Technology, Ecology, and the Limits To Growth


Capitalist Crisis Studies
January 1978


Contents Outline


I    "Ecologics": The Non-equilibrium 'Economics' of Nature
"Limit" Crises in Nature Prior to the Appearance of Humankind and How They Were Resolved

The Relativity of the Categories "Resource" and "Pollutant"
II    Ecological Enhancement Through Technological Advancement
The Example of Fusion Power and Associated Plasma Technologies

The Example of 'OmniCom'
III    The Continuity of Laws Between Natural "Ecologics" and Human Economics
The Necessity of Progress

The Necessity of the Noosphere

The Real Limits: Obsolescence and Return on Investment




As our title amply indicates, the thesis of this paper is that the recent welter of anti-growth and "Small is Beautiful" philosophies and sentiments would represent, if implemented, a policy of unprecedented and probably fatal disaster for the entire human race. Before we can come to an assessment of the economic basis of the anti-growth argument 1 -- both in the sense of the economic principles it invokes, and in that of what we consider to be the actual economic source of the zero-or-negative-growth philosophy -- we need to enter into evidence some salient facts about the "economics" of pre-human natural evolution. This is because much of the socio-economic principle of zero-growth is founded on a certain vision of "ecologics" -- of the ways of Nature. Once we have refuted this vision, we will be in a position to dispel both the economic and ecologic authority of the zero-growthers and "smallists", by demonstrating that the right kind of societal growth is fully in accord with the previous pattern of natural and ecologic evolution. We will then also be situated to offer an alternative explanation for the emergence of these philosophies and sentiments at the present historic juncture.

"Ecologics": The Non-equilibrium 'Economics' of Nature

Behind the current outpouring of proposals to limit "growth" and scale down human technological activity in the name of an ethics and esthetics of "equilibrium" and "smallness", lie some unexamined assumptions about the nature of Nature, and about the proper role of our species in it. They are that Nature constitutes, for practical purposes, a complete and permanent 2 system of nearly perfect balance, nonviolence, and harmony; an equilibrium that does not significantly disturb itself, from within, but which, on the contrary, can only be disturbed from "without", that is, by that villainous, polluting, overpopulating alien: mankind. Thus, the human species is seen as decidedly unnatural -- as a kind of outsider and intruder into this otherwise tranquil and pacific "state of Nature". Thus it is argued, humanity's activities should be minimized, for at best they can only disrupt this balanced state, at worst, destroy it, and humanity with it. In this view, then, human population itself is the fundamental form of pollution, from which all others flow. At the psychological level, the profound misanthropy of this view should be a primary observation for us.

Given this misanthropic view, the basic prescriptions of the zero-growth "ecology" and "environmental protection" movement follow: that the best we can do is mimic the supposed "permanence" and "balance" of Nature by curtailing, or even reversing, "growth", both in terms of human population and techno-economic activity.

In this section, we shall examine these assumptions, confronting them with evidence turned up by modern science, supporting a much different, dynamic, view of pre-human Nature. In this view, the emergence of the human species, including its current ecological predicament, take a predictable and natural place.

When we confront the "environmentalist" assumptions of natural and ecological equilibrium with the actual history of Nature as best we know it today, a dramatically different, non-equilibrium 3, perspective emerges. This new perspective can be summarized as follows.

Every conceivable formation of Nature, as a result of the activity in which its very being consists, depletes, on the one hand, some quality of its environment which is essential to its continued existence, and accumulates, on the other hand, some new quality in its environment that represents "pollution" for it. As a result of this twofold existence process of such formations, they each bring upon themselves, in due course, a crisis of limits to growth. But these crises are resolved, not by "conservation" and diminished or reversed growth of said formations, but rather by a leap beyond the old resource/pollution relations into a qualitatively new formation. This successor formation typically builds on the accumulations of the preceding one, using that quality which was "pollution" to its immediate predecessor as its own primary "natural resource", or energy source.

In this pattern we see that Nature is characterized by "permanence" only as the permanence of impermanence. Nature's formations are of finite "length" in all dimensions, temporally as well as spatially. They cannot last forever, as each is constantly "consuming its resource base" and setting the stage for its own demise and the arising of something new.

