The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How The Metaphysics Of Capitalism Destroyed The World

Back in 1968 the book “Limits to Growth” stormed the world. Computer models predicted that humans would run out of almost every resource, overshoot carying capacity, then crash.

It was well known and widely discussed and combined with the oil crashes, made the 70s a ferment of practical and theoretical work on alternative energy, different ways of farming and so on.

Almost all of that came to an end in the 80s, with Reagan. Carter had put solar panels on the White House, Reagan had them torn down. A decision was made to crush wages and thus the oil consumption of ordinary people, while bringing new sources online as fast as possible. Obama, with fracking, made the same decision, by the way, but even more successfully, turning the US back into a HUGE producer of oil.

But what’s important today isn’t all of that, which I’ve discussed at tedious length in the past.

Instead I want to discuss the basic argument against the “Limits To Growth”.

“We will substitute away.”

In other words, alternate energy will step up and we’ll move away from oil and coil. We’ll find substitutes for steel and nickel and rare earths and anything else in short supply.

BUT what matters is the metaphysics of the argument. When the people making this argument said it would happen, they assumed “the market” would do it.

Which, it sort of has, but too late. Much too late.

There was a strong assumption that prices were information which stored in them all known information about the past and the future, and that therefore prices would drive self-interested people to make the necessary substitutions or find new sources.

To market disciples, the market’s “free hand” was like God, all-knowing and all-powerful and weirdly benevolent. All we had to do was let the market run and it would solve all our problems.

So why didn’t that happen?

Well, to start, the market doesn’t price the future well at all. Never has, and never will. People making decisions in 1970 will mostly be dead before all this stuff matters, and the same is true of people making decisions in the 2010s. Even if they aren’t dead, is there anything in human history which makes us believe humans are good at making very long term plans, over decades to generations?

Why would you believe the market would do it based on a discipline which suggests humans are rational and know what is good for them and act rationally to get what is good for them? (If you believe all of that, you are more of a fantasist than some fanatic whipping himself while screaming for God to save him.)

Now I’m not concerned here with the hypocrites: the people who knew this was all bunk but expected to get rich off it (they were, in a real sense, very rational. A bad future they don’t see or don’t care about, “I get 50 good years and die rich when the bad times come, whatever” isn’t a reason not be rich now, if you don’t care about future people.)

But many many people really believed this bunk and the issue is that by believing that the “market” and “price signals” and *vague hand waving* would solve the problem: by saying “we have a system that solves these problems automatically by giving correct feedback” they made it impossible to solve to the extent that they were believed. (And remember, huge amounts of money were run on the markets for decades based on these ideas. People believed and put their cash on the line.)

In fact, of course, we could have taken the warning of “Limits To Growth”, “Peak Oil” and “Global Warming” and used them to make changes.

Ironically a lot of those changes would be exactly what the disciples of hand-wavy “market” crap suggested would happen automatically.

Use markets and public policy: massively subsidize alternative energy and research so that where we are with solar today is where we would have been in the 90s. Massively research alternatives to bottleneck resources. Stop over-fishing, by force if necessary. And, of course, put sharp limits on “planned obsolence” backed with death sentences for executives.

If you’d rather get more resources or if you want more than one strategy, massively fund space exploration with an eye to mining rather than defund NASA in waves (Obama, classically, did the worst cuts to NASA ever so that private industry/billionaires could make money, but NASA funding should have been increased in the 70s.)

Warnings only serve those who heed them and when you believe in metaphysical entities which don’t have the attributes they think they do (God, Markets), then you don’t act to save yourself. Markets were never, by themselves, going to miraculously do what needed being done in time. Oh sure, price feedback has eventually gotten us some decent solar, and so on, but decades later than we needed it.

Markets are human creations, like God, and to work correctly they have to be tuned for the problem at hand or, even (heresy) one has to consider that there are things that Markets or Gods can’t do, or are bad at, and find other solutions.

So here we are, and markets have not made everything good and the world’s forests are burning and we’re about to have another oil boom, as best I can tell.

