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A Bibliography of Limits

More readings on the fallacy of endless economic growth.
Bombillas, 2013.

Bombillas, 2013.

In the wake of my article last month revisiting the 1972 Limits to Growth study ("The Fallacy of Endless Economic Growth"), I received a number of letters from folks interested in wider reading on the subject. There's not much to be found. Our growthist civilization doesn't countenance an end to the American Dream of having always more, and neither do publishers. As one commenter wrote: "It is difficult (thanks to normalcy bias and cognitive dissonance) for many to accept the conclusion that our way of life must come to an end, but if history has demonstrated anything it's that all societies/civilizations eventually do. It is hubris to believe otherwise ... prepare accordingly.” Nevertheless, here are a few recommendations:

  • Start with the study itself, published as a 200-page book.
  • Read economist Herman Daly's Ecological Economics for a hopeful vision of the "steady-state economy” in which the growth paradigm has been shunted aside for something saner (Daly's work was cited in the Limits report).
  • Try Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, and William Catton's Overshoot. Both of those are more than 20 years old, and thus somewhat dated, though the trends Tainter and Catton identify have only been confirmed as they accelerate and worsen. Tainter is especially important to understanding the dynamics of energy-supply (and waste-sink) limits in a techno-industrial society. His central thesis is similar to that of the Limits' study: the more we grow, the more complex our problems in dealing with growth, the more energy we need to solve the problems, the greater our social-economic complexity, the more energy we need to keep the machine running—until at last it falls apart of its own weight.
  • For a study of simplicity as an economic model, read the classic Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered, by E.F. Schumacher, who writes with wit and compassion of a "Buddhist economics" to counter the growthist paradigm.
  • The most comprehensive recent volume on the Limits study, and the book that was most helpful in my research for the article, is Kerryn Higgs' Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite PlanetHiggs, an Australian journalist, offers a sweeping view of the Limits study in the context of the almost half-century-long effort to discredit it. From the rise of the right-wing pro-business think tanks in the 1970s, to the ascension of Reaganism, to the advertising and marketing industries, to the mainstream economists hell-bent against limits to economic growth, she takes on the arguments of the growthists and does an admirable job hacking them to pieces. "The Fallacy of Endless Economic Growth" was made much better because of her work and her assistance.