What is capitalism's answer to constant economic growth hitting the limit of the planet's finite resources?



We keep hearing a lot about economic growth in the media and this answer shows us why it is so important:

Therefore, we have three options:

  • A constant increase in unemployment. (Generally feared and loathed.)
  • Less time at work per person. (Sometimes impractical. Wastes educational resources as people would still have to study and train just as much only to produce less. Might reduce people's earnings, etc.)
  • Constant economic growth to create new jobs and counteract the reduced need for manpower caused by technological advancement.

The third option is generally preferred by policymakers, academics, the public, etc. for the reasons described above, as well as other reasons.

However, perpetual constant economic growth within a planet having finite resources is not possible (it is not sustainable):

Capitalism requires a constantly expanding production and consumption of goods, which can only be achieved through the increased exploitation of the planet’s natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Because of this reality, sustainable development cannot be achieved without a dramatic reduction in the levels of production and consumption, which directly contradicts the growth logic that drives capitalism.

So, I am wondering if and how capitalism can deal with this? What if we reach the limits of the environment and economic growth is no longer possible?


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

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– yannis – 2019-01-17T13:45:23.533

Possible duplicate of What is the capitalist answer to automation?

– Chloe – 2019-01-17T18:08:18.747

1Further comments deleted. If you want to discuss how much more economic growth is possible or not please use the chatroom provided by yannis. – Philipp – 2019-01-20T11:19:51.663

1Are you talking about economic growth (more wealth per person) or population growth (more people in total)? There's no real limit to the first, while the second is obviously limited (though depending on how advanced future technology you're thinking about, we might be ~1-12 orders of magnitude away from that limit). Consider the difference between having 10 times more cars to having a new car ten times as often. The first case needs more raw resources, the second doesn't (ignoring waste) - but they both correspond to the same economic growth. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T10:08:59.043

2There are two questions here. One is about finite resource consumption; the other is about the obsolescence (or not) of human labour. They are not directly related. What are you asking about? – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-21T15:40:30.670

8What is capitalism's answer to constant economic growth hitting the limit of the planet's finite resources? SpaceX. – ValarDohaeris – 2019-01-21T17:02:07.540

@henning - I am asking about "finite resource consumption". – Alexei – 2019-01-22T10:45:11.193

Related: https://politics.stackexchange.com/q/27745/19403 – y0m0mm4 – 2019-01-22T15:07:41.137

@ValarDohaeris Don't forget to mention my friend's Blue Origin. Great company, led by an incredible man. – y0m0mm4 – 2019-01-22T15:11:39.457

Interplanetary expansion. That'd be the answer (actually, that is the answer), not just of Capitalism but any economic model assuming technological progression takes place. – luis.espinal – 2019-01-23T15:34:09.573

1Space resources! – Asleepace – 2019-01-23T23:59:58.703


Actually, capitalism does not mandate perpetual growth. Indeed, capitalism, functions better under a steady-state economy (including a largely stable population) where there is an equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. The issue you are probably more wanting to discuss is the idea of earned vs unearned income or more broadly real economics vs fake economics - in this, the ideology of perpetual growth resides and all of it's supporting econobabble. A worthwhile discussion here: https://renegadeinc.com/meet-renegades-michael-hudson/

– mattpm – 2019-01-24T04:15:11.417

@Luaan ignoring waste : Ignoring externalities is exactly the reason why economists think a constant economic growth is possible in a finite world. – Eric Duminil – 2019-01-26T15:04:44.850

@luis.espinal Interplanetary expansion is no answer whatsoever. Exponential growth means you will periodically double your resource needs until you hit the hard limits. If you add another planet, that gives you one more period. Another period will take two more. Then four more. Eight more... it doesn't take long to consume the whole universe this way. Capitalism doesn't care either way - it's simply a way of managing a limited amount of resources; the actual number doesn't matter much. It works just as well on a desert island as it does for the galaxy. – Luaan – 2019-01-26T16:27:42.117

@Luaan - an answer doesn't need to be final or perfect. I'm saying that expansion will be capitalism's answer to the problem of planetary finite resources. No other "good/bad" analysis of that fact follows from the question. Debating whether that's a good approach (not mine, capitalism's), that's a different topic and question. – luis.espinal – 2019-01-28T14:56:38.547

Economic activity does not necessarily mean consuming finite resources. This is the basis of the idea of circular economy, which is probably the closest we can get to capitalism's 'answer'. (I was surprised to see no mention of it here.)

– Max Barraclough – 2019-02-09T16:54:18.303

@MaxBarraclough - this is a very interesting idea and it can certainly be developed into an answer. – Alexei – 2019-02-09T19:15:21.863

I don't believe that Capitalism is good at responding to disasters in a collectivist manner. However, one upside to unchecked Capitalism is that it seems to produce higher poverty rates, which actually decrease consumption. I've always had concerns that one of the few downsides to eliminating poverty is that it speeds-up consumption. Of course, consumption is only one of many factors in the total equation of resource conservation, reuse, and optimization. But I believe that free and accessible birth control might reduce consumption even better. – John – 2019-02-22T19:40:17.653

-1 for the false premise (that capitalism requires constant growth) and for not showing how this problem is unique to capitalism. If people burn oil, it's going to run out no matter what political system is in force. – EvilSnack – 2019-03-02T14:27:46.913



Why would capitalism have an answer?

Your question presumes that economic systems should be fully planned out into perpetuity, but that's just a false premise. You might as well ask what democracy's answer to peak oil is, or what individualism's answer to FTL travel would be.

All capitalism means is that people are able to earn money off of things that they own (private ownership of capital goods). It's not like it's something that a cabal of people got together, mapped out, and implemented from the top down. It's emergent behavior that was later described as capitalism.

David Rice

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– Sam I am says Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-18T22:24:29.947

38"All capitalism means is that people are able to earn money off of things that they own" Finance makes money of things they do not own (other people's money). Similarly, a Marxist would tell you that capitalists make money by extracting value from workers. I repeat it again. This is a terrible answer. The OP is evidently interested in the ideas apologists of capitalism have come up with to tackle the issue. A trivial rephrasing of the question would make this answer redundant. – luchonacho – 2019-01-21T12:17:45.147

31@luchonacho No it's actually a perfect answer that covers multiple angles. As an opponent, this very nicely represents the cynical "we don't care" attitude of "all-round"-capitalists that consider making money and consuming the main purpose of economic life. But it also can be seen as a very realistic answer, it truly isn't a thing of concern for capitalism as a concept. As much as it's not part of the concept of a hammer where and how to use it and where you forbid people to use it or require them to wear protective gloves when using it. – Frank Hopkins – 2019-01-21T15:18:41.000

16@luchonacho you're wrong about finance - unless you think that debt isn't something you can own? In which case...can I borrow some money? – David Rice – 2019-01-22T14:42:01.770

4@Darkwing Even more so, this answer neatly encapsulates the great advantage of capitalism: there doesn't have to be a plan. A state run economy needs to plan out a course of action for exhausted resources. In a capitalist system, as individual resources become scares, their prices will adjust, and then their utilization will adjust. We, collectively, really have no idea how we, collectively, will deal with scarce resources, but we, collectively, will figure it out. – kingledion – 2019-01-22T16:31:38.173

@kingledion That deals with the economic part. Not with the moral and social part if is it right to use up everything now because it is easy to do so. You still need these debates and then can adjust your rule set under which capitalism works. In that sense one can argue that capitalism makes it harder as you need to work against its incentive to use the resources to make money, while otherwise you'd "just" adjust your five-year plan (which comes with its own economic drawbacks, e.g. doesn't auto-update). – Frank Hopkins – 2019-01-22T16:41:09.887

16@Darkwing Capitalism isn't a moral framework, it doesn't purport to answer moral questions. There are good questions to ask, like "is capitalism the right choice", but "what it capitalism's answer" is a meaningless question. – David Rice – 2019-01-22T16:46:53.607

2@DavidRice Which is exactly what I wrote above, but saying that adapting prices automatically shows a benefit of capitalism totally goes past the intended question and while true for the economic side, if you want to solve the problems indicated by the question, you need to address them separately and still make your plan on how to do so, which will have to take capitalism or your other economic system's context into account. So in that context, there is no automatism that fixes the general "problem" it just auto-adjusts the economy. – Frank Hopkins – 2019-01-22T17:21:08.693

2This doesn't answer how capitalistic economic system, AKA "capitalism", deals with implications of constant economic growth. This is quite answerable question, so I don't understand all the upvotes here. Also, your examples are bad. Democracy (as well as other systems of government) is precisely what needs to deal with peak oil, and "individualism" isn't something which is expected to govern countries or economies, so making a meaningless sentence using it just weakens your "answer". – hyde – 2019-01-22T19:14:55.060

5@hyde Capitalism doesn't deal with anything, at all. There are no answers that capitalism gives because that's not its purpose. At best, the answer is tautological - how does capitalism deal with X? It deals with X by being a system where private ownership of capital goods enables people to profit off their property. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't answer anything. – David Rice – 2019-01-22T20:42:19.047

1@DavidRice Either you are twisting words and intentionally misunderstanding what the question is asking (and other answers are answering), or I don't know what you are talking about. – hyde – 2019-01-22T21:22:10.650

13@hyde You might as well ask "What is evolution's answer to long droughts?". Evolution isn't teleological, it doesn't have answers to anything other than "how does speciation occur?". Capitalism isn't teleological, it doesn't have any answers other than "who controls the means of production?". It doesn't have a goal, it doesn't try to end poverty or increase inequality or do anything other than describe who is controlling the capital goods (private individuals). – David Rice – 2019-01-22T22:12:13.853

1Even if an economy is centrally-planned, it's still quite possible to have planners who don't make it a priority to deal with long-term environmental issues. See: USSR with the Aral Sea, Chernobyl, etc. – dan04 – 2019-02-22T02:56:07.290


Not all parts of the economy consume finite resources equally. In fact, only a minor portion of it is related to the manufacturing of goods in the industrialized countries. Most of the economy there is services by now and, even more related to your question, most of the growth is growth in services.

Manufacturing is on the decline while capitalism thrives. (US)

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Growth is growth in services. (UK)

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In fact, there is plenty potential for services to grow even more. For example, if you live in a western country and you get older, you wish there were more service workers tending to elder people available.

However, this does not mean that globally the use of resources is stagnating. Many products consumed in the US are made in China and even working in services consumes resources. Resource usage is still very much increasing.

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Services can be very eco-friendly jobs with a relatively small resource usage per job. Let's think for example doubling the number of teachers in schools which would could likely be done with little additional resource usage.

The shift to these jobs could happen quite automatically in capitalism. If resources become scarce they also become very expensive.

Also, some resources are renewable: food, energy, recycled materials (to some extent), wood, .... With regard to manufacturing and production there certainly is a desire to use existing resources as efficiently as possible with this kind of optimization still ongoing.

Saving the planet mostly probably will mean not using more (rather less) of the resources. This means that on average jobs have to be much, much more resource efficient and that global manufacturing may decline, which would mean that for example people might use things for a longer time or live on smaller space. However, it's much to early to deduce the downfall of capitalism because of that. If I would be worried about capitalism, I would worry about ongoing trends in artificial intelligence and automation.

Summary: Capitalism will use all available resources before anything changes. Only if resources become scarce, they will also become expensive. The world economy will then shift to labor that uses low amount of resources. These jobs will mainly be in services and within services only those who use low amounts of resources.