There have been "ecological crises" of pollution and of relative overpopulation of a given form of Nature, many times, and long before the human form of Nature ever arrived on the cosmic scene. There have been other "crises of Nature" even before there were "ecological crises", because these crises occurred long before "ecosystems" had even come into existence.

The human species is thus not some unique villain in the drama of cosmic unfoldment, although this does not deny that humanity has given itself over to depredation in its behavior toward Nature and human Nature many times in the past, and continues to do so today. There is even colossal violence in pre-human Nature prior to or apart from humanity's violence, which in fact dwarf's in comparison that of which human beings have so far been capable (in practice at least, if not in intention). The contemporary sightings of exploding stars, and even exploding galaxies here come to mind. These, while they do not in any way justify human violence, serve to remove the exclusive stigma from mankind.

To recapitulate: in the view which will be advanced here, Nature is grasped not as a static or cyclic equilibrium, but as an ever-evolving, irreversible process. This process called Nature drives itself forward by a dynamic of pollution/depletion which is homologous to that which we find today in the human, social stage of Nature, the latest known to us. The scientific evidence supporting this view is presented below.

"Limit" Crises in Nature Prior to the Appearance of Humankind and How They Were Resolved

It was necessary for stars to evolve before biospheres, or even "lifeless" planets, could come into existence. The stars made the atoms of which planets and biospheres, our own bodies included, are composed. Hydrogen atoms -- really just single protons -- were the first "atoms", out of which the first stars congealed. Stars live by "fusing" together these protons or hydrogen atoms, and the later, light atoms which result from this early fusion. This process releases the energy which lights the stars and keeps them inflated. For so great is their self-gravitation that only this explosive release of energy can prevent their collapse. Stars are like continuously-detonating hydrogen bombs floating free in space.

But this fusion metabolism also depletes the hydrogen and light elements which are the star's resources, and 'pollutes' the star's interior with heavier and heavier elements, the ash-products of fusion "burning" of the lighter atoms. The heavier of these will not fuse any more, and actively impede the continued fusion of lighter elements. Finally, the atomic form of Nature reaches its inherent limits. Beyond a certain size, internal forces within the atomic nucleus cause the atoms to radioactively decay, or even to spontaneously "unfuse" or "fission". The "limits to growth" of the atom are also the limits of existence of the star. The star's inner fires wane, and it can no longer uphold itself against its own gravity. Implosion/explosion results. But the convulsive death of the star also disperses its evolved atomic material to the interstellar medium from which a new, atomically enriched, generation of stars will be born.

The very life-process of the star, simultaneously the depletion of its hydrogen "food", and the pollution of its interior with heavier atoms, is also the cause of its death. 4

Since growth by adding protons or neutrons to atoms cannot continue, growth takes a new form: the addition of whole atoms, i.e. chemical growth, or "molecular evolution". The interstellar medium, enriched with heavier elements by stellar explosions, gives birth in later generations not to single, double, or triple, etc. star systems, but to stars ringed by a new kind of object: "cold stars" or planets. The planets host molecular evolution, and the stages that follow it. And it is the heaviest elements, which poisoned the stars, which power the internal chemical evolution of the planet by the heat of their spontaneous radioactive decay. Chemical evolution deep in the planetary interior takes the form of crystallizations and re-crystallizations -- sudden changes in molecular geometry at super high pressures, temperatures, and densities.

The largest molecules evolve at the planets' surface, through a process in a primitive atmosphere and ocean, whose chemical constituents had been "cooked up" originally in the planet's interior, then vented to the surface. Agglutinations of these larger molecules at the primeval shorelines gave birth, according to the Oparin Hypothesis 5, to the first biological formations: living cells.

