Stagnation and Scarcity Reborn? The ‘ecological’ origins of neoliberalism

The Utopia Thieves: Progress, Ecology and Neoliberalism — Chapter 8

Chris Harris
11 min readApr 26, 2021


IN an earlier post, I noted that the sense of progress is vulnerable to concerns about the sustainability of the modern energy economy, and how pessimism about progress can mutate to produce paradoxical outcomes. These outcomes can include neoliberalism, even though neoliberalism is usually the last word that we would associate, or pair, with the word ecology!

How does this come about?

A clue is to be found in the 2001 book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, by the urbanists Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. In Suburban Nation, the authors make the interesting observation that:

No-growth movements, when successful, last for only one or two political generations, and often serve as an excuse to avoid planning entirely. When they are eventually reversed, as they inevitably are, growth quickly resumes in its worst form.

In context, the authors are talking about the fact that urbanisation is one of the strongest trends of modern times, and one that is largely irresistible. And yet, because of the stresses and strains that urban growth produces, an end to urban growth has often been called for in the political sphere.

For example, my city of Auckland, New Zealand, has for a long time been the largest and fastest growing city in the country. Its growth was the subject of a book called Auckland at Full Stretch, which came out in 1977.

At that time, the population of the Auckland metropolitan area was about 800,000. Within Auckland at Full Stretch, John L. Roberts, then head of policy studies at Victoria University of Wellington, in the nation’s capital, wrote that it was a “political orthodoxy” that something had to be done to curb Auckland’s future growth.

And yet, today, the population of metropolitan Auckland is more than 1.6 million. If Auckland was at full stretch in 1977, today it is twice as stretched in ways that are measured in traffic congestion and million-dollar house prices.

The paradox that Duany et al note is that the demand for an end to growth in the population of a given city doesn’t actually stop the city’s population growth in most cases. No more so than King Canute, in the famous demonstration of the limits of his power, could stop the incoming tide.

But what such calls do achieve, in many cases, is an end to the boldest and most visionary forms of forward planning and open, democratic discussion of alternative urban futures, since these activities generally imply some acceptance of growth and change.

This is a special case of what I mentioned before as the Quixotic and counterproductive demand for a return to smallness. For what if such a U-turn doesn’t work? Then you are left with growth and bigness in their worst or most unplanned forms: and the pressures for growth and bigness are strong.

The idea that the most ambitious forms of planning are predicated on equally ambitious assumptions of future growth and change was also explicitly pointed out in Auckland at Full Stretch by Malcolm Latham, then head of planning at the Auckland Regional Authority.

In 1974, Latham had abandoned a predecessor’s plans for the expansion of Auckland along a series of high-quality transportation corridors.

In Auckland at Full Stretch, Latham argued that Auckland’s future growth was too uncertain to warrant the earlier scheme’s proposed investments in electrified rapid transit. In support of this position. Latham cited a recent article by the Anglo-German expert David Eversley, who contended that the Western world was in fact entering an ‘Age of Stagnation’ which was to be caused, in the main, by uncertain oil supplies.

Since it is, in fact, a well-known proposition that the ambition of a plan should match the ambition of the planner’s expectations of change, Eversley contended that the coming Age of Stagnation meant that planners would have to pull in their horns. Instead of planning entirely new satellite towns on the ends of new railways as a way to beat the housing crisis, they should focus on much less ambitious goals. In fact, the coming stagnation that Eversley foresaw implied that there probably wasn’t going to be an urban housing crisis in the future, in any case.

The background to this new mood of retrenchment was the fact that American domestic oil production, coming at that time mainly from wells in Texas, had suddenly and unexpectedly peaked around 1970. Like the first in a series of collapsing dominos, the 1970 peak in US domestic oil production had made America and indeed the whole of the Western world vulnerable to the Arab oil embargo of 1973; a consequence of the short, October 1973 war between Israel (backed by the West) and several Arab countries that were anxious to punish the West.

An earlier, similar interruption of Middle Eastern oil supplies in 1956, the so-called Suez crisis, had affected Europe but not the United States and had ultimately been dismissed as a blip in the otherwise upward trend of 1950s economic progress. But with US domestic oil production in decline (though it would later be increased again by supplies from Alaska and deepwater drilling), the embargo of 1973 was seen as something far more existential.

