Infinite Growth Is Unsustainable

Capitalism, at least as we know it, requires infinite growth. For-profit companies have to continue to grow in size and increase their profits year after year or risk losing investment money. Many people have gotten very wealthy with this economic model and the rest of us, at least in industrialized countries, have benefited greatly as well. We have many modern conveniences and most of us are quite disconnected from the natural world in a way that would have been unimaginable to people only a few centuries ago. This is certainly good from the standpoint of making our lives easier but it’s not good when you look at the long term picture.

The problem in the long term is that an economic model of infinite growth requires the use of natural resources at increasing rates. The most obvious of these natural resources is petroleum or oil. But many other resources like water and coal are being used at increasing rates to sustain growth in population. This growth in population is fueled by the continued increase in use of natural resources. It’s a cycle of infinite growth that is simply unsustainable on a planet of finite resources.

Hardly anybody in the government or the media is talking about this problem because it’s unimaginable to most people living in modern, industrialized countries that the only way of life they’ve ever known is simply unsustainable in the long term. It’s as if people have either (a) buried their heads in the sand or (b) hope that the shit doesn’t hit the fan until they are long gone. Unfortunately neither position will stop what is inevitable. It really is up to us to realize this now and attempt to build an economic model that is sustainable. This is not possible without major changes. What is apparent is that these changes are going to happen one way or another either by choice or by force as we begin to hit the peaks of supply with regard to some of our most valued natural resources.

One thing that will change regardless of one’s ideology is the very idea of capitalism. As I said, capitalism is an economic system of infinite growth which we can acknowledge (if we aren’t delusional) is not possible on one planet with finite resources. We will need an economic model built on the idea of sustainability, not infinite growth. Our society will have to embrace an idea of collectivism and shared commons. This is fully compatible with democracy but is clearly at odds with capitalism. Some people are going to have to throw away their ideology in favor of something that is sustainable in the long term and in the real world. Some might think that human ingenuity and technology will solve all of our problems. It’s true that these things will help us transition but they cannot erase the simple fact that we only have one planet with finite resources for which to sustain human civilization. No amount of human ingenuity or technology will change that reality.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on RedditPin on PinterestShare on TumblrDigg thisShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone


#capitalism#coal#environment#finite resources#infinite growth#ingenuity#natural resources#new york stock exchange#nyse#oil#petroleum#technology#unsustainable#wall street#water

  • Johannes

    1. I completely agree w/ you and think you’re merely stating the obvious.
    2. Belief in capitalism, in particular in the U.S., is akin to a religious belief. It’s not based on any kind of rational analysis and therefore it will be very hard to tackle.
    3. At least we can still hope for one kind of growth, that of quality of a product. That kind of growth may well be sustainable but it probably won’t support the kind of growth rates we’re seeing now.

    • d.k.sutton

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. It should be obvious but it apparently isn’t to many people.
      2. You’ve hit the nail on the head.
      3. Not sure there needs to be growth as much as finding a way to have innovation and improvement in life in a sustainable way.

    • Nathan Rdrgz

      People in the US have no idea what capitalism is, and perhaps you don’t either.  It is NOT what we have in the US.

      • What we have in the U.S. is crony capitalism along with socialized risk. The capitalists are free to lobby congress for favorable tax law and legislation. In turn government allows corporations to merge and gobble up other corporations until they are too big to fail. Then when they do fail, they get bailed out by the government by tax payers (the socialized risk) while the CEOs walk away with tens of millions and executives still get their bonuses. Does that about sum it up?

  • What is capitalism, but simply letting people decide for themselves how to use scarce resources which have alternative uses.

    And no economics class I took ever assumed that growth was infinite.

  • Andy Brooks

    Michael Ejercito, it may not be assumed or even acknowledged, but common sense prevails here and no amount of academia can gloss over this fact.

  • Andy: Indeed. Natural resources are required for the production of goods. Success, in our current capitalist economic model, is measured by increased production and increased profits. Increased production means greater use of natural resources. This isn’t really even an economics discussion as much as it’s a common sense (as you said) discussion about our relationship to the environment and the one, relatively small, planet we live on.

  • bxjam85

    I agree with everything in this article except for its support of democracy and egalitarianism. 

    • There is no explicit mention of egalitarianism in this article, but are you seriously saying you have a problem with the idea that all people are considered equal?

      • bxjam85

        Perhaps I misread the intentions behind your endorsement of a commons and collectivism. Yes I am saying that there is a problem with the idea that all people are equal. For starters, what does everyone being equal even mean?

        • It means we don’t legislate or discriminate because someone is perceived as different. It means everyone gets a fair shake regardless of their background, their race, their heritage, their wealth, etc.

