Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: The Prospects for Green Growth

By Paul Ekins | Go to book overview

2

Perceptions of environmental scarcity

The obvious importance of natural resources and the environment to economic activity and to human life in general has caused economists to be concerned about these issues since the dawn of economics as a mode of analysis. This chapter provides some insights into ways in which economists have expressed this concern, and how its focus has shifted as different issues have come to seem important. In moving from the early classical economists Malthus and Ricardo to more modern economic treatments of environmental degradation and the exhaustibility of resources, the chapter introduces some of the basic concepts and analytical and empirical techniques of environmental and resource economics, together with some of the controversies surrounding them. These concepts and techniques reappear and are treated in more detail as appropriate in subsequent chapters.

The chapter then surveys the literature that has arisen around the competing ideas of ‘limits to growth’ and ‘sustainable development’. These ideas provide the essential starting point for this book’s attempt in the chapters that follow to clarify the relationship between economic growth and environmental sustainability, and to define the conditions for compatibility between them.


2.1

EARLY HISTORY

Two of the earliest classical economists—Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo—were much exercised by the prospect of a growing human population in the context of a fixed quantity of agricultural land of differing fertility.

Malthus’ theory of population, for which Ricardo expressed his admi-ration (Ricardo 1973:272), contended that:

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce substance for man. Population, when un-checked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only

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