Climate & Social Justice

Countless Withdrawals of Natural Capital Likely to Bankrupt Human Well-Being

The relationship between environmental limits and economic growth has been debated for decades. Predictions of catastrophe have actually come to fruition, just not on a financial scale large enough for those in power to care. But in this era of climate change is technology and human ingenuity enough to avoid an environmental collapse that impacts everyone?


Infinite growth in the smallest state in the union on a planet with finite resources seems impossible, and most certainly destructive, but many of the reports Rhode Island has commissioned to address climate change and environmental protections consider economic growth a part of the solution, or at least the end reward.

But is limitless expansion really doable in Little Rhody, or on the fifth-largest planet in the solar system? It depends on whom you ask.

Debate about the relationship between environmental limits and economic growth has been raging since at least the first Earth Day. For the past five decades, environmentalists and economists have been debating with each other and among themselves as to whether increases in production and consumption can be sustained perpetually or whether humankind is bound for a static state of income, labor, and capital, or worse environmental collapse.

In 1970, the same year an estimated 20 million people nationwide attended inaugural Earth Day events at tens of thousands of sites across the country to demonstrate support for environmental protections, a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began working on a book, The Limits to Growth, issued as a paperback by a little-known publisher two years later.

The researchers spent those two years getting to know a mainframe computer, entering data into a system dynamics model called World3 with its 150 equations. It was the first large-scale effort to grasp the implications of infinite growth. The book’s message was straightforward: If humans propagate, spread, build, consume, and pollute beyond Earth’s limits, there will be problems.

The debate surrounding environmental limits and economic growth has largely come to settle on three views: technological advancement and human ingenuity can support infinite economic growth; growth can continue but environmental limits will exert a drag; and environmental limitations will, or at least could, eventually bring growth to a halt.

Economist Julian Simon and futurist Herman Kahn believed environmental factors posed no limitation to economic growth, arguing until their deaths in the late 20th century that dreary declarations about natural resource depletion and environment degradation were baseless.

Economic growth through technological advances and shifts in behavior, they and other economists claim, will eventually heal environmental degradation and lift any constraints on growth. They concede the environmental impacts of growth can harm human well-being in the short term — e.g., pollution — but believe environmental limitations shouldn’t concern humankind in the long term.

Robert Solow was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to theories of economic growth. In the 1950s, he developed a mathematical model illustrating how various factors can contribute to sustained national economic growth. Since the 1960s, Solow’s research has helped persuade governments to channel money into technological research and development to spur economic growth.

But the sustainability of growth has largely been ignored, or worse disparaged.

In a 1992 paper titled “Economic Growth and the Environment: Whose Growth? Whose Environment?” the late Wilfred Beckerman called the concept of sustainable growth “either morally indefensible or totally nonoperational.”

“The widespread clamor for immediate draconian action to reduce the danger of global warming is an unjustifiable diversion of attention from the far more serious environmental problems facing developing countries,” the economist wrote. “Resource constraints do not constitute limits to growth, and the likely economic damage done by climate change would be a negligible proportion of world output. The loss of welfare of the population in developing countries today as a result of inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation, or of urban air pollution, is far greater, and should be given priority.”

Beckerman also wrote that “there is clear evidence that, although economic growth usually leads to environmental degradation in the early stages of the process, in the end the best — and probably the only — way to attain a decent environment in most countries is to become rich.”

Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist, took that pro-consumption optimism to another level, charging in his 2001 book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” that nature’s bounty is becoming more abundant.

Another theory is that environmental limitations will at least impede economic growth. This drag is caused by natural resource limitations and the various negative impacts of pollution on public health.

A 1992 paper titled “The Limits to Growth Revisited” by William Nordhaus, a professor of economics at Yale University, and a 1999 paper titled “Environmental Drag: Evidence from Norway” attempted to estimate the historical extent of environmental drag.

Another view is that environmental limitations are significant enough to prevent sustained growth in consumption and production. This perspective has its origins in the writings of early economists, such as Thomas Robert Malthus (1798), who predicted the power of population is indefinitely greater than the earth’s power to produce subsistence, and John Stuart Mill (1848), who argued the economy would eventually reach a stationary state.

Twentieth-century proponents of this viewpoint included John Hicks, John Maynard Keynes, and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. This perspective, however, gradually became associated with anti-business sentiment.