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– Philipp – 2019-01-17T22:50:04.220

6This answer is good. The question assumes economic growth consumes resources. I would argue economic growth is turning resources into useful things (e.g. turning phone components into a cell phone, using a person with free time into a service). Aside from non-renewable energy sources (for which alternative sources exist), the assumption of resource consumption is faulty. – Underminer – 2019-01-18T16:47:30.240

1@Underminer the existence of land fill rubbish dumps suggests a lot more than just energy sources are non-renewable. As of yet, no one has made phone components grow on trees. – Jontia – 2019-01-21T07:56:32.503

4@Jontia That's all about the cost. When raw resources become scarcer, those landfills disappear over time (this has already happened many times in the past - e.g. platinum, gold, aluminum, ...). Sorting waste is expensive, and reclaiming the useful materials is also expensive. Don't expect the renewal efforts to really get started until the cost of the raw material approaches the cost of renewal. Everything is renewable in principle if you don't care about the cost; whether renewable is also economical is another matter entirely, and depends on alternatives. We still have many of those. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T09:34:56.617

1@Luaan this kind of reasoning never says to whom the costs accrue. Yes, resources will be used more economically once they become expensive. But they won't easily become expensive as long as their already huge costs continue to be externalized to future generations and the least developed nations. Driving my SUV is cheap, because my kids will pay for it. Buying a new iPhone every year is affordable, because Malaysian workers can't afford what I afford. Once we internalize those costs, your reasoning will start to work. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-21T15:45:10.043

2@henning Driving your SUV is cheap because there are huge subsidies on oil (among other things). But yes, externalities that aren't accounted for can make a significant part of the total costs, and can distort the image quite a bit. But the reason we don't account for those is that they're really hard to even estimate, much less correctly measure. What's the real cost of leaking a kg of carbon dioxide? How does it change with total release (it certainly isn't anywhere near linear!)? Are those Malaysian workers free or forced labour (if free, their life is well improved by the job)? – Luaan – 2019-01-21T16:05:11.137

1@henning And of course, regardless of anything you do, people also make choices that hurt them in the long term. People make mistakes. And even though the huge economic growth since the industrial revolution is very much tied to the exploitation of fossil fuels, people clearly didn't become wealthier in proportion to the fossil fuel usage - some get much less than the average, some much more. Can you deprive people who didn't get a good chance to exploit them yet of their only way to improve their living conditions? Or do you think we should offset that by sending them free solar panels? – Luaan – 2019-01-21T16:08:03.450

@Luaan externalities are hard to measure, of course, and almost by definition. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. The fact that inhumane labour is indeed the "only way to improve their living conditions" for many people is at least partly an artificial constraint. Child labour in the US didn't disappear because it was no longer efficient to employ children, but because Americans decided to abolish it by law. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-21T16:46:47.490

1@henning No, child labour disappeared exactly because it was inefficient. In particular, children and women were only used in factories because men weren't available - they were tied in various concessions, guilds etc. There were others, like coal miners etc., but that wasn't really a big number. Indeed, most of those kinds of labour laws are only enacted when they affect a tiny proportion of the workforce (work hours, minimal wage laws, social security, safety training...). And finally, what you call inhumane isn't necessarily what the workers themselves would call inhumane. Don't patronise. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T20:21:34.753

@Luaan I don't think it's patronizing to deplore if people can only 'chose' between starving and suffering. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-21T20:43:05.163

1@henning So would it be better if they starved? If you deprive them of the choice, what else remains? Should they have the same wages and working conditions that you do? Who exactly presented them with the choice? Why are you the bad guy if you provide them with jobs, even if they're poor jobs? It's not like there's people lining up to invest in better quality jobs there - the alternative isn't better jobs, it's no jobs. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T20:46:27.963

2@Luaan exactly, they should have better choices. The alternative shouldn't be between suffering and starving just so that my iPhone is cheap. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-21T21:34:10.587

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-21T21:39:21.480

"Manufacturing is on the decline while capitalism thrives" is simply not true. Manufacturing is being imported from countries where it is rising while capitalism thrives, and the graphs show outsourcing, not a decline. The finite resources are still being used, and much of those thriving services and construction sectors are built on trading or operating imported manufactured goods. – user56reinstatemonica8 – 2019-01-25T12:01:14.433


The claim that constant economic growth within a planet of finite resources is impossible is false. Natural resources can be physically finite while being economically infinite. That is, regardless of the physical amount of any given resource exists in the world, it is possible to have the entire supply necessary to meet human demand.

In "capitalist" societies, this is accomplished through the use of the price system. When a resource is scarce, it becomes more expensive, so people demanding it use less, and people supplying it try to provide more. When a resource is plentiful, it becomes less expensive, which will drive up demand and make it possible for suppliers to profit from the larger volume despite the lower price.

There are limitations to the price system; it only works for things that can be owned in a free market economy. It is difficult to own the air or wildlife, which is why these things tend to be overused and used poorly. It also only works if the prices are the result of market supply and demand; if price controls are imposed, then the system breaks because the information about scarcity conveyed through prices is no longer available, so people tend to overconsume whatever the thing is.

As an example of this in action, there was a famous wager about the price of metals over a ten year period in the 1980's between economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich. Simon wagered the price of 5 metals would go down in the ten year period, Ehrlich wagered the price of metals would go up because they would be depleted. Simon won the bet when all five metals of Ehrlich's choosing decreased in price after the 10 year period.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

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– Sam I am says Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-23T06:15:10.037

2In "capitalist" societies, this is accomplished through the use of the price system - more correctly, in free market economies. This answer would become close to perfect if you also pointed out how free market economies create growth by using innovation to use resources more efficiently - making less go further increases wealth. – Grimm The Opiner – 2019-01-24T08:14:29.680

The market also fails on Giffen goods like bread or low-income housing, which is why there are agricultural subsidies and social housing subsidies in most developed countries.

– Alexander – 2019-01-24T14:49:39.343

@Grimm The Opiner that's a very valid point. I didn't go that specific because I was trying to illustrate the general principle (which some readers apparently consider to be "magic"). I also put "capitalism" in quotes because "capitalism" isn't actually a real "-ism" in the sense that the asker's cited blog post implies. – Joe – 2019-01-25T15:09:49.483

@Alexander Giffen goods are a concept with very little empirical evidence because the conditions for them are very specific and hard to observe in practice. A lot of apparent Giffen goods have normal demand behavior when investigated closely. I don't think they're why we have subsidies for food and housing; we have subsidies for food and housing because people's moral intuition tells them that it would be wrong if poor people couldn't afford these things, we should give them money for those things, and we don't necessarily care about what that does to demand & supply (even though we should). – Joe – 2019-01-25T15:22:43.583


I would like to (sort-of) challenge one of the premises of the question, namely that resources are finite, and I have a strong and weak version of the challenge.

The Weak Version

I mean, sure, there's only so much matter in the planet, and only so much of it is useful for our current purposes. Whether you think the end is in decades, centuries, or millenia, anyone who can count more than the sum of their fingers and toes can look ahead to the end of the tunnel. But human ingenuity is also a resource, and human creativity is unbounded.

Think about it. Finance? Law? Software? These things are huge sectors of modern economies and they consume far fewer resources than hard industry. Trilarion's upvoted answer focuses a lot on the service sector, another great example. How much of our resources today exist in the form of intellectual property?


I'm leaving the following paragraph in but see gerrit's comments below for a more sobering take. I'm not sure it reverses my conclusions but it does arguably weaken my case.

Not sure how the theory plays out, but in practice we've already begun to pivot in this direction more and more. N.B. that's exactly what capitalism says should happen: as physical resources become scarcer their value increases and we either have to live with shortages... or pivot to something cheaper.

The Strong Version

Which coexists with the version above: we'll never run out of resources before something else happens.

That something else might be the extinction of the human race, space travel/colonization, digitization of consciousness, whatever. Why aren't we doing more in those spheres now (at least the more positive ones)? Because it isn't economically viable. But again, as physical resources become scarcer their value will increase, until it becomes more viable to strip mine asteroids than continue to deplete the Earth.

There are some holes in the strong version: if agents are allowed to proceed to maximize their utility without regard to negative externalities generated (e.g. a factory can pollute with no consequence) then the incentives are warped. If the ecosystem that sustains life here is wrecked by e.g. AGW then game over. You can probably think of others, but the point is that continuing current trends forward unboundedly is likely selling humankind short.

Jared Smith

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

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2The problem as always is not how much there is, but who gets it. In a capitalistic society it goes to the highest bidder. – Mazura – 2019-01-16T14:49:19.377

The Weak Version — you want to have a byzantine bureaucracy? Because that's exactly like you get byzantine bureaucracy. We need more finance or law jobs? Let's make law and accounting more complex, so more people can (and should) be involved. – user28434 – 2019-01-16T14:59:37.157


I think this is the only reply that answers OP's question so far, but I have issue with "barely consume any physical resources." Any data-related business consumes resources, in matters of degree, that aren't immediately visible. e.g. facebook's latest 10-Q lists over $11 billion in network equipment, and almost $6 billion in contracts to build new data centers (which cost energy to run). Smaller businesses can exchange this cost to cloud providers (paying $ for the physical resources).

– BurnsBA – 2019-01-16T15:00:03.727

@Mazura distribution is an issue, but waaay beyond the scope of the question or this answer. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-16T15:04:11.423

1@user28434 some of that is true (particularly for law) a lot of that is just that coordination costs are unavoidable in a complex economy. How much of that is necessary vs. incidental complexity is an interesting question in its own right, but out of scope here. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-16T15:06:04.583


Side note to my previous comment. Data centers cost a lot of energy to run (US data centers used ~1.5% to ~2% of US electricity between 10 and 5 years ago ). However, there are strong efficiency incentives, so this number hasn't changed too much in the past few years, seeing downward pressure. But it's reasonable to argue this will continue to increase like in OP's question, but then the question becomes can we continue to increase energy usage indefinitely, which is a different kind of question ...

– BurnsBA – 2019-01-16T15:06:37.777

@BurnsBA compared to its market cap? Or other industries like manufacturing? Pretty sure those oil reserves would go a lot further running facebook servers compared to US automobiles. You raise a good point, but compared to the rest of our consumption it's a rounding error. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-16T15:07:57.660

Life is unstable on planet Earth because the sun will eat it in a few billion years. In the meantime, everyone get back to work (capitalism's answer to everything). (that's a contraction or a possession mark, take your pick ;) – Mazura – 2019-01-16T15:17:39.797

@Mazura if humanity is still in something remotely resembling its current state in billions of years, that would be the most surprising outcome of all ;) – Jared Smith – 2019-01-16T15:33:42.560

1Losers always whine about their best, winners only dig as deep or just enough as necessary to sell you oil as expensively as possible. – Mazura – 2019-01-16T15:54:17.377

3I'm not sure how the theory plays out, but in practice we've already begun to pivot in this direction more and more, citation needed please. There is no evidence for a decoupling between GDP and energy consumption, rather the contrary. See Garrett (2012): No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change – gerrit – 2019-01-16T16:05:22.877

Some resources are evidently scarce. – luchonacho – 2019-01-16T16:19:38.427

@gerrit hmmm, was going to reference growth of the relevant sectors in the US as % of GDP, but the BEA site seems to be shut down due to the US gov shutdown. I will try to find data in a bit here. Interesting. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-16T16:30:47.840

1@JaredSmith There is on national scales, due to manufacturing moving abroad. There is not on a global scale, unless things have changed in the past 10 years. – gerrit – 2019-01-16T19:38:34.017

@gerrit I see your point more clearly now. What you're saying is that some first world has pivoted by shunting the dirty work off onto developing countries? Do I understand correctly? – Jared Smith – 2019-01-16T20:34:15.590

1@JaredSmith Essentially, yes. That's also why it's much easier for European or North American countries to reduce CO₂ emissions than for China or India. – gerrit – 2019-01-16T21:58:31.717

"some first world has pivoted by shunting the dirty work off onto developing countries" - that's one of the definitions of capitalism. At the very least it's a see also or a how to. – Mazura – 2019-01-17T00:45:15.207

@gerrit edited my answer. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-17T01:35:36.737

1Software barely consumes anything? Pff, electronics production need large quantities of rare metals and it's use consumes energy... Finance sector today relies on software so the previous point logic apply, as for law... I'm not really sure we need billions of advocates... – Zhigalin - Reinstate CMs – 2019-01-17T06:20:47.207

@Zhigalin again, compared to...what? Doing nothing at all? Pretty sure my daily commute and bi-annual air travel trump whatever damage to the planet my gaming habit is doing by orders of magnitude. I could be wrong about that, but I'd be surprised. Also, thanks to electronics I only actually have to go to the office about twice a week, for (I'm pretty sure) a substantial net carbon savings. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-17T11:35:02.083

@EricDuminil here's the US economy by sector see specifically sectors 52 and 54. Note that the data in that chart is over 10 years old, would anyone think that software or finance are less of a deal now than they were a decade ago? Google's market cap suggests otherwise. As for the barely consuming resources bit, again, compared to what else on that chart? Manufacturing? Agriculture? You can compare it to sitting at home in the dark, and it will lose, but so what?

