pollution, contamination, wastage of resources, and climate change, has emerged as perhaps the greatest challenge of our time. Against the mainstream theory’s view on the economy as a balanced and harmonious system, where growth and the environment go hand in hand, ecological economists object that it can rather be characterized as an unstable system that at an accelerating pace consumes energy and matter, and thereby pose a threat against the very basis for its survival. The Romanian-American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) argued in his epochal The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) that

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from Lars Syll

In the postwar period, it has become increasingly clear that economic growth has not only brought greater prosperity. The other side of growth, in the form of pollution, contamination, wastage of resources, and climate change, has emerged as perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.

Against the mainstream theory’s view on the economy as a balanced and harmonious system, where growth and the environment go hand in hand, ecological economists object that it can rather be characterized as an unstable system that at an accelerating pace consumes energy and matter, and thereby pose a threat against the very basis for its survival.

The limits to growthThe Romanian-American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994) argued in his epochal The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) that the economy was actually a giant thermodynamic system in which entropy increases inexorably and our material basis disappears. If we choose to continue to produce with the techniques we have developed, then our society and earth will disappear faster than if we introduce small-scale production, resource-saving technologies and limited consumption.

Following Georgescu-Roegen, ecological economists have argued that industrial society inevitably leads to increased environmental pollution, energy crisis and an unsustainable growth.

After a radio debate with one of the members of the Nobel prize committee, yours truly asked why Georgescu-Roegen hadn’t got the prize. The answer was — mirabile dictu — that he “never founded a school.” Talk about nonsense! I was surprised, to say the least, and wondered if he possibly had heard of the environmental movement. Well, he had — but it was “the wrong kind of school.” Can it be stated much clearer than this what it’s all about? If you haven’t worked within the mainstream paradigm — then you are excluded a priori from being eligible for the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel!

Today we really need to re-consider how we look upon how our economy influences the environment and climate change. And we need to do it fast. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen gives us a good starting point for doing so!

[In case your French isn’t too rusty, here’s a good presentation of his thoughts from France Culture.]

Lars Pålsson Syll
Professor at Malmö University. Primary research interest - the philosophy, history and methodology of economics.

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