Like God, mis-using markets or assigning them powers they don’t have, leads to terrible consequences, so get ready for the invisible hand to slap us silly.

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Quarantine Matters


Open Thread


  1. Astrid

    It’s worse than that, though the first order failure of imagination is so complete that the second order failure is perhaps of trivial significance, only changing the texture of what is going down. During the few times when the market did send clear distress signals, in 2008 and 2020, the Fed opted to save the bad actors, destroying Main Street and any coherent theory of capitalism in the rescue. Not only was the rules of capitalism never going to save us, but they never bothered following their own rules when it mattered. Since it was all nihilist “get what you can today” free for all, DogeCoin and GameStop shares made as much sense as anything else in this smash and grab world.

  2. bruce wilder

    It is only a detail, but we had the sterile debate over carbon taxes vs Cap-N-Trade. That was a pure expression of the ideology of neoliberal “market” economics.

    We understand better every day the physical, chemical and even biological sciences of climate change and the various other assaults on the environment (e.g. microplastics).

    What we do not understand is the economics of the economic system that brought about the industrial revolution(s) that created the problem. What you are saying is that our ostensible body of knowledge about political economy is actually in denial about how it works and what it does; we have constructed a “market god” to explain things and to propitiate with prayers and sacrifices (e.g. deficit reduction; low taxes and no regulation of business)

    And that is true. Very few know much at all about how the political economy works.

    One key indicator is the insight that substitution would never be enough. Radical energy conservation, especially in the transition, and constraints on all energy use in the long run would be necessary.

    I only exceptionally see the need for radical energy conservation even mentioned in popular policy discussions that go one inch beyond “do something” vague. People are quicker to embrace schemes to remove carbon from the active carbon cycle.

    (Yves Smith is one who gets it, and that redeems her in my eyes.)

  3. Jason

    Hmmm. A post on how we never learn. Good stuff.

    But then this:

    massively fund space exploration with an eye to mining

    C’mon man.

  4. Astrid


    I don’t think space exploration with an eye towards mining is an unreasonable approach 50 years ago. The best option for humans to continue at a high technological level is to access most of our resources independent of the earth biosphere and minimize our impact to it. We had enough energy and wealth to try this out up to the astroid belt, but we blew it on pointless wars, SUVs, McMansions, and winter vacations on warm beaches. It might not have worked at scale, but the potential rewards seem high enough that we should have tried to access it for the good of all humanity.

  5. Hugh

    I agree. My memory of Limits to Growth was that it started to lay out some of the consequences of growth and its solution was that everything would sort itself out.

    I agree too that Reagan was a pivotal figure. Volcker may have started under Carter but he and the Fed’s war on workers’ wages flowered under Reagan. Government was branded as the problem. At the same time, his supply side economics accelerated an unending transfer of wealth to the rich. And then there was the elevation of Alan Greenspan, libertarianish, who masterminded the fake bailout of Social Security and whose hands off, easy money, no regulation approach as Fed chair under Clinton laid the foundations for the 2008 financial collapse.

  6. Kurt Frederick ZUMDIECK

    Every decaying system fails in its attempt to re-imagine itself when challenged to its core, falling in on itself in one last supernova-like spasm of corruption. The once-great institutions of Catholicism, Communism, and now, we see in the lasts legs of Capitalism; (which so MANY Americans swear their empty allegiances to) all of them have shown the same sclerotic rot in their death throes.

    Capitalism has deteriorated into an oligarichic money/ power grab. What’s worse is that Space, to THEM, is a frontier they cynically exploit, both in fiction to passify the masses, while offering false hopes that we can save ourselves, by somehow getting off this soon-to-be exhausted planet in their laughably puny, pecker-shaped suborbital craft.

    If you haven’t seen Jon Stewart’s brutal parody of the billionaire class and their obvious penile issues in their SPACE race, you should see it just for the casting – Jason Alexander is obviously perfect as Bezos, but its making Branson into a mop, with a helmet on it, and Zuckerberg is played by a cat…. In previous times, these bros would hide in shame after being so mocked, but this group is TOO rich and all-powerful to have any shame, too busy stealing anything not nailed down.