– Jared Smith – 2019-01-17T13:14:38.810

1@EricDuminil link wasn't meant to address that, that's what the comparison argument is for and it's still a valid one. That being said, the data in the article you linked would seem to indicate that my claim is far too extreme. 10% isn't outrageous, but it ain't nuthin neither. I'll edit my answer. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-17T13:43:45.057

1You answer(s) do not fit at least one historical case of a resource which was extracted to extinction, the passenger pigeon. Did the price go up with scarcity? No. Even though they could reproduce, the extraction rate exceeded the reproduction rate. When the two rates crossed, the end was nigh unless something changed, but what mechanism exists to prevent extinction when the capitalistic idea of price as a mediating force between supply and demand is broken? – Kelly S. French – 2019-01-17T15:59:09.837

1@KellyS.French quoting my own answer "if agents are allowed to proceed to maximize their utility without regard to negative externalities generated...game over". Unregulated capitalism doesn't work, because of the free-rider problems. Example: if polluting is profitable (or rather the act that produces it), and no one accounts for it via another mechanism (like pigouvian taxes), then there's nothing in capitalism to stop me from doing it until the planet is destroyed. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-17T16:21:10.657


I think you might have gotten the wrong impression from the answer you linked to. When technology, production of capital equipment, or education make workers more productive, it frees up human resources that can be used elsewhere. If those people were not able to find work and were simply "automated out of a job" then that would be bad. Fortunately, this person can then take on a new job. This is where the growth happens.

Imagine a world with just a finite supply of farmland which is all used by people engaging in subsistence farming. All the resources of the world go into farming and people eat all the products of that farming. Suddenly one of the farmers develops a new plow that lets 5 farmers do the work of 6 farmers. Now 1 in 6 farmers no longer have to farm. These farmers can now become entertainers who put on plays and tell stories instead of farming. All the resources of the world are still being used, but now people get this new thing that makes them happy, entertainment. This is economic growth. It didn't require any more resources from the world, it just required increased technology that freed up labor for new things.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 10 254

6But this itself is a fallacy. You've taken away 1 farmer's livelihood - but he doesn't necessarily have other skills he can fall back on. And if he doesn't, all he can do is work as a menial servant for one of the other 5, where before he at least was happy in charge of his own fate. As automation escalates, the skill level needed to contribute escalates too. People do not have equal abilities, and those who lack the "right" abilities are left behind. So people who might have previously had a prestigious job as a skilled welder are today serving coffee in Starbucks at minimum wage. – Graham – 2019-01-16T15:57:03.537

1I don't deny the benefits of capitalism - but I do deny that it has any solution for the economic roadkill it leaves behind it. In fact, if anything, the goal of capitalism is to create economic roadkill. Technology and automation certainly does improve the overall situation, but always at the cost of individuals. – Graham – 2019-01-16T15:59:37.697

15@Graham When the washing machine was invented and spared people (mostly women) from the tedious and confining job of washing clothes, were these workers "economic roadkill?" What about carriage drivers and horses? Suppose robots become sufficiently good at mining underground. Are the displaced human miners with their negative health issues and high-risk jobs somehow "economic roadkill?" If you focus only on the new costs of changes without considering the benefits, certainly everything other than pure stasis will seem awful. – Andrew – 2019-01-16T17:29:28.470

3This is actually the right answer, and it is clever in not assuming or depending upon a particular economic system. It is equally true under a command economy as it is under a laissez-faire market economy. – Andrew – 2019-01-16T17:37:47.520

6@graham Most of your thoughts are true. Moving people out of now automated factories and into jobs at Starbucks is economic growth. Free markets make saving labor profitable and free that labor up to do other things. When no other opportunities or only far worse opportunities exist problems start to arise. But the question was about natural resources needed for growth, not the distribution of the gains of capitalism. – lazarusL – 2019-01-16T17:38:23.097

2@Andrew Of course they were. Welsh mining communities still haven't recovered. The American Rust Belt isn't quite as badly off as it was when Springsteen was writing songs about it, but it's still not exactly peachy. The next generation settle into the "new normal", but people trained in jobs which no longer exist have very little prospect of retraining to the same level in anything else, and they can't get out because they can't sell their house. At best, that puts them in an entry-level job in another career; at worst it traps them in long-term unemployment. – Graham – 2019-01-16T18:17:39.867

1@Andrew Like I said, I'm not denying that these things are positive for the world as a whole. Your washing machine example is one which has really significant benefits. But for individuals whose jobs vanish, it's very negative indeed, and capitalism really doesn't allow for that. Even countries with a social security system like the UK and US are spectacularly bad at dealing with this. The benefits are seen by the children of the 5 farmers who automate, not by the 1 farmer who's displaced. – Graham – 2019-01-16T18:20:41.537

Of course the problem with this is that "freeing up human resources" is of no immediate benefit to the actual humans who are thus "freed up." – barbecue – 2019-01-16T18:51:01.200

1@barbecue sure it does. It might not be a net benefit as has been pointed out, but they do benefit in the form of lower prices as the economy gets more efficient. – lazarusL – 2019-01-16T19:04:21.197

@Graham While plenty of what you say has happened, there are also examples of workers being retrained for new positions. – Gnudiff – 2019-01-16T21:54:32.600

@Gnudiff Of course there are. But if you lose a major source of employment, there aren't likely to be that many alternatives locally, or perhaps even nationally if you didn't get the school grades to start with. – Graham – 2019-01-16T22:31:39.437

6"The benefits are seen by the children of the 5 farmers who automate, not by the 1 farmer who's displaced" They're also seen by everyone who can buy cheaper food; even the 1 farmer. – Rob Grant – 2019-01-20T21:10:51.090

@Graham Social security systems usually make the problem worse, because they make the gap between employment and unemployment smaller - people are more content sitting on their hands doing essentially nothing (or doing illegal work). But regardless, you're still assuming people are 100% static. If your job vanishes, are you going to sit on your ass and live on dole? I doubt it. People only ever make that claim about others. As Robert notes, the benefits are definitely also seen by the farmer who's displaced, even if he does nothing. More realistically, he will find a different job. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T09:59:59.777

1@Luaan You're making the assumption that jobs exist, and that they can reasonably reskill for what jobs so exist. Both of those assumptions are untrue. Okie farmers went chasing work in California, but even there they couldn't easily find it. Irish farmers in the Famine had the same. In both cases, people died of starvation by the roadside. – Graham – 2019-01-21T11:16:42.873

@Luaan And if you look at the US Rust Belt, or Welsh mining towns, modern economies make it harder to uproot at a moment's notice. Yes, people ended up stuck on the dole because there were no local jobs and they couldn't easily move. – Graham – 2019-01-21T11:19:24.063

@Graham No, I'm not. I'm just saying you shouldn't assume the reverse either. And I encourage you to compare these conditions to something like the Soviet Union, who tried to enforce "wealth by law". It's not modern economies that make it harder to move - quite the reverse, it never was so easy economically to move. The limitations you get are from government intervention, like property sales taxes, inflation etc. I'm from a mining town myself, and guess what - noone is a miner there anymore. It's still a relatively poor area, of course - they had to switch from qualified jobs to unqualified. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T13:39:34.617

@Luaan Comparing to the Soviet Union is a classic mistake by people who don't understand the Soviet Union though. It was never actually a communist country - it was always a dictatorship. And like all dictatorships, freedom of movement was restricted. It walked and quacked like a feudal monarchy because it was explicitly constructed as a feudal monarchy. If you think it's easy economically to move, talk to the people back in your hometown who are working unqualified jobs, and ask them why they didn't move to Seattle to work for Microsoft. – Graham – 2019-01-21T14:59:51.457

@Graham Of course it was never actually a communist country. I did ask, it wasn't hard - they don't want to. They have friends and family, and they'd rather work unqualified jobs than lose that. In a broader stroke, they just don't like change all that much (granted, part of that is definitely from the "communist" past - the illusion that things don't change was pretty strong, and many people still believe that you can live the same way you did when you were a kid). To them, the fall of communism left them stranded. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T15:54:16.603


@Graham if someone is doing a job, and then a robot is doing that job, and then that person goes to work for minimum wage at walmart, then from the perspective of society that's a win. From the perspective of the individual in question, it's a disaster. But you seem to be arguing for a generous welfare state, not against capitalism. Generation and distribution are orthogonal concepts. See my answer to this question about UBI, for example (spoiler alert: in favor of UBI).

– Jared Smith – 2019-01-21T16:59:27.970

@JaredSmith What I'm arguing for is simply to acknowledge that, as you say, from the perspective of the individual it's a disaster. There are various possible ways to pick up the pieces, of which a welfare state is one, but it's important to note that economic growth is not an unmitigated good. Even from the point of view of society, I've just been on holiday to the Gambia. Most families there have some subsistence farming going on, but there's more happiness there than I'd see in, say, Leeds. I'm not going to draw insulting "simple=good" conclusions, but society is more than just money. – Graham – 2019-01-21T17:37:45.867

@Graham good doesn't become bad just because it's not a clean win. How many of those subsistence farmers would refuse to trade places with their first-world middle class counterparts? Would you trade places with a billionaire? Prosperity is still a pretty big component of happiness. – Jared Smith – 2019-01-21T19:00:57.070

@JaredSmith But that's a false comparison again. Their immediate choice is between subsistence farming adding to their income, or their children starving. For sure their kids are upskilling (we gave our driver a decent tip at the end, which was a reasonable fraction of his daughter's college tuition as an accountant) but they're much more hand to mouth, and they can't take on those higher skilled jobs. And good for the majority doesn't stop it being bad for the individuals - ask coal and steel workers whether their industries being gutted was a good thing. – Graham – 2019-01-21T20:39:33.420

Sorry, but It didn't require any more resources from the world is blatantly wrong. Modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil resources. See this article ("Energy and the food system")

– Eric Duminil – 2019-01-22T08:20:59.223

@ericduminil surely we can admit the existence of labor saving innovations that don't require more natural resources. Think about something simple like the assembly line. Instead of each person doing every task to build something, they specialize in developing the skills to do one piece of the work very quickly and well. This saves tons of labor just by reorganizing the process. – lazarusL – 2019-01-22T11:13:10.097

@lazarusL Yes, we can. There are still many innovations in modern agriculture that require a lof energy (mostly, from fossil fuels), though. And that's enough to disprove your statement. – Eric Duminil – 2019-01-22T12:39:31.430

@EricDuminil oh I see. I'm sorry for the confusion. I was trying to make a very specific argument that economic growth doesn't necessarily require natural resources. I made up a very simple example to try to convey that point. I definitely wasn't trying to say that modern agricultural innovations aren't driven by the consumption of non-renewable resources.