But this original, cellular, biosphere brings upon itself a crisis homologous to the stellar one. The resource base of cellular evolution is the continued chemical-evolutionary process in the atmosphere and ocean which produces large solar-energy-storing molecules. The cells digested these by oxygenless fermentation. As their population grew, they both depleted the supply of this molecular "food" or "energy", and polluted their oceanic environment with fermentative wastes -- alcohols, butyric acid, CO2, etc. Fermentative technology reached its limits, faced with famine on the one side, and poisoning by its wastes on the other. This was the first "ecology crisis", long before any possibility of a human formation on Earth, and in it, all of then-living matter and all of the future of life on this planet hung in the balance.

The qualitatively new metabolic "technologies" of photosynthesis and respiration were the biological innovations which solved this crisis. The fermentative poison, carbon dioxide, became a primary resource for photosynthesis, and the other wastes listed above came to serve as food for respirative metabolism.

But, in its turn, photosynthesis depleted the atmosphere's carbon dioxide, trapping CO2's carbon in vast accumulations of corpses that became coal, oil, and natural gas. Oceanic animals called zooplankton also withdraw CO2, from the ocean, by erecting around their unicellular bodies tiny calcium carbonate exoskeletons which fall to the sea bottom when they die. CO2 depletion also cools the planet's atmosphere and slows the rate of photosynthesis, which is the heartbeat of the photosynthesis-based biosphere. This brings the third of the "crises of Nature" we will discuss; the second "ecology crisis". The primeval rainforest, which once nearly covered the globe, the heart of the land part of the photosynthetic biosphere, is beaten back to its present equatorial refuge by alternating onslaughts of drought and glacier, both caused by the cooling. The dinosaurs who ruled that world die out. This great slaughter of living matter culminates in the Pleistocene Ice Age.

Out of this Ice Age emerged Homo sapiens, an industrial species capable of using the vast carbonic accumulations of the previous process as a resource. Human activities, culminating in the industrial burning of fossil fuels, restored some of that previously removed CO2 to the atmosphere, producing a century of the mildest climate in centuries. Up until the 1940s, this was sufficient to forestall the return of the Ice, a return which might, this time, close its jaws from South and North on even the equatorial "last stand" of the old rainforest, possibly foreclosing on all life on earth. But the cooling since then indicates that the present rate of industrialization on this planet is insufficient to hold back the tremendous momentum behind a return of the ice. 6

The Relativity of the Categories "Resource" and "Pollutant"

We have seen that the qualities of "resource" or "pollutant" are in no sense absolute or fixed for all time upon any specific material. These qualities are relative to the "technology" or mode of evolution in process at a given place and time where these materials arise. Hydrogen and other light elements were resources for stars, heavier and unstable elements were pollutants. But these heavier elements were the primary resources of planet-formation, their radioactive varieties an energy source, along with solar light, for the next, molecular, stage of evolution. CO2, alcohols, and organic acids were the pollutants of the fermentative biosphere, but resources for the succeeding, photosynthesis and respiration-based biosphere. Oil, coal, natural gas, lime, etc. represent entropy, waste, for photosynthesis, but energy and/or resources for the present, human, stage of ecological evolution.

This relativity of resource and pollution qualities continues into the human level of evolution. There is no inert, intrinsic property in a material which determines it for all time as useful or useless to human wealth-creating activities. It is the relationship of the creative powers attained collectively by human beings to the inherent properties of a material which determines this quality. For instance, several hundred years ago desert dwellers, noticing on the sand a puddle of thick, dark liquid, saw only a worthless curiosity or nuisance. Today, that same substance, oil, is the basis of our global industrial livelihood, and among the most valued of commodities. Tomorrow, further innovations in human powers -- such as clean fusion reactors generating abundant energy from formerly "worthless" sea water -- may render petrochemicals much less valuable, or even completely obsolete as an energy resource.

In each of the crises of nature prior to the advent of Homo sapiens, continued evolution required continued growth in the old form, preparatory to a qualitative innovation in the basic "technology" of evolution and in the basic form that was evolving. This innovation inherently transformed the resource and pollution classification of the entire environment far that continued evolution.

