Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits

Robert Heilbroner published An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, in which he forecast traumatic limits to long-term growth because of scarce resources, environmental degradation, and population pressures.

Summary of Event

In his provocative An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, Robert Heilbroner answered his own initial question, “Is there hope for humanity?” with the statement, “Human beings are too selfish and too short-sighted to avoid environmental catastrophe.” He predicted malaise, wars, famines, and greater authoritarianism as the most likely results of the worsening degradation of the environment, diminishing resources, and burgeoning populations. What set his cautionary prognosis apart from many others was Heilbroner’s measured assessment of the many physical, social, economic, psychological, and political factors involved. Environmental awareness
[kw]Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits (1974)
[kw]Growth Limits, Heilbroner Predicts (1974)
[kw]Limits, Heilbroner Predicts Growth (1974)
Environmental awareness
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[g]United States;1974: Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits[01420]
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[c]Environmental issues;1974: Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits[01420]
[c]Economics;1974: Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits[01420]
Heilbroner, Robert

Heilbroner’s book falls into three main sections. In the first, the author described the malaise that began to be widely experienced during the last quarter of the twentieth century and contrasted it with the two decades of economic, cultural, and technological optimism that followed World War II; he attributed the malaise in part to the realization that the problems facing society were enormous and would dominate coming decades. In the second and third parts of An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, Heilbroner focused on economic and political limitations to effective responses.

A professor of economics, Heilbroner had made a name for himself with his popular survey of major economists, The Worldly Philosophers (1953). Central to Heilbroner’s analysis of the “postindustrialist age” was the belief that while the two dominant socioeconomic structures of the time, capitalism and socialism, required growth to function, rapid and extensive industrialization had proved to be the primary cause of environmental problems and might bring about the end of growth. Both systems required growth yet could not tolerate its side effects.

Thirteen years after Heilbroner’s book, the prestigious Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development) produced in 1987 for the World Commission on Environment and Development, discussed the idea of sustainable development, which the report defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Already in 1974, however, Heilbroner in his book had presented a three-pronged argument against the concept that a capitalist economy could be sustained without steady growth. In his opinion, economic expansion serves three functions in a market-based society: It expresses the drives and values of the dominant class, helps avoid a general economic glut, and accommodates the striving of its constituents for larger rewards. Heilbroner questioned that a stationary or slow-growth economy could successfully substitute for these essential functions, believing instead that a market-based economy can no more sustain itself without growth than an animal can survive without food.

In discussing the first of these functions, Heilbroner cited a few examples of less aggressive business leaderships than those in the United States, among them the “French or English capitalists just before and after World War II, respectively, and . . . the curiously bureaucratic complexion of Japanese capitalism, run by an extraordinarily ’passive’ and conformist managerial elite.” In general, however, business leaders seek expansion and growth—their status and salaries depend on their ability to expand sales and increase profits—and politicians support economic growth and jobs.

The second function of growth in a capitalist society is to avoid economic crisis resulting from overproduction. Starting with Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, economists have pointed out that stationary capitalism would result in falling profits. Entrepreneurs would continue to start businesses, the resulting competition would drive down profits on well-established goods, the economy would stagnate, and competition for income would become fierce. Heilbroner allowed that governments might be effective in countering economic contraction by instituting such corrective measures as expanding housing, education, and other social markets or increasing aid to underdeveloped countries.

Although the effects of slowing growth in a capitalist economy are serious, Heilbroner surmised that the most difficult hurdle would be substituting something for the third function of expansion. Economic growth allows capitalist societies to satisfy the lower and middle classes with ever-increasing standards of living while maintaining the upper classes’ dominance. Almost everyone gains, although the division of goods among the individual social strata remains unchanged. Quite possibly the relative degree of social peace during the late twentieth century is attributable to decades of almost uninterrupted economic expansion. The reverse could lead to enormous social tensions.

Heilbroner expressed doubt that either human nature or political systems are flexible enough to respond quickly to avert widespread catastrophe. In his view, humanity’s encounter with environmental limits will be dominated by its two basic traits, that of finding security in obeying legitimate authority, and that of wishing to identify with a group, tribe, ethnic selection, religion, or nation. Both traits, Heilbroner believed, are shaped and reinforced during childhood, and with the need for identification comes awareness of who is not a member of the group. Heilbroner predicted that a severe environmental crisis would elicit calls for stronger leadership as well as greater acquiescence to authority, and he went on to predict that “the passage through the gauntlet ahead may be possible only under governments capable of rallying obedience far more effectively than would be possible in a democratic setting.” Although the environmental crisis calls for the optimum of cooperation among nations and peoples, Heilbroner considered it “utopian to hope that we will face the global challenges of the future as an international brotherhood of men.”

For Heilbroner, the most likely consequences of an age of limits were “convulsive changes” such as warfare over resources (including land), more authoritarian governments, tighter control of borders and greater desire among many to migrate, and widespread disenchantment as expectations and reality diverge. Those changes would of course endanger the very culture of vigorous, free discussion that had permitted the publication of his book, since authoritarian governments tend to suppress not only what is considered to be against the common good but also free speech.