– lazarusL – 2019-01-22T14:30:43.063

@lazarusL Thanks for the interesting discussion. Your argument still isn't enough to show that a constant economic growth is possible with finite resources. You've shown that it's possible to have some growth without using natural resources. You'd have to show that it can go on forever. – Eric Duminil – 2019-01-22T15:19:35.867

@EricDuminil I actually don't see it that way. The question asserted that due to labor saving innovation "creative destruction" would leave people unemployed. The it asserted that economic growth (which requires new resources) would be needed to employ them. I rejected the idea that economic growth needs to consume natural resources. Population growth absolutely absolutely needs new resources. Economic growth, not so much. – lazarusL – 2019-01-22T15:32:58.597


This article, entitled "Is sustainable capitalism possible?", provides a neat analysis of arguments by defensors of "green capitalism" . The paragraphs below summarise the points:

Hawken and the Lovins’ agree with Kovel that the current model of capitalism is problematic. “Capitalism, as practiced, is a financially profitable, non-sustainable aberration in human development.” But they do not see the problem as residing in capitalism itself. They distinguish among four kinds of capital, all necessary for production: human capital, financial capital, manufactured capital and natural capital. The problem with the current form of capitalism, they argue, is its radical mispricing of these factors. Current market prices woefully undervalue—and often do not value at all—the fourth factor: the natural resources and ecological systems “that make life possible and worth living on this planet."

In terms of solutions to this mis-pricing:

Hawken and the Lovins’ argue that these remedies—properly applied—can work. The first step, they say, is to eliminate the perverse incentives now in place. They document the massive subsidies that governments currently provide for ecologically destructive behavior, e.g. highway construction and repair, which encourages suburban sprawl and the shift away from more efficient modes of transportation, agricultural subsidies that encourage soil degradation and wasteful use of water, as well as subsidies to mining, oil, fishing and forest industries.

Second step: impose resource and pollution taxes so as to reflect the true costs of “natural capital.” Sweeten the pie by phasing out all taxes on labor (which increase unemployment), and income taxes as well. The point is to level the playing field so that more sustainable energy technologies and more energy efficient processes can compete fairly with the destructive practices of “industrial capitalism". We might even want to go further, and subsidize—at least initially—the technologies that reduce the negative environmental impact of our production and consumption choices.

Of course, critiques of this approach abound. The paper discusses some. See also linked wikipedia article, for a summary, and this article for a comparison of green capitalism and green socialism.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 4 876

4Note that, if capitalism is defined as free market capitalism, the Hawkins/Lovins solution is to do away with capitalism. The replacement, probably what you refer to as green socialism, explicitly attempts to control and, if necessary, eliminate those actors which do not share the values and judgements of the government, which implicitly includes Hawkins/Lovins or those who reliably share their values. Note that all of the "Second Step" involves direct and possibly Draconian political intervention in the economic process, and hence is not remotely free market capitalism. – WhatRoughBeast – 2019-01-16T17:18:37.633

5@WhatRoughBeast "if capitalism is defined as free market capitalism". Indeed, but that is not how capitalism is defined. Otherwise, no country has ever ever been under a capitalist mode of production, a clear (and unhelpful) nonsense. – luchonacho – 2019-01-16T17:31:13.033

3I agree that we should reduce subsidies in harmful industries like the oil industry, implement Pigouvian taxes on things that destroy the environment, and subsidize technologies that can be environment-saving. I think it's debatable whether the latter methods I listed are really Capitalist methods. Although, they are just as Capitalist as any existing taxes and subsidies. – John – 2019-01-16T21:01:52.730


Capitalism is all about profit. And everybody is interested in highest possible return on investment (true for every capitalist starting with unskilled worker and on J.Bezos ending), so maximizing profit is the best strategy for achieving that goal.

Obviously, it can be done in multiple ways, of which reducing the costs is always first and foremost. That includes reducing labor force of an enterprise, which is but one and least efficient, albeit most vilified method.

Most often though capitalism employs new technologies, new materials and new ideas to increase productivity and/or reduce costs. And it can be seen across world and time, that production of anything becomes more efficient, streamlined, less wasteful etc.

There is no reason to assume that the need for natural resources will be constantly increasing ad infinitum without allowing for the possibility of either substitution (humans may develop a technology of converting old plastic bags into new synthetic material stronger than steel, for example) or there will be new sources of resources (i.e. asteroid mining).

In the meantime capitalism's answer is improvement. Not sure how old are you, but I remember when instead of a smartphone one required a huge desktop computer, printer and phone for effective office work. Think on how much technological progress reduced the need for resources going from fifty kilos of various materials to less than 200 grams (which is 250 TIMES) without reduction in productivity (in fact, it increased it dramatically).

Is it really hard to apply same logic to almost EVERYTHING (to various extent, of course)?


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070


18Yes, it's impossible to apply that to everything because it's not logical. Your phone is not going to be scaled down another 250x. You can't eat 250x less (or get 250x improvement efficiency in making that food). Your car isn't going to weigh 4kg anytime soon. And so on... There are real physical limits on anything tangible. – awjlogan – 2019-01-16T13:09:37.963

7There is more to capitalism than maximizing profit. A competent business position would be to ensure sustainability of the business, such that continuous profit is assured over the life span of the company. e.g. don't clear cut every tree as a lumbermill. – Drunk Cynic – 2019-01-16T13:14:03.493

2@awjlogan - I see your point. Will amend accordingly. However, you're missing the point on some things, too. Yes, some areas can't be improved 250x (and I'm not attached to that number), but they don't have to. Food we grow in excessive excess, and already cheaply. Maybe it's time to improve refrigeration again? so that we can store food indefinitely? Obviously physics limits us severely, but then again - car has utility, but not much versatility, for example. That's why you can still replace yours every year, but model from 2000 is still perfectly adequate, unlike your smartphone. – None – 2019-01-16T13:45:21.553

@DrunkCynic - I agree, obviously. My answer is necessary an oversimplification to highlight the point OP is asking about. I will think on how to amend it to keep it simple and include your criticism. Thanks. – None – 2019-01-16T13:48:10.347

9@AcePL The problem is you picked an example which is semiconductor based, and as such was a very immature technology and hence had massive room for improvement. Refridgeration is very mature. You could invest a huge sum of money to get a % or two gain in efficiency, but again there's a fundamental limit on the efficiency of the heat cycle. That is the question that is being asked - you can asymptotically approach this limit (growth), but your gains become less and less and more expensive as you get closer. – awjlogan – 2019-01-16T14:06:01.613

1@awjlogan. Example is just that: an example, not a proof of a thesis. Maybe bad choice with using "improve refrigeration", but by my logic stabilisation of food so that it's not decomposing is still refrigeration. Or maybe conservation? Minor issue. In cases like this I like to point out that when steam engine made appearance physics said it can't work. So instead of scrapping it physicists developed something called THERMODYNAMICS, because reality supersedes theory. In other words: who knows what will be the next breakthrough? Also, please notice I mentioned other ideas in my answer, too. – None – 2019-01-16T14:22:00.307

1@DrunkCynic, assuring continuous profit is a way of maximizing profit. – user28434 – 2019-01-16T14:40:58.677

@user28434 Yes, but the oppositional response to phrasing the purpose of capitalism as "maximizing profit" is that capitalist greed will drive the practicianers towards corruption for profits. It is a true concept, in an acute fashion, but not conducive to long term free-form capitalism. – Drunk Cynic – 2019-01-16T14:47:39.317

3@DrunkCynic Except that some management bonuses are so short term that they are rewarded for profits in the next two years, never mind that the company is run into the ground five years later. But that is not an inherent feature of capitalism. – gerrit – 2019-01-16T16:08:23.593

@awjlogan Refrigeration can be massively improved using the same techniques as A/C, for example. It just isn't worth the effort for that fridge you have in your house. But regardless, refrigeration is just a means to an end - making food safe for consumption. There's other means to that end. You don't need a car that weighs 4kg if you use the materials from other cars to build yours - i.e. recycle. It seems that everyone here is conflating economic growth with population growth - there's a difference between making people more wealthy and making more people. – Luaan – 2019-01-21T10:05:09.450

@Luaan - but then again awjlogan has a valid point that regardless of what number is being increased (wealth or mouths), end result is similar and there is a hard limit. That is why I'm pointing out that just asking that type of question is a fallacy because treats current resources as limited akin to fundamental constants (i.e. Planck's or c.), which is not the case. Bottom line: I agree with your points, but they're just part of the answer, which always has to point out that even when that "hard limit" is there, it's not as close as it seems and "distance" to it depends on many conditions. – None – 2019-01-21T13:22:38.273


tl;dr: Material resources do not disappear, they just become harder to reuse. This is solvable with energy of which there is an effectively infinite resource.

This is less about "capitalism's answer" because capitalism has zero answers to anything; it is just a self-organizing economy based on the acceptance of private property and otherwise free individuals.1 As it turns out, the majority of people, at least with the prevailing memes, seem to want ever more stuff and power if not for themselves then for their children, which drives economic growth.

Instead, my answer shows a technical aspect which I believe will sustain a growing economy far into a future which is so unknown that the question becomes meaningless.2

Physical resources come in two flavors: Those which can become depleted (e.g. ores, fossil fuels) and those which can become unusuable, e.g. by contamination or climate change (air, soil, water).

Both phenomenons have a common underlying mechanism: They are two flavors of the inadvertant distribution of substances in the environment. Earth is an almost closed system when material is concerned:

Nothing really disappears — it is just dispersed.

The passage of material through the economy is conceptually a concentration of distributed resources (like ores or atmospheric CO2) into products (like cars and agricultural products) during production; and then the reversal by spreading them out again during and after consumption (car wrecks rusting away, feces washed into the oceans and CO2 exhaled into the air).

The same is true for substances which contaminate the environment like chemicals used in manufacturing or toxic materials in products like batteries or plastics.

The first step, concentration, needs energy. The more distributed the raw material is, the more energy is needed to concentrate it (example: Uranium ores vs. crude oil). Distribution is a form of increasing entropy; concentration is a form of lowering entropy. Increasing entropy is easy because energy flows from high-entropy to low-entropy places, passing through any process you put in the middle (e.g. a human, a car engine). This energy flow can be used to locally decrease the entropy. We humans are examples of low-entropy islands. As soon as we stop breathing or eating we die and entropy takes its course.

All manufacturing decrases entropy locally by concentrating and organizing distributed and un-organized substances (ores to cars). To do that the industry establishes an energy flow; some of the low entropy in oil or, recently, solar rays is "diverted" into islands of low-entropy products. Not surprisingly the highest-concentrated raw materials are the most sought-after ones.

The same principle used in production — separate usable raw materials from unusable substances — can be used to de-contaminate resources like air, water and soil. It's just that the process needs to reverse a lot of entropy gain because contaminants are often widely and evenly distributed, and hence needs a lot of energy.

But this retrieval of distributed raw materials and contaminants is entirely doable; it is just a question of available energy.

Here comes the good news. While planet earth is a closed system for material, it is eminently open for energy, which flows through the planet at a staggering rate. Low-entropy solar radiation (see this question) is absorbed, passes through the system earth and is radiated away as high-entropy infrared radiation. This abundant flow of energy can be diverted by the economy and put to good use. Enough of it is available to satisfy any global demand in the foreseeable future. Solar cells will continue to drop in price (they are just semiconductors, after all) and will switch to more abundant and less toxic compounds. They'll produce enough energy to clean up after themselves and then after the economy proper. Together with technological and social innovation (car sharing, public transportation, less meat consumption etc.) the global economy can be sustained at high levels of material throughput, which will be a near-complete cycle.

