The story behind the reckless promotion of economic growth despite its disastrous consequences for life on the planet. The notion of ever-expanding economic growth has been promoted so relentlessly that “growth” is now entrenched as the natural objective of collective human effort. The public has been convinced that growth is the natural solution to virtually all social problems―poverty, debt, unemployment, and even the environmental degradation caused by the determined pursuit of growth. Meanwhile, warnings by scientists that we live on a finite planet that cannot sustain infinite economic expansion are ignored or even scorned. In Collision Course, Kerryn Higgs examines how society's commitment to growth has marginalized scientific findings on the limits of growth, casting them as bogus predictions of imminent doom. Higgs tells how in 1972, The Limits to Growth ―written by MIT researchers Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens III―found that unimpeded economic growth was likely to collide with the realities of a finite planet within a century. Although the book's arguments received positive responses initially, before long the dominant narrative of growth as panacea took over. Higgs explores the resistance to ideas about limits, tracing the propagandizing of “free enterprise,” the elevation of growth as the central objective of policy makers, the celebration of “the magic of the market,” and the ever-widening influence of corporate-funded think tanks―a parallel academic universe dedicated to the dissemination of neoliberal principles and to the denial of health and environmental dangers from the effects of tobacco to global warming. More than forty years after The Limits to Growth , the idea that growth is essential continues to hold sway, despite the mounting evidence of its costs―climate destabilization, pollution, intensification of gross global inequalities, and depletion of the resources on which the modern economic edifice depends.
The Australian author makes a compelling case that the consumer trajectory we have been on for the past century is both intentionally growth oriented and unsustainable. She documents the history of corporate assumption of power and influence and explores the almost certain disastrous outcome if the exponential growth in population, affluence and energy throughput continue. It is a riveting read.
I had to get this out of the library multiple times because it took SO LONG TO READ. This is the densest book I’ve read in my whole life, and probably the most complex. Lots of important information though, that I will hopefully remember 🤞
I read most of Part 1, skimmed Parts 2 and 3, and read the conclusions.
I was given this recommendation as a minor correction for some points I supposedly made in my recent piece on overpopulation regarding the Simon-Ehrlich bet and the predictions of the Club of Rome Limits to Growth model. I don't know that I feel like I made such points but anyway I expected this book to be an empirical thing evaluating the model and its predictions against the evidence of the last few decades. That is very much not the case. Collision Course is instead just exactly what it looks like: yet another iteration of the Degrowth platform, with all the foibles and annoyances I've come to expect from them. It starts with a shallow, overconfident statement of the principles of ecological economics, which are either trivially true but irrelevant or theoretically misguided. There's a libelous summary of Malthus meant to distance Degrowth from his supposedly cruel motivations. There's a short, somewhat embarrassed note about population growth, with a one-paragraph illustration of the economic gains to be had from family planning that is extraordinarily dubious econometrically. But mostly, there's a scathing discussion of neoliberal capitalism.
There's a lot here that I didn't really read. It's a relatively extensive history of neoliberal thought, institutions, and policy. A lot of it is presented less as an analysis than a kind of sneering compilation of quotes, framed to imply these ideas are malicious and bad but without getting into the real debate about why these people thought what they did and what it would mean to determine they were right or not. Which is fair, since that's kind of a big conversation that demands a more direct treatment. . . except that again, it's also kind of the whole book by volume and its main thrust argumentatively. If you're not convinced neoliberal thought is bad in the ways Higgs thinks it's bad, or you're simply ignorant but not prepared to take her word for it, most of the book is a waste of time. It isn't interested in making a convincing argument about the underlying principles, but it's also not merely a subordinate part of a larger argument.
In essence, this IS her thesis. Neoliberal capitalism is the ideology that put the foot on the gas of economic growth and cast down all barriers protecting the social and environmental realms from vicious profit-seeking extraction. She asserts that the theoretical promise of prices and incentives to conserve resources and create more sustainable tech is a lie, that it's not true that growth reduces poverty (or rather that growth is a very ineffective way to reduce poverty compared to redistribution), that consumer demand for industrial goods is driven predominately by advertising, not genuine desire, and that all of the theory that tells us otherwise is a lie meant to protect greedy ruling class robber barons from democratic regulation.
Whether she's right or wrong about that, it seems clear to me that it really has very little to do with growth. Or rather, she (and Degrowthers in general) is pulling a sleight of hand trick. The first Part is all abstract and global, entropy and I=PAT and exponential growth on finite planets. But the rest of the book is just not about the same thing. It's about something else, a particular arrangement of the economy in which large corporations use the state to protect their ability to externalize costs, and thus avoid the disincentives that should theoretically protect the environment under the market theory Higgs has so much scorn for. If something like the Cost Principle in Kevin Carson's mutualist political economy were enforced, is there any good reason to think the economy would cease to grow? This raises all sorts of questions that never come up for Higgs. What if "neoliberalism" is the problem and growth in general is not? Would addressing the problems she identifies with neoliberalism actually reduce true growth? What if it accelerated it? If this distinction can be made in the first place, where does true, underlying growth come from? It's just classic anti-capitalism, tracing all of the world's problems back to this drive to consume, grow, and dominate, without expressing the least bit of curiosity about where that drive came from or how it actually relates to the history of life and our species. It frustrates me that people don't see this, but by this point, unless it's in a really provocative form (like David Abram's version), it mostly just bores me.
For those of you who are horrified about the less positive consequences of "the free market" and are asking yourselves why the world has gotten into the current state -- this is a pretty illuminating book to read.