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Academic & Professional Books  Environmental & Social Studies  Economics, Politics & Policy  Sustainable Development: General

Limits Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

By: Giorgios Kallis(Author)
154 pages, no illustrations
NHBS
Not a pro-growth book, Limits is a concise and thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus that argues planetary limits are not the problem; our limitless desires are.
Limits
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  • Limits ISBN: 9781503611559 Paperback Aug 2019 Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
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About this book

Western culture is infatuated with the dream of going beyond, even as it is increasingly haunted by the specter of apocalypse: drought, famine, nuclear winter. How did we come to think of the planet and its limits as we do? Limits reclaims, redefines, and makes an impassioned plea for limits – a notion central to environmentalism – clearing them from their association with Malthusianism and the ideology and politics that go along with it. Giorgos Kallis rereads reverend-economist Thomas Robert Malthus and his legacy, separating limits and scarcity, two notions that have long been conflated in both environmental and economic thought. Limits are not something out there, a property of nature to be deciphered by scientists, but a choice that confronts us, one that, paradoxically, is part and parcel of the pursuit of freedom. Taking us from ancient Greece to Malthus, from hunter-gatherers to the Romantics, from anarchist feminists to 1970s radical environmentalists, Limits shows us how an institutionalized culture of sharing can make possible the collective self-limitation we so urgently need.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Concise and thought-provoking
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 12 Oct 2020 Written for Paperback


    Despite its purposefully provocative title, Limits is not a pro-growth book that panders to the illusion of endless economic growth. Starting with a thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus, ecological economist and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis examines how his ideas have influenced economics and have been misinterpreted by environmentalists, before ending with a call to collective self-limitation. Along the way, there is a healthy dollop of reflection and pre-emptive defence of his arguments. Though I have some points of criticism, Limits by and large concisely formulates ideas that I have found myself gravitating towards more and more lately.

    Despite having reviewed both the 1803 edition of Malthus's essay and Mayhew's biography, Kallis's take on his work was an eye-opener for me. I can see at least three reasons why we continue to disagree over how best to interpret classical authors such as Malthus: concepts, aims, and language.

    Malthus is best remembered for his argument that, if left unchecked, population growth would outstrip food supply. What he is not remembered for is his pro-growth attitude. He believed that food production could expand without limit. What hat he pulled that absurd assumption out of is another question, but the point that Kallis makes is that the concept of economic growth we think of today did not exist in Malthus's time.

    On the other side, neo-Malthusians have drawn on his work to argue for birth control, and to warn of resource exploitation and population overshoot. But birth control was something he never advocated, seeing it as one of the "species of misery or vice". Malthus had different aims. Writes Kallis: "Remember, Malthus was not a demographer; he was a priest and a philosopher arguing for the impossibility of a classless society" (p. 23), and "Malthus was not an advocate of limits, but someone who invoked the specter of limit to justify inequality and call for growth" (p. 16).

    Add Malthus's flowery and verbose prose that is often ambiguous, and you can see why we still argue over his words. For example, a popular critique of Malthus today is that he did not foresee technical and scientific developments that led to e.g. the Green Revolution. But, Kenneth Binnmore's contribution to the Yale reprint of the essay also points out that upon careful reading you find that he made allowance for future technological developments.

    Both economists and environmentalists get Malthus wrong, claims Kallis here. In his opinion, Malthus was wrong because he could not or did not want to entertain the idea that we could voluntarily limit our numbers and still be happy. Or, to put it more explicitly, that recreational sex is an option.

    There is another principle that has gone almost unremarked in discussions of his work, writes Kallis. By observing that population had the potential to grow much faster than food supply, Malthus introduced the concept of scarcity. And without realising it, many environmentalists have embodied this concept. For them, limits are external, our environment is precious and scarce. Calls for limits to growth seem driven more by a desire to stave off collapse than a desire to change how we behave. Bar radical fringes, mainstream environmentalism is still framed in terms of growth; think of self-contradictory concepts such as "green growth" or "sustainable development". Environmentalists seem to think that if only we do this right, we can keep this show on the road. Rarely do they have the timefulness and deep time reckoning to extrapolate their forecasts beyond the immediate future and ask "sure, but for how long?"

