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The myth of unlimited growth and historians


The lithosphere, the biosphere and even the atmosphere have never been so stressed as from the 19th century to the present day. The industrial revolution, which began in the Anglo-Saxon area at the end of the 18th century, fundamentally changed the way of life of men. First located in Europe and by the scale that this new phenomenon will take, all coupled with political and economic reasons, it is soon the whole planet that is affected. In this context, new ideologies are taking shape. On the one hand Marxism, on the other liberalism which soon gives birth to capitalism. The twentieth century accelerates this change. The two great world conflicts are changing the face of the world.

At the end of the Second World War, the Anglo-Saxon space managed to impose its way of life and a dominant ideology serving its interests. Capitalism is king, economic borders are demolished, free trade stirs up currencies and drives consumption without worrying about the long-term effects. In this new context, many voices are rising and sounding the alarm bells. The environment - more broadly - also finds its historians. Thus, since the 1970s, we have seen the emergence of a critique of growth, increasingly supported by historical and scientific research. This is what we will try to see here.

Back to the future

Between 1945 and 1973, unprecedented economic growth occurred. In 1979, Jean Fourastié coined the term “Trente Glorieuses” to designate this period. Both euphoric and proud of itself, the West is experiencing a period of economic "prosperity", hitherto unknown. Consumption follows an upward trend throughout the period. The myth of unlimited growth then seems to be built with the help of consumer credit and through “cultural” propaganda. Advertising, already developed before the war, encouraged new ways of life. The planned obsolescence of consumer goods maintains a productivist system which, in order to function, has a growing need for raw materials. The energies accumulate little by little. Indeed, oil does not replace old energies like coal, contrary to the myth. All the factories are running at full speed. In 1971, however, the first oil shock broke out. What should have functioned as a serious alert leading to a change of course is in reality a "simple" test to be overcome at all costs. The “Trente Glorieuses” then seem to dissipate in a cloud of filthy smoke. However, from the 1970s onwards, many scientists, intellectuals and others warned against the dangers of this society where massive consumption was set up as a model to follow, implying unlimited growth. Of course, the whole model of Western society is being called into question. This will be the subject of our first part. We will first see the scenarios proposed by the Club of Rome in 1972 through Dennis Meadwos, then we will focus on a more political aspect, where alternatives are formulated. In a second moment, we will be interested in the beginning of the 21st century by evoking, initially, the various elements which have arisen which make it possible to confirm the scenarios of 1972. Subsequently, a local case will be evoked through the case of the dam de Sivens and its symbolic meaning. To finish, in a third and final part, we will attempt to summarize some analyzes of environmental and political specialists. The effects of growth on the environment will be tackled first and lastly, to focus on the political dead ends that prevent the criticism of unlimited growth from being placed within society.

Challenging the Western model

The critique of unlimited growth cannot be understood without the rapid, and therefore necessarily incomplete, contextualization that we have tried to provide in the introduction. This is a global phenomenon, which implies taking into consideration many other fields such as social history, the history of mentalities, the history of economics but also of the so-called "hard" sciences, in order to '' grasp the causes and consequences. It is also necessary to know how to distinguish between the things between the myth and the reality which slip into this very ideological construction which is the infinite. This is what many scientists, historians, political scientists have tried to do since the 1970s. Unlimited, infinite, eternal growth quickly became a delusion. A beautiful myth that was going to crash against limits which were much more real. As we will see, criticisms will come from people from different backgrounds but who agree on the observation they make.

The Warnings of the Club of Rome (1972)

First, let's take a look at Dennis Meadows' warnings, formulated as early as 1972 [1]. A scientist and professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire, he was also a member of the Club of Rome from 1970 to 1972 for which he participated in the writing of a report on the limits of growth. Meadows then identifies five main trends: acceleration of industrialization; rapid population growth; the spread of malnutrition; depletion of non-renewable resources; deterioration of the environment. If these trends were to persist over time, the limits of growth would be reached in the next century, with the main consequences of a sudden and uncontrollable decline in demography and industrialization. This is explained by equations that are both logical and scientifically based. Indeed, an increase in population causes an increase in production, and therefore capital. In fact, the need for resources is increasing and, indeed, so is pollution. This vicious circle is self-sustaining. The effects of this unlimited growth, which affects all sectors, are being felt strongly in the environment. Indeed, the massive production of consumer goods causes the release of large pollutants such as lead, mercury, asbestos, radioisotopes or pesticides. Dennis Meadows then chooses two scenarios that are likely to materialize if these trends are confirmed: that of overtaking and that of collapse. The increase in capital requires an increasing supply of resources. In fact, if the quantity of reserves decreases, their prices increase. Thus, the scarcity of raw materials leads to an increase in the cost of their extraction. All of this obviously harms future investments. This "mathematical" observation comes to dismantle the idea that unlimited growth, within the framework that it has chosen, is possible. Unfortunately, the Meadows report did not have a significant impact in the field of political power. Others will sound the alarm by using another discourse.

