Reality Strikes Back: A Review of Richard Heinberg’s "The End of Growth"

by Chris Stratton   |   January 10, 2012

End Of Growth Cover

If you’re worried about the recession and looking for reassurance that the world’s economies will soon be back on track and everything will return to normal, you should probably stop reading now.

But maybe you’re concerned about all the debt we’re in. Maybe you’re skeptical about how we currently measure societal progress and personal well-being. If you’re prepared to examine the hard, unsettling economic and environmental realities that await us, then may I recommend to you, brave reader, Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth

Heinberg’s overarching message is that the current economic downturn is not temporary and that, because we have now reached fundamental, unalterable ecological limits, economic growth is gone for good. In other words, the world is in for a permanent economic depression, as currently defined.

Heinberg sets up his defense of this profound assertion by first exploring the historical context of the discipline of economics, demonstrating how theories that have existed since Adam Smith’s time still influence our decision making about national debt dilemmas.

Heinberg then recounts the 2008 economic crisis in considerable detail and using a lot of jargon. After reading this section, I’m still not sure I know the difference between a mortgage-backed security and a collateralized debt obligation, but I can tell you this: people got greedy. The economy has gotten way, way, (way) too complicated. And our entire economy is now fundamentally addicted to debt and to continued, indefinite growth. Oops.

Heinberg goes on to explain that because we’re reaching peak…well…peak everything, and because economic growth relies on natural resources and the Earth’s ability to process our wastes, this growth simply can’t continue. He says that our money has come to represent claims on goods and services that just don’t exist. Through debt and “fiat” currency, the amount of money in the world just gets bigger and bigger, while the Earth’s total stock of resources remains the same. Something has to give.

Unlike previous authors, going back to Thomas Malthus, then later Dennis and Donella Meadows, Herman Daly, and more recently, Tim Jackson and Gus Speth—to all of whom Heinberg gives their due—he’s not just saying that economic growth should stop or that it will stop. He’s saying that it in fact has stopped, whether we like it or not. Discussion in the popular media aside, this is not a choice. Physical laws dictate that all living things must stop growing at some point and, our adamant resistance notwithstanding, the human species has reached that point.

But haven’t we heard before how growth will stop because we’ve run out of resources? (Think The Population Bomb.) So far, it hasn’t happened. Innovation (say the business people), substitution (say the economists), and efficiency (say the scientists) have always allowed us to overcome any resource limitations and advance along the path of progress and growth—and they will continue to do so in the future. But Heinberg says, not this time. Today, innovation mostly just involves tweaking existing technologies. And some materials fundamental to economic growth—most notably fossil fuels—simply have no substitutes. And efficiency can be used to decouple energy use from economic growth only to a certain point.

Heinberg asserts that the end of growth has profound social and economic implications for “developed” and “developing” countries alike. The argument from the rich has long been that we don’t have to be concerned about redistributing the economic pie (both among and within countries) because the pie is constantly growing; well, without growth, that argument falls apart. And remember all that “development” that developing countries were going to do? …maybe not so much. In short, Heinberg says we’ll no longer have the prospect of growth to paper over issues of inequity. The Occupy movement began after this book was published, but if Heinberg is right, it’s just the beginning of many inequity-based upheavals to come.

Great, so we’re screwed. Now what? The bad news is that we can’t keep “improving” in the ways we have traditionally defined it—primarily by consuming ever more and better stuff. The good news, say Heinberg and many others, is that maybe we don’t need growth to be better off. Maybe our measurements of well-being and progress have been flawed all along. Heinberg advocates for “redefining progress” using alternative economic metrics that, unlike GDP, are not based on how fast we make and consume stuff, but rather on how happy and healthy we are, whether or not our communities are thriving, and how much agency we have in our lives.

And what about all those fossil fuels still in the ground? Heinberg says we must use what viable reserves that remain to transition as gracefully—and quickly—as possible to a steady-state, equitable, renewably powered, bioregion-based economy. No problem, right? But here’s the thing: that’s our only choice. Anything less, and the outcomes are well nigh unthinkable. Welcome to the 21st century!

On the whole, I can’t recommend The End of Growth highly enough. Heinberg is skilled at writing about complex topics in an accessible way without dumbing them down. That said, some concepts he discusses just don’t lend themselves to simplification, so unless you’re accustomed to readings with lots of technical jargon and graphs, parts of the book (especially the chapter describing the causes of our current economic crisis) may be a bit of a slog. But skim, slog, summarize—whatever you need to do to get the gist. It’s worth it! We can’t find our way out of this mess until we have a good understanding of exactly how we got into it. 

The End of Growth is essential reading for anyone concerned about the fate of humans. If you care about what may (or may not) become of us, and how we might reasonably go about steering that prospect toward a more desirable outcome, you should study the contents of this book closely. Sharing its contents widely is crucial to our well-being and to the well-being of our progeny. 

Chris Stratton lives in Oakland, CA, and researches residential energy efficiency at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.