A Free-Market Energy Blog

Beware of the New “Limits to Growth” (and looking for ReaganVision/CarterVision)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 25, 2009

Government policies that arrest economic recovery and diminish economic growth reduce our carbon footprint. Indeed, human misery and carbon reduction are positively correlated in a growing world where consumers demand red-meat energy–oil, gas, and coal. The Malthusian wing of the Obama Administration knows this, and they might just be hoping that the recession will last long enough so that folks question their long-standing belief of economic growth. Rising expectations among the masses is the bane of interventionists and Malthusians everywhere.

So get ready for the end-of-growth mantra from the Left as time marches on and Obama’s economic recovery plan keeps the economy from recovering.They will say that government tried and failed with his stimulus plan, so now we need to adapt to a economically constrained but environmentally ‘richer’ lifestyle.  Maybe this is just what a lot of anti-capitalist environmentalists mean by “sustainability.”

But history should not be forgotten. Jimmy Carter bought into the “limits to growth,” and a new voice emerged who spoke of a new morning in America.

In the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Ronald Reagan dismissed Carter’s call to address energy shortages with “sacrifices and changes in every life.” “People who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s,” Reagan said.

But President Malthus spoke of the dangers ahead in his farewell address:

There are real and growing dangers to our simple and our most precious possessions: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land which sustains us. The rapid depletion of irreplaceable minerals, the erosion of topsoil, the destruction of beauty, the blight of pollution, the demands of increasing billions of people, all combine to create problems which are easy to observe and predict, but difficult to resolve. If we do not act, the world of the year 2000 will be much less able to sustain life than it is now.

Reagan cast an altogether different light toward the nation’s problems in his inaugural address of January 1981:

We’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We’re not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage, and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope. We have every right to dream heroic dreams.

Reagan also rejected the central planning mentality that had grown alongside energy problems and asked a question:

In this present [energy] crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

Reagan walked the talk by deregulating petroleum a week later. “Ending price [and allocation] controls is a positive first step towards a balanced energy program,” he announced, “a program free of arbitrary and counter-productive constraints, one designed to promote prudent conservation and vigorous domestic production.”

All this was quite different from pessimism and despair’s call to action. Noted one historian at the time:

The contrast with both traditional conservatism and post-Humphrey liberalism could not be more striking. Gone are the dour conservative prescriptions of austerity and self-sacrifice and returning to the past. Gone is the Carter-era pall of limited resources, complexity, and a world in which “more is not better.” Reaganism is kinetic, expansive, and endlessly (critics would say mindlessly) optimistic about the future.

[This post is taken from chapter 11, “New Light,” of my new book, Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. Citations can be found on p. 403]


  1. Andrew  

    All these ridiculous ideas about “Limits of Growth” from Malthus and the Club of Rome have been completely discredited by history, but there ghouls are always rising to haunt our economy and freedom.


  2. TokyoTom  

    human misery and carbon reduction are positively correlated in a growing world where consumers demand red-meat energy–oil, gas, and coal.

    Rob, can you actually demostrate this – with respect to the West – or is it pure polemics? Other wealthy Western societies have much lower carbon-GDP ratios – are they necessarily poorer and more miserable than us? Will we become poorer, on an actual basis (as opposed to merely growing at a lwer rate) if we move in that direction?

    Further, you have obviously missed Jerry Taylor’s careful study of climate change damage estimates in December, where Jerry notes Richard Tol’s conclusions that:
    (a) the social cost of carbon emissions is positive, that
    (b) there is so much uncertainty regarding costs that “a considerable risk premium is warranted,” and that,
    (c) consequently, “greenhouse gas emission reduction today is justified,”
    and Jerry concludes that “Given our skepticism about the underlying logic of discount rates of 1% or less, any number between $3 per ton and $24 per ton seems defensible”.

    The Malthusian wing of the Obama Administration knows this, and they might just be hoping that the recession will last long enough so that folks question their long-standing belief of economic growth.

    This MIGHT be true for some in the adminstration, but it’s hard to tell whether this is anything more than your own fevered imaginings. Can you tell us who’s in the “Malthusian wing” and provide any support for your implication that they hope for a deep/long recession that will wean Americans off of the “growth is good” idea?

    In any case, this is hardly the rhetoric of Obama, which is very much one of clean, green economic growth (which, other than the clean and green, is largely a page taken from Bush’s talking points and plans to “help” the economy).


  3. Andrew  

    Tokyo Tom, for the Malthusian wing bit, how about Holdren? It doesn’t make much sense to talk about Bush because a. This is a Free Market Energy Blog and b. Bush has conceded that he chucked his principles out the window on market freedom. The guys here down believe in “stimulus” either. Tol’s conclusions, incidentally, are based on increasingly unlikely predictions of future warming. WCR and this blog have discussed these issues. BTW, the correlation of wealth with emissions is very strong:
    And in case you haven’t noticed the un-industrialized nations that have the least emissions are pretty miserable. Just look at how much longer people are living and healthy they are and richer since before the industrial revolution. All the policies to reduce emissions will by definition unnaturally inflate energy prices. Energy is the master resource, this means prices of everything will go up. So I guess you subscribe to the Malthusian “growth is bad” philosophy, because I don’t see how you expect to get any real economic growth by debauching the currency (Marx said that would be the best way to destroy Capitalism, though) and screwing everyone.


