The Commonplaces of Environmental



Richard Douglas

n the nearly five decades since its publication, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report has failed to secure a decisive victory in political debate, despite being based on the seemingly common sensical proposition that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. To investigate why the ‘limits to growth’ has not led to decisive political action, this paper examines the thought of its most explicit critics in debate, defined here as ‘environmental sceptics’. While many studies of this discourse have examined the economic interests and political motivations of its speakers, this paper (while also drawing on the theories of Dryzek, and of Boltanski) employs Wayne Booth’s ‘Listening Rhetoric’, used to understand opposing discourses on their own terms. In this context, this means performing an attentive reading of the rhetorical commonplaces—the taken-for-granted truths and values a speaker would expect to be shared with their audience—drawn on by environmentally sceptic speakers, in order to ‘read off’ the positive values and vision of the world that they are keen to defend.

The paper performs a close reading of a range of texts, which, while produced over four decades up to the present day, embody a coherent corpus of thought. It finds in the commonplaces on display a defence of individualism, practical reason, humanism, material power, an unbounded sense of destiny, and the fundamental benevolence of our world. In this sense, it argues that the discourse of environmental scepticism could be viewed as defending an overarching world-view of modernity against an attack on its foundations implied by the ‘limits to growth’ thesis. In the extent to which this is true, it suggests that the challenge posed by the ‘limits to growth’ runs beyond the level of ordinary political debate, pointing to a crisis of philosophical anthropology: who are we, and how should we live, if we now believe that progress will not continue forever?


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