          As for commons and collectivism, it is the idea that we need to embrace the idea of shared resources on a planet of 7 billion people. It’s untenable to think we can continue with an ‘every man for himself’ attitude on a hot and crowded planet.

          • bxjam85

            I certainly don’t believe in an “every man for himself” attitude (individualism), but I also don’t believe in egalitarian forms of collectivism. I’m also opposed to the idea that all humans belong to one global community. That is the residue of globalist capitalism and universalist humanism. I believe in separate local or regional communities that share a common government, a common tongue, a common culture and/or common values.

            When I say that I am against egalitarianism, I mean that I am against the idea that everyone should be considered equal in fundamental worth or social status. I mean that I am against the idea that everyone should have equal political, economic and juridical rights.

            The modern idea of race really doesn’t mean anything to me. When it comes to differentiating human beings, I’m more concerned with things that have more substance, like culture, religion, language, social status, nativity, residence and citizenship.

          • We definitely don’t see eye to eye on this. I think the less boundaries the better. Boundaries create in-groups and out-groups which inevitably leads to conflict.

          • bxjam85

            In-groups are a natural outcome of social interactions between human beings because people are different. People prefer to associate with those who look, think and behave the way they do. Unless you can force all humans to look the same, think the same and behave the same, boundaries will be formed. Conflict is a part of life. Institutions (especially democratic ones) can exacerbate conflict, but conflict will always arise in some form or another.

          • And yet the world has less conflict now than it ever has. I know it doesn’t seem that way because of 24/7 instantaneous news, but humans have increasingly found ways to co-exist peacefully. If we had as much conflict now as existed when world population was measured in millions not billions (now 7 billion) we would probably have destroyed ourselves by now. Yes, conflict is a part of life, but it’s not always inevitable if we work at it.

          • bxjam85

            There are periods in history when there is less conflict and periods when there is more conflict. I see no reason to believe that there is actually less conflict today. Keep in mind that conflict is not just armed military conflict. There is ethnic conflict and class conflict within nation-states, especially non-Western nation-states. There is also religious conflict. War has been more ideological and belligerent in the last hundred years. The only reason why there is less armed conflict today than there was in 1940 is because the industrial, capitalist spirit has triumphed over the military, aristocratic spirit.

            As you make clear in this blog post, the age of oil, fossil fuels and industrial capitalism is coming to an end. The seven billion people on our planet are barely sustainable now. What do you think is going to happen when the production of the very resource that sustains this global population declines? The oil wars have just begun.

            My point is that we can reconcile differences and reduce conflict at times, but conflict will never actually cease to exist. It is essential to life and the nature of the species. As long as there are differences between human beings, there will be conflict between human beings. Does this mean that we should try to eliminate as many differences between human beings as possible?

          • Indeed, it could be seen as a contradiction, my recognition of peak oil and limits to natural resources while at the same time looking for less conflict. But why would anybody advocate conflict or at the very least resign to the idea that there will always be conflict? We can always strive to improve the world. I’m not sure I’m optimistic we will find an answer to peak oil and depletion of natural resources but I think throwing in the towel is not an option, and human history is on my side when it comes to that.

          • bxjam85

            I did not say that we should always resort to conflict or that we should never seek to resolve a conflict. I’m simply saying that conflict cannot always be resolved, thus there are times when conflict must be embraced.

            The answer to peak oil and the depletion of natural resources is the return to agrarian based civilization. Such a transition will need to happen whether we like it or not. Peak oil equals the end of industrial civilization and I see that as a good thing in the long run.

            Getting back to my original point, the development of in-groups and out-groups is a natural outcome of social interactions between human beings. People prefer to associate with people who look, think and behave the way they do. Unless you can eliminate all differences between human beings and truly make everyone the same, humans will continue to function this way. Human beings and other social species form groups so that they can compete with other groups for resources on a planet in which resources are finite. It is written in our DNA. Even when you think that you’re ridding yourself of the group conflict mentality, you’re actually not because you’re forming a social group that will compete with groups that do not agree with your views. Competition will always exist within groups and between groups. Hierarchy, authority, domination and inequality are essential to life. Hoping to get rid of these absolutes is to hope that you can change the nature of the world itself. I believe that it’s better to embrace and make best of the fundamental nature of the world we have instead of hoping for a world that is utterly impossible.

    • “Hoping to get rid of these absolutes is to hope that you can change the nature of the world itself. I believe that it’s better to embrace and make best of the fundamental nature of the world we have instead of hoping for a world that is utterly impossible.”
      I don’t think we can get rid of conflict and human nature, but we can strive to become more aware of it. The problem is that we are having a conversation about things for which most people never think about and reflect on.

  • Read the Zeitgeist book for the solution. Warning: you’ll need to be smart to comprehend it all.