The alternatives

Meadows' observation was already overwhelming. However, he believed in the ingenuity of human beings who, in order to remedy these problems, could resort to technological processes that would allow them to change course. However, too much faith in technology could deflect real-world problems as well. The solution certainly lay in the careful use of technology, combined with major political decisions. Some, at the same time as Dennis Meadows, will criticize unlimited growth on a more political and ideological ground. For the philosopher André Gorz, the ecological struggle is not an end in itself but a stage. For him, the capitalist model is harmful to human societies on several points. The faith placed in productivism is in fact harmful to people and their environment. André Gorz takes the example of the Rhine Valley, where the productivist race of competing chemical companies has caused a considerable increase in pollution [2]. Faced with this alarming situation, structures are being put in place using pollution control means accompanied by so-called "optimal" specifications for the environment. A.Gorz shows that in reality these standards, supposed to protect the environment from an excessive emission of pollutants, are in fact written by technocrats who manage to maintain their profits and growth. Subsequently, André Gorz ventured into more socio-economic terrain. According to him, to be maintained, economic growth needs to maintain inequalities. Indeed, as soon as the mass can access the goods of the elite, they are immediately devalued in order to recreate new needs. Unlimited growth then appears as a future promise aimed at improving one's own condition. This whole system, which benefits a tiny minority, therefore has every interest in mass production of goods with a limited or even programmed lifespan. Growth then appears to be fundamentally contrary to human interests. André Gorz militates for a takeover by the political power of the means of production (producing sustainable products for example). More deeply, it invites a serious questioning of the societal model of the West. Unlimited growth then appears as an illusion which, in order to exist, needs to create myths while secretly exploiting the men it fools.

The 21st century: growth at all costs?

Everything that we have just mentioned in the first part comes from texts from the 1970s. Today, with almost forty years of hindsight, what has happened? Did those who made forecasts in the 1970s qualify their analyzes? As we will see, the worst scenarios seem to be confirmed. For this we will first see the constant of failures at the beginning of the twenty-first century which gives reason to the scenario of the collapse established in 1972. Secondly, we will focus on a more precise example which illustrates the background of on this subject, the Sivens dam.

The Club of Rome, forty years later

Forty years after the Club of Rome report, we find Dennis Meadows who, on the occasion of the expanded reissue of one of his works [3] in 2012, granted several interviews in various media [4]. In all these interviews, the scientist admits his disenchantment. He uses a rather telling metaphor by taking the example of a car being thrown at full speed against a wall. If in the 1970s we could still apply the brake, now it is no longer useful. This time, the car is no longer aiming at the wall but has thrown itself from the top of a steep cliff. Braking is no longer useful ... Meadows denounces the ineffectiveness of major international summits like the recent "Rio + 20 [5]". For him, these major conferences (Stockholm in 1972, Copenhagen in 2009, Rio in 2012) came to nothing. Each country goes there to defend its own economic interests. As long as the problem of the perpetual search for growth and the limitation of the exploitation of resources are not taken into account, the debates will be doomed to end in an impasse. So-called “alternative” solutions such as the green economy are in reality in the hands of those who want to take advantage of this new sector. Ecological concerns are, according to Dennis Meadows, only pretexts to get rich. Forty years after Stop Growth ?, the scientist is much less optimistic. If in 1972, 85% of the biosphere's capacities were mobilized per year, in 2012 this figure reached 150%, hence an inevitable decline. The absence of a real debate around demography is totally harmful. Large-scale policies should be put in place that lead to long-term rather than short-term thinking. The scenario of the collapse established in 1972 seems to be confirmed. The discussions around growth and its real effects on the world are not even addressed.

