If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



Addicted To Growth

August 2, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 31

Thanks to Rudy Baum for his thoughtful editorial “Addicted to Growth” and for bringing attention to Bill McKibben’s new book “Eaarth” (C&EN, June 28, page 3). Unfortunately, Baum laid responsibility on everyone equally by characterizing the driving force for the potential destruction of our planet as people’s greed, writing, for example, “Our greed” and “We are addicted to growth.”

We, the people on this planet, are not equal players in our societies. The primary force that drives most societies’ economic activities is maximization of profits—capitalism carried out by businesses and especially large corporations—whereas most people’s ability to accumulate stuff is determined by prevailing social conditions, that is, income and availability.

Nor are all societies equal contributors. Western countries are more proficient at consuming goods and raw materials than most Asian or African countries. The people in developing countries still consume much less per capita than we do and are not, currently, nearly as dangerous to the environment. Within industrialized countries, CEOs and boards of directors have much more power to influence the economy than do their employees and other citizens.

Some businesses do promote preserving the environment, but the dominant message from business in all forms of media is to consume. They do not foster public discussions about or provide leadership for how best to collectively reduce energy consumption; to consider saving by sharing costs (single-payer health care); to build mass transit systems, ride bikes, and walk to reduce our dependence on oil; or to consider alternative social structures that might be more ecologically viable than capitalism. For scores of years, movements from the people have promoted sustainable agriculture, environmental protection, no-growth societies, and smaller, less centralized societies as McKibben suggests. Businesses in general oppose these efforts because such ideas are not good for profits, which depend on growth.

Competition drives growth in capitalist societies. Growth is not the religion of the people, but it is the ideology of those who profit from capitalism. The business class controls the organization of production and, via campaign contributions, often determines who gets elected to office and who writes the laws that protect the capitalist system.

The big questions are: How do we, the people, the ordinary folks, get our countries to change direction before our planet is irreversibly fouled? How do we, the people, create a sustainable economy that distributes the wealth equally here and around the world?

Larry Romsted
Piscataway, N.J.

Baum’s recurrent “no growth” guilt trip is a cruel recommendation for the billions of fellow human beings whose very lives depend on economic and technological growth.

This warped prescription is neither the vision of chemistry nor the message of the American Chemical Society.

Richard A. Carpenter
Charlottesville, Va.

The only point I find arguable in Baum’s editorial is whether or not this addiction is the cause or result of the greed that is prevalent in our society. This is only a chicken-or-the-egg question that is not worth debating.

I strongly support the argument that a basic change is needed in our economic system so that it does not require continued growth to be healthy. Also, a reduced and stabilized population would be a significant part of a sustainable future. Earth is still beautiful, and it’s all we have. It is ridiculous to think we can use up everything it has to offer and pack up and leave for some Earth-like orb many light-years away to do the same thing there.

Change will be difficult, and there is no easy way to accomplish it without some pain and discomfort. However, to wait and only hope some scientific discoveries will make everything okay will only result in a much more painful survival-of-the-fittest scenario.

Ronald Wake
Hilton, N.Y.

Why does Baum use the word “addicted” to describe a state of necessity? We’re not addicted to fossil fuels; they’re a necessity and will continue to be so until technology creates an improvement. We’re not addicted to growth; it’s a necessity. By 2050 it is projected that 10 billion people will populate Earth. Without growth, how will we cope with this increase?

Constructive environmentalists will not sit about moaning of the calamities and catastrophes that await. Instead they will assess the above facts and propose viable solutions. Can we nuke half the population on Earth to decrease the necessity of growth or to reduce the stress on the other species whose habitats are disappearing? Of course not!

It is likely that the population will level off at about 9 billion to 10 billion people. Meanwhile, we rely on technology to provide what is necessary. Environmentalists will continue to wring their hands and cry for the agonies of Mother Earth, but they can do only very little beyond what is already being done.