A decade after The Limits to Growth was published, President Ronald Reagan was citing the popular book in speeches, but only to mock it. “Perhaps you remember a report published a few years back called The Limits to Growth,” he said at the University of South Carolina in 1983. There are “no such things as limits to growth,” he declared to those in the audience.

There are consequences, however.

Kevin Budris, senior counsel and program director for Just Zero, noted many people in the United States and around the world are already living in environments degraded for profit.

“For those forced to live near fossil fuel refineries and forced to live near plastic production facilities, the environment already has collapsed,” the Providence resident said. “Those folks, which in this country are predominantly people of color and people of lower income, have been forced to live in environments for decades where they’re subjected to a constant onslaught of toxics in their air, in their water, in their day-to-day lives. These unsustainable systems of overproduction, of forced consumption, of overreliance on plastics are already subjecting folks throughout the country and throughout the world to the type of environmental collapse that the rest of us are trying to avoid.”

Extracting many of the resources humankind has deemed valuable from the natural world harms the environment and public health. (istock)

Resource fears

ecoRI News recently spoke with three local economists for this story: Edinaldo Tebaldi, professor of economics at Bryant University; Christopher Limnios, associated professor of economics at Providence College; and Suchandra Basu, associate professor of economics at Rhode Island College. They all believe continued economic growth is possible. Two of the three noted predictions of resource extinction have, at least so far, not materialized.

Tebaldi said fears about the end of oil have been around since the 1930s. Limnios said concerns about running out of precious metals and minerals have been percolating since the ’60s. They noted there is plenty of food to feed the human population — the problem is much is wasted while millions go hungry.

“To me, the biggest risk to humankind is lack of economic development. That’s what creates chaos,” Tebaldi said. “We have to take steps to protect the environment; we need policies, we need government regulation, and we need intervention in places in which businesses by themselves do not make the right decisions. But we don’t need to say that we have to stop growing to preserve the environment. That’s the wrong message.”

If endless growth is indeed possible, it will depend on what future growth looks like and how it is produced, according to environmentalists and climate advocates such as Budris and Jed Thorp, state director for Clean Water Action Rhode Island.

Thorp believes economic growth is possible if done in a way Beckerman called “morally indefensible.” For that to materialize, he indicated a number of things would need to happen. So far, he said, initiatives that could make continued economic growth sustainable are not happening on a large enough scale, if at all. Resource extraction remains the economic bedrock.

“The endless production of stuff is the major component of economic growth and it’s not sustainable, especially in the climate crisis we’re in right now,” Thorp said. “The consumption of land and resources can’t continue at this pace. The trajectory we’re on is nowhere near putting us on a path to sustainability.”

Basu believes infinite growth is possible, but only if “we recognize the physical limits to our natural resources.” The India native also noted the importance of vastly reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and embracing “greener energy and a greener way of living.” She also said taxing activities that damage the environment and adversely impact public health is a tool that needs to be better utilized.

Herman Daly, who served as a senior economist at the World Bank and was a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, was known as the father of ecological economics and was a leading architect of sustainable development. He spent five decades studying infinite growth, concluding that prioritizing growth is ultimately a losing game. One of his key principles was that growth is uneconomic when its costs outweigh its benefits.

Daly, the author of 17 books who died in October at the age of 84, developed arguments in favor of a steady state economy — one that relinquishes the insatiable and environmentally destructive hunger for endless growth, recognizes the physical limitations of this blue sphere, and seeks a sustainable economic and ecological equilibrium.

“Consider this: What limits the annual fish catch — fishing boats (capital) or remaining fish in the sea (natural resources)? Clearly the latter,” he wrote in 2012. “What limits barrels of crude oil extracted — drilling rigs and pumps (capital), or remaining accessible deposits of petroleum — or capacity of the atmosphere to absorb the CO2 from burning petroleum (both natural resources)? What limits the production of cut timber — number of chain saws and lumber mills, or standing forests and their rate of growth? What limits irrigated agriculture — pumps and sprinklers, or aquifer recharge rates and river flow volumes? That should be enough to at least suggest that we live in a natural resource-constrained world, not a capital-constrained world.”

Much of the machinery used to power economic growth doesn’t mesh well with the natural world. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Gross production

References to economic growth typically refer to the rate of change in gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders. It’s typically calculated on an annual basis.

