The Invention of Infinite Growth

The Invention of Infinite Growth: How Economists Lost Sight of the Natural World (book in progress)

My current research is framed by one of the most critical sustainability questions of the twenty-first century: can human societies expect to achieve continual economic growth in a world of increasing population and finite planetary resources? There is little agreement on the answer, and I’m particularly interested in the vastly different answers given by ecologists and economists. Most ecologists forcefully argue that growth must eventually cease due to environmental limits, while mainstream neoclassical economists typically offer a much rosier picture, contending that price signals, technological change, and capital substitution can overcome resource scarcity.

To a historian, this divide between economic and ecological thinking is curious. Economists have not always abstracted the natural world from their analyses, nor have they always assumed infinite growth to be possible. The Invention of Infinite Growth examines how, when, and why the “dismal science” became so optimistic, focusing on the ways economists developed theories of growth that paid little attention to energy and the environment. This research uses history to reveal that conflicts between ecology and economics are not inevitable, and that humanities approaches can enrich contemporary conversations by offering alternative perspectives to today’s narrow debates. In a hot and crowded world, the ahistorical and immaterial perspective of neoclassical theory serves as a limited guide; the time is ripe for broader conversations about growth that include the humanities and the natural world.

I received an ACLS fellowship in 2018 to pursue work on this project.