For decades, authors grounded in ecology and environmentalism have produced excellent — and widely ignored — forecasts of the end of economic growth in the United States. It’s unsustainable, depleting resources from oil to topsoil, while filling air and water with wastes. Think CO2 and climate change, Chesapeake Bay and nutrients.
Now comes a fascinating convergence of green and mainstream thought in Robert J. Gordon’s massive Rise and Fall of American Growth. Growth is over, he says, at least in any semblance to the “boomier” days that Wall Street and our political leaders all count desperately on reviving.
The author, a respected professor at Northwestern University, is an economist — an established member of a profession that mostly sees no contradiction in the concept of infinite growth on a finite planet. Indeed, Gordon has little to say about climate change, pollution, overfishing or species extinctions. Nor does he say the end of growth is a good thing. In contrast to more ecologically minded authors. Gordon focuses more on the dramatic slowing of “total factor productivity,” which measures how much economic oomph you get from given inputs of capital and labor. Less and less, he documents.
Between 1870 and 1970, we experienced a leap in our standard of living that was, in all of humankind’s 100,000-year history, something new and unrepeatable, Gordon’s argument goes. We went from horses to cars, from kerosene lamps and outhouses to universal electrification and sanitary sewers and tap water on demand; we developed anesthesia, antibiotics and X-rays.
Economic change in more recent decades has been iPhone and YouTube dazzling, he says, but nothing like those “great inventions” that fundamentally transformed our lives and economy. And the gains have accrued to a narrower segment of Americans (think Silicon Valley).
An example: I might have argued after I bought my first Toyota Prius that it was a game changer. But it’s still a car. Compare it to this from Gordon’s “unrepeatable” century: In 1900 there were 8,000 registered automobiles in the U.S. Thirty years later there were 26.8 million. World War II and the Great Depression were also factors in marshaling economic resources for Gordon’s unrepeatable century (and who’d want repeats?).
How much common ground is there between the path Gordon follows to the death of growth and that taken by ecologically based books like Limits to Growth, the seminal 1972 publication by Donella and Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William Behrens III? Critics, who pan the book as overreaching prophecy that simply did not come true, ignore that it said the “average quality of life” would begin turning down “sometime in the 21st century.”
Both Gordon and the Limits authors target “techno-optimism” as a powerful and seductive force that makes it easy to think solutions are just around the corner, masking the realities of ecological and economic downtrends. There’s fruitful overlap, too, between green and mainstream in concerns about growing economic inequality in the United States, which is playing an unexpectedly large role in the turbulent race for the U.S. presidency.
Gordon sees continuing inequality as one of a few critical headwinds ensuring growth as usual doesn’t return. (Others include decreasing educational attainment, growing debt and an aging population.) His conventional economist’s concerns are echoed brilliantly on the green side by Herman Daly, an inventor of ecological economics, which rejects endless growth on a finite planet.
Believing in growth as the best — even only — way to solve our problems, Daly says, is comforting. It means you never have to share (This includes redistributing income from rich to poor, something Gordon advocates). It means you never have to worry about population, just trust that as people grow richer they have fewer babies. And it mean you never have to reduce consumption —just do it “greener” and “smarter.”
On the mainstream side, Gordon is preceded by historian J.R. McNeill, whose book, Something New Under the Sun, has been assigned since 2003 to Environmental Studies freshmen at Salisbury University, where I teach. McNeill takes another path to demonstrating how the last century cannot be repeated: Urban population up 13 times; energy use greater than the cumulative consumption of the previous 1,000 years; industrial output up 40-fold; more rock moved by humans than by volcanoes, glaciers and plate tectonics combined; more deaths from air pollution than from both World Wars.
The real danger is not from the unrepeatability of the extraordinary growth we’ve enjoyed in the United States and developed world. Rather, it is from nations grown powerful in their ability to impact nature continuing to thrash about this planet for ways to jump-start growth.
It’s time to stop telling people we can grow our way to a restored Bay and planet, and to explain how prosperity and quality of life can exist separate from growth. Indeed, that’s the only way they will exist for most of us. Take a look at the first meaning of “growth” in any good dictionary: “to spring up and come to maturity.”
It’s time we acted our age.
By Tom Horton
Tom Horton has written about Chesapeake Bay for more than 40 years, including eight books. He lives in Salisbury, Md., where he is also a professor of Environmental Studies at Salisbury University.