"The Sivens affair": symbol of a dead end

As we have just seen, this contemporary belief - which for some is becoming fanaticism - in unlimited growth inevitably leads to major problems that men will have to face in the near future. Also in the 1970s, André Gorz already underlined the perverse effects of such a model on society. Once again, time seems to prove the philosopher right. In France, the recent events of the Sivens dam come to illustrate in a rather tragic way the harmful effects which result from a political will supporting blind growth. From a simple "news item", the death of Rémi Fraisse quickly became the symbol of this cold and impassive machine which crushes men to impose its domination. The day after his death, many associations or intellectuals took the floor to denounce the too great faith devolved in endless growth and the devastation both human, ecological and economic it causes. In a leaflet distributed in November 2014, the M.A.R.C.U.S.E group denounces the complicity of the State which, by supporting capitalism, has caused human tragedies. Written under the influence of emotion - how not to be? - the leaflet highlights the “murder” of Rémi Fraisse (the stage fright displays: KILL FOR GROWTH). This idea will not be retained here. However, we feel the profound human upheaval. In an article published in Le Monde, Edgard Morin compares the opponents of the dam to Asterix defending his village against the advance of the Empire. Here, the Empire is transformed into a bulldozing machine thirsty for profit. The sociologist shows how industrial agriculture with its pesticides destroys the ecosystem. Beyond that, it is a whole past on a human scale that is soiled, all future hopes that are denied. By the scale of the means that the government has put in place, the Sivens dam affair has become the symbol of a war of civilization. The symbol of those who believe in unlimited growth ignoring men in the face of those who place human beings and the environment before economic interests. The bulldozer named growth wants to shape the world physically and morally in order to fuel its reservoir. But, through the case of Sivens, in addition to the material limits, it is the human limits which seem reached.

Criticisms and analyzes of the scientific world

After having evoked the 1970s and the beginning of the twenty-first century by summarizing the thoughts of scientists, philosophers, sociologists and activists, it is now appropriate in this last part to discuss the medium-term assessments that scientists and historians. Indeed, we return here to what we tried to highlight in the introduction. Namely that the “unlimited growth” of the Trente Glorieuses produced many effects on our environment and our ways of thinking. We will first come back to the environmental effects and then, to conclude, to the political consequences.

The effects of unrestricted growth

In a book published in 2013 [6], historians Christophe Bonneuil and Stéphane Frioux attempt to assess the environmental and health footprint of the “Trente Glorieuses [7]”. They assume that physical, biological or cultural phenomena have been put aside for too long. The point of view adopted is global and extends from the lithosphere to the atmosphere through the biosphere. The investigation to be carried out is not simple because the statistics available seem rather opaque. The framework chosen is that of France. We notice that between 1950 and 1972, industrial production quadrupled, the population was not far from doubling and the urbanized space grew until it reached 123m2 per inhabitant. The booming sectors are those of petroleum, chemicals, electricity, concrete, asbestos or the automobile, in short, anything that has a major impact on the environment and health. Over the period from 1962 to 1973, the production of PVC grew by 393%, that of plastics by 425%. Such rates require massive use of oil. All this is not without effects on man. If life expectancy rose from 67 years to 77 years for women in 1976 born around 1900, it should be noted that those born during the post-war boom see their life expectancy in good health reduced considerably. This is partly due to the intensive use of materials such as asbestos or silicosis which caused sudden deaths [8]. From 50 deaths / year due to asbestos in 1950, it rose to 750 in 1996 [9]. This mass consumer society, which has set itself the goal of endless growth, is dumping more and more waste into nature [10]. This generates unprecedented pollution that affects all environments. In 1950, 50 tonnes of nitrogen were released into the Seine in Paris. In 1980, it was 125 tonnes. Between 1970 and 1972, 15 kilograms of mercury were released daily into Lake Geneva. Dust emissions fell from 740,000 tonnes in 1960 to 1,233,000 tonnes in 1970. Light rains push lead back into the soil [11]. The atmosphere is also polluted by radioisotopes caused by nuclear tests and by chlorofluocarbons contained in aerosols [12]. In the end, periods of growth like those of the Trente Glorieuses are disastrous for the environment and for people. The ecological balance is catastrophic.

A political impasse?

