How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

An interview with Sara Holiday Nelson

Filed under: Interviews
The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Source: IC Magazine.

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Source: IC Magazine.

by Gabriel Levy

This article originally appeared on the blog, People and Nature.


Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments. And first – addressing ourselves to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?

Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.

Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the talk Sasha Lilley gave at the Planetary Natures conference: “limits” discourse tends towards a sort of left catastrophism, a left austerity plan that says “there is no alternative”, and that whatever political agenda we are advocating is a dictate of nature. This is true of some strands of eco-Marxism that in the 1960s and 1970s picked up some of the thinking of ecological economists and environmentalists about limits, and presented a sort of survivalist argument for the transition to socialism. I think this is in fact a deeply conservative position, and I am uneasy with the idea that a survivalist politics could lead to a liberatory programme. [Note. Sasha Lilley puts her case against left catastrophism in this interview here and this video here.]


Let me probe a little more what you mean by absolute limits and relative limits. Let’s take the most important example: there is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gases that can be put it into the atmosphere over the next few decades, if the serious damage to human society already implicit in rising sea levels and other outcomes of global warming is to be contained. Of course the climatologists don’t exactly know where it is because of the inexact nature of the science. But there is no doubt that that limit is out there. People try to quantify it e.g. by talking about 350ppm [i.e. 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere] as a safe limit.

Yes, but even that limit is still being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The commitments made by various countries don’t seem to offer much hope for actually staying below even a 2ºC increase in average global temperature since pre-industrial times, which is what many climate scientists think is an acceptable level of risk. But at the talks last year in Lima there were still countries demanding that warming stay under 1.5º. Small island states for example were saying that 1.5º or 2ºof temperature increase doesn’t look the same all over the world, that the 2ºmark privileges the interests of Northern countries. So the limits look very different depending on where you are. There are certainly tipping points, so reference to global average temperature, parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc. is a necessary way of marking those tipping points. But what our relationship is to that limit, how we deal with it – that’s a political question. (See for example the policy of the Climate Vulnerable Forum within the UNFCCC.)

Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of.

There are limits, and some of them are absolute in the sense that, if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will experience unacceptable levels of global warming. But where talk about limits becomes problematic is when we look at that type of tipping point and suggest that it dictates a particular socio-political future. Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of, and that underestimates the adaptability of capitalism at overcoming such limits. It may well be that capital can go on accumulating long after we’ve traversed certain thresholds that would make life on Earth intolerable for most humans and animals.

We therefore have to talk about what the limits are that bound our desirable conditions of existence. That’s a political question, although that doesn’t mean that humans are entirely in control of the answer to it.


You have been researching the political and social context of the 1970s, in which the Limits to Growth report appeared. Could you say something about this?

I have been doing some reading about how that report fitted into the broader conversations in the 1970s about the new international political order and what a multilateral order might to look like. One thing I have found interesting is the way that the idea of natural resources as a global commons, coupled with a notion of biophysical limits, cuts both ways politically. On one hand it can operate in a progressive register: it says that we all live on this earth and have some responsibility of stewardship. But in the 1970s, it also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources – for example the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution, which was only beginning to be discussed at that time, mainly in terms of “pollution havens” for corporations. The ability to enact environmental controls and to govern exhaustible resources was at stake for third world countries in many of those conversations.

The language of the global commons sounds very progressive. And the idea of “limits to growth” can serve to protect that vision, but it can also serve a neo-colonial purpose. Again, in the 1970s, the argument that scarce resources really belong to everyone – and so they shouldn’t be entrusted to national governments whose interests aren’t shared by the “global community” – was useful, for instance, to the industrial elite that made up the Club of Rome. The political implications of these types of ideas can therefore vary quite dramatically.

In the 1970s, the notion of biophysical limits also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources


The context was the so-called “energy crisis”, which was more than anything about a sudden increase in the price of energy sources, especially oil, for rich nations, who then had to adjust their strategy towards other nations, especially poor nations, who were producing it.