1 Of course this kind of capitalism does not exist (and has never existed) anywhere; it is always embedded in a political framework which is precisely tasked with giving those answers which transcend the economic realm as well as controlling, directing and dampening the effects of the economic realm on individuals and the collective. But discussing the political answers to an economic drive for constant growth would be a different thread altogether.

2 Think Kardashev Scale and Dyson Spheres.

Peter - Reinstate Monica

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 5 372

Thank you for writing a detailed answer addressing that energy is not a material resource, so I don't have to reply to all the comments rooted in that lunacy. – Ben Voigt – 2019-01-19T19:13:34.913

@BenVoigt And that changes all; material resources do not vanish, they just get harder to re-use which is solvable with energy. (Now that you made me say that I'll have to change my tldr. "Look what you made me do ;-)." ) – Peter - Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-19T21:53:48.010

1Yes, a sustainable world is possible. You're correct that solar energy would play a big role in it, and that we should modify our transport, housing and eating habits. But please note that car sharing and decreased meat consumption are really bad for the GDP. ;) Finally, while 173PW of solar irradiance is a huge amount of power coming on Earth, it cannot be considered infinite. – Eric Duminil – 2019-01-22T08:34:50.847

@EricDuminil You are right about sharing being bad for the GDP. It will have to continue to grow in the service sector ;-). Wrt inifinite solar: I said "effectively". It'll be a while before we use a significant fraction of what hits earth, and beyond that there is plenty of solar for a Kardashev Type II civilization. – Peter - Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-22T10:06:42.913


Economics is simply the use and management of time and energy. That is all humans actually "have". Whether a label of capitalism or communism or any other ism is attached to use of time and energy or not.

What is capitalism's answer to constant economic growth hitting the limit of the planet's finite resources?

There is no central capitalism committee.

There are different answers for different individuals and institutions.

Some exploit resources until there are none remaining. Whether capitalism or communism is the system used to exploit resource until there are no more is irrelevant.

Before proceeding it is important to note the fact that humans have in fact impacted fish, wildlife and water resources due to their activities.

Unsustainability is not a mythology.

Natural resources do decline based on human activities and can be depleted to the point of no return without human recognition of those facts and the altering of human behaviour and conduct as relates to their usage of the natural resource.

Depletion of natural resources is not exclusive to capitalist systems.

Two examples:

Under a communist system

Restoring life to the Aral Sea's dead zone Source: BBC

The Aral Sea started to shrink in the 1960s when the Soviets diverted water from the two main rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea to feed vast new cotton fields.

As cotton production boomed, the Kremlin refused to acknowledge the problem. Locals had to put labelled sticks in the ground to prove the shoreline was disappearing.

As the volume of water decreased, the concentration of salt increased, poisoning everything in the sea.

"Fish stocks went down and in the end all we caught were dead fish. Now young people have to leave for other countries in search of jobs".

The Aral Sea has shrunk to 10% of its former size - an area of water as big as Ireland has been lost. But it's not just a way of life that has been affected.

Under a capitalist system

Chinook Salmon Source: United States Environmental Protection Agency

Chinook salmon populations are down 60% since the Pacific Salmon Commission began tracking salmon data in 1984.

First foods ceremonies are one way Coast Salish communities celebrate respect for the earth. In spring, families celebrate the first Chinook salmon caught with First Salmon ceremonies called Thehitem ("looking after the fish.") At the end of the ceremonies the bones of the salmon are returned to the river with a prayer giving thanks to the Creator, Chíchelh Siyá:m, and the salmon people. This is to show that the salmon were well-treated and welcome the following year.

Salmon are an iconic species of the Salish Sea. They play a critical role in supporting and maintaining ecological health, and in the social fabric of First Nations and tribal culture.

Strong commercial and recreational salmon fisheries also make salmon an important economic engine for the region.

Chinook (Onchorhychus tshawytscha) are the largest salmon, and are commonly known as "Kings" or "Tyee" (which means "chief" in Chinook jargon).

What's happening?

Just over 485,000 Chinook salmon were reported to be in the Salish Sea in 2010 (source: Pacific Salmon Commission - see chart below). This is a 60% reduction in Chinook abundance since the Commission began tracking salmon data in 1984.

However, there's been a 29% reduction in the number of harvested salmon and a 30% increase in the number of spawning salmon since 1999 when Puget Sound Chinook were listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Why is it important?

Salmon provide food for a variety of wildlife, from bald eagles to killer whales to grizzly bears. Because salmon die after spawning, their carcasses also provide abundant food and nutrients to plants and animals, including tiny aquatic insects and other invertebrates that in turn provide food for other animals.

During their life cycle, salmon transfer energy and nutrients between the Pacific Ocean and freshwater and land habitats. Since Chinook are the largest salmonid, they contribute the largest amount of biomass (organic matter) per fish to the ecosystem. In fact, in areas that have experienced dramatic declines in salmon, there is a measurable deficit of nutrients to help support the ecosystem.

Why is it happening?

The steep decline in Chinook salmon is associated with three main factors: - Habitat change. - Harvest rates. - Hatchery influence.

Five things you can do to help

  1. Keep streams shaded. Trees and native vegetation along shorelines keep the water cool for fish and help stabilize the banks from erosion. Help protect these types of areas in your community and watch for stream restoration projects and opportunities.
  2. Keep litter and trash out of streams. Trash can pile up on logs, sticks and other debris and block water flow. Summer is the best time for in-stream cleanup to reduce impacts to key salmon life-cycle stages which typically occur in spring and fall.
  3. Help protect natural shorelines, wetlands and floodplains in your community. These habitats are extremely valuable to both salmon and people.
  4. Look for sustainably-harvested salmon at your local supermarket or favorite restaurant.
  5. Get to know your local watershed group and volunteer to get involved.

Additional factors increasingly recognized as contributing to declining salmon populations include climate change, ocean conditions, and marine mammal interactions.

Some alter their approach to generating profit based on a wide range of reasons.

Individually, once aware of unsustainable trends, the person can alter their own behaviour to as not to be a contributing factor to unsustainable practices.

Conversely, if an individually has reached the conclusion that there is no such thing as unsustainable trends, they can, too, invest in scarcity, or the current or projected trends for profit.

Would be cautious in attributing unsustainable practices solely to capitalism. China is not, generally, considered a capitalist nation. However, the Chinese people and the Chinese Government are not fools.

China is a major purchaser of U.S. debt instruments. China is involved in major construction projects in Africa and Asia. Neither of those facts are particularly motivated by capitalism alone, the motivations are strategic as well. If profit can be made within the scope of long-term strategic goals and activities, China and the Chinese people will not forgo said profit.

So, I am wondering if how capitalism can deal with this? What if we reach the limits of the environment and economic growth is no longer possible?

"Who ordered chicken? Chicken is what poor people eat"

The above is an actual quote by a primary guest on a luxury yacht when the chef served them and their guests chicken for a scheduled meal.

This lead to this user fact checking that statement.

It turns out that 52 billion chickens are slaughtered for food each year Every year, around 52 billion chickens are slaughtered globally for meat a figure that will double if consumption in India and China catches up with the west.In 2016, worldwide, chicken production topped 66 billion birds. Humans are slaughtering, processing, and consuming about 2,100 chickens per second

We’re producing a lot of chicken meat: about 110 million tonnes per year. And we’re producing more and more. In 1966, global production was 10 million tonnes. In just twelve years, by 1978, we’d managed to double production. Fourteen years after that, 1992, we managed to double it again, to 40 million tonnes. We doubled it again to 80 million tonnes by 2008. And we’re on track for another doubling—a projected 160 million tonnes per year before 2040. By mid-century, production should exceed 200 million tonnes — 20 times the levels in the mid-’60s.

The U.N. has urged people to transition to a meat and dairy-free diet, given the projected requirement to feed 9 billion people in 2050, see 2050: A third more mouths to feed.

UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet

Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, says the report, which has been launched to coincide with UN World Environment day on Saturday.

Last year the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said that food production would have to increase globally by 70% by 2050 to feed the world’s surging population. The panel says that efficiency gains in agriculture will be overwhelmed by the expected population growth.

The poultry industry is incredibly efficient, able to produce a "50-day chicken", with efficiency expected to increase World poultry production expected to more than double by 2050

Wilkinson said that Cobb has projected that by 2050 a 2 kilogram (4.4 pound) broiler would be marketed at 19 days post-hatch with a feed conversion ratio below 1.0. In 2050, a laying hen may produce 550 eggs by 100 weeks of age and have a feed conversion ration approaching 1.0.

The poultry industry has doubled production every 12 years since the 1970's. The poultry industry projects that poultry production will double again by 2050, which is a key year for for a vast range of economic and social forecasts.

Flocking to digital: The future of poultry technology

It is estimated that the world poultry production will increase 120 percent from 2010 to 2050

However, even given the efficiency of the poultry industry, there are still concerns that economic growth relevant to poultry production is unsustainable. The reasons cited are the several, including the necessity to produce grain to feed 50-day chickens, fresh water and land.

Global poultry production: current state and future outlook and challenges

However, poultry represent a threat to human health, especially as a vector of infectious diseases and because of its role in antimicrobial resistance. Furthermore, poultry has a significant impact on the environment and is a large consumer of natural resources. While the sector is usually seen as efficient in converting natural resources into edible products, it uses large amounts of land, water and nutrients for the production of feed materials and contributes to climate change, mainly through feed production, and air and water pollution.

The growth of the poultry industry could also be viewed as a prudent investment in a growth industry

Have not yet been able to determine if only "Chicken is what poor people eat" to the exclusion of non-"poor" people (There Are 36 Million Millionaires in the World and They Own Nearly Half the Planet's Wealth) where non-"poor" would be tentatively defined as total wealth of at least $1 million U.S. dollars. We can clearly define who the "poor" are

Global Wealth Report 2017 Source: Credit Suisse Research Institute


In general terms, throughout the twelve months to mid-2017, we observed a significant increase in wealth across the globe, driven not only by equity markets, but also by significant increasess in financial wealth. In total, golabl wealth has grown by USD 16.7 trillion to USD 280 trillion, which corresponds to a rise of 6.4%. We further saw an increase of 2.3 million US-dollar-millionaires, almost half of whom reside in the United States.

The global wealth pyramid

The large base of low wealth holders supports higher tiers occupied by progressively fewer adults. We estimate that 3.5 billion individuals – 70% of all adults in the world – have wealth below USD 10,000 in 2017. A further 1.1 billion adults (21% of the global total) fall in the USD 10,000–100,000 range. While average wealth is modest in the base and middle tiers of the pyramid, the total wealth of these segments amounts to USD 40 trillion, underlining the economic importance of this often overlooked group. The base of the pyramid The layers of the wealth pyramid are quite distinctive. The base tier has the most even distribution across regions and countries (Figure 2), but also the widest spread of personal circumstances. In developed Figure 3 Number of dollar millionaires (% of world total) by country, 2017 Source: James Davies, Rodrigo Lluberas and Anthony Shorrocks, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2017 Figure 2 Regional membership of global wealth strata Source: James Davies, Rodrigo Lluberas and Anthony Shorrocks, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2017 countries, about 30% of adults fall within this category, and for the majority of these individuals, membership is either transient – due to business losses or unemployment, for example – or a lifecycle phase associated with youth or old age. In contrast, more than 90% of the adult population in India and Africa falls within this range. In some low-income countries in Africa, the percentage of the population in this wealth group is close to 100%. For many residents of low-income countries, life membership of the base tier is the norm rather than the exception.

Though there is a report that millionaires prefer Ford vehicles, though not whether rich people do not eat chicken


The data is available. In 2019 an individual cannot blame either capitalism or communism nor any other ism for their decisions. Natural resources will last until they are gone. Simple choices, such as actually looking into your food chain, that is the food that you actually consume, is what you can do. If you find that you are contributing to the depletion of natural resources where individuals or institutions have publicly advised the entire world that such practices are unsustainable, it is your responsibility to change your own behaviour to decrease your own impact on decline and depletion of natural resources.