Grim as his prognosis was, Heilbroner held out hope that new technologies such as solar energy might lessen the difficulties of living within limits. National economies might shift so as to concentrate economic growth in less polluting industries. Humanity might be fortunate in the timing of its convulsions, and perhaps small-scale, localized catastrophes would suffice to warn the rest of the world. Heilbroner considered such possibilities remote, but some of his critics believed that a combination of new resources, improved energy efficiency, human adaptability, and general learning would allow humanity to avoid catastrophe.


Heilbroner’s An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, predicting as it does catastrophic scarcity of nonrenewable resources and convulsive societal changes, created a stir when it appeared in 1974. Its publication came shortly after the start of the Arab oil embargo in October, 1973, and in the same year that the United States withdrew its ground forces from Vietnam and Richard M. Nixon resigned from the presidency because of the Watergate scandal.

In its pessimism, Heilbroner’s work was not unlike the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth, Limits to Growth, The (Meadows et al.) published two years earlier, which it to some extent complemented and reinforced. Where that book focused on rates of resource utilization, population growth, and known reserves of resources, Heilbroner concentrated on politics, economics, and psychology. Where The Limits to Growth discussed the consequences of resource shortages for agricultural and industrial production, Heilbroner considered the possibility of wars breaking out over scarce resources.

Heilbroner’s critics labeled him a follower of Thomas Robert Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert (1766-1834), who had predicted that population growth would inevitably outstrip food production, and they claimed that Heilbroner underestimated human resourcefulness in his emphasis on population growth and social tension. Those who believed in the possibility of collective, cooperative response to serious threats cited the successful international response to overwhelming evidence that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer.

Many environmentalists, among them U.S. vice president Al Gore Gore, Al in his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Earth in the Balance (Gore) have stressed the so-called win-win solutions of environmentally beneficial practices that are also good for business. The switch from incandescent to fluorescent lightbulbs, for example, is cost-effective at the same time it reduces energy use. Heilbroner differed from Gore in doubting that there would be enough such solutions to avert catastrophe. Gore himself later adopted a more alarmist perspective.

One area in which Heilbroner’s analysis soon became dated was in its concern that heat from industrial processes might become the most important factor in limiting industrial societies. While subsequent events did not refute the threat of heat emissions, global climate change Climate change
Global warming from the accumulation of greenhouse gases came to be seen as a much more pressing concern.

Heilbroner reiterated the basic arguments of An Inquiry into the Human Prospect in his Twenty-First Century Capitalism, Twenty-First Century Capitalism (Heilbroner)[Twenty First Century Capitalism] published in 1993. Twenty years after the first book, his tone had become somewhat less pessimistic. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Heilbroner, like many others, had come to believe that “wars and disasters aside, and even in the face of a global warming that will likely become the central challenge of the coming century, capitalism bids fair to remain the dominant social order during our children’s and children’s children’s time.” The later book continued, however, to emphasize the “externalities,” or side effects, of market systems and the fact that businesses driven by the pursuit of profit have strong incentives to overlook adverse environmental consequences:

Capitalism entrusts its overall economic coordination to a mechanism that is clearly inadequate to resolve the most pressing problems of our coming century—namely, the internationalization of production and the globalization of our ecological encounter. One cannot contemplate this catalogue of deficiencies and expect the order as a whole to make the passage through the twenty-first century unscathed.

Heilbroner reaffirmed his conviction that living with environmental limits severely stresses the political, economic, and cultural systems. While he continued to believe that one advantage of the free market system is that it heightens individualistic and acquisitive personality traits, by the same token he regarded resistance to change on the part of the dominating economic strata as an enormous threat to the cooperation needed to solve global problems. Whether humans, like the dinosaurs, will fail to adjust or, like some mammals in the past, evolve, Heilbroner remained convinced that major change will be forced on humanity. Environmental awareness

Further Reading

  • Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. 1992. Reprint. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press, 2006. An engaging presentation of the “win-win” view that what is good for the environment is also good for business.
  • Heilbroner, Robert L. An Inquiry into the Human Prospect: Looked at Again for the 1990’s. Rev. ed. Kingston, Mass.: R. S. Means Company, 1991. Revised edition of the classic work in which Heilbroner claims that environmental degradation is likely to lead to more wars and famines. Includes index.
  • _______. Twenty-First Century Capitalism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. A reaffirmation of the fundamental arguments of the author’s 1974 book, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect.
  • _______. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. 7th ed. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Updated several times since its first edition in 1953, this is a superb popular account of the history of economic thought.
  • Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows. Limits to Growth: The Thirty-Year Update. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green, 2004. Authors of the 1972 report assess the availability of natural resources for the world’s population and demonstrate why the world may face catastrophe. Includes helpful charts illustrating findings.
  • World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1987. An influential book that presents the view that sustainable development is both possible and necessary.

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