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: 1

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: 2

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.

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


  1. 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
  2. 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)

To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer

Paul Ehrlich? Alexander Pope? Senator Soaper? Bill Vaughan? Agatha Christie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am reading your blog and that shows I am not a Luddite, but computers can be very exasperating. One of my favorite quotations on this topic is the following:

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.

When I tried to find out who said this originally I came across the name of biologist Paul Ehrlich. He wrote an influential and controversial book “The Population Bomb” in 1968. But I cannot figure out where or when Ehrlich said this quotation. Would you delve into this and determine the specifics? I suspect that it is another anonymously authored witty remark.

Quote Investigator: The popularity of this funny maxim is indicated by its appearance in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 1 the Yale Book of Quotations, 2 and the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. 3 In each of these three references the adage is presented as anonymous. The Yale Book of Quotations gives the earliest cite dated October 3, 1969.

Paul Ehrlich is credited with the quote in some places, e.g., in a listing of “101 Great Computer Programming Quotes”. 4 But the earliest examples of the phrase attributed to Ehrlich were published many years after the words originally appeared in print.

In 1969 a thematically similar remark appeared in the book “Hallowe’en Party” by the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie: 5

I know there’s a proverb which says, ‘To err is human’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

A separate article about the Christie quotation is available here.

The first close match located by QI appeared on April 2, 1969 and was credited to a comical personage named ‘Senator Soaper’ who was the fictional alter ego of the newspaper columnist Bill Vaughan. The words initially appeared under that name in a Virginia paper: 6

To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.

Current evidence suggests that William E. Vaughan crafted this phrase although it is possible he was influenced by the Agatha Christie passage.
Continue reading To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer


  1. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Sayings 49”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 October 6)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 670, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations [Inside title Columbia Book of Quotations], Page 171, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books preview) link
  4. 2008 January 1, Website:, DevTopics: Software Development Topics, 101 Great Computer Programming Quotes. (Accessed December 5, 2010) link
  5. 1970 (Copyright 1969), Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, Quote Page 35, Pocket Books, New York. (First published in 1969; this is 1970 paperback edition) (Verified with scans)
  6. 1969 April 2, Free Lance-Star, Senator Soaper [Free standing quote], Page 1, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Google News archive)