Conversely, if an individual reaches the conclusion that natural resources are infinite, or that they simply do not care about or doubt reports stating certain human behaviour and activities are "unsustainable", they can invest in industries where growth is projected, ignoring reports which state that the industry practices are unsustainable. Scarcity generally increases the value of a commodity or product. There is profit to be made, right now, be damned with "unsustainability".

Humans possess free will. Humans are responsible for their own actions, not systems; especially where humans are aware of, or should be aware of the impact of their activities.

Whether the individual decides to pursue profit or is concerned about the sustainability of profit making, or both, is an individual choice.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 1

3The conclusion is stated as a fact, but is it? We have huge educational and judicial systems to make humans not to commit murder, not to steal, not to destroy property, etc. Why do we still need them, if everyone is so autonomous and conscious? Aren't we only a minor upgrade of herds of apes? And why don't we apply these proven social mechanisms now? – kubanczyk – 2019-01-21T08:52:34.037

Lots of interesting thoughts and sources, here. Thanks! – Eric Duminil – 2019-01-22T08:38:26.797

@kubanczyk That is not necessarily true re the purpose of educational or judicial systems How Boarding Schools Tried to ‘Kill the Indian’ Through Assimilation; Washington Post Column Highlights Evidence of Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System "Aren't we only a minor upgrade of herds of apes?" Not sure who you are referring to as "we". No. What is the origin and basis of that idea?

– guest271314 – 2019-01-22T08:58:52.373

"The U.N. has urged people to transition to a meat and dairy-free diet", actually the UN report says no such thing. The report urges "a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products", but it does not in any way suggest total elimination of all domesticated production animals, nor end of controlled hunting. – hyde – 2019-01-22T20:01:01.023

@hyde "From such detailed studies it becomes apparent that ... the consumption of meat and dairy products (within food consumption) ... cause a disproportionately large share of environmental impacts (Tukker and Jansen 2006).", "Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives." If your issue is with the article "UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet" send The Guardian feedback. The answer does not state "elimination of all domesticated production animals, nor end of controlled hunting". – guest271314 – 2019-01-22T23:33:08.383

@guest271314 Yeah, the Guardian article seems to misrepresent the report they link to, possibly to make better headlines. The UN report calls for radical reduction of meat and dairy use, but not their elimination from the diet. Much more realistic recommendation, too. But everybody switching to meat and dairy free diet, and not just reducing consumption, would imply elimination of meat and dairy animals, as their populations can't really survive without producing money for the people who feed them. – hyde – 2019-01-22T23:39:12.023

@hyde Not sure where you are reading the term "elimination" in either the U.N. report or The Guardian article? The primary basis for the evaluation of meat and dairy products is intensive farming impact on the environment. Hunting is a different subject-matter and method of meat consumption altogether. Have you performed any studies as to the environmental and economic impact of meat production compared to, e.g., growing flowers for export? Each demands water and impacts the environment. Re "as their populations can't really survive" are you referring to wildlife; farm animals? – guest271314 – 2019-01-22T23:48:33.633

@guest271314 Let's not get sidetracked. The answer still claims "The U.N. has urged people to transition to a meat and dairy-free diet", which is false. UN report urged people to radically reduce meat and dairy consumption, it did not call for elimination of meat and dairy consumption. If you disagree, please edit the answer to include a relevant quote from the actual UN report. – hyde – 2019-01-23T18:00:55.570


The point of a free market, which is how pricing is determined under capitalism, is that it reacts efficiently to supply and demand. If something drops in supply it will be harder to get ahold of, and vice versa. Accordingly, when an issue is greatly threatening, such as the issue of feeding an explosively growing population in the mid-20th century, capital will be allocated towards the problem relatively proportional to its severity until a solution is found - in this case the Green Revolution.

This is not to say that business and private allocation of capital is the solution to everything in this regard - when the costs are so widely spread that no one person or group is incentivized to fix it (the Tragedy of the Commons) it may become necessary for a larger regulatory body to be established. This is not, in a sense, a purely capitalist response, but it is a real-world response by self-proclaimed capitalist countries (Montreal Protocol).

So to answer your question, capitalism's answer to constant economic growth and finite resources is that we'll cross that bridge when we get there. When the oil wells begin to run dry, renewables will become more economic as fuel becomes more expensive. When the ratio of space needed for production to protein provided of beef no longer feeds a population properly, another source such as bugs will become more prevalent. Climate change is an example of a more intractable problem that will require more forethought, but there is growing concern worldwide on the topic and as the costs become better defined, it can be assumed that more initiatives will be taken on the topic.

Of course, freedom of information is essential to a free market, so this breaks down some when companies withhold information for selfish reasons (e.g. tobacco industry manipulation of research and to take it to a state level the US, Russia, Saudi block of the COP24 climate report) but historically the truth has prevailed. In such cases it is our duty as citizens to press for transparency and accountability.

Our current practices are not sustainable, so we'll just have to change our practices as they become untenable on an individual basis.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 8 736

4A free market does not require capitalism. You can have a perfectly free market even if all the means of production are publicly owned, by cooperatives competing on the quality of their services no matter who owns the computers or offices. – gerrit – 2019-01-16T16:12:47.633

@gerrit I tried to stick to real-world examples and solutions. There's plenty of theoretical solutions. – Gramatik – 2019-01-16T18:20:59.663

1Except that your answer opens with a sentence on theory. – gerrit – 2019-01-16T19:39:42.380

This is the best (actually correct) answer in a sea of surprisingly bad answers. Simple supply/demand economics dictates that when supply becomes more limited, prices rise, and thus less of it gets used. See supply shock for more information.

– T.E.D. – 2019-01-17T23:11:07.207

2In an Econ 101 world, this is correct. But the real world is not Econ 101 (as much as Mankiw and co. would like you to believe). In fact, the world suffers from intertemporal irreducible uncertainty, which means we can simply not predict (sometimes not even imagine) the consequences of our actions. The pricing mechanism cannot solve this uncertainty. We have used too much oil and we are seeing the consequences of it now. This means the price of oil was too cheap in the past. The market could/would not see this. Also, oil corps buy patents and put them to sleep. Power matters. Econ 101 is false – luchonacho – 2019-01-22T14:12:28.013


This is a clear weakness of "pure" capitalism

Pure, unhindered capitalism, does deplete resources. Moreover, it creates huge monopolies and cartels, that become so powerful that they start to resemble governments. Suddenly, a single company starts to control so much land, so many people, and so many resources that they almost look like a nation.

Most proponents of capitalism, therefore, agree that some regulation is needed, as "pure" capitalism may not even be possible.

Growth can be in services

Right now, manufacturing is huge in Asia, and services are growing in the West. As resources get increasingly scarce, we do not need to manufacture so much stuff. Growth can be in the services sector, and those services do not need to rely as heavily on stuff that they do today.

Technology makes us less dependent on old commodities

I am the author of the answer quoted in OP. I would like to expand the portion quoted a bit, as it is relevant for this answer:

Technology and knowledge are always advancing. This allows us to constantly improve our efficiency and reduce the manpower needed to achieve the same things. For example, it takes much less manpower to manufacture a jacket today than it did in 1850. This effect is constantly happening. And that reduced need for manpower would leave a lot of people unemployed. Therefore, we have three options:

  1. A constant increase in unemployment. (Generally feared and loathed.)
  2. Less time at work per person. (Sometimes impractical. Wastes educational resources as people would still have to study and train just as much only to produce less. Might reduce people's earnings, etc.)
  3. Constant economic growth to create new jobs and counteract the reduced need for manpower caused by technological advancement.

The third option is generally preferred by policymakers, academics, the public, etc. for the reasons described above, as well as other reasons.

I showed him this simplified version of his explanation, and he said it was correct.

Also, there's hardly any limit to how far this can go. We now have machines doing an immense amount of work that used to be done by humans.

Note that the reason for the effect is the increase in technology. As our technology gets more advanced, this advancement may (if we play our cards right), make us less dependant on any given commodity. Some examples:

  • Wood may be replaced by synthetic materials.
  • Synthetic materials may be recycled.
  • Oil may be replaced by renewable energy sources, batteries (technology improves all the time), hydrogen fuel cells, fusion reactors (hey, maybe one day). Plastic can be created without oil.
  • Technology may constantly improve our ability to recycle
  • We may run out of some commodities, but then new technologies may arrive that mean we no longer need those commodities, or we are able to produce them synthetically.

Regulated capitalism

Does the free market make this happen? I will argue in this answer that, to some extent, yes, it, does. However, I will also argue that moderate government regulation is typically needed to prevent environmental devastation and unfair depletion of key resources. Is such regulation capitalism? I believe so. The vast majority of capitalist thinkers have supported some degree of regulation.

For example, a massive river does not belong to any one entity, so if the government uses regulation to prevent companies from spilling toxic chemicals into it or extracting too much water from it, I would argue that this is not opposed to the fundamentals of capitalism.

There is always some government intervention in capitalism.

Usually that means that while the free market is the backbone of economic policy, the government has some ability to regulate the private sector in order to avoid such issues as described in OP. For example, if companies in search of profits are destroying vast areas of forest, which is detrimental to society at large for a number of reasons, then ideally the government should introduce a system (using either permits or taxes to limit said activity to a sustainable level). Most would agree that this is still capitalism, albeit with some modification.

Only as good as its implementation

Whether this actually happens in practice would depend on the quality of the government in said area, its level of corruption, its competence, democratic dynamics, willingness of the populace to demand certain actions from the government, etc. Success varies based on those factors.

So, let us say that everything worked perfectly and industries stopped destroying forests to the unsustainable degree they did before. Does this mean economic growth can no longer happen? Not necessarily. Perhaps one of the things society extracted from the forest was timber, which was used to build houses, furniture, boats, etc. Industries can replace that with renewable materials such as recycled synthetic materials, wood grown on plantations (to a sustainable extent), etc. Sure, this may be more costly (isolatedly) than just straight-up cutting down forests, but there can still be economic growth. Again, this assumes that the government is competent and does a proper job at regulation, that corruption does not get in the way, etc.

Also, the free market is not only contributing to the depletion of resources here. It can also contribute to investment in new technologies. If regulation as described above is applied, the free market can also help towards intelligent use of resources. For example, let us say that the oil on Earth is near depletion and will soon be completely empty. (I am not sure how far we are from that right now, it is only an example) Businesses that are heavily invested in oil for their operations will decrease constantly in value in pace with declining oil reserves. Investors will realize that companies that depend on oil are thus worth less, and try to move their funds elsewhere. They may not do that for any environmental reasons or anything like that, but rather from a recognition that there may not be sufficient oil left, as a calculated, reasonable move. If a resource does not exist at all, it can not be used. Competent investors will therefore invest their funds elsewhere, in companies that have based themselves on technologies, infrastructure and commodities that are not about to run out anytime soon. In this regard, capitalism naturally moves towards sustainable development, in some ways. Obviously, one still needs government regulation to prevent environmental devastation.

Some olive trees only produce optimal yields up to 80 years after planting, yet investors still invest in them. For the long wait-time, they will demand a return down the line that compensates for the 80 years waited. That, however, will simply increase the cost of olives. As long as investors believe people will still buy olives 80 years from now, the trees will still be planted. If an investor wants a profit after 20 years instead of 80, that investor can simply sell the trees (or the stock in the olive company) after 20 years, which has still increased in value since the olives are now closer than they were at planting time.