The human species is the technological species par excellence; the species that can continue only through technological progress. Technological progress, and not just a fixed mode of technology, is necessary within the human phase of evolution because of that same dynamic of pollution/depletion we traced within pre-human Nature. Each socio-technological mode consumes and pollutes its corresponding resource-base, and enough of the fruits of that consumption must have been invested in the preparation of new, higher human skill levels, to provide a new technology, defining a new and larger feature of Nature as successor resource-base, by the time the old one runs out, or society faces collapse. To seek permanence in human ecology is as vain as to seek it in pre-human ecology. What we should do, in accord with both our specific nature, and the general laws of evolution delineated here, is to consciously design the transition into a new and higher form of "econo-ecology".

Human depletion of fossil fuels, and unabated accumulation of pollutants related to their consumption, will at length bring to crisis the present stage of econo-ecology whether or not the "Energy Crisis" of the last few years has been a hoax. In this the zeroists and smallists are correct. But zero growth, curtailment of scientific and technological innovation, outlawing of "bigness" across the board, etc. will not solve this crisis, any more than the stars of long ago could have saved themselves by dimming their inner fires; any more than the early cells could have saved themselves by reducing their population and consumption. Doing so, the cells would only have diminished their chances of innovating photosynthesis in time.

At best, the policies cited above could merely postpone the crisis by rationing fossil fuels -- but at the cost of sacrificing the standard of living, the standard of health, education, and general welfare, necessary to prepare the collective creative faculties that could save us; sacrificing the quality of our population in terms of skill and intelligence requisite to achieve and assimilate the next necessary innovation.

Ecological Enhancement through Technological Advancement

Where can we look for that innovation?

What could serve as resource, as energy-base, for a new stage of econo-ecology to succeed the present one based on fossil fuels? Nothing more exotic than sea water, that is, the hydrogen it contains. And hydrogen is still -- even after myriads of generations of hydrogen-burning stars -- by far and away the most abundant atomic species in the known universe.

The Example of Fusion Power and Associated Plasma Technologies

Fusion reactors, unlike fission reactors, are potentially free of radioactivity problems. Fusion power promises the abundant, inexpensive energy source humanity needs to solve its urgent and long-standing problems of world poverty and hunger. Despite minimal and diminishing funding in the U.S.A., great strides have recently been made in fusion research here, in the U.S.S.R., and in Japan, shaving years off the projected development time to operational fusion reactors. And these reactors promise not only electrical energy, but a whole new gamut of plasma technologies --plasma being the 4th phase of matter, "ionized gas", coming with rising temperature after solid, liquid, and gaseous phases. For example, it has been suggested that neutron-yielding, but therefore mildly radioactive, forms of fusion be used to clean up heavily radioactive fission wastes, de-radioactivating their atomic nuclei by neutron absorption. 7

Fusion is by far the most promising energy alternative. But fission, solar, tidal, wind, geothermal, and other options probably also have a role to play in the solution to our present "econo-ecological crisis".

Fusion power would be an example of how human technology can actually enhance the health of the whole biosphere. The fusion torch would allow complete and inexpensive recycling of all materials, reducing wastes to their atomic constituents, and separating them accordingly. Fusion desalination plants on the desert coastlines of the world, fueled by water, could use the energy they derived from water to produce inexpensive fresh water, allowing reforestation and agriculture in great deserts like the Sahara. This would facilitate the solution of the world food problem, and provide new zones of habitation for over-concentrated populations. It can be used to save rainforests from short-sighted reduction to erosive farming, "clear-cut" tree harvesting, and other degenerative extractions of geo-wealth. Finally, it would lower the albedo (reflectivity) of the former deserts, warming the climate against potential return of ice age conditions.

The Example of 'OmniCom'

Another technology within reach which could dramatically enhance the entire ecosystem would be a global "omnibus" communication utility, which I will refer to as OmniCom for short. This possibility is much discussed among computer scientists, under names like the "Wired Nation", etc., but has only recently begun to get wider public attention with the advent of cheap home computers in the U.S.A.. A worldwide network of computerized telecommunications, linked into a universal library and a system of sensors continually monitoring socio-economic and ecological variables, could replace much of our current diversity of communication and transportation devices with a single, unified system, yielding enormous economies and gains in efficiency and productivity.