In mid-1970s New Zealand, one might have thought that energy concerns would have spurred investment in Auckland rapid transit. But instead, what we saw was precisely the crisis of planning that Eversley described, in which belief in future stagnation, allied to the general unpopularity of urban growth in general, trumped the desire of planners to plan for a greater Auckland or for politicians to sign off on such plans. It produced a kind of paralysis or desire to abdicate from the increasingly problematic business of shaping the urban and, ultimately, the national future instead.

The confidence of the West, and America within it, was further dented by a third Middle Eastern oil embargo, which followed the Iranian revolution of 1978/79, and by the long-drawn-out hostage crisis that followed the Iranian Revolution. These developments ended the presidency of Jimmy Carter (a conservationist) and ushered in Ronald Reagan, who promised to make American great again. Yes, Reagan actually used that slogan in his successful 1980 presidential bid. Donald Trump merely recycled it.

Trump, famously, did not have much of a plan. Nor was the business of how America was to be made great again in 1980 ever spelled out in terms of some visionary, Kennedy-style scheme or whatever the appropriate equivalent for 1980 might have been: urban rapid transit and a renewed war on poverty plus the accelerated development of new energy sources, perhaps.

Instead, in ways that oddly resonated with the existing, ecologically-inspired crisis of planning, how America was to be made great again was to involve the sacking of planners and wholesale economic deregulation.

Only a generation after JFK, Reagan claimed that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” And, more disingenously because he wasn’t joking this time, merely incorrect, that the war on poverty had been lost, because poverty had won. In reality, the anti-poverty policies of Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, which included the introduction of Medicare, had been quite successful. They would have been more successful if they had been extended further in the direction of the social-democratic policies of Europe, and not crimped by an eventual backlash. In his Utopia for Realists, Bregman even contends that Richard Nixon seriously contemplated introducing a UBI, until he was talked out of it by an Ayn Rand acolyte.

In any case, under Reagan, the state would abdicate responsibility for an uncertain future, handing the actual burden of making America ‘great again’ over to business, which was now more or less free to do what it liked. Perhaps Reagan was enough of a child of the New Deal to suppose that business would remain a social patron and pillar of the community in the manner described by LeVine, in the preceding post. If so, even Reagan was destined to be disappointed.

Neoliberalism also thrived on the sense of crisis engendered by the oil shocks, the feeling that society was living beyond its means. And, on the overt Malthusianism of many 1970s ecologists such as Garret Hardin, with his disturbing and dystopian ‘Lifeboat Ethics’, which many far-right anti-immigration extremists treat as a sort of manifesto today, and his earlier ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, which could be read in its turn as a manifesto for the privatisation of virtually everything.

Again, these sentiments underwent a metamorphosis as the oil-strapped seventies became the neoliberal eighties, from ecological reasons for the acceptance of a return of scarcity and stagnation into more overtly neoliberal rationales for the same, in the form of fiscal austerity and wage compression.

For the growing acceptance of the idea that the years of wartime and postwar economic boom and scientific and medical advancement, between 1940 and 1975 or thereabouts, had created “a generation of rising expectations,” and that, contrary to what one might think, this was actually a bad thing: “The politics of rising expectations were getting completely out of hand.” Thus did Michael Bassett, a prominent New Zealand neoliberal politician of the 1980s, justify his government’s retrenchments in a later speech with the significant title of Politics versus the Economy, 1940–1975.

In New Zealand, the retrenchments of the 1980s, greater in nationwide terms than those of the 1970s (which had mostly been confined to Auckland), included the cessation of state support for urban industries based on the exploitation of hydroelectric power and a reborn agrarian chauvinism.

Much like the war on poverty in America, New Zealand’s industrialisation programme, which lasted at full heat for a single generation, 1958 to 1985, had been more successful than it would later be given credit for.

An export-oriented manufacturing sector was conjured virtually out of the ground in a country whose exports, in 1960, had depended almost entirely on animal agriculture. In the 1970s, the percentage of New Zealand exports based on manufacturing tripled as a proportion of the whole, and would peak at about 29 per cent of the total in 1989.

Much of the rationale for the industrialisation programme lay with the idea, promoted by government planners of the 1950s, that New Zealand faced an urgent problem of “the next million.”

Most of New Zealand was covered in mountains and steep hills, which were either locked up in conservation land or low-productivity pastoral estates. As a result, most of the country’s farmers pursued their livelihoods in small, flat enclaves where nearly all of the country’s cities and towns were also to be found. As the journalist Gordon McLauchlan was later to put it, most of New Zealand’s farmers actually pursued their livelihoods in “attenuated suburbs.”