What I have described in this post is basically what governments around the world have been trying to do for years, with various degrees of earnestness, sincerity and success. Personally, I have to say that some of the shortcomings are very disappointing. What is capitalism's answer to that? I would say, skillful regulation, as described in this post. Some people may say such regulation is the very opposite of capitalism. In a way, that is true. However, all capitalism I have seen practiced and described does involve some (to a greater or lesser degree) such regulation. Therefore, I would say that some regulation is a part of modern capitalism, and it is therefore the answer here.

Ideally, the government can use the market as a tool for its regulation, by using economic policy to encourage certain activity while discouraging other.

Revetahw says Reinstate Monica

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 2 078

1This is just incoherent -- efficient allocation of resources is the point of having a capitalist price system, and indeed of any economic system. Extracting any benefit at all from a resource probably requires "depleting" it, and the negative consequence of such a depletion is exactly that it is no longer available for other consumption, and this is precisely what is internalised in the cost. – something – 2019-01-18T17:29:20.423

@AbhimanyuPallaviSudhir Some resources are renewable and can therefore be used without depleting them. – Revetahw says Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-18T17:31:25.910

Which is why I said "probably" -- it's not relevant whether or not there exist renewable resources, the point is that any positive effect of this renewability is still internalised in the price. Renewable resources also have scarcity, the resources used to harness them may not be renewable, etc., and there is no reason these other forms of scarcity shouldn't be considered in pricing. – something – 2019-01-18T17:36:26.203

1@AbhimanyuPallaviSudhir what's your point? – Revetahw says Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-18T17:40:56.407

1That saying the "depletion of resources" is a "weakness of pure capitalism" is worse than wrong. Now could you explain your point in the weird interjection about renewable resources? – something – 2019-01-18T18:26:06.250

@AbhimanyuPallaviSudhir I did not mean much about my interjection, I just wanted to point it out. – Revetahw says Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-18T18:36:12.647

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Revetahw says Reinstate Monica – 2019-01-18T19:53:22.407

There is always some government intervention in capitalism. Another way to prove this important point is the fact that markets are created and ruled by governments and laws. – Evargalo – 2019-01-22T08:28:46.427


I question the premise: the linked article does not appear to support its assertion that capitalism “requires” constant growth. (And even if it did, the private sector's craving for something to happen does not, on its own, mean it will happen.) Why couldn't commerce sustain itself in a steady state?

I have seen somewhere an argument that the problem is fractional reserve banking. In simple terms (because I'm not sure I understand it myself), money is created by lending, and repayment of these loans with interest requires even more money to come from somewhere, presumably more lending. This cycle is inflationary if the economy does not grow in proportion to the money supply. To postpone a hyperinflation crisis, the political system manipulates the economy to grow, grow, grow.

Anton Sherwood

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 311


Capitalism is not a way of natural resources handling so much as a way of human resources handling. We motivate people by paying them instead of forcing them under some threat of violence or imprisonment or the glory of God or the common good or return to glorified past or towards an Utopian future or some holy ruler or priest council.

The handling of the natural resources is orthogonal to whether the system is capitalist or communist or religious fundamentalist or absolute monarchy or whatever it could be.

All these have different ways of handling and motivating people, not of handling natural resources.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 211

When the means of production are privately owned and owners have a lot of freedom to use their property as they want, democracy has far less leverage than if the means of production are democratically controlled. I don't think it's orthogonal. – gerrit – 2019-01-19T10:36:31.737

1"Democracy" is nowhere in this question nor in my answer. What do you mean? – mathreadler – 2019-01-19T11:04:03.663

It's not orthogonal. The people in a country can democratically decide on what to do with collectively owned means of production, but the market decides what happens with privately owned means of production, unless democracy sets rules and conditions, which limits the free market. Capitalism is, in a narrow sense, to gain income from capital. If I get paid to work I get income from labour, which is not specific to capitalism. If a country (democratically or not) is to have control over natural resources, those must either be collectively owned, or one must limit the free market. – gerrit – 2019-01-19T11:46:17.660

1It's true that it doesn't matter whether or not such rules are set democratically, but in capitalism without boundaries on the free market, one cannot set such rules at all, therefore it cannot be democratic. – gerrit – 2019-01-19T11:50:01.410

Exactly. Great explanation why it is in fact orthogonal. The degree of ehm what you call "democracy" is the perpendicular dimension independent of capitalism or not. – mathreadler – 2019-01-19T20:40:24.740

Except that the smaller the government, the less there is for a democracy to have control over. In the extreme case, where the government has zero power, democracy and dictatorship are effectively the same. And small/big government is correlated to more capitalism or more socialism in a system. – gerrit – 2019-01-19T21:14:43.477

This is an interesting discussion but it is starting to become a discussion thread more suitable to reddit or other similar sites than stack exchange. – mathreadler – 2019-01-20T10:46:48.883


So, I am wondering if how capitalism can deal with this?

The way it deals with everything, by definition: as supply decreases, prices increase, until they are out of the price range of consumers, so demand decreases as well. Meanwhile, if the item was essential, the purely economic pressure to discover or develop alternatives increases until those take over the job (simply because they become economically feasible).

Note that this is a neutral process; i.e., this is just the way stuff works, not necessarily a catastrophe for everybody involved, and tells you nothing about the speed of change.

What if we reach the limits of the environment and economic growth is no longer possible?

It depends on who you're talking to. On the one end of the scale, you have politicians who insist that everything is just fine (insert a "Jedi hand gesture" here). On the other end, you have someone like Michael Rupport, whose movie "Collapse" you can watch on YouTube, and who is very certain that the world as we know it will meet a swift and ugly end, and soon.

But one thing is certain: nobody knows for sure. E.g., Ruppert's pamphlet is hinging on a catastrophic Peak Oil event, where everything breaks down suddenly, and a systematic failure of the whole society/economy is inevitable. But he cannot know for sure. It is one scenario amongst many.

It depends on your own opinions and character whether you want to use outliers ("everything is fine and will be forever" or "the end is near"), or if you want to accept that we just cannot see the future. It depends not only on how fast the ressource in question disappears, but also on scientific advances; on social changes in behaviour (i.e., the movements emphasizing local sourcing of food, energy, and so on); on the foresight and conservativeness of countries (i.e., whether they make the basic services like water supply dependant on certain technologies, or stick with old technologies); and certainly a lot on randomness (e.g., which kind of political power is at the helm at some deciding moment in time).

For me, personally, it is clear that at some point in the future, oil (for example) will be a premium product; not usable for transportation, and also used only for the most essential products. This is clearly, mathematically, inevitable, until or unless we find a way to synthesize oil on an industrial scale (but let's just ignore that at the moment, as we're more concerned about economics in this question). But what this means for us is absolutely not clear. I can absolutely imagine scenarios where this is a long, slow process, giving us enough time to react. Maybe even slow enough that it spans generations, so nobody ever has a really hard "life-changing event". But I understand and accept the other opinions, for sure...


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 350

I mostly agree with you, but it's worth pointing out that oil certainly can be synthesized. Obviously that's only economical if the cost of crude is quite high (say, you've picked a fight with most of the rest of the world and failed to capture the Caucasus oil fields). It's an open question whether decarbonization or well exhaustion will happen faster. – Jon of All Trades – 2019-01-22T16:16:52.157

@JonofAllTrades, thanks; I have added a side note about this to the answer. – AnoE – 2019-01-22T17:05:31.897


Global capitalism suffers from serious coordination problems. The capitalist class competes among themselves, not the least because nations compete among themselves. Their greed blinds them. They cannot think in the very long term. The rest of society is also competing among themselves, and are too many (and some might say too ignorant) to coordinate themselves. So a rational response is not possible.

Catastrophe has been a common answer for society and nature to force us to change. For instance, when inequality gets too high, wars and revolt happen. So, when we have messed up the environment so much, nature will react, like it's doing it right now with climate change, forcing death, malnutrition, wars and so the population falls again.

Malthus suggested this long ago. More recently Walter Scheidel suggested this in his book The Great Leveler. So it's not good news, unfortunately.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 71


For one thing, look at people's spending and consumption patterns. we are spending more and more money on things that do not necessarily have a big physical footprint: software, movies, music, telecommunication services and health. Food too, but expensive food is pretty much the same as cheap food in terms of environmental impact (plant vs animal calories aside).

You'll also see, that lost in the political tug of war about taking global warming seriously and things like ongoing coal subsidies, a lot of large corporations are in fact advocating carbon pricing. Because, precisely, a lot of companies realize that their continued economic well-being depends on managing the transition to a more careful management of at least CO2 impacts.

In short, as far as discretionary spending goes, a lot of where people choose to spend money on isn't necessarily a heavy hit on the environment. And capitalism is all about listening to where people want to spend money on.

One glaring exception is transportation, and especially air travel. But fixing that could be achieved by carbon pricing, rather than throwing out capitalism.

Not to mention that alternative economic models (for non-subsistence level systems), such as Communism, have generally not been very kind on the environment either. Neither have systems where resources at risk aren't clearly either owned by someone, or managed by some government/institution. For example you can look at international overfishing: its main problem isn't capitalism, it's that there are "free calories" out there for the taking and no one is pricing or controlling stock degradation.

If we value the environment, we need to price it accordingly and capitalism has built-in mechanisms to react to those signals. That requires political will and it's unlikely to happen soon, but that's more a problem with the political system (including corporate lobbying) than using a free market per se. And, yes, it is also a problem because voters don't care enough (yet) to vote for environmental policies that will cost them economically.

Carbon pricing would drive some companies out of business, sure (and that's a good thing in the long run). But other companies would get created to deliver new goods and services that have less environmental impact. Or to deliver mitigation services.

Ask yourself this: if US coal miners were employed, not by US corporations, but by some form of state-owned company, like in the USSR, do you think that winding down the coal industry would be easy if those miners had any political agency in how to lead their lives?

Italian Philosophers 4 Monica

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 17 615


Capitalism's answer is a global crisis, which weakens world economic powers and redistributes resource consumption. Such a crisis may be either peaceful (like the Great Depression in the US) or non-peaceful (like WWI, for example - when growing economic powers - the German bloc - tried to overpower existing economic powers - the Western world mainly).

So, in fact, there is no such problem in capitalism - its decision is stored inside.

About "growth in services economics, which is unlimited". Let's consider, why it is naive.

The process itself is described very well in @Trilarion's answer. The answer describes so-called "post-industrial" economics.

What's wrong with it?

At first, should notice, that graphics (services percent) are true, but for very special countries from western world, which have such huge services sector (US and UK are most known). You may look at the second graph. We now, that main part of UK GDP is formed by banking sector and services. From the first view, it sounds good - it is a pure service sector, we are just servicing our and foreign banks money, giving credits, so on.

But - of course, there is a 'but' - the financial sector cannot live in a vacuum. When it grows too much over REAL sector, we obtain a financial bubble. It may be a big amount of credits, an exchange bubble, or something else, but what we have? We have an economic sector which growth, in fact, is a fake.

A bright example: Brexit. You may, again, look at the second graph from @Trilarion's answer. The UK have a huge financial sector (result of M. Thatcher politics of 'de-industrializing'). What Brexit means? It means (and Deutsche Bank already have done it), that EU banks will stop to use UK bank services, because of UK is exiting, and retrieve their finances from UK back to homeland. How do you think, this will affect UK bank sector (and, as it is huge, huge part of economics)? It will collapse. You may say - but what's the difference between EU and UK, if both have a financial sector and banks? Yes, both have, but EU do have a big REAL sector (which can be an investment target to the banks, and supports it) and UK does not.

To conclude. That theory - about constant growth, provided with services constant growth - is applicable in a one-hegemony-world, which is globalised. While hegemonic growth its services, which is consumed by others, others, in return, provide something REAL. A bright example is the 'late-Washington' world - before Russian comeback to global powers. But now, as the world becomes multi-polar again, this is not more than a pure theory.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

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Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– Philipp – 2019-01-17T23:00:43.000


Competition between individuals lies at the core of capitalism. One businessman invents a better product and a second businessman runs out of business. As resources run out you will see similar competition intensify between different nations. Which inevitably leads to war, the ultimate method of settling a dispute.