Yes. And that takes us back to the question of control. What level of control did those producing states – such as [the oil producing countries’ group] OPEC, in this example – have over their resources, vis-a-vis multinational corporations that might have different interests?


You have found some work by the Bariloche institute in Argentina, that offered an alternative to the Limits to Growth report produced by the Club of Rome. What was their approach?

Their critique of the original report, which was similar to those made by many different commentators, was that it had a very first-world-centric approach, one that located global problems in third-world population growth. The Bariloche model criticised this Western-centric and Northern-centric perspective, and the way that the Limits to Growth model was presented as a supposedly objective picture of global limits without a normative valence.

The Bariloche model was, in the words of one of its designers, intended to be a response from the South to the Limits to Growth report … to say look, modelling does not just give us an objective representation of the world; it is a technology to enact and explore the possibility for certain kinds of futures. They therefore proposed a counter-model oriented towards exploring the biophysical basis for an international socialism. However, they positioned their vision of socialism between state socialism, which was the dominant model at the time, and market capitalism, to say essentially – what would a democratic, decentralised socialist or egalitarian system look like, and what are its biophysical conditions of possibility? That is, what are the biophysical conditions for creating what they called an egalitarian world? The designers framed it as a Latin American model, but one that aspired to be a third world model, recognizing that Latin America didn’t stand in for the third world. But that was their goal – to use modelling as a technology for envisioning alternative political futures from a third world perspective.


You have looked at the emergence in the 1970s of ecological economics and resilience theory. Your conclusion on resilience theory is that it “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”. But you are not saying, if I have understood correctly, that socialists or anti-capitalists should ignore or write off resilience literature. In the conclusions of your article on resilience you say that we should ask “how the forms of control exercised under the rubric of adaptability may present new possibilities for resistance”. I took that to mean that you suggest taking as a starting point the integration of social and ecological, the rejection of a dualism, in the resilience literature, but rejecting the way that that literature normalises capitalist social relations.

There is much to say about the relationship between ecological economics and resilience, which mainly came together in the Beijer Institute in Sweden and in some workshops in Stanford as well.

Both of those fields were quite heterodox in the 1970s. Ecological economics was articulating a vision which was not neo-liberal and not even fully market-oriented, but one that demanded state control to constrain resource use and population growth to certain kinds of limits, within which market activity can operate. Within those limits it wanted to say that prices would determine the best distribution of environmental goods and bads, and resources in general, but it didn’t advocate a wholesale marketisation of everything. I think that it registered a broader crisis in the economy and wanted to re-establish economic and ecological equilibrium on a global scale through a sort of capitalist planned economy – an interesting mix of planning and markets.

Resilience theory, for its part, has been critiqued by many people as having an analogous resemblance to neoliberalism. It advocates decentralised planning and adaptive management approaches that enable systems – whether ecological, economic, or social – to move through various equilibria. It therefore doesn’t try to stave off a crisis by maintaining stability, but by increasing the system’s flexibility or “resilience” to disturbance, and even its ability to absorb and redirect those disturbances to its own advantage. Many critics have argued that resilience takes this ecological metaphor and applies it to social systems in a way that naturalizes the experience of economic and ecological crisis. They have pointed out that, in its demand for decentralised control and flexible management under crisis conditions, it looks a lot like the neoliberal imaginary.

However, what interests me about resilience is that, especially in its earlier articulations, it really is developed as a universal theory. It’s not just an ecological theory that’s later applied to other things. From the very beginning of his work on resilience in the 1970s, Charles Holling, the ecologist who developed it, is interested in asking: how applicable are these principles to industrial planning, to organisations, to economic and social systems in general? He was working at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, exploring this.

I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.

In those conversations, which were very interdisciplinary, the relationship between planning and markets, and decentralised and centralised control, was still under discussion. I see resilience as a symptom of a broader crisis of management paradigms in both ecology and industry, and one whose basic conceptual framework does not necessarily lead to neoliberal policy proscriptions. In this way, I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.