  4. Demesure  

    A $5 to $24/t CO2 is equivalent to 5 cents/gallon tax. That’s much much less that what European and Japanese ALREADY have.
    I don’t think you can find any objective reason to trumpet that as a success in economy resilience, growth, energy independance, “climate protection”…


  5. TokyoTom  

    Andrew, how about responding to the two points I actually made, instead of a bunch of other stuff? Thoughtful people do that, rather than addressing strawmen or presumed ignorant views. (FWIW, there’s a difference between debauch and debase.)

    Demesure, have I “trumpeted” anything? However, I do think that economic growth and improved welfare go hand in hand with improvements in managing “common” resources, via institutions such as property rights; conversely, where such insitutions are lacking, resources are destructively exploited and costs shifted to others.

    I see no basis for cheering on a failure to address problems that require collective action.


  6. Andrew  

    Tom, could you point out what points in your post I did ~not~ address? I’m pretty sure I covered everything. (and AFAIK those were Marx’s exact words, so your semantic issue is with the Maestro, not me) . I admit I may have jumped the gun on judging your views and knowledge, however.


  7. TokyoTom  

    Andrew, since you asked nicely:

    – I first noted that other wealthy Western societies have lower carbon-GDP ratios, and asked Rob to clarify whether such nations are poorer and more miserable than the US, and asked him whether we will become poorer, on an actual basis (as opposed to merely growing at a lwer rate) if we move towards less GHG-intensiveness.

    – And I asked Rob to back up his warnings about a “Malthusian wing” of the Obama administration, by naming its members and providing support for his suggestion that they hope for a deep/long recession, and I noted that Obama’s rhetoric is very much one of growth and improvements in well-being.

    You didn’t address my first point at all, and the second only slightly, by suggesting Holdren but withoutt any discussion.

    BTW, I’ve addressed this a Rob’s more recent Malthusian-mongering post at my blog (click on my name above).


  8. Andrew  

    Well, as for your first point, I think its pretty obvious that energy use and standard of living are well correlated (as I tried to show, perhaps inadequately, in the graph I linked to) but you make a point on whether our growth would slow or we would actually become poorer. The answer, I think, is that it depends on how fast and how drastic of cuts we are talking about. If its going to be the kinds of cuts necessary for an impact on projected climate, it has to be rapid, draconian, and very painful (it is also worth noting that carbon/GDP ratios of different countries aren’t directly comparable because of differences in their economic structure, and that “carbon intensiveness” decreasing would only be bad if it were made to occur at an unnaturally high rate (it is, in fact, already occurring without much need for regulation).

    As for the second point, Holdren is obviously a very prominent example, but I suspect there are an extremely large number of people in the administration who subscribe to that philosophy. I can’t list them myself because I am less than intimately familiar with Obama’s anti-energy team and its members. Perhaps Rob could share who he has in mind?


  9. TokyoTom  

    Andrew, while it IS “pretty obvious that energy use and standard of living are well correlated”, that is both a cause for real concern as we look at the developing world and doesn`t really tell us much about how much our our wealth hinges on our current carbon intensity or energy intensity (which are different). Moreover, the correlation has long been well-known and lies at the heart of the recognition by developed nation (and insistence by developing ones) on “differentiated responsibilities” under the UNFCCC.

    Our carbon intensity will naturally change as we exhaust fossil fuels; the question that Rob refuses to address is whether it is worth trying to accelerate that shift.

    As to “Malthusians”, Rob doesn`t acknowledge that Obama`s rhetoric is decidedly pro-growth (though wrong-headed like the Bush administration) and, as I`ve noted on the other thread and at my blog (linked at my name), Rob`s use of this term – without actually engaging the “Malthusians” on the merits of either problems or solutions – is essentially an ad hominem and turning away from debate. His failure to name names is essentially besides the point.


  10. Andrew  

    Pro growth rhetoric, anti-growth policies?

    BTW, I do think Rob should put forth arguments why accelerating the the reduction of carbon intensity is a bad idea.


  11. rbradley  

    The key thing is that carbon intensity is determined by the marketplace. CO2 is not a pollutant, and short of government regulation, its intensity per capita or per GDP can go up or down for a particular people at a particular time.

    On the arguments that a carbon cap is bad, that has been preented by others at this blog and in my 2003 book, Climate Alarmism Reconsidered.


  12. HasItBeen4YearsYet?  

    Just couldn’t help but add my 2 cents worth…

    “I do think Rob should put forth arguments why accelerating the the reduction of carbon intensity is a bad idea.” — Andrew { 03.04.09 at 6:40 pm }

    But he did. Doing so “limits growth” thereby reducing productivity. When national health declines, so does that of a nation’s citizens.

    Does anyone have to explain to you why a blocked artery is bad? Commerce is the lifeblood of a nation. The so-called “green” energy alternatives are the nutritional equivalent of cardboard when compared to “fossil” fuels. “Going green” would be like putting America on a starvation diet, and taxing our energy would be like giving her atherosclerosis.

    That’s a recipe for national suicide, not national health.


  13. HasItBeen4YearsYet?  

    ps., that was more directed at the “royal” you, than you in particular, since you seem to know what you are talking about, …and I just wanted to express my opinion.

    But, since it’s been done so well by so many people, do you really think he should re-invent the wheel? …or perhaps just reference others who’ve already made those arguments>


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