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The Ultimate ‘Thought Crime’: The Limits to Growth

The Julian Simon/Matt Ridley School of economic optimism essentially denies the limits to growth and the possibility of human extinction because they believe that human technological capacity makes humans exceptional. But technology is applied science and it is well recognised that science in itself has limits, perhaps intrinsic limits.

by Fiona Heinrichs

Sitting above an article by Paul Howes for The Australian about alleged ‘thought crimes’ (20 June, 2011, p.14) is an article by the author of The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley, ‘Left Activists Profits of Doom’. Ridley is of the Julian L. Simon School of optimism that sees the world as getting better and the future as so bright that we’ll all need to wear shades. The Australian, especially in columns such as ‘Cut & Paste’ has pushed the line that the ABC appears intolerant of controversial views, but The Australian has its own economic correctness, that of a faith in endless economic growth.

In his book The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon claimed that the supply of natural resources was ‘infinite’ due to recycling and substitutes. Further, even though more people ‘mean higher total output, and this implies more pollution in the short run, all else being equal’ (248), in the longer term additional people will create new ways of reducing pollution. People are the ultimate resource being creative problem-solvers.

Matt Ridley carries on where Julian Simon left off. He maintains that ecological pessimism, largely advanced by the left, ‘relentlessly preaches millennial doom and technological risk’. But Ridley claims even with rapid growth in the world economy, there will be falling populations, ample food and mild climate change. All this based ‘on the trajectory of the past five decades’. But assuming that is true, in itself that is no scientific basis for supposing that such a trend will continue. Philosophers are still debating how inductive inferences are justified but many believe that the basis for predictions is some law-like relationship. Nothing like that is shown by Ridley.

He raises against the pessimists the failed predictions of the Y2K computer bug. See, it didn’t happen, and right he is. It did not happen because nations mobilised to correct the problem. If nothing was done to correct the date problem then no doubt chaos would have occurred. Rather than showing that ecological pessimism is false, his example supports the basic philosophy behind it, namely that action is needed to avert catastrophe.

Ridley does not attempt to justify his claim that there will be only ‘mild climate change’ in the future. There is considerable scientific debate about this, some of which has been mentioned in The Australian. For example, Professor Chris Field of Stanford University believes that the rate of climate change will be faster than previously predicted by the IPCC because greenhouse gas emissions have increased at a rate faster than expected and because positive feedback processes are now starting to kick in.

Higher temperatures are starting to melt the Artic permafrost which could release hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane. Methane is twenty-five times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In my online book Sleepwalking to Catastrophe (, I cite scientific papers documenting the release of methane from the permafrost, underwater. The release of only a small fraction of the methane held in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf could trigger catastrophic climate change. Already 80 percent of the deep water and over half of surface waters have methane levels eight times higher than normal sea water.

The Simon/Ridley School of economic optimism essentially denies the limits to growth and the possibility of human extinction because they believe that human technological capacity makes humans exceptional. But technology is applied science and it is well recognised that science in itself has limits, perhaps intrinsic limits. There are unsolvable problems in computing science and limitation results even in mathematical logic such as Gödel’s theorem. In physics, quantum mechanics and relativity are logically inconsistent, although the physics community hopes that String theory will ultimately solve the problem some day. In evolutionary biology it is accepted that mass extinctions, often caused by climate change have devastated life on Earth a number of times. Looked at from the perspective of the hard sciences, Ridley’s optimism simply lacks a scientific basis.

Unfortunately saying all this, that there are limits to growth in a finite world has become something of a ‘thought crime’, contrary to Ridley. This position is rarely seen in opinion pieces in Australian newspapers. Yet regardless of how inconvenient this position is, without action future generations will battle against the conditions past generations left behind. An ecological, rather than a business profit mindset requires thinking beyond commerce and money-making, and focusing upon the biological parameters that keep civilisations in existence. Our business elites seemingly have no concern beyond day-to-day profit-making. This would not matter if they did not hold such influence over both our major political parties.

What to do? Well, leadership has been demonstrated by one notable exception – Dick Smith, who champions the limits to growth argument in his new book Population Crisis. Under such guidance, this force needs to be countered by ordinary people taking action but that is easier said than done. Nevertheless we all must try. As a 23 year old generation Y female, I am determined to show my own leadership in challenging the ideology of growth. After all, it’s our future at stake.

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fiona , you need to read more
even the u.n says world population declines after 2050

First, no one knows whether human population will still be rising or will be falling by 2050. Time will tell.

What we can be sure of is that if the world presently had a smaller population then we would all be a lot better off. The proper theory relating poverty to population is well explained by Paul Colinvaux. Read his books: "Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare" and "Fates of Nations, A Biological Theory for History"

Population growth is the great spoiler for human progress.

If population is declining by 2050, then it will be for one of 2 reasons:
(1) People will have seen sense and chosen quality of life over sheer numbers of poverty-stricken primates.
(2) A crowded population will have become so constrained by poverty that they simply can't increase their numbers.

Economists are over-rated primates.