  7. different clue

    @Ian Welsh,

    You raise the question up above in your post . . . “Even if they aren’t dead, is there anything in human history which makes us believe humans are good at making very long term plans, over decades to generations?”

    Yes. Yes there is. All manner of First Nations here on these two continents made their long-range culture-encoded/embodied decisions and actions very well, as seen by steady habitat maintainance and/or upgrading, before the Age of Non-Native Intrusion. One example is the undeniable evidence of eco-up-bioterraforming of several hundred thousand square miles of Amazon Basin land. Another specific example is the Maya Food Forest.

    WesterModern Man doesn’t think of Indians as human beings. Anti-Indian WesterModern Man thinks of Indians as merciless evil dirty savages. Pro-Indian WesterModern Man thinks of Indians as magical other-than-human mystical sentient beings, like Elves and Hobbits.

    For WesterModern man to think of Indigenous humans AS humans is still too threatening to the WesterModern Metaphysical framework, because it would reveal that framework as merely being a framework, and not the Final Great Void Truth which WesterModern man has been raised to believe for 5,000 years, ever since the Great Bureaucratic Slave Civilizations of Old World Antiquity. If WesterModern Man were to accept that Indigenous persons were really human, then WesterModern Man would find itself faced with having to make a choice between Metaphysical Belief Systems. Part of the WesterModern Man drive to exterminate every trace of Indigenous People and Cultures is to avoid having to admit to that choice and to avoid having to face the reality of the visible meaning and result of WesterModern Civilization. The History of Modern Man has been a March to EcoTerracide with no positive meaning at all. It really was all for nothing, and the not-yet-dead Indians are a visible reminder of that fact.

    The only survival choice which WesterModern Man has at the overall mass population survival level is to slipstream itself as-best-it-can into the time tested proven eco-viable Indigenous Metaphysical Belief System. And base its planning and actions on that. The first step would be giving large-scale way to a self- restoration of Indigenous Sovereignty and Culture.

  8. gnokgnoh

    Limits to Growth modeled ten scenarios, with the first business as usual (BAU). with nine other scenarios in which humans take graduated actions. Only the final four scenarios reach some level of sustainability or equilibrium. The first six simply reach collapse over increasingly longer time frames. They never assumed anything other than BAU would be the default. To quote Donella Meadows,

    The final four scenarios also suggest some general conclusions:
    1. A global transition to a sustainable society is probably possible without reductions in either population or industrial output (remember this was 1972, when the world population was 3.8 billion).
    2. A transition to sustainability will require an active decision to reduce the human ecological footprint
    3. There are many choices that can be made about numbers of people, living standards, technological investment, and allocations among industrial goods, services, food, and other material needs.
    4. There are many trade-offs between the number of people the earth can sustain and the material level at which each person can be supported.
    5. The longer the world takes to reduce its ecological footprint and move toward sustainability, the lower the population and material standard that will be ultimately supportable.
    6. The higher the targets for population and material standard of living are set, the greater the risk of exceeding and eroding its limits.

  9. jump

    Limits to Growth was required reading in an introductory course to Agricultural Science at U of G in the 70’s. I was astonished in reading that millions of tons of ‘excess’ wheat was destroyed annually in the US simply because it went against market norms to try to feed starving people in countries that could not afford to buy it at market value.
    Just another example of a problem markets cannot address.

  10. This can’t be understood without the shadow of the Soviet Union and the horror of central planning (partly for good reasons) instilled in the Western middle classes — the subconscious acceptance that glut and financialization is better than having to wait in a queue for shoes.

    Not to mention that among the Malthusian prophecies there were some of them that were over-specific and over-eager and that often appeared culturally/ideologically over-prejudiced in terms of the solutions they implied.

  11. Mark Pontin

    Ian: ‘Why would you believe the market would do it based on a discipline which suggests humans are rational and know what is good for them and act rationally to get what is good for them? (If you believe all of that, you are more of a fantasist than some fanatic whipping himself while screaming for God to save him.)’