For the two-plus centuries since Malthus’ prediction, many economists have argued the English scholar didn’t account for technological advancements that would allow humans to keep ahead of their rising numbers.

For example, advances in seed breeding, chemical fertilizers that replenish depleted soils, man-made poisons to kill pests, irrigation, and mechanization have allowed humankind to feed most of its growing numbers. But hardly all.

More than 34 million people, including 9 million children, in the United States suffered from food insecurity in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. World hunger is on the rise, affecting nearly 10% of the human population, according to Action Against Hunger. From 2019 to 2022, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 150 million.

The advances in technology that allow humans to feed most of our 8 billion and counting mouths come with trade-offs. The fossil fuels that power balers, combines, seeders, threshers, and tractors pollute the air and reinforce global warming. Stormwater runoff carrying agricultural fertilizers that contain nitrogen and phosphorus pollute waterways and degrade the environment. The pesticides and herbicides sprayed on crops kill pests and many beneficial insects, such as pollinators. (Ninety-seven percent of insects are beneficial to humans and to the environment, but more than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered.)

Many of the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals used in modern agriculture and the petroleum products burned to make the machinery run have been linked to human health impacts, including cancer. Nitrates from farm runoff contaminate drinking water.

Malthus also didn’t plan on advances in public health, family planning, and contraception that would result in declines in fertility rates. But does that mean his predictions were wrong, or just delayed?

Food takes up more space in U.S. landfills than anything else, as the United States discards more food than any other country. (istock)

Jarring advancement

How much exploitation can the Earth take? How many human mouths can it feed? Humankind has been burning fossil fuels fervently for more than two centuries, filling the atmosphere with climate-altering greenhouse gases. We have learned to blast and dig deeper for minerals and fish the oceans with mile-long nets and habitat-destroying gear. We clear-cut forests with ever-more-powerful equipment, strip rainforests bare, and asphalt over chunks of green space at an alarming rate. We have diverted rivers with dams.

Humankind relentlessly converts the planet’s rich — and many would argue diminishing — stores of natural capital into GDP. But isn’t much of what we call economic growth really just the running down of natural capital?

One way to lessen human demand for natural capital, according to Bryant’s Tebaldi, is to focus our consumption on what we need rather than what we want.

“That means we cut back from consuming for the sake of consuming and then focus on what we need as a society,” he said. “The thought is, well, if we pull back and focus on what we need, we could do pretty well. We wouldn’t have to sacrifice anything related to the environment. That’s kind of the way I think.”

The Brazil native also noted some economists, like himself, believe growth is essential.

“So people are saying that if the economy grows, we’re going to damage the environment, and we won’t be able to protect it. And that’s going to be detrimental to society. Well, the other view is, actually we need to grow,” Tebaldi said. “At the beginning of the development phase, or development process, pollution goes up, and we damage the environment. But as income grows over time, people become more mindful of the needs to protect the future, to protect natural resources.”

Tebaldi noted there is ample evidence that shows when the economy grows environmental protections increase.

“Most of the developing countries right now are going through more economic growth, which does have some negative effects on natural resources,” he said. “If you go to Brazil and the Amazon, there is deforestation there, so that has negative impacts on natural resources and on the environment. But again, as income grows, and we look, for instance, at European countries where they have completed that cycle, they are no longer developing economies, they are now rich economies, so consumers and governments are more willing to take steps and legislate regulations to protect natural resources. And those economies are still growing.”

Providence College’s Limnios said there are trade-offs when it comes to balancing economic growth and environmental protections.

“If you choke the economy out too much, you’re impacting generations in the future,” he said. “But at the same time, if you underestimate environmental impact, you’re literally choking the future.”

The denial of scientific evidence, the mass exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor by corporations, government inertia, moneyed special interests, the careful cultivation of a throwaway society, and indifference to the global aristocracy — the same issues that created and now fuel the climate crisis — make getting on a path toward sustainable growth difficult.

“One look at waste in the U.S. really reveals that the growth model that’s forced on us by major corporations is unsustainable,” said Budris of Just Zero, the Massachusetts-based organization working to implement equitable solutions to climate-damaging and toxic production, consumption, and waste disposal practices.

The former Conservation Law Foundation staff attorney noted the amount of needless waste produced by the U.S. food system.

