Why Do We Hate Limits?

by Nelson Harvey

As I see it, the central challenge for those of us interested in creating a liveable and prosperous world is to reconcile the need for growth with its historically harmful consequences. More specifically, we need to find a way to provide the benefits of growth–material prosperity, the right to an education, and many others–without actually growing, at least not indefinitely. The problem is that at least in the U.S., the idea of limits has not historically been a part of our national mythology. In fact, it is a powerful American cultural narrative that we are a nation of industrious and increasingly productive citizens, destined to ride the wave of expansion off into the sunset.

In Break Through, a new book that has been getting a great deal of buzz lately in environmental circles, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (the authors of the controversial 2005 paper “The Death of Environmentalism,”) argue that appealing to the American people to act on global warming cannot be couched in terms of limits, but rather should emphasize Americas own glorified vision of itself , which holds that, as they put it, we are great at “imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future.” Our spark should be encouraged, not constrained.

That spark, or whatever you want to call it, keeps burning even as we argue over what do do, and it manifests itself as growth. I’ve been seeing its consequences everywhere I turn lately. Close to home, my own university, NYU, is initiating a long-term planning process to prepare for the next 20-odd years, in which its planners project it will need 6 million square feet of additional space, and will grow by abouut 5500 students. One of the school’s strategies for controlling the student population around the central campus is to double the percentage of students who study abroad by 2031, essentially externalizing the impact of their presence across national borders.

Our growth is also manifesting itself on the scale of cities. Los Angeles is currently in the throes of its driest year on record, and has grown by 3 million people since 1990 the lack of local water nothwithstanding. Encouragingly, the Metropolitan Water District is supplying the same amount of water annually that it was in the year 1990, despite the millions additional customers. As the population has grown, per-capita consumption has fallen sharply, thanks to efficiency standards that the city imposed after past droughts. But the future looks less bright. By the year 2050, California is expected to grow by 77 percent, to nearly 60 million people. Against this background of continued growth, improvements in efficiency can only work for so long.

What do these examples teach us? Neither the university nor the city are sinister creatures; they exist to provide education, basic material well being, and jobs for their members and citizens. They are simply growing to accomodate a growing population. And while we can certainly de-materalize our economies while continuing to grow, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever achieve “sustainability” without confronting the population question head on.

But how can we frame the need to stop growing in aspirational terms? How can we inspire people about the need to impose and respect limits, in the same way they are inspired to open new factories and penetrate new markets? I certainly can’t say, but I suspect Shellenberger and Nordhaus may have some advice. That’s why their book “Break Through” will be next on my reading list when it comes out October 4th.


5 thoughts on “Why Do We Hate Limits?

  1. Brock says:

    Great post, Nelson – there’s a lot of important stuff in here that you’re discussing in a novel way. I hope you continue to explore the questions you brought up… they’re one’s I’m dying to know the answer to!

  2. Michael Shellenberger says:

    Well, just me! Tomorrow we are releasing a poll on global warming you guys may want to check out. It is related to the argument we made in the book and the New Republic, mainly that concern over energy prices is stronger than concern over global warming. That creates problems for any strategy pegged on making dirty energy more expensive (“establishing a price for carbon”).


    and the TNR piece:


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