Cover of MoneyWeek magazine issue no 541

Brave new world

10 June 2011 / Issue 541

Finding ways around the commodity shortage


  • Profit from the booming tablet market
  • How to stop your brain losing you money
  • The working class hero who bought the Tote


Is there a limit to growth?

This week has been all about growth. How much there is or isn’t and how we can get more of it. But there might be a problem with the very fundamentals of the idea. What if we can’t grow any more? What if the age of economic growth is over? This is something our publisher Bill Bonner has been mulling over. We take it for granted, he says, that a healthy economy grows. But “what if the growth spurt we have known for the last 300 years was the exception, not the rule? And what if it were now coming to an end?” Or even came to an end back in 1979?

After all, you could argue that growth in the world’s mature economies has been no more than “incremental” since then, with even much of that being “phoney” – driven not by real wealth creation, but by debt and state spending. The key point is that mature economies are effectively energy economies. We got huge boosts from the first increments of using oil-based energy (coal in the 18th century and oil in the 19th and 20th) and further boosts from improvements and refinements later on.

But we’ve probably leached just about all we can from this source of growth. It is, says Bill, a bit like when the bow and arrow was invented. At first it let hunters get a lot more game, so growth took a leap forward. But soon the limits of technology were reached and growth stalled. Similarly, we could now be done with growth until we come up with another breakthrough to drive us on (something we are hoping for, of course, see page 24). That means we will go back to pre-Industrial Revolution growth rates. Given that global growth ran at around 0.32% between 1500 and 1820, that’s probably not what George Osborne is after.

• Read the full editor’s letter here: Is there a limit to growth?