This post argues that a coalition of interests around economic and demographic growth has not only created significant inequalities across the world, but has also been the main factor driving global environmental degradation. It is demographic growth in combination with a particular form of tech-led capitalist economic growth that has been the main driver of global environmental change, of which climate change is but a small part.
Economic growth has for many decades been seen by economists and international organisations alike as the key means through which poverty can be eliminated, especially in the economically poorer countries of the world. This powerful mantra lay at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000-2015) and has more recently been central to aspirations for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015-2030). Yet, as I have frequently argued elsewhere,[i] these aspirations have never been achieved, they focus on absolute poverty rather than relative poverty, and the resultant unfettered economic growth has almost always been associated with an increase in inequalities. For those concerned with equity and who define “development” primarily as the reduction of inequalities, policies designed to increase growth alone are doomed to failure and need to be replaced.
National policies and international frameworks focused on growth primarily support the interests of those private sector companies and global corporations that have worked so assiduously to shape the UN rhetoric around economic growth and innovation. Digital tech companies have long been at the forefront of this, not only driving growth, but also reaping the benefits of so doing.[ii] Economic growth is deemed to be essential both to expand markets and also to increase labour productivity, whereby owners of the means of production can extract surplus value.
In trying to consider alternative models of socio-economic activity, I have often used the notion a “no-growth” economy as a heuristic device, encouraging audiences to consider how economic activity might be organised if growth was somehow prohibited. Although there are many potential outcomes, one of the most interesting is the thought that the pressures to achieve a reduction in inequalities might increase under such conditions, thus leading to a fairer and more equitable society. I have also found the work of the Post-Autistic Economics Network to be a helpful source of inspiration, challenging as it does many of the usually taken for granted assumptions of neo-classical (and indeed neo-liberal) economics.[iii]
Recent debates about the balance between the positive and negative impacts of demographic growth on the economy have highlighted their inextricable intertwining with the rhetorics of economic growth.[iv] On the one hand there are those who argue that ageing populations with few young and economically productive people are deeply problematic for economic growth, and that policies to encourage higher birth rates or immigration are essential to enable economic viability. Years ago, I thus well remember the French advertising campaign to encourage families to have more children, beautifully encapsulated in this postcard:
On the other, are those who point to a demographic dividend in Africa, through which increasing numbers of young people are going to drive the economy forward, fuelled especially by the potential of digital tech. See for example, this image below from Invest Africa in an article entitled How can Africa harness its demographic dividend (and note its emphasis on digital tech).
Both arguments are deeply problematic. In the African case, this naïve dream is only going to be possible if young people are well educated and jobs are available for them; it seems more likely that this will actually be a demographic millstone rather than a dividend. The “problem” of an ageing population likewise only becomes serious if systems are put in place to extend human life at high cost for long periods of time, or if labour productivity stagnates or declines.[v]
Much of the international debate concerning demographic change has been articulated around its interconnectedness with economic growth. Put simply, the interests underlying the continued drive for economic growth are frequently the same as those that advocate for population increase as being positive and that technology can continue to ensure a healthy lifestyle for a very much larger human population. Rather less interest has surprisingly been devoted to what human experiences of such changes might be. This is especially so when the twin mantras of economic growth and demographic growth are confronted by their combined impact on the environment. This is particularly evident in the reactions over the last 50 years to The Club of Rome’s 1972 report on Limits to Growth,[vi] and to the much more recent and controversial film Planet of the Humans, produced by Michael Moore in 2019.
Limits to Growth, Planet of the Humans and the legacy of Thomas Malthus
In 1972, the Club of Rome published its prescient report entitled Limits to Growth, which argued that if the then growth trends in population, industrialisation, resource use and pollution continued unchecked, then the carrying capacity of the earth would be reached some time within the following century.[vii] I remember distinctly the wake-up call that this provided for me as an undergraduate, and thinking back to those days have been fascinated by how its message seemed increasingly to be ignored in the ensuing decades. Few countries apart from China (see below) really responded to this message, although some such as India made tentative efforts to address it. I distinctly remember, for example, being in Sonua market in what was then South Bihar (now Jharkhand) in 1976 and seeing this painted slogan of two parents and two children that formed part of the government’s 20 point programme during the 21 month state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi.
India’s population was then 637.45 million; in 2023 it is 1,428.63 million. The policy was not a success.