Finally, with unemployment of chemists at record levels, why would a spokesman for chemists advocate a decrease of growth? Industrial growth creates the need for technologists and chemists. Be careful, lest you destroy the need for your job.

Anthony J. Di Milo
San Diego

I agree with Baum’s editorial; however, an additional point should be made: We are dealing with a closed system. There is an equilibrium even if we do not immediately recognize it. As an example, several years ago big pharma was making on the order of 20+% profit growth. At the same time, the same people who were thrilled with that growth were complaining about the price of their prescriptions. How long did people think that this situation could continue?

The rule of 72 says that at 20% growth, the profit will double in 3.6 years, quadruple in 7.2 years, and octuple in 10.8. This is insane. Society said that this situation could not continue, and that is why people are suddenly saying big pharma is evil. People want growth for themselves but want everything else to remain constant. If one thing grows, something else decreases. We need to be careful because some of those things that are decreasing may be running out.

Mike Nichols
Somerset, N.J.

In his editorial, Baum jumps on his global-warming soapbox (again). Baum agrees with environmental alarmist Bill McKibben, who preaches that we need “sustainability” (a simpler, scaled-back lifestyle) rather than economic growth. “Growth is a religion,” says Baum, and not a good one at that.

Baum’s religion seems to be liberalism, which has promoted the current global warming scare. For liberals, global warming is a tactic to promote more government control, higher taxes, and the redistribution of wealth.

Yes, Earth is undergoing a warming trend—but it’s not man-made. A 1,500-year cycle of global warming and cooling has been well documented, and it’s connected to variations in solar activity. Right now we’re in an upswing, with global temperatures rising slightly.

Earth and humans have survived previous temperature cycles, and there is no reason to believe the current warming trend is a significant threat. The bigger threat is liberals like McKibben and Baum telling us that economic downsizing is going to make our lives better. That makes no sense!

Robert Lattimer
Hudson, Ohio

How right you are in your editorial stating that “Growth is a religion ...” It was a coincidence that the very day I read your comments there appeared in my local newspaper an editorial ( concerning growth in our community and state.

The question that promotion of growth always has to raise is, When does it stop? The newspaper editorial concludes: “In the end you grow or you stagnate.” However, such support of unlimited growth reminds me of the fate of bacteria growing in a closed petri dish that undergo growth phases and eventually death resulting from ever-decreasing nutrients and increasing toxins.

Bernard Hofreiter
Peoria, Ill.

The funniest thing is that Baum actually thinks he sounds intelligent. His blinders, caused by the desire to sound like part of the intelligentsia, are so thick that he calls growth a religion. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of religion also. He is not the only donkey in the field braying this note, but it sounds so naïve coming from him. This is one donkey that’s ready for the knackers.

Liam J. Rogers
Newark, N.J.

How do you get a mule’s attention? The classic answer is a smart blow between the eyes with a 2-by-4. But the reward may be a noose hanging from the highest yardarm in the British Navy.

I have long limited my views on this matter to a single dimension, a finite Earth and a growing population. Baum has added a second dimension, per capita demand growth. So the denominator of the equation becomes the product of two consumption factors.

I liken the effort to consume more things by more people from a finite source to a dog chasing his tail. The faster he goes, the sooner he collapses in utter exhaustion.

W. Robert Schwandt
Spokane Valley, Wash.

Baum’s editorial “Addicted To Growth” was an interesting read. If you really believe that we need to break our addiction to growth, then I challenge you to take the first step. As editor-in-chief, you must have considerable influence at C&EN. You could push for policies that are resistant to growth, such as significantly increasing subscription costs for new members. Perhaps you could take an even broader stance. I suspect that many of the companies advertising in C&EN are doing so to encourage corporate growth. You could reduce the amount of ad space offered or eliminate it entirely to avoid being an accessory to that growth.

If, as may be the case, you did not mean that all growth was bad, then please stop making such crazy generalizations and use more precise language in your editorials.

Seth L. Yates
Fresno, Calif.