If we reach a point where the planet's most critical resources are running out with no feasible technological solution in sight, things will end up in armed conflict over the limited assets. There are already numerous conflicts around the world over who gets to control a given oil field or mineral supply, such as the dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over Abyei. We can expect more such conflicts in the future, as we're approaching peak oil and running out of precious materials like helium.

If there's only enough goods to supply a billion people on this Earth, either 6.53 billion will have to leave for another planet or the strongest billion people will subjugate the rest. We of course hope that this will never happen (see the other answers for a more optimistic prediction), but war is inevitable if the optimistic predictions fail to come true.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 36 466

2Desire for resources and especially war as answer to the scarcity is in no way shape or form unique to, or endemic to, capitalism. Less so than other systems, if you review human history; actually. So "war" is an objectively wrong answer to "what is capitalism's answer" question. – user4012 – 2019-01-17T13:46:05.463

1@user4012 plenty of wars over resources have been started by capitalistic societies. See all the wars started by the US for examples. – JonathanReez – 2019-01-17T15:38:36.697

1I would like a complete list of resources that US owns as a result of a war it started to get that resource. – user4012 – 2019-01-17T16:13:37.523

@user4012 the state of Texas would be one example, formerly owned by Mexico. Banana wars are another example, although US companies have less property in Central America these days. Opium wars were started by the UK at a time when it was very much capitalistic. – JonathanReez – 2019-01-17T16:18:03.860

1Opium wars were not over resources. They were over control of who gets to sell things (e.g. over political power - which is the root cause of any war regardless of the system involved). – user4012 – 2019-01-17T18:04:31.867

2Texas is most certainly NOT a valid example. The Republic of Texas declared independence from the Republic of Mexico on March 2, 1836.. Note that at the time US opposed inclusion of Texas into US. – user4012 – 2019-01-17T18:05:01.433

@user4012 regardless, the US now owns a lot of precious resources that were previously owned by another state. Capitalism is no obstacle. – JonathanReez – 2019-01-22T20:31:53.887


Mahatma Gandhi once said "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.".

I think that statement sums up how the ideology of capitalism needs to be ethically framed in order to save the biosphere and stop theft of resources from future generations. "Enough" has to be defined, a "greed exit strategy", so to speak, that would strike the right balance between acceptable Return On Investment (ROI) and the needs of society, the biosphere, and future generations. Right now there is no definition of "enough" other than infinite greed.

Also, in order for capitalism to work ethically, property rights and how they are defined must be worked out. If you think about it, there is really no such thing as property "rights". There are property "claims" which society would honor or dishonor based upon the merits of the claim.

Private "ownership" of property is very well documented. Whereas the common property that naturally belongs to everybody is seldom documented as proportioned to each citizen's account. Just as not having a birth certificate does not mean someone does not exist, similarly, just because a citizen's equity share in the commons is not documented does not mean the citizen does not have claim to said portion of the commons.

Capitalism, as far as I know, does not mention how property claims are vetted and distributed justly through society. It focuses on the free market mechanism where supply and demand determine price and true competition prevents monopolies. If the free market mechanism is fully allowed to work, and property claims were equitably distributed in the society, a wealth gap should not be able to develop. In capitalism, there is no "too big to fail" or governments (that belong to everyone) enforcing dubious property claims of a few.

Ed Kideys

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 340

2Gandhi is loved enough to invoke him but not enough to get his name right – Anton Sherwood – 2019-01-19T01:46:52.603


  1. Finite doesn't mean constant. There may be limited resources, but that doesn't mean we cannot find or produce more resources. It also doesn't mean that we can't find better ways of allocating resources, or of extracting the greatest productive value from these resources. An improvement in these is what leads to economic growth.

  2. The fact that resources are scarce is the whole point of capitalism, and really of economics -- more precisely, the question that any economic system answers is "given that resources are finite, how do we allocate them most efficiently with the goal of creating greatest productive economic value?"

  3. Economic growth is a specific economic phenomenon -- it would certainly be possible to have a universe in which there was no economic growth possible, but this is not our universe (see point 1), and this has nothing to do with capitalism. Indeed, even in such a universe, capitalism would be the optimal manner of allocating resources -- for example, if you had a universe in which water kept disappearing and there was no way to synthesise it or find an alternative to it, humans would be doomed to extinction in that universe but the capitalist price system would still maximise human welfare during our brief existence.

I find it funny that two of the most common arguments against capitalism are that it will fail because "the planet's resources are finite" and that it can't handle the coming "post-scarcity economy". These arguments are contradictory, and both false anyway, there is nothing inherent about the utilitarian economic argument in favour of capitalism that requires scarcity or infinite resources.

I think too many people conflate "capitalism" with terms like "economic growth" and "industrialism". Capitalism is just an idealisation of a system where property rights are well-defined and economic agents pursue their self-interest. And it doesn't make sense (from a utilitarian perspective) to criticise economic growth either -- economic growth (with externalities, inherent costs etc. accounted for) is just the ultimate measure of increases in well-being, it's what an economic system should be chosen to maximise. You could try and make the case that capitalism leads to unsustainable economic growth, but you'd still probably be wrong.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 131

2Yes, finite means constant. I think the the question is not about temporary scarcity that goes away once a new source is found; it's about resources of which a limited amount exists in the world and that can't be reproduced. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-16T16:27:06.970

2@henning Finite doesn't mean constant -- those are just definitionally different things. The resources we have access to are a very small fraction of the resources present in the universe, and because the latter is finite doesn't mean the former is constant. – something – 2019-01-16T16:38:06.440

2It's going to be difficult to tap the universe for anything but solar radiation. I don't see clean air, water, coltan, or uranium on the Moon. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-16T16:47:05.330

1The point is that you can (in principle) synthesise them, or recycle them from used resources or whatever, so there isn't a fixed amount of resources you keep "draining". In any case, this is irrelevant to the question of the impact an economic system has in such a scenario. – something – 2019-01-16T18:53:48.890


Assuming the premise, that resources were limited, the capitalist method would be to attempt to get whatever profits there were to be had in distributing whatever goods those limited resources provided. Really, the world has always had limited resources, over time the limits of which fluctuate, it's just that humanity has usually tended to operate well within those limits.

Several answers here already argue that free markets might still be for the best and keep civilization humming optimally along whatever the case, but it's also possible that for certain scarcities capitalism might be a poor fit, and at worst a fatal one.

For the fatal scenario, there would need to be a cascade of necessary great auks, a bird that became extinct due to the increasingly high market value of its feathers which were used to fill pillows. Here a free market destroyed a commodity, the price of which went up in a nasty feedback loop:

  1. Kill auk, sell soft feathers.
  2. Fewer auks, price goes up.
  3. Any auks left? If so, go to step #1.

Of course auk feathers were luxuries, so people could live without them, but if similar feedback loops wind up up destroying necessities, we might behold a different sort of feedback loop:

  1. Necessary commodity insufficient to maintain current populace.
  2. Populace becomes fewer.
  3. Enough of commodity yet? If not, go to step #1.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 11 325

2This answer is wrong - great auk feathers were easily replaced by other ornaments. Which is an essential point here - if they were indeed a critical resource, the end game would have reached an equilibrum where a buiseness aimed at raising auks would become profitable (same way farm fishing became profitable once ocean fish stocks started to deplete). Which, by the way, is different from socialism, where no conservation whatsoever was taking place, comparative to capitalist countries. – user4012 – 2019-01-17T13:50:56.250


@user4012, SFAIK Auk feathers were never used as ornaments, their short little feathers were just used for down -- but as you probably meant, auks weren't the only source of down, and down isn't the only pillow filling. Re "if they were indeed a critical resource, the end game...": that's optimistically presuming markets can always distinguish between necessities and luxuries prior to game time. It hasn't always worked out that way.

– agc – 2019-01-17T17:51:39.637

1The question isn't whether markets work out 100% of time. It's whether they work out better and more often than other systems. For every one famine under market system (and in all honesty I don't know enough about Irish famine to know if it was indeed market-driven and not politics driven), I can point to dozens of the ones that happened under and often due to non-market systems. – user4012 – 2019-01-17T17:58:48.710

1@user4012, This Q. is not a systems comparison, and with respect to humanity's survival success 100% of the time is the most practical goal. To avoid irrelevant boosterism, for the sake of argument let's suppose capitalism is indisputably the best system known. Unless we go so far as to say it's the best system conceivable or possible, (so that it's impossible to improve), then it's not vain to ask if this best system is up to spec (100% survival) in 2019? If not, then contemplating its defects the better to meet that spec may be useful and necessary. – agc – 2019-01-17T18:22:33.933

1in that frame, it's also reasonably close to 100%, given that on one scale is a minor set of failures that are mostly localized (again, let's count Irish famine as one), on the other end is ending poverty and hunger in something like 1B people after 1960; most of it related to uptake of capitalism in Asia; and capitalism-driven Green Revolution (Bourlag was important but he was extremely unlikely to have been a product of non-capitalist system) – user4012 – 2019-01-17T20:33:38.787


In Austria the answer to that is private ownership and regulation. Almost all of the forests in Austria are in private ownership. The owner is responsible for keeping the forest in order and making sure it is in a good condition. The philosophy behind it is, that people would look out better for what is their own in comparison to if it was community owned. And the community is more likely to impose regulation on the privately owned forests, than it would be, if the forests were in communal hands. This creates sort of an equilibrium of forces, which conserves the forests. If both the ownership and the regulation would be in state hands it would be easy to reduce the forests for short term political gains. On the other hand if the private owners were allowed to do what they want, they would also reduce the forests for short term gain.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 1 278


No natural law says that we are stuck on Earth indefinitely. Of all economic systems, Capitalism has shown the most potential for growth, invention, and new things. It therefore has the best chance to establish human presence elsewhere.

William Jockusch

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 3 378

So when we've broken earth, we'll just invent faster-than-light travel (no natrual law against that!) and find another inhabitable planet were everybody moves. Thank god, no need to worry then! – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-22T07:20:40.080


Capitalism’s answer to go by what we know how wealth is being distributed rather than by their propaganda which hides how wealth is being distributed, is that most of the growth in wealth is being captured by a small segment of the population.

So long as that segment stays small, you can have so called perpetual growth; when that segment actually becomes almost the whole population such a growth strategy is simply not sustainable and a switch to a sustainable economy will have to be forced.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 3 678


This is not an important question. It is a theoretical question about something that cannot happen.

First, it is unlikely that all the resources of the planet could be used because as the available resources of the planet are exhausted the scarcity will cause massive reductions in the number of resource consumers. So large is the planet and so few would be the number of resource users that the resource users would perish before they located all the resources.

Second, even if it could happen by the time it does happen, there wold surely be no identifiable economic system other than rampant chaos and nobody would be thinking about economic systems.

Third, the question is not a matter of a particular economic system since the economic system neither creates nor responds to such a scenario.

David Akers

Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 33


Barbara Branden (at the time a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle) was asked what would be done for the poor in a free society (one devoid of the compulsion that characterizes every departure from capitalism).

Her answer:

If you want to help them, you will not be stopped.

Capitalism's answer to the problem of unlimited growth in the face of limited resources is essentially the same: If you are trying to solve the problem, you will not be stopped (not by capitalists, anyway), but if your solution requires fraud or coercion, you will not be allowed to use those methods.


Posted 2019-01-16T08:35:39.070

Reputation: 1 232

1... unless you take away our means of coercion and exploitation. – henning -- reinstate Monica – 2019-01-22T07:38:40.433

1Will the down-voters please provide a reason? – EvilSnack – 2019-03-02T14:24:19.370