Interestingly, 30 years after the Club of Rome report, the authors published an update, in which they concluded that “it is a sad fact that humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years in futile debates and well intentioned, but halfhearted, responses to the global ecological challenge”. This is an overly generous observation, largely because of the very specific interests that have underlain economic and demographic change in subsequent years. In essence, as noted above, the owners of the world’s major companies, supported by many economists have argued convincingly that both economic and demographic growth are essential for the future success of humanity, that the new SDGs are indeed sustainable,[viii] and that technology can continue to provide innovative solutions to the increasing problems caused by the pressure of people on the planet. I find it extraordinary to think that in my lifetime the world’s population has risen by 288% from 2.77 billion people to 8 billion people. What I find more frightening, though, is that there is nothing in the UN’s development goals really about population growth,[ix] and there was almost universal condemnation in the world’s capitalist countries when China adopted its 1 child per family policy when it was introduced in 1980.[x] Widespread criticism of the Club of Rome’s report and others who held their views was based primarily on the grounds that they were neo-Malthusian,[xi] and that the world was coping perfectly well, in large part through technological advances that were overcoming the challenges of an increasing population. Indeed, the observation that very much higher levels of population have been able to live on the planet over the last 50 years would seem to support such a view. However, this fails to recognise that very many of those people live in abject poverty and misery, and that the environmental impact of such growth has been very significant indeed. Unfortunately, much of the focus of the international community has been captured by the rhetoric around climate change, which has served to reduce emphasis on the wider environmental impact caused by the double mantra of economic and demographic growth. Climate change causes nothing; it is the factors giving rise to changes in the climate that are the ultimate cause and the real problem that needs addressing.
These issues were brought to the fore by the film Planet of the Humans produced by Michael Moore, and directed by Jeff Gibbs in 2019. This has been very widely criticised by those within the so-called environmental and green lobbies on the grounds that it was outdated and misleading, especially concerning the scientific evidence and more recent developments in renewable energy. However, many of these criticisms miss the fundamental point of the film, which was that our economic system, based on the present model of capitalist growth is fundamentally unsustainable, particularly in the context of continued demographic growth.[xii]
Many of these arguments might appear to smack of neo-Malthusianism which has been almost universally condemned from a wide range of angles, as were the criticisms of Malthus’ original works.[xiii] Engels, writing in 1844,[xiv] put it this way: technological and scientific “progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population”. Many continue to agree with Engels’ proposition, or at least hope that he was right. However, the scale of human impact on the environment today is vastly different from when Malthus first wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population at the end of the 18th century, and the world’s population is now more than twice as much as it was when Limits to Growth was first published. People are seriously talking about and investing in the colonisation of outer space to provide continued sustenance for the world; technology once again to the fore. My emphasis in this piece, though, is not so much to take issue with the many diverse arguments of those who challenge neo-Malthusianism, but rather, and much more simply, to suggest that the dominant global focus on climate alone is hugely damaging because it fails to address the wider environmental impacts of our thirst for growth.
“Climate change” has become a popular focus of concern and political protest, but as I have argued extensively elsewhere[xv] it is a deeply problematic notion conceptually, especially when abbreviated to just these two words “climate” and “change”, ignoring the words “human” and “induced”. All too often, it is used in a way that externalises it as being somehow separate from the human actions that cause weather patterns to change, while at the same time also implying that humans can somehow solve it without addressing the deeper structural problems facing the world. Likewise, all too frequently, the answer to the problem of “climate change” is naïvely deemed to be an over-simplified reduction in carbon emissions. Leaders of the digital tech sector, with their voracious appetite for growth and innovation are eager to comply with this agenda, while failing almost completely to recognise the enormous harms that they are causing to other aspects of the environment. By focusing largely on “climate change” they can feel good whilst also maintaining their life blood of economic and demographic growth that drives their creation of profit.
This is most definitely not to suggest that changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind patterns are unimportant; very far from it. But it is to argue that these are caused fundamentally by the twin mantras of economic and demographic growth that have increasingly dominated the world over the last century, rather than by some exogenous notion of climate change. More worryingly, these mantras have been fuelled still further by the unachievable and unsustainable Sustainable Development Goals that have become part of the problem rather than a solution. Contrary to much popular rhetoric, the very dramatic increases in global carbon emissions do not appear to have begun until the beginning of the 20th century, and coincide very closely with increases in world population.[xvi] Put another way, had global population not increased as dramatically as it has done over the last century, then those living here would not have been faced with the impending crisis that we now urgently need to address.
