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"Kallis's take on [Malthus's] work was an eye-opener for me....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." -- The Inquisitive Biologist
"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
"[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
"[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
"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
"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
"[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 --This text refers to the paperback edition.
About the Author
- File size : 410 KB
- Publication date : August 6, 2019
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Publisher : Stanford Briefs; 1st edition (August 6, 2019)
- Print length : 114 pages
- ASIN : B07WGW95YK
- Language: : English
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #953,648 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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But from a more general point of view it's also an eclectic philosophical exploration of the nature of limits, via an argument that blends mythology, economic history, political philosophy, psychoanalysis, literature and personal reminiscence. Even readers who have never heard of degrowth may find the book's ideas stimulating, if they have some tolerance for a clearly-written scholarly style of argumentation.
The subtitle of the book is "Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care." According to GK, the Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) wasn't wrong about what most people recall him as being wrong about, namely a supposed prediction that population growth will outstrip our ability to feed everyone. Malthus did indeed assert that food production increases only arithmetically, with acreage and "the industry of the inhabitants" (Malthus (1798), Chap. IV), while population increases at a much faster geometrical (exponential) rate. Moreover, he assumed that people had an essentially unquenchable drive to have sex and reproduce, and that this could not be changed. But as emphasized in in Robert Mayhew's recent biography of Malthus (Harvard U. Press 2014), contrary to popular belief his point wasn't to claim that a crisis is coming: rather it was to examine why there hadn't been one. Mayhew reminds us that Malthus pointed to such reasons as the institution of marriage, the delays in marriage in the middle, and even upper, classes due to economic barriers to be overcome before finding a suitable spouse, and the actual economic difficulties experienced by the poor in raising lots of children: all of these act as checks on population.
GK has read Mayhew and takes his points further. He argues that Malthus was justifying the necessity of class differences, which arise from a supposed scarcity of food -- after all, it's the anticipated or actual difficulties in being able to feed a family that keeps the population at a manageable level in a society like England's. Far from being an ignorant doomsayer who ignored technological advancements (see mention of "industry" above), for GK Malthus was a precursor of 20th-21st Century economists, who declare their field to be the study of the allocation of scarce resources. In Malthus's view, it's necessary that class differences -- and the misery attendant to each class, be it of prolonged celibacy or else hunger and child mortality -- continue in order to fend off the disaster of overpopulation and massive food shortage. Therein lies Malthus's actual error in GK's view: not unfulfilled prophecies of disaster, but doctrines of scarcity and a justification for human unhappiness -- or at least, the supposedly necessary unhappiness of *some* human beings.
GK's counterargument may surprise some environmentalists, since superficially it resembles the argument of pro-growth techno-optimists like Peter Diamandis: namely, that we live in a world of abundance. It's an error, he says, to ascribe scarcity to nature -- an error committed not only by Malthus but also by the authors of the "Limits to Growth" and those who promote the "ecological footprint" and "planetary boundaries" discourses. The only reason why some things are considered "scarce" is political decisions we have made about standard of living, production, etc. Nature will do just fine regardless of whether we have enough petroleum for fuel, or lithium for batteries, etc. or not.
At this point, the argument pivots away from its momentary semblance to techno-optimism and towards a different direction entirely: the ancient Greek ideals of self-moderation. Limits should come from ourselves, not from outside us. GK traces this idea in Greek culture, from mythology to Aristotle in the ancient world, through to the ideas of Greco-French philosopher and psychoanalyst Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997). This is the most original section of the book, which draws eclectically from Freudian theory, fiction, movies, and reminiscences of GK's late mother and his own childhood. Such breadth seems quite unprecedented in a book about degrowth, of which I've read quite a few, but not at all excessive or self-indulgent.