    Kallis puts his finger on a sore spot when writing that: "Our world is limited because our wants are unlimited" (p. 35). As he clarifies, the aim of this book is not to continue the debate over the when and how of growth and collapse, but to question the debate's framing. Yes, Kallis acknowledges, there are hard limits out there, but many are a matter of choice (take for instance the widely adopted aim to limit the rise in global warming to 2°C). This might seem mere semantics, but, as highlighted in Abundant Earth, language powerfully shapes our perception. By talking of nature as being limited we conveniently side-step discussing how we should change our behaviour: nature is the problem, not us. He then proceeds to give five very good reasons why this narrative is dangerous and counterproductive. The remainder of Limits is a call for practising and reclaiming a culture of self-limitation, taking the Ancient Greeks as an example of a culture that did so, as well as some pre-emptive responses to criticism of his argument.

    Especially the second half of Limits articulates ideas I have found myself gravitating towards more and more. My problem with much environmentalist discourse is the clamour to "do something" without ever going a step further and taking responsibility for our problems by asking "what are we willing to sacrifice?" Or, seeing I just said that language shapes our perception, maybe we should think of them as adjustments. In that sense, I disagree with Kallis's criticism of the ecological footprint and planetary boundary concepts. He writes that they perpetuate the idea of external limits being the problem. That may be. But I think they are helpful to quantify the necessary behavioural adjustments and make explicit what a culture of self-limitation would actually look like. I hope that Planetary Accounting, which I will review next, will explore this idea much further. My hope is that quantification will bring about more meaningful action. My fear is that we will not like what we hear and rebel. But, as Kallis pleas in defence of self-limitation: "the truth or ethical value of an argument does not rest on whether it is politically correct or viable" (p. 101).

    Although I was impressed overall with the thought-provoking arguments put forward in Limits, I am going to call Kallis out on a few things. How radically do we have to reimagine our way of living to make this self-limitation possible and what would the consequences be? Probably there was not the space to explore this here and I should turn to his other books about degrowth. But the bigger miss, especially in a book that discusses Malthus, is to not bring up overpopulation. If we are talking about practising self-limitation, the questions of whether we should control world population, what population size is optimal for the planet, and how many children to have (if any) are the big ones.

    Whether you are interested in Malthus, growth and its limits, or issues of sustainability, I recommend Limits as a pleasantly concise and thought-provoking book that is sure to stimulate discussion.
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Biography

Giorgos Kallis is ICREA (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies) Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona.

By: Giorgios Kallis(Author)
154 pages, no illustrations
NHBS
Not a pro-growth book, Limits is a concise and thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus that argues planetary limits are not the problem; our limitless desires are.
Media reviews

"Malthus is a key figure for understanding how to survive the twenty-first century, yet Kallis shows we have spent the last two hundred years misunderstanding him. Quirky, provocative, and engaging, Limits is a must-read book for environmentalists and anti-environmentalists alike."
– Bill Adams, University of Cambridge

"In an era addicted to endless growth, Giorgos Kallis artfully explores the power of limits and the surprising freedom that they can unleash. A compelling – and fittingly concise – read for our times."
– Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics

"Every so often a book comes along that can cut through fruitless debates and reveal a new way of thinking about a complex problem. Limits is such a book. Giorgos Kallis shows that by rejecting scarcity thinking, we can find the right questions and answers for our ecological and social crises."
– Juliet Schor, Boston College

"In this timely and essential book, Giorgos Kallis makes a compelling argument for autonomy and freedom from the unfulfillable promise of limitless growth under consumer capitalism. He shows how democratic, egalitarian self-limitation can combat the dominant but unsustainable imperative to constantly produce and acquire more."
– Nicholas Xenos, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"[The] popular understanding of Malthus comes from a mis- or half-reading, Kallis finds [...] [A] reconsideration of Malthus, like recent ones of Adam Smith, is a welcome part of the assault, across many fronts, on the neoliberal order."
– Anthony Chaney, U.S. Intellectual History Blog

"[A] welcome expansion of the English-language degrowth literature away from its usual technocratic or homespun focus on economic and environmental concerns, and into the humanities [...] [This] book is a very fine example of the sort of depth the environmental humanities can bring to an issue."
– Andrew J. Sutter, Brave New Europe

"[How] did the idea of limits get such a bad rap? Well, the great virtue of Giorgos Kallis's fine book, Limits, is in pointing this out by showing how the idea of limits got conflated with the spectral notion of 'scarcity' and in revealing a host of problems which followed from that unholy union [...] Kallis undertakes something of a phenomenology and anthropology of limits, which is an enjoyable and eminently humane ride."
– Michael J. Sauter, Front Porch Republic

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