“Our problems with food waste are really illustrative,” he said. “Forty percent of the food that we make in the U.S. is wasted every year. Producing all of that food that ends up just going to waste is energy intensive, it’s resource intensive. The production system itself depletes water resources and can damage the climate, especially when we account for transporting all of that food, a large portion of which goes to waste.”

Food takes up more space in U.S. landfills than anything else, according the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In fact, the federal agency says the United States discards more food than any other country — nearly 40 million tons (80 billion pounds) every year, most of which is sent to landfills and incinerators.

“And yet, major grocery chains, food suppliers, they all build that waste into their business models,” Budris said. “So they don’t have any incentives to reduce that food waste, because they’re still making money hand over fist, they’re still growing in an intensely unsustainable way.”

About 30% of food in U.S. supermarkets is thrown away, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Globally, humans waste about 1.4 billion tons of food annually, according to the United Nations. Between 30% and 40% of food that farmers around the world produce is never consumed.

Thorp noted the repackaging of petroleum into an increasing amount of plastic as an example of a powerful industry working to maintain the unsustainable status quo to keep profits high.

“There’s a global plastics crisis, but the petroleum industry continues to produce more and more,” he said. “They see it as a growth industry, because demand for liquid fuels is diminishing. They’re creating demand for profit.”

Plastics use in the United States has roughly tripled since the 1980s, to more than 88 million tons annually, of which huge volumes end up buried or incinerated. In 2019, total U.S. plastic waste was 80 million tons, the equivalent to 487 pounds of plastic waste per inhabitant — about five times more than the global per capita average.

Like food waste, the United States is the world’s biggest generator of plastic waste. (Global plastic waste generation more than doubled from 2000 to 2019 to 353 million tons, according to a 2022 report.)

The exploding growth of plastics, especially single-use items, has become one of the biggest environmental issues worldwide, as these petroleum products — 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels — are polluting air, soil, waterways, animals, food, and human blood.

Social reformers and environmentalists argue all humans — and the countless other organisms that make our life possible — deserve to live in a healthy environment free of toxic pollution. They believe all families have a right to safe drinking water, clean air, access to food, and shelter.

Three decades ago, Beckerman argued that sustainable growth was “totally nonoperational” and the pathway to continued economic growth was reducing pollution and poverty in developing countries.

Despite centuries of technological progress and innovation, however, poverty hasn’t been eradicated. In fact, it continues to be astonishingly high — the U.S. poverty rate in 2021 was 11.6% (37.9 mil­lion people); the global poverty rate is expected to be 7% (about 600 million people) by 2030.

Many low-income families and people of color across the United States and around the world have shouldered the brunt of environmental degradation that economic growth often creates. These marginalized communities have historically been chosen as the sites for fossil fuel infrastructure, mineral extraction, and other polluting industries that push GDP to greater heights.

During an online discussion hosted by the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute in mid-June, Marccus Hendricks, an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, spoke about how neighborhoods of color, particularly low-wealth communities, often face worse problems after storms than white and wealthier neighborhoods.

As more frequent and intense storms generate more polluted runoff, marginalized communities that lack trees and other green infrastructure experience more pollution and face greater risks, Hendricks said.

Tebaldi, Thorp, and Budris believe economic growth isn’t sustainable without government intervention to address the many challenges of the 21st century, including wealth inequality, pollution, and the climate crisis.

Tebaldi said here in the United States the EPA has implemented regulations that have reduced pollution and helped protect the environment. Despite these regulations, he noted the U.S. economy has continued to grow, because of technology and changes in human behavior. He noted the opening of the Arctic and/or Alaska to drilling or doing away with the EPA would be mistakes.

“I believe in markets. I think markets are usually good ways to organize economic activities. But markets fail,” Tebaldi said. “We need regulations, we need governance, coordination, and I think with natural resources we have no choice but to bring in the government to help us mitigate the problem of the commons.”

Thorp said governments need to step in and decide what kind of growth they want to encourage and support.

“I’m not seeing steps taken that will make growth sustainable in the future,” he said. “Innovation is the way forward, shifting away from resource consumption growth and investing in technology and services.”

Said Budris, “Because of all of the waste that’s built into these growth patterns, we can’t just sit around and wait for these companies to change the way they do business. We need the laws and the policies in place to force them to change the model.”

Rhode Island College’s Basu, who teaches a class on climate change and sustainability, said economics has two versions of sustainability: weak, so future generations can maintain the current standard of living, and strong, so future generations have access to the same level of well-being.