In the home, for example, OmniCom would manifest as a console with large view-screen, typewriter keyboard, and other audio and video input and output features. Presently separate communications appliances -- radios, televisions, telephones, stereos, movie projectors, etc. could have their services integrated into this one unit. Books, journals, newspapers, and other printed media could be replaced by paperless, electronically-generated images on the view-screen, with the added component of dynamic graphic accompaniment. The very distinctions which differentiate our present forms of media from one another -- which divide movies from television from newspapers from newsreels from books from magazines -- would begin to dissolve. 8

The ecological advantages of this would include enormous savings in social paper consumption, hence in deforestation; an enormous saving in land surface devoted to storage and transportation (since in many cases this kind of communication could substitute for transport), and in general a great saving in the amount of landscape consumed by specialized buildings of many kinds, since meetings, etc. could be held remotely, and "telecommuting" replace actual.

OmniCom would also make feasible individual participation in government and on an informed basis and on a time-scale previously inconceivable. This would amount to a more efficient substitute for big bureaucracy than any known "smaller is better" scheme, and without the terrible losses invovled in a regression to a provincial, localist mentality. Of course, safe use of OmniCom would require the adoption, and strict enforcement by citizen vigilance, of laws to protect against police-state type abuses which are possible with such a system.

But the idea that all human technological creations inherently harm the rest of Nature is clearly a one-sided myth.

The Continuity of Laws Between Natural Ecologics and Human Economics

The Necessity of Progress

A general conclusion flowing from all we have presented so far can be summarized this way: evolution is necessary; it is simply the form in which Nature "endures " or continues to exist; it is "time" itself. Nature not only changes; it changes irreversibly and not merely randomly, but in a coherent sequence and direction.

The Necessity of the Noosphere

At the human level, this suggests the necessity, for the rest of nature, of human evolution: the necessity of the noosphere (the noosphere being the name given by T. Chardin 9 to that texture of self-conscious matter, mankind, ovelaying the preceding layer of (merely) living matter, the biosphere, which envelopes the lithosphere, the rocky core of our planet. Perhaps the next step in ecological evolution, required not only for our survival, but for that of the rest of the biosphere as well, is that humanity make itself a kind of "brain of the biosphere". A planetary ecosystem at the stage of maturity reached by that of Earth, may need an intelligent species to monitor and regulate its irreversible processes, such as the ice-age-causing CO2 withdrawal process noted above, and the continually increasing salination of the oceans (which later might utimately make the oceans unliveable, depriving the biosphere of its major source at oxygen replenishment: the oceanic phytoplankton and algae). That is, without such a planetary "cerebral cortex", such a biosphere would likely self-destruct, since its pre-intelligent balancing feedbacks are simply too slow to keep up with these irreversible trends. Such a planetary "nervous system" is just what the emerging global network of human society, equipped with technologies like OmniCom, can become.

The Real Limits: Obsolescence and Return on Investment

Perhaps, contrary to prevailing sentiments, human activity will prove to be vital to the rest of Nature, our technology just a higher form of Nature. Perhaps we will find that Nature would have been incomplete, its continued evolution in deep trouble without us. As Eric Jantsch has written: "...the evolution of mankind forms a meaningful and integral part of a universal evolution... -- ...mankind is an agent of this universal evolution, and even an important one." 10

It may be that only a stepped-up industrialization of the Third World, involving carefully regulated but increased burning of fossil fuels, can return sufficient CO2 to the atmosphere to prevent renewal of the Ice Age. 11 Such CO2 release would also increase the global rate of photosynthesis, generally improving the, health of "wild" plant life as well as increasing agricultural yields, and reversing drought-driven desertification. This is the opposite of the development strategies put forward by the "Small is Beautiful" and "Negative Growth" people. The severe drought recently afflicting California and the southwestern U.S.A. is a strong indication that cooler ocean waters, yielding therefore diminished evaporation and rainfall, are accumulating in the polar seas, impending intensified glaciation. 12

Ironically, the spread of zero population growth, zero economic growth, and "Small is Beautiful" ideas has been funded, all along, by some of the biggest of the big -- such as the foundations and other institutions associated with the Rockefeller multi-national petroleum and banking interests. This suggests a hypothesis concerning a different economic basis to the anti-growth and anti-technology argument.

