Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
An exchange on the viewpoint The Degrowth Alternative

Robert Nadeau

Some participants in the dialogue about Giorgos Kallis’s essay felt that the “degrowth alternative” could be embraced by the peoples and governments in prosperous countries as the threats of climate change become more apparent and the advantages of living in a more humane, equitable, and environmentally responsible society are better known. However, the majority view seems to be that degrowth is a nonstarter in a world in which the “ideology of growth” is sanctioned and promoted by mainstream economists and massively informs the priorities and decision-making processes of virtually all political leaders and economic planners. The consensus here seems to be that the only viable means of preventing an ecological disaster that could soon threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people during the timeframe in which this will remain a possibility is to promote economic growth that produces "fewer of the bad things" and "more of the good things."

I am among those who share this view. There is, however, a large problem that must be resolved in any successful effort to promote economic growth predicated on a meaningful distinction between the bad things that are undermining the capacity of the biosphere to sustain our existence and the good things needed to preserve and protect that capacity. The problem is that there is no basis in the economic theory used by mainstream economists, neoclassical economics, for recognizing this distinction. The little-known reason why this is the case is that this theory was created by substituting the economic construct of utility for the physical variable of energy in the equations of a badly conceived and soon-be-outmoded theory in mid-nineteenth century physics.

The theory in physics was developed from the 1840s to the 1860s in a failed attempt to account for the phenomena of heat, light, and electricity by positing the existence of a vaguely defined field of protean energy. A number of well-known physicists and mathematicians told the economists (Stanley Jevons, Leon Walras, Francis Ysidro, and Vilfredo Pareto) that the economic construct was utterly different from the physical variable and that it was not possible to assume that utility could be substituted for energy in the equations borrowed from the theory in physics. However, the economists refused or, more probably, failed to comprehend, how devastating this criticism was and proceeded to claim that they had transformed the study of economics into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline like physics.

As it turned out, the origins of neoclassical economic theory in mid-nineteenth physics were forgotten, subsequent generations of economists buried what we now know to be unscientific assumptions about the dynamics of market systems under an increasingly more complex maze of mathematical formalism and the totally unsubstantiated claim that the theory is scientific was almost universally accepted. Unfortunately, this is not an esoteric intellectual problem with no real world consequences.

It explains why the mathematical formalism used by mainstream economists is predicated on the absurd assumption that unlimited economic growth is possible and desirable in a finite biosphere. It explains why there is no basis in this mathematical formalism for even recognizing that economic decisions are frequently informed by and even predicated on concerns about equity and fairness. It explains why mainstream economists have routinely dismissed or ignored the work of ecological economists and new economy theorists that appeals to these concerns to justify the implementation of environmentally responsible economic programs and public policies. And it also explains why the claim that the rigorously mathematical theories used by mainstream economists are scientific and value-free is bogus and only serves to disguise the fact that these theories mitigate against equitable distribution of scarce environmental resources and enhance, as Piketty has shown, the wealth, power, and influence of financial elites.

At this point, I should stress that the intent of this discussion is not to question the moral or intellectual integrity of mainstream economists. It is to briefly make the case that there are two vitally important reasons why those of us who care about the human future must become familiar with the history of neoclassical economic theory. The first is that this history reveals that the ideology of growth which holds much of the world in thrall is predicated on false beliefs and assumptions about economic reality embedded in the mathematical formalism used by mainstream economists. And the second is that this history provides a coherent basis for challenging the validity of these beliefs and assumptions and promoting the good economic growth needed to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy resources, preserve and protect biological diversity, restore forests and wetlands, provide the global human population with adequate supplies of food and potable water, and eliminate conditions of extreme poverty in poor countries.

Robert Nadeau
Robert Nadeau is a Professor Emeritus at George Mason University. He has attempted throughout his career to bridge the knowledge gap between what British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow termed the two-cultures of humanists-social scientists and scientists-engineers.

Cite as Robert Nadeau, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth," Great Transition Initiative (February 2015),

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