Faced with such disturbances, one might expect that the public authorities would be alerted by such gloomy balance sheets. This does not appear to be the case at all. Rather than finding new means of production, "decision-makers" certainly take into account the limits of the planet, but in order to push them to the limit. Policies are in place to reduce energy consumption in industry. Between 1959 and 1973, this consumption even fell by 10%. However, the new production methods are more polluting insofar as energies with a heavier ecological footprint are used. Sectors like agriculture, on the other hand, consume more than before 1950. Production costs then increase and unemployment increases sharply. The political and social effects of the Thirty Glorious Years are being severely felt in Western countries. From an international point of view, it becomes complicated for the countries which have favored growth to impose at present standards on the so-called “emerging” countries which want to enrich themselves by any means. To take an example, China faces this problem in two ways. As the workshop of the world, it undergoes a deportation of carbon taxes [13] from the West which, at the same time, tries to reduce its emissions. The problem therefore arises on a planetary scale. On the other hand, after the war the welfare states counted on “wage earning for all”, the promotion of the middle classes or even the establishment of a fair way of life. This way of life assumed strong growth. As soon as it is forced to stop as we notice today, the whole model collapses. The West finds itself caught between the emerging countries that reject interference and its own failure. The myth of unlimited growth does not stand up in the face of analyzes and balance sheets.

To conclude, several points should be recalled. The criticism of unlimited growth was formulated very early on by scientists, philosophers and specialists in the question who, as early as the 1970s, strove to demonstrate that such a model of society was not viable. Almost forty years later, those who take stock can only approve of the scenarios established by their predecessors. The problems facing the world today are of rare complexity. The West is forced to accept that the model it has chosen is an ecological, economic and therefore human aberration. Without it, some like Dennis Meadows think collapse is inevitable, that the West is doomed to disappear as we know it. The recent events of Sivens are an illustration of what is likely to spread on much larger scales. A victim of unrestrained and unthinking growth, the environment is also damaged. More than sick, he is dying. The real problem today is to know which of man or of the environment will give in first to the repeated assaults that are brought to them? Because the impasse in which the world finds itself seems inevitable. Of course, the human spirit gives hope for collective consideration of the serious problems with which we are all confronted. However, the tiny minority who own the wealth [14], and therefore power, have no interest in seeing things change. Now, what to do ? By studying the subject, we quickly realize that criticism of unlimited growth rarely leads to real large-scale proposals. Only a collective and international work of reflection that would bring together scientific, intellectual, political and industrial experts could achieve anything. This would of course suppose that all the actors in the discussion are attentive to human and ecological problems. In short, a project that seems quite utopian ...

In addition, we can reread and meditate on the words of Pliny the Elder:

“The earth is the only part of nature we are ungrateful to. How much luxury does not abuse it! to what outrages is she not subjected! It is piled up in the seas; it is started to open the passage to the waves. Water, iron, fire, wood, stone, cereals, everything is for her, at all times, a cause of torment, and much more to serve our pleasures than our food. It will perhaps be said that the sufferings which she endures on her surface, and, so to speak, on her skin, are tolerable; but we penetrate into its womb; we excavate the veins of gold and silver, the mines of copper and lead, and we even go there to look for precious stones and some small pebbles, by means of deep excavations. We tear out his entrails, so that a finger carries the jewel he is going to seek. How many hands are worn out making a single phalanx shine! If there were hells, the underground passages dug by greed and luxury would have uncovered them long ago. And we are astonished that the earth has given birth to some harmful productions! "

[Pliny the Elder, Natural History, II. 157-158]


[1] Dennis MEADOWS, Stop growth ?, Paris, Fayard

[2] André GORZ, “Their ecology and ours”, Modern Times, March 1974

[3] Dennis MEADOWS, Donella MEADOWS and Jorgen RANDERS, The Limits of Growth, Rue de l'Echiquier, 2012

[4] Dennis MEADOWS, "The scenario of collapse wins", Liberation, June 15, 2012

[5] June 20-22, 2012

[6] Christophe BONNEUIL, Céline PESSIS, Sezin TOPCU (dir.), Another story of the “Trente glorieuses”. Modernization, disputes and pollution in post-war France, La Découverte, 2013

[7] “The Thirty Ravageuses? The environmental and health impact of decades of high growth ”, Another story of the“ Thirty glorious years ”. Modernization, disputes and pollution in post-war France

[8] 75,000 between 1960 and 1987 for silicosis

[9] Nearly 100,000 by 2025 according to statistics

[10] 12 megatonnes in 1972

[11] 0.1 mg / L of lead in the Seine near Tancarville

[12] 1 million aerosols sold in 1954; 430 million in 1974

[13] “Why don't we take the collapse scenario seriously? », La grande table, France Culture, June 26, 2012

[14] The wealthiest 1% hold half of the world's wealth: http://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2015/01/19/les-1-les-plus-riches-possederont-bientot -the-half-of-the-world's-wealth_4558585_3234.html


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