Anyone Who Believes Exponential Growth Can Go On Forever in a Finite World Is Either a Madman or an Economist

Kenneth Boulding? Paul Ehrlich? David Attenborough? Mancur Olson? Wayne H. Davis? Jay W. Forrester? John S. Steinhart? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Population size, energy use, and gross domestic product (GDP) have grown exponentially for limited time periods within some nations; however, these trends are complex. Economies sometimes shrink; per-capita energy use sometimes declines; human population sometimes grows linearly. Recent projections suggest that the number of people on Earth may even plateau. An exasperated scholar once said something like this:

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.

This remark has been attributed to economist Kenneth Boulding, biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, and broadcaster David Attenborough. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the Fall 1973 issue of the journal “Daedalus”. The general topic of the issue was “The No-Growth Society”, and the economist Mancur Olson who penned the introduction credited the remark to Kenneth Boulding. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1973 Fall, Daedalus, Volume 102, Number 4, Issue Theme: The No-Growth Society, Introduction by Mancur Olson Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (JSTOR) link [/ref]

Kenneth Boulding has said that anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. Even if one does not accept this view, it is clear that no sensible person can deny the seriousness of the possibility that current rates of economic growth cannot be sustained indefinitely because of the environmental constraint.

QI has not yet found a close match in the works of Boulding. A thematic match occurred in a presentation Boulding made to the Canadian Political Science Association in 1953:[ref] 1970 (1968 Copyright), Beyond Economics: Essays on Society, Religion and Ethics by Kenneth E. Boulding, Article: Toward a General Theory of Growth (The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, August 1953, Pages 326 to 340; this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association in London, Ontario, June 3, 1953), Start Page 64, Quote Page 66, Ann Arbor Paperbacks: The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Continuous growth at a constant rate, however, is rare in nature and even in society. Indeed it may be stated that within the realm of common human experience all growth must run into eventually declining rates of growth. As growth proceeds, the growing object must eventually run into conditions which are less and less favourable to growth.

If this were not true there would eventually be only one object in the universe and at that point at least, unless the universe itself can grow indefinitely, its growth would have to come to an end. It is not surprising, therefore, that virtually all empirical growth curves exhibit the familiar “ogive” shape, the absolute growth being small at first, rising to a maximum, and then declining eventually to zero as the maximum value of the variable is reached.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 biologist Wayne H. Davis of the University of Kentucky published a piece in “The New Republic” which was reprinted in “The Courier-Journal & Times” of Louisville, Kentucky. Davis’s remarks contained a partial match:[ref] 1970 April 19, The Courier-Journal & Times, U.S. Overpopulation Points to Disaster, UK Biologist Says by Dr. Wayne H. Davis (Reprinted from “The New Republic” of January 10, 1970), Quote Page G3, Column 4 and 5, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Our economy is based upon the Keynesian concept of a continued growth in population and productivity. It worked in an underpopulated nation with excess resources. It could continue to work only if the Earth and its resources were expanding at an annual rate of 4 to 5 per cent. Yet neither the number of cars, the economy, the human population, nor anything else can expand indefinitely at an exponential rate in a finite world.

We must face this fact now. The crisis is here. When Walter Heller says that our economy will expand by 4 per cent annually through the latter 1970s he is dreaming.

In 1972 systems scientist Jay W. Forrester delivered an address that was reprinted in the record of U.S. Congressional Hearings on “National Growth Policy”. Forrester expressed skepticism about “ever-rising exponential growth”:[ref] 1972, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-Second Congress, Second Session, National Growth Policy, Part 2: Selected Papers Submitted to the Subcommittee on Housing of the Committee on Banking and Currency, Control of Urban Growth by Jay W. Forrester (Keynote Address, American Public Works Association, Minneapolis, Minn., September 25, 1972), Start Page 706, Quote Page 711, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Unless ever-rising exponential growth can go on forever, and that is generally accepted as impossible, then some set of pressures will eventually stop growth.

In Fall 1973 Mancur Olson ascribed a close match to Kenneth Boulding in the pages of “Daedalus” as noted previously. This was the first instance using “madman” known to QI:

Kenneth Boulding has said that anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

In October 1973 a newspaper opinion piece by John Hamer discussed the doubling of the size of the U.S. economy to one trillion dollars and asked if another doubling was possible:[ref] 1973 October 8, The Journal Times, The Pressures of Urban Growth by John Hamer (Editorial Research Reports), Quote Page 8A, Column 6, Racine, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Is such explosive growth possible? Moreover, is it desirable? Economist Kenneth E. Boulding once said that anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. Economists always have been the gurus of growth but many have begun to doubt the faith.

In November 1973 a prepared statement from John S. Steinhart who was a Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin appeared in the record of U.S. Congressional Hearings. Steinhart attributed the saying to Boulding:[ref] 1973, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-Third Congress, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, Energy Reorganization Act of 1973, Date: Thursday, November 29, 1973, Prepared Statement of John S. Steinhart (Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin), Start Page 247, Quote Page 248, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

I will not enter the controversial question here of growth or no growth, but it is necessary in planning for the near future to repeat the commonplace observation that endless doubling of the production of fuels and mineral resources on a finite earth are impossible. Until we understand where our energy supplies are to come from, we cannot say for certain whether the day of growth slow down can be postponed into a misty future—say 1000 years away—or whether we should plan for some reduction in growth soon.

As the economist, Kenneth Boulding has remarked, “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

In 1990 a book reviewer in the “Chicago Tribune” examined “The Population Explosion” by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich. The quotation was ascribed to the authors by the reviewer:[ref] 1990 March 30, Chicago Tribune, Books: Has the population bomb exploded? (Book Review by Elizabeth Sherman of The Population Explosion by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich), Quote Page CN3, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) [/ref]

As we destroy the very organisms, earth, air and water that sustain us, some still maintain that more is better. The Ehrlichs’ response: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

In 2013 Sir David Attenborough spoke at the Royal Geographical Society, and “The Guardian” published several remarks made by the broadcaster:[ref] 2013 October 16, The Guardian, Article: Attenborough: poorer countries are just as concerned about the environment, Author: Mark Riley Cardwell, London, England. (Accessed on July 11, 2019) link [/ref]

Sir David said one of the biggest threats to the natural world was overpopulation, and improving women’s rights around the world was the only effective way to bring birth rates down.

“I have little doubt that if we have the capacity to limit our birth rate, then we should consider doing that,” he said. “We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.

In conclusion, the acerbic comment under examination was attributed to Kenneth Boulding by Mancur Olson in 1973. QI has not yet found direct evidence supporting this ascription in the writings or interviews of Boulding. On the other hand, QI did find an argument from Boulding in 1953 against the possibility of unconstrained exponential growth in nature or society. Boulding did not use the word “madman” in 1953.

Kenneth Boulding died in 1993. So he was alive when the saying was attributed to him. Many other people have employed the expression after Olson’s article appeared, but credit was often given to Boulding. Future researchers may find illuminating citations.

Image Notes: Illustration of stacks of coins increasing in size at an exponential rate from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Roy Allen whose tweet inquiry in October 2018 led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Allen saw a tweet by environmental activist George Monbiot who stated that an attribution of the quotation to Attenborough was incorrect. Additional thanks to the volunteer Wikipedia editors who located the November 29, 1973 citation, and Barry Popik who located the October 1973 citation.)

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