Kenneth Boulding

Growth in a finite world is Mad.


Kenneth Boulding was an economist known for having a way with words and refusing to mince them. His most biting criticisms were reserved for the myopia of his own discipline: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist,” and “Mathematics brought rigor to economics. Unfortunately it also brought mortis.”

Boulding earned the right to speak his mind by serving as president of the American Economic Association and authoring Economic Analysis, 1941, the authoritative textbook of neoclassical-Keynesian economic synthesis. “Economic Analysis established my respectability,” Boulding said, “so I have been able to be disreputable ever since.”

His thought evolved radically over his career. He was a poet, philosopher and peace activist who argued that desirable economic outcomes should be determined with ethical, religious and ecological concerns in mind. This big picture thinking was no doubt influenced by his lifelong spiritual identification as a Quaker, a breakaway sect of Anabaptism, with strong beliefs on pacifism, community and redistribution of wealth.

For a time he was a card-carrying Republican, but was driven away from the party by Reagan’s hard-right politics. He was especially put off by the president’s supply-side deregulation economics and unbridled military spending. Boulding advocated a less hawkish stance toward the Soviet Union and publically mocked Reagan’s communist paranoia.

Beyond his advocacy for peace, Boulding was an environmentalist who argued that economics needed to show a greater reverence for nature. In 1958, he asked:

Are we to regard the world of nature simply as a storehouse to be robbed for the immediate benefit of man? … Does man have any responsibility for the preservation of a decent balance in nature, for the preservation of rare species or even for the indefinite continuance of his race?

He called the growth model a “cowboy economy,” which treats nature as inexhaustible and rewards “reckless exploitative, romantic and violent behavior.” Boulding proposed an alternative paradigm, a “spaceman economy,” that likened the Earth to a self-contained spaceship.

With limited resources, members of a spaceman economy have a decided incentive to save rather than consume. “The image of the frontier is probably one of the oldest images of mankind, and it is not surprising that we find it hard to get rid of,” he said. The sum of his argument was that without statist intervention, cowboys are destined to defer the consequences of their production, sacrificing the future for the present.

Boulding also broke the mold with his theory of Psychic Capital, the idea that human happiness, the ultimate goal of the economics profession, is dependent on the quality of external inputs rather than the quantity.

The neoclassical consumption model encourages rapid cycling of cheap goods which, in order to be profitable, must replace existing goods. This process creates consumers who become increasingly dependent on the market for their satisfaction, a market that can only offer weaker forms of the original mental satisfaction. Boulding’s less-is-more concept, first articulated in 1950, stands as one of the earliest attempts to expand economics to include observations from medical and social sciences.

Writing in an era of infinite resource frontiers and economic confidence, Boulding was a heretical voice. While others of his stature were praising the benevolence of growth, he argued for prudence and thrift, for an economics more akin with actual human happiness and not just Gross World Product. And with Psychic Capital, he challenged his peers to find ways to measure the satisfaction quotient of the “stock” (quality) of things and not just the “flow” (amount).

Above all, Boulding sought truth in economics. He wanted to construct just, sustainable models that reflected the complex interconnectedness of the world. The conclusion of his poem, “A Ballad of Ecological Awareness,” puts it this way: “So cost-benefit analysis is nearly always sure/ To justify the building of a solid concrete fact / While the Ecologic Truth is left behind in the Abstract.”

If you agree with Kenneth Boulding that "economic growth" = "No Future for the planet", then put this poster up everywhere you can!