“Those are two slightly different things. Essentially, we’re talking about material goods,” she said. “Let’s say there was an open forest or green space and that gets changed into a housing community or mall … so what we have done is we have substituted natural capital space with man-made capital, which is a road or a group of houses or a mall. In the weak sustainability model, it treats green space and concrete in equivalent terms. But when you come to strong sustainability concepts, ecologists, particularly an ecological economists, will disagree and say that’s not the same thing. You can’t take natural capital and substitute it with man-made physical things. It’s not the same thing and there has to be an acknowledgement that man-made stuff is not a substitute.”

The bottom 50% of humanity has a smaller share of total world income than it did in 1820. (World Inequality Report)

Filthy rich

Economic growth most certainly produces wealth, but it is increasingly being concentrated in fewer offshore bank accounts. The world’s 3,311 billionaires represent nearly $12 trillion in wealth. The number of global billionaires grew 3% in 2021 and their combined wealth increased by 18%.

The world’s richest 0.01% have gained so much loot that they now control 11% of total household wealth, according to the 2022 World Inequality Report. The richest 10% of the global population own 76% of all wealth.

In the meantime, public wealth in rich countries has declined dramatically since 1970, while private wealth — held overwhelmingly by the wealthy — has skyrocketed.

“Over the past 40 years, countries have become significantly richer, but their governments have become significantly poorer,” according to the report. “The share of wealth held by public actors is close to zero or negative in rich countries, meaning that the totality of wealth is in private hands. … The currently low wealth of governments has important implications for state capacities to tackle inequality in the future, as well as the key challenges of the 21st century such as climate change.”

The comprehensive report also noted income and wealth inequalities have been on the rise nearly everywhere since the 1980s, “following a series of deregulation and liberalization programs.” This rise has not been uniform. Certain countries have “experienced spectacular increases in inequality,” including the United States and Russia.

“These differences … confirm that inequality is not inevitable, it is a political choice,” according to the 2022 World Inequality Report.

The continued plundering of the natural world comes with costs that are seldom factored in when it comes to determining gross domestic product, although more than half of global GDP depends on nature, according to the United Nations. The world’s capital bound up in nature has declined 40% during the past two decades, sparking the World Economic Forum to list biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as top five threats humanity will face over the next decade.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2021 placed environmental degradation as humanity’s top long-term risk for the second year in a row. Besides human-led environmental damage, the report also placed biodiversity loss and climate action failure among the highest likelihood risks.

A paper published in 2021 noted air pollution is the most significant environmental health risk and a major cause of death and disability, and its future impact is likely to be even greater without adequate policy action — i.e., government intervention.

Pollution remains responsible for about 9 million deaths annually, corresponding to one in six deaths worldwide, according to a 2022 report. The report noted pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are closely linked.

“If we’re going to avoid the worst of the climate crisis, if we’re going to protect public health, if we’re going to protect the environment, if we’re actually going to arrive at a sustainable place in terms of growth, we we need to force these major corporations to change their model,” Budris said.

Rhode Island’s gross 2019 greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector. (DEM)

Addictive behavior

The most sustainable path to continued economic growth is breaking the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. It won’t be easy. Despite social media outrage and nonstop news shots of gasoline prices, especially during the run-up to the mid-term elections, the price of oil adjusted for inflation is actually lower now than what it was 50 years ago, according to Tebaldi.

And while renewable energy subsidies have increased, fossil fuels are still heavily subsidized. Globally, fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion or 6.8% of GDP in 2020 and are expected to increase to 7.4% of GDP in 2025, according to a 2021 working paper by the International Monetary Fund.

A 2021 white paper by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute noted that direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry by the United States are estimated at $20.5 billion annually, including $14.7 billion from federal subsidies and $5.8 billion from state subsidies. The continued subsidizing of fossil fuels artificially brings down the cost of these polluting energy sources and slows the transition to renewable sources.

“To transform our economy we have to change the way we produce energy,” Thorp said. “We can’t continue to burn fossil fuels at the rate we have been. It’s about what we invest in going forward.”

The career environmental advocate noted greater investment needs to be made in solar and wind to make those renewable energy sources the ones that power economic growth. (With the recent announcement of a major breakthrough, perhaps fusion is humankind’s next technological advancement.)

