The Meaning of Growth: A Hermeneutical Reading of the Discourse of ‘Growthism’

Douglas, Richard. 2020. The Meaning of Growth: A Hermeneutical Reading of the Discourse of ‘Growthism’. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

In the half-century since its popularisation through the publication of the Limits to Growth report in 1972, the ‘limits thesis’ (crudely, that societies should limit their use of natural resources before nature does it for them) has made little impression onelectoral politics internationally. This thesis asks why polities have failed to actdecisively on the warnings of environmental science (not least on climate change). In particular, it focuses on seeking to understand those actors within political discoursewho have argued explicitly against the limits thesis. While this topic has been the subject of detailed social science investigation, the insights this produces may be constrained, it is suggested, by the adoption of a critical stance which implicitly orexplicitly seeks to censure those identified as promulgating anti-environmentalist (or‘pro-growthist’) views. This thesis seeks to make a new contribution by taking an‘interpretivist’ approach (drawing on the philosophical hermeneutics of Charles Taylor) to understanding empathetically the positive meaning which opponents of the limits thesis attach to the idea of growth. Over four chapters in which this discourse is firstdefined, then subjected to increasingly interpretivist analysis, a reading is producedwhich suggests that in defending growth these speakers are defending the idea of progress. The final two chapters aim to understand the emotional importance whichprogress has for its defenders, by interpreting it as functioning as the secular ‘theodicy’ of modernity—providing a sense of meaning in the face of mortality, through anidentification it offers with a human collective living on into an indefinitely extended future. The significance of this reading lies in its suggestion that the political failure ofthe limits thesis derives on the most fundamental level from the shortfall of existentialmeaning it creates, by its contradicting the idea of progress without offering a replacement ‘theodicy’.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


environmental scepticism; climate denial; environmental rhetoric; discourse analysis; interpretive social science; hermeneutics; Charles Taylor; secularisation thesis; growth.

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31 December 2020

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Date Deposited:

17 Jun 2021 12:49

Last Modified:

31 Dec 2023 02:28


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