    Neoliberalism in its extreme forms is absolutely a religious faith — a tautological Theory of Everything relying on the Evidence of Things Unseen.

    But it’s even wilder than you suggest, Ian. Because in the inner circle of neoliberals they do NOT actually believe ‘humans are rational and know what is good for them.’ To the contrary, in fact.

    Walter Benjamin wrote in one of his essays that: “One might speak … of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it be unforgotten, that predicate would not imply a falsehood but merely a claim not fulfilled by men, and probably also a realm in which it _is_ fulfilled: God ‘s remembrance.”

    So, too, with neoliberalism. Substitute the Market as Supreme Information Processor for God, and you have neoliberalism.

    So real neoliberals do NOT believe that humans are rational and know what is good for them — though they tell us that. They actually believe that the less the masses of the uninitiated knows with accuracy, the less they’ll be tempted or able to act against the Market.

    Hence, the production of ignorance — what Philip Mirowski calls agnotology, and you and I call systematic deception — is at all times necessary and desirable to make the vast mass of people submit to the Market, which is always and everywhere a superior Information Processor than any human or human group could ever be.

    If you and I see, for instance, a planet racked by climate change and a coronavirus pandemic, that’s only our failure of understanding of the wisdom of the Market. In time, the Market will do its work and the best possible result will eventuate, impossible for mere human beings to achieve. And we’ll know it’s best possible result because the Market achieved it.

    Very strange stuff.

    If you actually dig into the inner workings of neoliberal thought (which takes some digging; they hide it from the uninitiated), you’ll find that many neoliberal economists actually believe that the less the normies have knowledge of what’s

  12. nihil obstet

    Capitalism is an ideology of scarcity. It claims that we all want more, so we must constantly grow and produce more for each of us. In fact, by the early 20th c. the fear of capitalists was that people wouldn’t want more. In 1930, Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would work 15 hours a week.

    The response of the rich was to create demand. They hired psychologists into advertising, not just to say that an existing product was good, but to create an industry that used every psychological operation to convince people that they were dissatisfied, that they would be happy if they bought a product, and that they would be unhappy without more, more, more.

    Without advertising, the front line of the propaganda state, we would not find it essential to replace all the stuff that we have now.

  13. Hugh

    “Active decision ,” “many choices,” “many trade-offs.” Who precisely did Donella Meadows think would be doing this and how?

    The problem is that these decisions, choices, and trade-offs aren’t just national but global. The timeframe we are talking about between LTG and the update in the 90s covers the last three decades of the Cold War. Industry and Wall Street weren’t interested in this. And topics like population control and reduction would be characterized by much of the developing world as First World sponsored genocide.

    It seems to me that LTG was just a well meaning, inept liberal experiment where thoughtful elites would tell us rubes what to do so that elite civilization could survive. Maybe they should have called it LTR, Limits to Rubes.

  14. Ché Pasa

    “Limits to Growth” was prescient, yes, though I don’t think that by the time it was published, the outlines of it weren’t already well understood by those in the field. Many, though hardly most, of those who lived through the Post War Boom period were well aware that there would be a limit to how much material progress and population growth there could be. And of course nuclear annihilation was always on the horizon. That right there would be a hard limit to the Era of Universal Betterment, no?

    But it didn’t happen. Many of the presumed hard limits didn’t happen. At least not in the way so many scholars of the Problem of Limits assumed they would.

    We’re now at the point, though, where hard limits are being imposed either by Our Rulers or by Nature in Revolt. Sometimes by the two working in concert.

    Though it’s very late, a transition from maximal extraction and exploitation is underway. A transition to…? Not entirely clear, but the outlines favor a sustainable use future — for the lucky ones who manage to get through the transition period. Rampant consumerism replaced by subsistence for most, absurd technological luxury for the Overlords.