The two biggest sectors in Rhode Island that need to cut their greenhouse gas emissions are transportation and building heating. They account for 67.7% of the state’s climate emissions.

A bill introduced during the 2022 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Standard, would have required state transportation planners to evaluate emission impacts from projects and take steps to ensure they don’t exceed set reduction amounts mandated in the 2021 Act on Climate law.

Rep. Brandon Potter, D-Cranston, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation would require the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, the State Planning Council, and the Transportation Advisory Committee to determine the emissions impact of all future transportation projects.

“With transportation being the highest contributor of emissions in our state, we need the Department of Transportation to have some claim to measure and determine the carbon impact of each transportation-related project and factor those conclusions into the decisions that they make,” Porter said during a March 30 House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources hearing.

The transportation sector accounts for nearly 40% of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions — 20.4 points higher than the next highest emitter, residential heating. At 27%, the U.S. transportation sector generates the largest share of climate emissions.

“So as long as we’re investing in projects that are going to induce more driving and more VMTs [vehicle miles traveled], we’re never going to be able to get our arms around this,” John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart Rhode Island, testified at the hearing.

The bill was held for further study.

The heating of buildings, both residential and commercial, accounts for 28% of Rhode Island’s carbon emissions.

This past session, the General Assembly passed and the governor signed a law mandating the state utility buy credits to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2033. Moving away from fossil fuels in the electricity sector is an important step, but this alone won’t meet the state’s climate goals, or make continued economic growth sustainable.

To this point in time, despite the urgency required to mitigate the climate crisis, Rhode Island has failed to prioritize transit, bicycle, or pedestrian infrastructure, ignoring and underfunding taxpayer-funded plans such as the Transit Master Plan and the Bicycle Mobility Plan.

Economists, including two ecoRI News recently spoke with, stressed the free market has a way of changing how and what we consume. They also contend, as Beckerman argued, that continued growth will lift more people out of poverty and make them more environmentally aware.

“Once the economy grows, and income grows, people become more aware of the need to protect natural resources,” Tebaldi repeated. “And then consumers and society as a whole will take steps through government policy and regulations or changes in behavior to reduce pollution and reduce the impacts on nature.”

In the 1860s, before the Civil War started and after it ended, Republican leaders — not to be confused with those of today — argued that the potential for national economic growth was boundless and that increasing production (consumption) would lift everyone to prosperity.

Today, after more than a century and a half of enormous wealth gains — in 2021, with a GDP of nearly $23 trillion, the United States was by far the world’s largest economy — some 20 million people, many of them children, live in deep poverty in the richest country in the world.

The federal minimum wage has remained $7.25 an hour since 2009, when it was increased by 70 cents. That is the longest period without a raise in the history of the minimum wage. At the other end of the growth ladder, CEO pay has exploded. From 1978 to 2020, CEO pay based on realized compensation grew by 1,322%, out-gaining S&P stock market growth (817%) by a considerable margin, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In contrast, compensation of the average worker grew by just 18% during that time and the minimum wage increased 174%, from $2.65 an hour.

In 2020, CEOs of the top 350 firms in the United States made, on average, $24.2 million — 351 times more than a typical worker, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

As wealth, and the power that comes with it, continue to be concentrated, people, neighborhoods, communities, and countries continue to be left behind. Worse, their air, water, and health are being polluted and biodiversity destroyed in the name of gross domestic product.

Since the inaugural Earth Day, April 22, 1970, the world’s wildlife populations have declined by more than two-thirds (69%), according to a World Wildlife Fund report published in October. Deforestation, human exploitation, pollution, and climate change were listed as the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss.

Since 1970, carbon emissions have increased by about 90%, with emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributing about 78% of the total greenhouse gas emissions increase, according to the United Nations. Agriculture, deforestation, and other land-use changes have been the second-largest contributors.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a limit to infinite consumption,” Limnios said. “But I don’t think we’re going to have to have infinite consumption either.”

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  1. You can not do much economically without wood and the forests of the planet are disappearing faster than anything else except maybe the fish in the sea. We have not delinked economic growth and pollution or the climate disaster. The arguments that as the economy grows environmental protections increase is bogus, as we still see cancer alley, as communities have to fight harder to protect themselves, the the real stewards of the environment continue to be murdered. Economists seem to know how to add, but they always forget to subtract. And converting natural capital into income is just using funny money techniques to say see we have growth.

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