Is Economic Growth Over?

Review of The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (as a Goodreads review)

This is a tough book to review because basically, it depends on the audience. Generally, though, I like the book and agree with the thesis. Heinberg’s book is right in all major respects, well-written, and important.

Please consider this a five-star review if you are asking yourself, “what’s all this talk about ‘peak oil’?” or if your last encounter with the idea of limits to the economy is dim memories of reading “The Limits to Growth” in the 1970’s.

On the other hand, if you regularly peruse the Peak Oil News (from ASPO-USA), the Energy Bulletin, the Oil Drum, the “The Crash Course,” or Gail Tverberg’s blog (“Our Finite World”), you will find very little that you don’t already know: two or three stars. Since I don’t know who’s going to read this review, I’m arbitrarily calling it four stars. I generally praise the book but have two specific criticisms over which I want to go into quite a bit of detail.  I also have two problems with Heinberg’s research methods and and his rebuttal of his opponents (more about this below).

I fall in the category of a fairly knowledgeable reader and have pretty much heard this already. Economic growth is over. Heinberg argues that the “Limits to Growth” theories are essentially correct after all and looks at alternatives. There are two questions of detail, but important details, which are lacking in the book: how the post-growth economy will work, and how and what we will eat in this economy. There are also some minor problems with chapters 4 and 5.  But first, here’s the two specific problems I see:

(1) A clear picture of how the post-growth economy is going to work is missing; we see themes, but it is not worked out in detail or even fully in outline. The last two chapters, chapters 6 and 7, do throw out some good ideas but this is not a comprehensive overview of the needed approaches. On the other hand, no one has really done this and it would be difficult; we really need a kind of popularization of the whole discipline of ecological economics. This book could have been that popularization, but Heinberg has focused his work just on the problem, more than the solution.

(2) Also missing is any serious mention of diet. Heinberg has told me personally that he has been a vegetarian for decades, but you can’t tell it from his writings. There are only cursory references to diet, usually along the lines of brief platitudes like “we need to cut back on our meat consumption also.” This is too bad; a critical change that we will need to make in our lifestyles as a result of the end of growth is a drastic reduction in meat consumption in the West.

I wish Heinberg would be more aggressive in his research. I’ve read a number of Richard Heinberg’s books and I think I know how he researches and writes his books. They’re all good: “The Party’s Over,” “Blackout,” “Peak Everything,” and “Powerdown” stand out. They tend to be a bit repetitive in their themes, but the themes are important and there aren’t a lot of people putting stuff in print (as opposed to blogs) about this. Heinberg, I believe, finds a thesis, and looks at how others are defending it. “This is a defensible thesis,” he says to himself, and investigates further. He looks at alternative points of view. He reaches a conclusion: “this is not just defensible, this is right, and important, too.” And then he explains it to others.

This is good, but I think before one popularizes an idea we need to make sure it is really intellectually all there. Ecological economics, as a discipline, is not fully developed. So we both want to work out the key concepts in this discipline and simultaneously popularize them. Heinberg is not interested in coming up with his own ideas; as far as I can tell, he is fully occupied with defending other people’s ideas. I think Heinberg is smarter than that and I’d like to see (in his blog or in a book or elsewhere) some of his thinking about things he doesn’t understand. Sometimes things you don’t understand turn out to be things that, well, you just don’t understand that well. But other times, the reason YOU don’t understand something is because NOBODY understands it.

Doesn’t he see a vegetarian diet as an obvious answer to the whole problem of resource shortages? He should at least address the question of diet and tell us. I don’t find the answers to questions of diet in “The Food and Farming Transition”. There has sometimes been a bias — covert, or sometimes blatant — against veganism in the energy descent community elsewhere (see my comments here). From the other side, the vegan community has also largely ignored environmental questions, with a few exceptions such as Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang of “Livestock and Climate Change” fame, Jonathan Maxson of Permavegan fame, and Dawn Moncrieffe of “A Well-Fed World.”

Heinberg is ideally positioned to lead the way here, but alas, he isn’t. I’m doing a lot of work on these issues myself, so if anyone is interested, let me know (keith “at” compassionatespirit “dot” com).

Another question of detail is how he answers objections to his thesis. There are six chapters, and chapters 4 and 5 stand out as the rebuttal. In the case of Chapter 4, it isn’t clear that there are actual opponents within the economic community to which he is responding. Chapter 4 asks, won’t substitution, efficiency, and innovation come to the rescue? Good question. But, are there any economists kaking these positions? I know that there are people like Julian Simon, and philosophers like Mark Sagoff (“Price, Principle, and the Environment”). But who are Heinberg’s opponents here? Just a question. I get the impression that this holy Trinity of “substitution, efficiency, and innovation” is just an unexamined prejudice on the part of economists, rather than any coherent attempt to refute the idea of the limits to growth.

Chapter 5 tries to refute, in advance, any attempts to say that growth has returned just on the basis of one country or other experiencing growth, or describing the slight recovery from the Great Recession as “growth.” That growth is increasing in one part of the world doesn’t mean that growth has returned — just that some economy is growing locally at someone else’s expense, while the world as a whole goes downhill. And that a huge collapse followed by a slight uptake of indicators is not “growth” is also true. But to my mind this deserves a paragraph or two. Isn’t this obvious? Well, maybe not.

In conclusion, this is a great book and you should ignore all my critical comments and read it anyway. If you’re a vegan you should read it because then you might have a clue why I am so concerned about the prospect of peak oil. If you’re already well familiar with the limits to growth thesis and regularly attend ASPO-USA conventions, you should read it because you’ll know what is being done to popularize and extend the whole thesis of an end to growth soon. And if you’re clueless, after reading this book you’ll have a clue.


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