An Approaching Limit

As geographer Erle Ellis says in an earlier post, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of the clever human being to invent new ways to cross environmental limits. It’s not at all certain that economic growth must stop. I, for one, cannot predict the future, however, I find these words by Herman Daly, an advocate of steady-state economics, very compelling:

“The closer the economy approaches the scale of the earth….the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior of the earth.”

So clear and obvious. Especially since I don’t believe that we’ve completely mastered the biosphere, nor should we try to. Silicon Valley delusionists, self-reared on science fiction, think that we can transform everything to our needs, that all life will be supplanted and replaced by us. That’s not in principle impossible, but it’s a pretty grim prospect. Meanwhile, the problem of growth is very important for art. The short explanation is that in a zero growth economy there is by definition a finite amount of wealth, and since money cannot be created, only shared, every billionaire puts many people into poverty. I don’t care if there are no more billionaires, but I do worry about the consequence—that all economic decisions become political, meaning bureaucratic. Fair distribution of wealth is alright, but I can also glimpse the possibility that bureaucrats will decide who is permitted to be an artist, and how many resources they can have. A limited economy is a managed economy, and all sectors, including art, will be have to be equally managed. But people like Herman Daly propose a mixed situation—the macro economy is finite, smaller scales are more open, with room for enterprise and choice. Interesting that present day politics is a battle between competing futures, for the future is strongly present in abstraction.


A corner of Dharavi, a famous slum in Mumbai

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