Though New Zealand was conventionally thought of as a farming nation, the country’s agricultural potential was actually quite limited, indeed to the point that it was actually threatened by the encroachments of the sprawl of actual suburs into the attentuated ones.

All of this problematised the issue of the next million in population. Where would they live? What would they do for a living? How could their suburbs be prevented from encroaching on any more first-class land?

In 1980, the economist Eric M. Ojala noted with some concern that New Zealand’s demand for imported petroleum products, alone, created a cost burden that was equal to the entire earnings of the country’s export meat industry. What would happen if the cities continued to grow while resting on a slender and buckling reed of such primitive rural exports?

All the same, in the 1980s, New Zealand’s dawning neoliberalism resonated with a cluster of back-to-the-land and no-growth ideas. With the orthodoxy that Auckland should not be allowed to get much bigger; with the hippyish sentiments that were so prevalent in the 1970s in more general terms; and with an actual belief that the country’s population was not, in any case, going to increase much further in the dawning Age of Stagnation.

That, in a country with a population just over three million, there was not going to be a next million for the foreseeable future in any case. And that, as such, the plug could be pulled on state investment in national hydro-industrialisation in the same way that it had been pulled on Auckland rapid transit investment in the 1970s.

Typical of the times was the 1981 TVNZ documentary series Landmarks, written and fronted by Kenneth Cumberland, a rural geographer who looked ahead in the final episode to a day not too far away when Auckland’s Queen Street and Wellington’s Lambton Quay, the main thoroughfare of each city respectively, might have become “deserted canyons” as New Zealand’s population returned to the land and its smaller towns.

In the book of the series, Cumberland wrote that city life and post-war prosperity had made the New Zealanders “soft” and “flabby” and that even if it involved hardship, the coming stagnation or even outright collapse of urban New Zealand would rekindle the nation’s spirit.

Decades later, many Brexiters would resort to a similarly cosy catastrophism as the flaws in their scheme were pointed out. So, too, did virtually every neoliberal reformer of the 1980s.

As Orwell, that most astute commentator, also wrote, we should never underestimate the ability of certain right-wingers to make an end run around progressives, who merely promises greater comfort and security, with promises of heroic sacrifice and spine-stiffening austerity instead! Such are the ever-popular politics of masochism, as we might say: purely vicarious for those comfortably-off individuals who always seem to be its chief advocates, but which many of its future victims also vote for as well because they think the coming catastrophe will be an adventure, like so many who volunteered to join the army in 1914.

Cumberland also thought it unlikely that New Zealand’s population would not exceed three and a half million for the foreseeable future. His expectation of slow to non-existent growth matched official projections of the time, and indeed right through into the twenty-first century.

Yet, back in the real world, as opposed to the telescreen and to lowballed official projections (almost as if the bureaucracy was, indeed, still seeking excuses not to plan), New Zealand’s population would burgeon from just over three million in the year 1980 to just over five million today. There were not one, but two, next millions over this period. Yet, in 2021, the most important export sector would still be one of the two traditional ones, namely dairy, at a ratio of what was now rather less than one and a half cows per head of population.

As with the duck that appears to be still while frantically paddling against the stream beneath, the growing pains of late modernity — growth which continued across a whole range of now-unplanned sectors “in the worst form” — was masked, for some decades, by an outward stasis of lifestyles and the most visible forms of technology.

Typewriters were replaced by computers and various scientific developments continued apace. But, apart from that, it was surprising how little appeared to change in the fifty years between 1971 and 2021, as compared to the outward and visible changes that had happened between 1921 and 1971.

A film such as Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (1964) presents a world that is, outwardly, far more similar to the world of today, nearly sixty years later, than the world of 1964 was to the world of 1907.

All of this apparent outward stasis has only served to reinforce the more general climate of reaction and stasis that has given rise to the present, neoliberal era. As to whether the duck paddling in place for the last fifty years against more hidden forms of change will at some point be swept over a waterfall, remains to be seen.

Click here go to ‘The Revolution that Never Was’, an introduction to the next section of The Utopia Thieves

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Chris Harris

I am an urban historian from Aotearoa New Zealand. With an engineering background, I also have up a PhD on planning and economics.