New technologies like fusion power and OmniCom would render obsolete and uncompetitive the greater part of the existing capital equipment base of world society in such industries as petroleum, printing, telephone, transportation, and construction. Therefore, the investment tied up in them would suddenly and drastically decline in value, long prior to their predicted retirement due to simple physical wear and tear. 13 Much of this investment was loan- or debt-financed, and its devaluation or premature retirement would threaten major banking corporations with loan defaults and bankruptcies. Industrialization of the Third World, involving installation of the very latest factory technologies, in competition with older plants in the First World, would have similar effects. Fears regarding these consequences of further major technological advances or industrial growth may provide the real reason for the big push behind "smaller is better" and limit-growth philosophies, despite the overall social, economic, and ecological advantages of such advances. This reasoning may have been adopted, especially, among non-industrial (financial) corporations that have become bureaucratized and severed from the spirit and traditions of creative entrepreneurship.


For sound economic analysis, neither "smallness" nor "bigness" per se is the point when it comes to the choice of technology. And, as we have seen, though each stage of "technology" has its inherent "quantitative" limits, there are no known limits to the qualitative, evolutionary growth of the universe, short of "entropic doom" or "gravitational collapse", and neither of these "absolute" limits is any longer beyond questioning. 14

The crude, superficial, and merely relative (i.e., comparative) criterion of "smallness" does not touch the crucial criterion regarding the choice of technology. That criterion is: "How does a given innovation fit in with the whole process of evolution in which it arises?" "Small" is sometimes, but not inherently or reliably, "beautiful"; "Big" is, likewise, sometimes, but not inherently or reliably, "ugly". Moreover, many technologies, such as OmniCom, which spans the globe but confronts the user as a small console, defy classification in the simplistic "big vs. small" schema.

However, if one assumes, as do many zero-growth and small-is-beautiful advocates, that Nature is a static "permanence" instead of an irreversible process, this criterion we have suggested just above cannot even arise.




For general references on the "zero-growth" school of economics, consult:
R. Leroy-Miller, Economics Today, Canfield Press (San Francisco: 1974).
M. Olson and H. Landsberg, editors, The No-Growth Society, W. Norton & Co. (New York: 1973).


E. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, Harper & Row (San Francisco: 1973), pages 33, 47, 51, 61.


Ilya Prigogine et. al., "Thermodynamics of Evolution", Physics Today, pp. 23-28 (November 1972), and pp. 38-44 (December 1972).


On stellar evolution see:
W. Fowler, "The Origin Of The Elements", Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Science, 52: 1964, pp. 530-532.


On cellular evolution see:
A. Oparin, The Origin Of Life, Dover (New York: 1938), p. 226.


On CO2 depletion and the climatic crisis see:
I. Kaplan, The Implications of Climatic Change, International Institute for Integrative Technology, (San Diego: 1976).


W. Wolkenhauer and W. Gough, "Transmutation of High Level Radioactive Wastes by Fusion Reactor Neutrons", Electric Power Research Institute (Palo Alto: September 15, 1976).
On the promise of fusion power in general see:

I. Kaplan, "Mater Omnium: Automated Energy and Material Wealth from the Sea", in E. Borgese and D. Krieger, editors, The Tides of Change (UN Conference on the Law of the Sea), Mason/Charter, 1975. pp. 48-75.


A. Curran, "The Wired City: Tomorrow's Reality", Telesis 2:1 (1971), pp. 16-20.


T. Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, Harper & Row (New York: 1959).


E. Jantsch, Design for Evolution, George Braziller Company (New York: 1975), p. xxi.


I. Kaplan, "Climatic Changes in Coming Decades-II", Important for the Future 2:2 (April 1977) (publication of UNITAR, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research), pp. 3-4.


R. Peters, Return On Investment, American Management Association Committee On Management - AMACOM, (1974), pp. 1-5.


E. Jantsch, op. cit., pp. 36-37.

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