Moreover, and I would suggest more importantly, the emphasis on “climate change” has largely distracted attention from the crucial effort that must be placed on the wider environmental impacts of economic-demographic growth. Climate is but a small part of the physical environment, which includes the lithosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere, alongside the atmosphere. By focusing so heavily on climate, and ways that digital tech can be used to reduce carbon emissions, activists, academics, politicians, business leaders, civil society organisations and citizens alike are missing the bigger picture. The design and use of digital tech is causing significant environmental harms that tend to be ignored in the search for a solution to climate change.[xvii]
In conclusion: a new beginning
This post has contributed to my previous body of work by articulating five main inter-related propositions:
- There has been a coalition of interests between those advocating economic and demographic growth, largely reflecting the determinant structures of contemporary global capitalism.[xviii]
- This is archetypically reflected in the power of the digital tech sector, which has permeated the UN system.[xix]
- The dramatic impact of the digital tech sector on the wider physical environment has been largely hidden by an overwhelming global emphasis on climate change, and ways through which digital tech can reduce carbon emissions.
- It is important to understand climate change as a result and not a cause, and therefore focus on doing something about the real causes of climate change (the economic-demographic growth mantra) rather than primarily addressing carbon emissions.
- It is essential to understand changes to the climate as but a part of the much wider negative environmental impacts of the coalition of interests underlying the economic-demographic growth mantra.
Are we facing a new era of increasing mass-migration, famine, disease and warfare? Is the economic growth model that has dominated the last century going to consume itself in a falò delle vanità? Might there be less inequality and poverty in the world if there were fewer people and the wealth that was created was shared more equally? Can we imagine a beautiful physical environment that could be created out of the desolate and scourged world we are currently creating? How might digital tech be used to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised more than those of the rich and powerful? These questions are all inter-related, and we need to find answers to them before it is too late.
[i] Unwin, T. (2007) No end to poverty, Journal of Development Studies, 45(3), 929-953; see also my post in 2010 on Development as ‘economic growth’ or ‘poverty reduction’
[ii] For an overview of the role of the private sector in shaping UN tech policy see my Reflections on the Global Digital Compact (2023).
[iii] For a brief history, see http://www.paecon.net/HistoryPAE.html; see also Stiglitz, J.E. (2019) People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, Allen Lane, and Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) Globalization and its discontents, New York: W.W. Norton & Company
[iv] See for example, World Economic Forum (2022) David Sinclair explains what an ageing population means for economies around the world, which includes a range of different aruments about the impact of an ageing population.
[v] Efforts by the Digital Barons (leaders of major US digital corporations) to extend human life far beyond its present span, such as those by Zuckerberg (see CNET, 2013), Larry Page (founding Calico, an Alphabet subsidiary, in 2013), Jeff Bezos (with his investment in Altos Labs, MIT Technology Review in 2021) and Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle, investing in ageing research, see Time, 2017) to name it a few are deeply worrying, both because only the rich will be able to afford such treatments, but also because they will inevitably mean an even greater population load on the planet; Elon Musk’s reported criticism of such practices (The Independent) is about the only occasion I have ever agreed with him about something!
[vi] See also The Limits to Growth+50
[vii] See also the raft of activities undertaken by the Club of Rome in 2022 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the report, https://www.clubofrome.org/ltg50/.
[viii] Which, in case it is unclear from the thrust of my argument, most of them definitely are not.
[ix] See Population Matters, Population and the Sustainable Development Goals.
[x] The policy was reversed in 2015, and its impact remains controversial; see Wang, Z. et al. (2016) Ending an Era of Population Control in China: Was the One-Child Policy Ever Needed?, American Journal of Economics and Society.
[xi] See further below on Thomas Malthus; in essence, critics of neo-Malthusianism have suggested that these arguments were overstated and premature, and that technology would enabled very much higher population levels to be sustained.
[xii] See responses at https://planetofthehumans.com/filmmakers-responses/.
[xiii] See, for example, Saigal (1973), Wu Ta-kun (1979), Burkett (1998), Kelly (2021), Shermer (2016),
[xiv] Engels, F. (1844) Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, p. 1.
[xv] See, for example, “Climate Change” and Digital Technologies: redressing the balance of power (Part 1), Digital technologies and climate change, Part I: Climate change is not the problem; we are, Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector, Problems with the Climate Change mantra.
[xvi] See https://unwin.files.wordpress.com/2022/11/graphs-2.jpg.
[xvii] See http://desc.global which is attempting to understand the relative balance between environmental harms and benefits of digital tech.
[xviii] In essence, demographic growth has been co-opted to serve the interests of the private sector (capitalism) in seeking to overcome the tendency towards a falling rate of profit. Put simply, population must grow to provide both an expanded market and more labour to ensure economic growth.
[xix] This is taken much further in my Reflections on the Global Digital Compact (2023)