How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

November 18, 2015

In this interview, SARA HOLIDAY NELSON, a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA, who is studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s, discusses first-world-centred and Malthusian approaches and some responses to them

Gabriel Levy. Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments.[1] And first – addressing ourselves e.g. to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?

Sara Holiday Nelson. Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Photo from IC Magazine. first published on Expresate Morona Santiago

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Photo from IC Magazine. first published on Expresate Morona Santiago

rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.

Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the Read the rest of this entry »


The ideologue who tried to make environmentalism mean population control  

July 13, 2014

Review of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and our gamble over Earth’s future, by Paul Sabin (Yale University Press, 2013).

It was the Indian food crisis of the mid 1960s that turned the biologist Paul Ehrlich from a field researcher on butterflies into one of the USA’s most vocal environmentalists and population control advocates.

Ehrlich published his best-seller The Population Bomb – which warned that “mankind will

Pete Seeger/ Earth Day 1970

Pete Seeger, the folk singer, at Earth Day 1970. See “About the photo”, below.

breed itself into oblivion” and called for “radical surgery” to excise the “cancer” of population growth – in the summer of 1968.

The American elite was receptive to Ehrlich’s “grim predictions about the future”, Paul Sabin writes in The Bet. That year, violent revolt swept through American cities; the USA was mired in the Vietnam war and faced opposition to it at home; and student and worker protests swept through the rich countries and culminated in the French general strike.

Ehrlich became a media superstar, doing more than 100 public lectures and 200 radio and TV shows in 1970 alone. The Population Bomb was reprinted 22 times in three years. In the Read the rest of this entry »

Up to half of all food is wasted: agri-industry and supermarkets are culpable

January 14, 2013

Between 30% and 50% of all food produced – 1.2-2 billion tonnes/year – is wasted or lost, a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) says. It argues that the waste is caused mainly by marketing techniques in rich countries, along with poor practice and/or insufficient investment in harvesting, storage and transportation.

Wasted foodThe report, published last week, highlights the vast amounts of farmland, energy, fertilisers and water swallowed up by the production of food that is thrown away or left to rot.

In my view the report points to an important conclusion: it is the way food is produced and sold for profit, in a process controlled by agri-industrial giants and supermarkets – rather than food consumption or human population growth as such – that pushes at the earth’s natural limits.

The IME says that in poor countries, “wastage tends to occur Read the rest of this entry »

They could soon be betting on water supplies

November 11, 2012

Financial markets on which speculators can bet on the cost of clean water supplies are getting closer, STEVE DRURY writes.

Food policy commentator Frederick Kaufman has called on financial market regulators to stop the betting on water supplies before it starts, in an article in the renowned scientific weekly Nature.

“Currently, no-one is trading water futures, but it won’t take much to spark the market into life”, Kaufman warned. After the recent drought in the USA, Read the rest of this entry »

“Economic growth” and socialism don’t go together

September 2, 2012

The idea of “socialist economic growth” should be “junked” in the twenty-first century: socialism is about human happiness, not simply about more stuff. The assumption, widespread in twentieth-century socialism, that the productive forces are the basis for superceding capitalism, needs questioning carefully – and the way that the instruments of labour “enslave, exploit and impoverish” (Marx) working people should be at the centre of socialist thinking. These are points from a talk I gave last week, and the edited notes are here.

The so-called “limits to growth”, and objections to the Malthusian ideas that dominate that discussion, was the subject of the second part of the talk. There I also tried to summarise the main issues about the limits to fossil-fuel-based energy and to agriculture. GL.

Rio+20: the pitch for global commodification

July 6, 2012

Nothing even resembling binding agreements, pledges or treaties connected with the Earth’s environmental plight emerged from the Rio+20 Earth Summit – just a “declaration” from the vast bureaucracy that wasn’t even discussed, STEVE DRURY writes.

What we are left with is the idea of “green economics”, which amounts to the commodification of natural resources.

There were 45,000 people at the Summit, held on 20-22 June – the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Summit in 1992 – but they included very few Read the rest of this entry »

Scientists warn Rio+20: biodiversity loss may hit tipping points, too

June 19, 2012

A group of scientists has warned – in advance of the Earth Summit 2012 that opens in Rio de Janiero tomorrow – that biodiversity loss could accelerate and produce a “global-scale state shift” in which large numbers of species become extinct.

The prospect that biodiversity loss could move sharply and dangerously, in a manner analogous to the tipping points in global warming that climate scientists warn of, is raised by University of California biologist Anthony Read the rest of this entry »