Reviews — From the March 2008 issue

Fear of Fallowing

The specter of a no-growth world

Discussed in this essay:

The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture, by Brink Lindsey. Collins. 394 pages. $26.95.

The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, by Benjamin M. Friedman. Vintage. 570 pages. $16.95 (paper).

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. Holt. 272 pages. $14 (paper).

Costco shoppers navigate with carts broad enough to seat two children side by side. The carts had better be big. They need to haul gallon jars of mayonnaise, 117-ounce cans of baked beans, 340-ounce jugs of liquid detergent, and 70-ounce boxes of breakfast cereal. The coolers advertised for summer picnics hold 266 cans. Giant warehouse stores, shelved to the ceiling with goods from all the waters and forests of the world, make no excuses for consumption. But although Costco sells its goods in large packages, there is no item here that cannot be found at a corner grocery. So why don’t I lighten up and buy a pallet of mango salsa? Because thundering all around me is the scope and scale of American economic growth. Here it is possible to see the enormous throughput of the economy—its capacity to mobilize resources and energy and turn out waste. One store manager, on the floor for fourteen years, tells me he has seen eight pallets of paper towels move out the door in a single day. At forty packages to a pallet, twelve rolls to a package, this means nearly 4,000 rolls. I can hear the sound of chain saws laying off as falling trees cut the air somewhere high in the Cascades. The question that comes to my mind whenever I catch a glimpse of aggregate consumption is always the same: How can it last?

The question is a discomforting one. Consumption is the essence of economic growth, the sustained expansion in goods and services as measured by the gross domestic product. Economists credit growth for declining rates of child mortality, widening opportunities for education, and the continuing flow of new technology that in turn powers our ever greater productivity. Many trace the beginnings of growth to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when war and revolution dismantled feudal states, opening up new social spheres in which individuals were free to pursue their private interests. Since then, growth has become intrinsic to how we understand progress. By the nineteenth century, machines that captured heat from burning coal radically magnified the scale of human labor, shattering a ceiling to accumulation that had defined agrarian societies since the domestication of wheat. In that hot glow, it became clear that increasing knowledge about the world would translate into increasing control over it. All those who felt their teeth rattle in their head as hundreds of looms shook the beams and floors of a water-powered factory, watching bolts of cloth roll out like eggs from a giant hen, walked away thinking that the human economy no longer possessed definite limits.

The earliest advocates of economic growth celebrated it as a physics of society, in which amplified production resulted in more robust consumption, causing an outward shift in wealth, investment, employment, and production—a positive feedback loop promising that most fundamental of human desires: a more durable existence. Political economists spoke an almost mystical language, claiming, in the words of Francis Amasa Walker in 1892, that “there never comes a time when more laborers will not produce larger harvests. There never comes a time when additional capital introduced into agriculture cannot secure for itself some return. Such is the condition under which the earth is cultivated by human labor, for the supply of human wants.” That wishful thought served as the blueprint of modernity, and no shortage or other crisis succeeded in rending it. For the past 250 years, the industrialized world has expanded and thrived on an escalating volume of material transferred from environments into commerce, manu- facturing, construction, and agriculture. The raw stuff of the planet made growth possible, and growth, in turn, reshaped the way people thought about themselves, their communities, and the human condition itself.

Two important works of social history argue that the economic growth of the past century has created a distinctive political culture, particularly in the United States. The more recent is The Age of Abundance, in which Brink Lindsey, a vice president of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank, peers at the past fifty years of American history through the prism of economic growth, reading its influence into housing, popular literature, religious ritual, and reality TV. Most of all, Lindsey sees abundance as having created a new cultural consensus based on a post-scarcity vision of the world. For generations, observers of society in the United States have wondered what unites us. Lindsey’s answer is boldly materialistic: we are united, he writes, by our affluence. “Across classes and religions and ethnic backgrounds, ‘enough’ proved an ever- receding horizon, and the common commitment to chase that horizon became the glue that held an increasingly pluralistic society together.” Lindsey argues that plenty has produced a new politics too, a shared libertarianism that remains unacknowledged by the major parties. To be American today, in Lindsey’s view, is to favor the widest possible margins for “economic and cultural competition.”

What about the environmentalists? Lindsey lumps them, along with most other anti-establishment critics, into what he labels the “Aquarian awakening,” a movement that has attacked mass affluence, failing to appreciate it as “a cultural achievement of the highest order.” Lindsey sympathizes with the Aquarians’ frustration, and even lauds the tolerance they introduced, but he finally interprets their rebellion as a predictable response to abundance itself and thus part of the overall narrative of its triumph. By arguing that environmentalism “came along like clockwork,” he ignores Ohio’s burning rivers, California’s oil spill, and London’s lethal smog, events that brought 20 million people (10 percent of the United States in 1970) to participate in the first Earth Day. Lindsey yields nothing to Rachel Carson, the marine biologist whose 1962 Silent Spring made environmentalism into a popular movement, calling the book “overwrought,” its supporters “zealots,” and the movement it inspired “hysteria,” even as he acknowledges the necessity of the legislation it also inspired.

The weightier book on abundance is The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, by Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, who shares little of Lindsey’s politics and none of his optimism. Friedman holds, along with Lindsey, that a basic materialism underlies tolerance and political civility, but he sees these social bonds as frighteningly tenuous. “I believe,” he writes,

that the rising intolerance and incivility and the eroding generosity and openness that have marked important aspects of American society in the recent past have been, in significant part, a consequence of the stagnation of American middle-class living standards during much of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Friedman makes a great deal of the correlation between the economy and crime, seeing an upsurge in hostility and anger among Americans—including anti-immigrant rhetoric, private militias, domestic terrorism, and waning sympathy for the poor—whenever incomes and GDP flatten out.Some of his claims on this subject seem thin. A number of the ills he cites (private militias, say, or anti-immigrant sentiment) appeared or worsened during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when GDP increased by a remarkable 3.8 percent a year. Or take murder: when the economy surged after the end of World War II, murder surged with it, climbing from 4.6 per 100,000 people in 1950 to 10.2 in 1980, and, after showing no clear trend during the booming 1980s, it declined to levels not seen since the 1960s. The economy cannot explain both the rise and the fall.

On environmentalism, Friedman’s view is more nuanced than Lindsey’s. He takes seriously the need for environmental policy, and he has absorbed some of the thinking prevalent among industrial ecologists—that greater efficiency in resource use can prolong the supply of non-renewable metals and oil, holding out the possibility that substitutes will be found. Industrial ecology also aims to reduce or eliminate pollution. Friedman rightly associates higher national living standards with lower levels of air and water pollution, but here his political economy runs into difficulty. One reason that American cities are cleaner than they used to be is that heavy manufacturing is now concentrated in countries where corporations are bound by fewer environmental restrictions. We have externalized the externalities of our consumption, calling that an improvement in our quality of life. Friedman’s claim that pollution is a transitional phase in economic development sounds almost utopian. It does not consider the problem of how to
export clean technology to countries that cannot afford it, or the narrowing time frame in which we might hold off the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost.

In the end, Friedman does acknowledge that “the environment will not simply take care of itself” and that preserving growth means investing in “the existing environment.” He seems to understand the bind he is in, observing that to raise the worldwide standard of living up to the level now prevailing in Portugal (the last country on the list of the richest thirty) would quadruple world economic output over the next fifty years. By calling this rise a “challenge,” Friedman puts a brave face on what must reasonably be described as an impossibility.

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is Senior Fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. His book The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth was published this year by Hill and Wang.

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