You also argue, if I understood correctly, that the same driving forces that push capitalism at its current stage to disrupt and damage the ecological space in which humans live are essentially the same forces that spread into the sphere of social reproduction, and that we need an analysis that brings all these things together. In your article on Limits to Growth, you quote Suzanne Schultz, who wrote: “It is not that the boundary between production and reproduction has been effaced, but that it has been transformed, requiring new analytical approaches. Your conclusion: resilience theory “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”.

Again, going back to the 1970s, Marxist feminists such as Silvia Federici, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and many others theorised the crisis of Fordist-Keynesianism in terms of a crisis of reproduction – among other things, a breakdown of the gender relations that ensured the reproduction of the labour force. Federici looked to the work of economists in that moment to argue that their efforts to quantify the contributions of housework to GDP [gross domestic product], alongside the expansion of the service economy, was a manifestation of this crisis of reproduction. I think we can certainly see a parallel development in economic thinking at the time concerning the environment. That is, both ecological and environmental economists are asking: how can we account for this other sphere of important productive activity – the “work” of biospheric reproduction, we might call it – that economics, in its narrow mode of looking at production in terms of GDP, can’t comprehend? We can therefore see environmental reproduction as the other side of the coin of social reproduction and the reproduction of labour power in the way that it is brought into economic thinking in the 1970s.

Much of this early work starts to describe biophysical functions such as absorption of pollution, the function of wetlands to mitigate flooding, or even the production of soils through composting, in sort of infrastructural terms – that is, as a whole array of systems whose functioning underpins the economy as it was formulated in mainstream economics.

This view I think is really the precedent for what we now think of as ecosystem services, which has become a dominant discourse in the present. Based on the idea that ecosystems perform “services” – such as carbon sequestration – that are useful to people, we have a whole generation of payment- and market-based programmes to finance conservation and, at times, to commodify these services, for instance through emissions markets. Sometimes this involves paying landowners to perform certain conservation activities based on the idea that these produce such services. That infrastructural conception of resources is being talked about in the 1960s and 1970s, in terms of “how do we account for these reproductive functions?” They don’t use those terms, but that’s my reading of it.

If we think of ecosystem services as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?

What interests me, and what I mentioned in the article, is: if we think about this as a repositioning of the division between productive and reproductive labour, such that what was devalued and made invisible as reproductive labour is coming into view in a certain way, then it changes the political questions we can ask. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement made the basic point: “It’s not enough to say just that we don’t want to participate in the wage economy and have our labour alienated. What about those of us who are precisely excluded from that economy on the basis of our supposed natural instinct to be mothers, or to do housework, or whatever?” They really posed that problem. And there is a similar problem implicit in the critique of payments for ecosystems services, or other market-based conservation schemes.

Some critics suggest that payment programmes corrupt ecological values by paying people to do this work, or are concerned with how market-based conservation is implicated in further alienating people from nature. Those critiques are not wrong; they have their place. But if we think of this as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?

That’s where I find the work of those Marxist feminist thinkers useful, in dealing with that problem. What would a critical abstraction of “ecosystem services” look like? What would a non-capitalist “ecosystem service” economy look like? That’s not a question that the critical literature has asked, but it’s one that I think is really interesting. I don’t have any answers for it!

Maybe it’s actually happening in some places, and I think there is some emerging research on case studies that has started to point to it. For instance Bolivia is trying to develop a compensation programme for stewardship of ecological resources in non-market ways. Not that Bolivia is a perfect example. But there is a lot of heterogeneity in payment for ecosystem services programmes – programmes for compensating people for “ecosystem services”, which might be in the form of direct payment for conservation work, in kind, compensation for not farming parts of their land –  and it’s worth trying to look at them and think about the differences between them. Proponents and critics alike see these as market-based programmes, but there is a great deal of difference among them.


An issue running through all these discussions on society and environment is the repeated re-appearance of different types of Malthusianism. In one of your articles you mentioned Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, advocating “transferable birth licences”, in line with this ideology of control. How significant is this?