Regarding Baum’s editorial on growth, I say right on! With continuing growth in world population and without corresponding growth in the supply of potable water and arable land—both now stretched tight—and with the dwindling supply of petroleum, there is no doubt that the end of growth is upon us, whether it is now or in a decade or so. Yet there seems to be no reputable school of economics that does not assume continuing growth as the answer to our economic well-being. Go figure!

Victor J. Reilly
Aiken, S.C.

C&EN’s editor considers that “growth” has become a religion. However, attributing climate change to human activities has become a religion, and as with other religions the evidence against it is ignored by its followers. In fact, there is increasing evidence that climate change is NOT due to human activity but to nature at work. The only growth that we should worry about is the growth in population.

Thomas D. Smith
Oak Harbor, Wash.

Baum’s editorial highlights the magnitude and urgency of the environmental problems facing planet Earth. Baum cites Bill McKibben as writing that “it is a planet that will no longer tolerate growth.” McKibben seems to be one of the few who are bold enough to tell it like it is: that is, sustainable growth is an oxymoron. An epigram often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi enunciates this in a memorable fashion, admonishing us to live simply so that others may simply live.

Rama Viswanathan
Beloit, Wis.

Baum challenges a basic belief of our economic system—our addiction to growth. He points out that endless and often pointless consumption is defined in our society as economic success.

I see this as an unfortunate truth that we have preferred to avoid. On the one hand, economists see increased consumption as essential to providing the jobs we need in order to end the recession. But it is clear that in spite of various programs to increase the generation of energy from renewable sources, there is no prospect that we will get the 80% reduction in CO2 emissions the experts say we need to have by 2050. Our economy and our lifestyles are too locked in to using all forms of energy.

The people of India and China logically believe that their efforts to achieve the lifestyles of Westerners should not be subject to restrictions on the growth of their economies. Innovation of all sorts is a god of economists, but nearly every new gadget that attracts millions of buyers means more energy used in fabricating, distributing, and using it. Global advertising itself cost $445 billion last year.


The standard of living is pretty much equated with consumption everywhere in the world. And as we see the rich getting richer in most countries, we see there are seldom limits to personal consumption. To avoid catastrophic global warming, the world must reduce its use of energy. But with American addiction to growth, can we dispute the right of the people in undeveloped nations to quadruple their use of energy to match our lifestyles?

Is it possible to make quality of life the common goal rather than economic achievement and accumulation of wealth? Is it possible to adopt having just one or two children per family as a goal?

John Burton
Washington, N.J.

We can look at unbridled growth and its consequences from a different perspective, not as a uniquely human addiction but as a more widespread phenomenon. One of the simplest of organisms and ecosystems is yeast in a fermentation broth. In the brewing of beer, yeast is added to a nutrient cereal broth. The yeast use the carbohydrates in the broth as their food source and produce alcohol as their waste product. For a while the yeast happily consume the nutrients, grow, and reproduce, and the yeast population keeps on increasing. For a short time it looks like the yeast population can go on increasing forever. There is an abundant supply of food surrounding them, and they have no enemies. However, unknown to the yeast, the concentration of alcohol—their waste product—keeps increasing. Unfortunately, alcohol is a poison to the yeast. Once the alcohol concentration in their environment reaches a critical level, guess what happens to the yeast? They die.

Any species—large or small, complex or simple—that depletes its natural resources and/or poisons its environment will face the same fate. Although we humans are supposedly highly intelligent, instead of developing a steady-state economy, we too are following a similar path of self-destruction with a global economy dependent on ever-increasing consumption that leads to ever-expanding production resulting in ever-decreasing natural resources and more and more environmental damage.

We are, in fact, acting like giant intelligent microbes; we are doing to the whole planet what yeast do to the fermentation broth. The argument is that we are a crisis-driven species and that we will find a technological fix just in time to save ourselves from oblivion. I sure hope so, for there may be some aliens in outer space, smacking their lips and watching their “beer” brewing down here on planet Earth.

Lancelot Fernando
Pittsburg, Calif.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.