    Future climate maps are beginning to show where the ideal habitable zones will be (ha!) and where we probably shouldn’t or can’t live sustainably. Hm. Billions will have to move, or… ? Or what? The “or what” is being felt out right now, as millions are already on the move with many more millions behind them. Most so far find themselves either slaughtered along the way or confined to camps some distance from their longed for better lives. Most will not make it to “Canada” (those familiar with the Holocaust will know the reference.) But some will.

    The current pandemic is certainly helping to cull the herd of humanity. Not too quickly overall, but pretty devastatingly among certain sectors of the useless and/or easily replaceable. Expect more of the same.

    And so it goes. We’re past the tipping point and on the declining slope. Look at the billionaire joy rides in space. Up, up and away, hang for a bit seeming to float, then back to Earth, at first slow then accelerating. They’ve been lucky they don’t crash and burn.

    It’s a metaphor.

  15. different clue

    @Che’ Pasa,

    I have heard of a book called None Is Too Many, about how the CanadaGov tried to prevent any Jews seeking escape from Europe to come to Canada. I have never actually read the book. I suppose it could be a companion piece to While Six Million Died about the Roosevelt Administrations fierce determination to permit as few Jews in flight into America as possible.

    I wonder whether the surviving Jews of Europe, especially the Zionist Movement ones, learned to be ” Nazism’s bastard stepchildren” as I have seen the phrase put, from their experience in Nazi Europe, or whether they learned it from Canada’s, America’s , Australia’s, etc. Solid Wall of ” no rescue for you”.

    Still and all, the Zionist Movement became very good after the war at working the After-Holocaust guilt rackets.

    Just a diversioniary thought triggered by your ” Canada” reference, which I assume is a referrence to None Is Too Many. In the real world, the referrence kind of falls down here, in that hundreds of millions of Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, etc. don’t need a ship or a boat to get to Canada. We are already on the same continent. Its just a long hard walk away. Canada won’t have enough bullets to shoot all the climate refugees heading Canada’s way in the decades to come. And the refugees can simply stack the rising pile of corpses up against whatever Big Beautiful Wall Canada is able to build and walk right over the wall on a ramp of their own death-march-comrades’s bodies. So the referrence only goes so far, I think.

  16. Hugh

    CP, I have no problem with billionaires shooting themselves into space. My problem is with them coming back.

  17. Ché Pasa

    “Canada” or Kanada was the name prisoners gave to the dozens of warehouses at the Auschwitz camps where the confiscated belongings of inmates were sorted and stored by other prisoners. It was considered the best work assignment in the camps because of all the goods that could be obtained from the piles of shoes, eyeglasses, often food, and so forth taken from the new prisoners upon arrival.

    “Canada,” aka The Land of Plenty, the country which rigorously denied entry to refugees, especially Jews, from Nazi Europe. The US was no better.

    And Hugh, yes. I’m just waiting for one of their joy rides to have an Oops! Bound to happen. Imagine the hagiography. ‘Despite his reputation, Jeff was a gooooood man at heart!”

  18. Bridget

    You need to learn more about the terrorism that is the Zionist movement. You blame the nation-states and their administrations, when it was the Jewish Zionist movement itself that pressured the countries to not allow Jewish refugees inside their borders, so that the Jewish Zionists could build their Jewish ethno-state in Palestine.

    This history is of course being rewritten by Jewish organizations such as CAMERA. The new pro-Jewish narrative then slowly makes its way into the mainstream.

    Nothing that comes out of Jewish orgs should be taken at face value. This is true of all orgs. It’s not unique to “the Jews.”

    It’s always interesting to apply the “logic” others use to themselves.

    Perhaps the next Holocaust Museum will include a little something on Palestine. If nothing else, it will shut everyone up, right?

    Never forget.

  19. Plague Species

    I guess with Biden sanctioning Cuban leaders, they will have to put their plans to visit space on hold.

    Can we sanction Bezos and Musk and Mercer and a plethora of other wealthy elite for treating us common folk like dogshit?

  20. Chuck Mire

    Regarding limiting growth (in my opinion, a fantasy).