Such ideas are hugely pervasive. In the 1970s, all these conversations were going on in the context of a real – or at least a perceived – crisis of the international order and the role of the US and Europe in that order. A big fear that came out was a xenophobic anxiety about the rise of the third world in the form of population growth as one really important vein in environmental thought. I taught a course on population in my department a couple of times, and I asked students to read the preface to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb – it is a graphic description of his drive through Delhi and his horror at the masses of poor people. It shows an incredibly visceral response to the bodies of Indian people that Ehrlich perceives as being excessive and abundant.


I know the passage you mean. How strong do you think that is in environmentalism today?

I think a lot of it comes out in discourses about climate refugees, and about the causes of climate change. For instance, the idea that in order to address deforestation, we should offer certain incentives to small farmers, as if they are the main culprit and there are not much larger drivers behind their actions. A ton of market-based conservation programmes are targeted at individuals as drivers of ecological problems – and not at structural economic drivers. These programmes ask: “How do we incentivise the poor to change their behaviour?” Which is really the same paternalistic and anti-political attitude that informed early population control programmes. It’s just not quite as targeted at reproductive bodies; it’s in this ecologically reproductive mode. In that sense Malthusianism is still quite powerful.

Getting back to Daly’s original idea, however, there actually exists a UK organisation called Pop Offsets where you can purchase a carbon credit by financing the so-called “unmet need” for family planning – the idea is that you’re offsetting the carbon emissions associated with another human life on the planet. So it comes full circle.


To what extent has the left put together a convincing alternative? I completely agree with your complaints about catastrophism that says, “if we don’t overthrow capitalism tomorrow we’re all doomed”. But how far has the left gone in responding to these Malthusian logic?

That is a hard question! And I’m not equipped to answer it. But I will say that political actions alone do not necessarily articulate a viable alternative. Scholarship and political theory can asses the conditions of possibility for other alternatives and how do we might strategically build on those. But I don’t think political theorising, or even political action, has to come in the form of articulating a coherent vision of a future political order – it comes in the form of refusing the claim that there is no alternative and insisting that there are alternatives. Again, that’s where I see Malthusianism as disempowering, as it forecloses alternatives. What those alternatives are is worked out in an emergent political process.

As a side note, one reason that Malthusianism looks different in contemporary environmental movements – and is much less pronounced today – is that many formerly third world countries vehemently resisted that discourse. In fact the emergence of the environment as a political object was really mobilised very powerfully by poorer nations, to resist the neocolonial relations that still stucture the international order. The politics of the environment today is shaped by resistance on any number of fronts. The narrative that argues that in environmental crises we simply see capitalism playing out its contradictions really obscures that resistance, in a way that is not politically empowering.


Indian agricultural workers’ protest in India. Photo from La Via Campesina South Asia

So are we talking about movements of landless farmworkers, or Bolivia’s refusal to go along with multinational companies?

There are a million examples in the past several decades: global indigenous organising, the landless peasants’ movement, and other grassroots movements. And also on the part of governments – taking seriously the internal political contradictions in Bolivia, in terms of its recognition of the “rights of Mother Earth” (Pachamama) in its constitution, while it also remains economically dependent on an extractive economy and grapples with land conflicts among various indigenous movements – Bolivia has been extremely active in international fora such as the UNFCCC and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to use environmental discourse to articulate an anti-neoliberal agenda. Since the Stockholm Convention on the Environment in 1972, formerly third world nations have intervened in the politics of the environment in a way that has had real geopolitical implications. For instance, the Convention on Biological Diversity was something of a watershed moment for Southern countries gaining control over resources subject to biopiracy.

There are multiple logics at work in determining what the environment means as a political object, how it’s articulated, and how it’s mobilised. That’s sometimes overlooked in narratives that see only triumphant neo-liberalism doing its thing.


Sara Holiday Nelson is a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s.

Gabriel Levy is an activist in the workers’ movement from the UK. He writes the People & Nature blog that reflects his interest in the relationship of socialism and ecology. He has been visiting Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan since Soviet times.