Whether it's persuasive, and to whom, is another matter. If I were trying to persuade a general audience, I would think Aristotle might be a sufficient philosophical heavyweight for the argument. In his Politics, he makes the point that unlike the situation with money, which has no natural limits -- a fact that is directly embedded into our modern definition of GDP, the index of economic growth -- there is a limit to the stuff we can use. Indeed, I made such a point in a book about degrowth I published in Japan a few years ago, and my editor worried that even that was already pretty high-falutin for a general readership. Castoriadis and Freud will almost certainly limit the readership to those with a higher tolerance for scholarly argument. Moreover, Freud's reputation isn't what it had been 40 years ago when Castoriadis was writing, and some readers, particularly those mindful of feminist and/or clinical critiques of psychoanalysis, may find he doesn't add gravity to an argument. Nonetheless, other readers might find it works for them. And although GK's approach is scholarly his prose is relatively free from jargon, and his use of personal reminiscence is often effective.
Aside from this question about the book's rhetorical strategy, I also had some reservation about the substance of the argument. GK makes the interesting point that part of our ideal of infinite economic growth comes from our contemporary attitude that clinging to life at all costs is a worthwhile goal. The self-limiting Greeks, on the other hand, had more acceptance of "the limits marked by death," and sought to make life useful and happy within the limits set for it (@91ff). The difficulty I have comes from combining this with GK's points that "nature is not a strict mother who imposes limits and tells us what we have to do," and that "by thinking of limits as something objective out there, we disguise that they are ultimately about us and our own wants" (@60).
First, it's hard to get guidance from these principles about how we should think about future generations, and what steps if any we should take to preserve any particular features of the planet for them. Should our acceptance of death pertain only to our individual selves, or can it extend to humankind as a whole? E.g., would it meet the Greek ideals to try to raise the material standard of living of everyone in this and the next generation on the planet, even if subsequent generations would die off from climate change? Is it legitimate for us to make decisions in the present based on our acceptance not only of our own deaths but of the deaths of people in the future?
Second, the approach seems very anthropocentric. To me it seems hard to deny that we humans have duties to other forms of life whose habitats we are destroying by land use and climate change, and whose guts we are filling with plastic and other toxins. If limits are "about us and our own wants," what room is there for these duties? Is their existence entirely a matter of our personal taste? Moreover, it seems hard to deny that there are natural limits, "objective" and "out there," pertinent to the survival of these creatures, unless we are to take the attitude that we can sit in judgment over all life forms on this earth. I hope GK will address these substantive ethical issues more extensively in the future.
Despite these reservations, this book is a very fine example of the sort of depth the environmental humanities can bring to an issue. It's nice to see this sort of interdisciplinary meditation on growth and on limits appearing in English. I hope the author will continue in this vein.
Kallis has Greek parents and lived for time, when he was a boy, in Greece. He naturally, and effortlessly, reflects on the works of the ancient Greeks, the Athenians, the Spartans, Solon, Plato, Aristotle and many others. His reflections on ancient Greek culture as having explored the limits needed, when confronted with the unlimited, have a real ring of truth to them and are wonderfully evocative of the Christian and Greek notions of virtue. Speaking of which, I came across an astonishing tale in the Principles put out by Christendom College, which captures a great deal of what, in my opinion, the environmental movement should also focus on. Scott Hahn, in his, Teaching for an Unbelieving World, tells the tale of Epimenedes, who lived on the Island of Crete in the sixth or seventh century before Christ. Without going into all the details of the tale, there is a line Hahn quotes, which St. Paul plagiarized, (meaning he put a commonly known pagan tale to Christian use). Hahn recounts part of the tale as follows:
“King Minos of Crete addresses Zeus, chief among the gods, whom the Cretans thought was mortal.”
“They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one, Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. But you are not dead: you live and abide forever, for in you we live and move, and have our being.”
Lao Tzu would have loved it. If environmentalism is to have any lasting power beyond a concern for Mother Nature, in my opinion, it needs to take into account the moral and spiritual environment that “we live and move, and have our being in.” This is something that Kallis points to in his own way, as this is more (by his own admission) than simply a book about environmentalism.