    There is a lot of truth (and a whole bunch of denial) by those who have read this book. It’s not a casual read that one can breeze through (like reading comments here).

  21. bruce wilder

    Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war.

    A whole bunch of denial, oh yes indeedy.

    I have never been among those who deny the reality of historical progress, but it denies reason to not see that our finite petrie dish, planet earth, is not getting any bigger, the earth’s capacity to absorb and assimilate our growing waste is being overwhelmed, and for all our science and economics, we do not what to do, how to manage.

  22. Chuck Mire

    I should have said that trying to limit growth is a fantasy. No one wants to say “I have enough “stuff”, and that is the problem and the message of the book I linked to.

  23. Jim Harmon

    “…get ready for the invisible hand to slap us silly.” — Ian Welsh.

    They’ve gone beyond the “invisible hand.” Now they’re openly mocking us as they take our stuff. Jeff Bezos had this to say at his post-launch press conference: “…I also wanna thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, ‘cuz you guys paid for all this.”

    His audience responded with gleeful laughter.

  24. Plague Species

    Van Jones receiving that funding from Bezos was surreal. Yet more proof we must be living in a simulation and the simulation has now reached a beyond-the-pale level of absurdity. The algos are imploding.

  25. nihil obstet

    I should have said that trying to limit growth is a fantasy. No one wants to say “I have enough “stuff”, and that is the problem and the message of the book I linked to.

    That isn’t even true here in the U.S. where we are relentlessly bombarded with messages to want more. It’s another created fantasy about “economic man.”

  26. Hugh

    Growth is another word in the economic vocabulary. Most do not mean what we think they mean or measure what we think they measure. Growth is a little different in that it is straightforward propaganda. Growth is good. So how can you be against something good? Except that cancer is also growth, and it isn’t good. Maybe the steadily lengthening and worsening series of climate disasters we are seeing will teach us something useful while we still have time if not to reverse, at least deal with, the consequences of our religion of growth.

  27. different clue

    (Some little sayings just as partial guidance.)

    Make love, not money.

    You can either make money or you can make sense. I’d rather make sense.

    Tune out. Slow down. Slack off.

  28. Soredemos


    Central planning works just fine. It industrialized the Soviet Union so fast the West was scared shitless and permanently gave economists a seat at the policy table based on their promises they could make capitalism compete (hilariously, this itself amounts to a kind of central planning). Similarly the rise of China is entirely due to actually having a firm, planned out industrial policy.

    And that’s just for blatant central planning. The reality is that *all* economies are mixed to a greater or lesser degree. The post-war rise of ‘capitalist’ Japan was basically planned out by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Chalmers Johnson wrote a whole book, now largely forgotten, detailing it. South Korea then directly copied Japan starting in the 90s.

    @Chuck Mire

    The system will continue until it physically can’t anymore, at which point it will shatter catastrophically.

  29. Mark Pontin

    Soredemos wrote; ‘Central planning works just fine. It industrialized the Soviet Union so fast the West was scared shitless ‘

    The USSR is a bad example. It was a worse polluter and poisoner of the environment than Western capitalism. See, for only one example, the case history of Lake Baikal —

  30. Astrid

    Central planning certainly created it’s shared of disasters, late USSR and Great Leap Forward comes to mind. But China showed that it may be strategies for working and those pitfalls, perhaps by studying the prior experience of others or by competitive prototyping prior to a full scale rollout.

    Plus, we’ve seen how late stage capitalism also destroys lives, except it doesn’t even acknowledge its responsibility for the destroyed lives, instead arguing that its natural and inevitable and people who lost are just losers.

  31. Soredemos

    @Mark Pontin

    My point wasn’t that central planning is more environmentally friendly. My point is that it can be a very effective way to organize and run an economy.

    It’s also something that’s going to have to be used as the climate crisis advances. The Free-market® has had decades to do something meaningful on that front, and we know how well that’s gone.

  32. Jan Wiklund

    Price signals will of course do nothing. But public planning can. And the US has done that once and can do it again, says Mariana Mazzucato about the Apollo programme:

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