Progress and the planet’s limits: some lessons for the 21st century from the debate between Godwin and Malthus


  • Ernest García Universitat de València


A debate emerged at the end of the 18th century; essentially, the same one we are now discussing regarding the limits of growth. Condorcet (1793–1794) asserted that human improvement would never stop. He ruled out the possibility of the finitude of the planet becoming a barrier with arguments that, in today’s language, refer to hopes that threats are distant in the future and of ecoefficiency, dematerialisation, and postmaterialism. Condorcet invented sustainable development as a side thought! Godwin (1793) supported the idea and added that unending progress would be possible only by abolishing government, property, marriage and their associations in order to liberate the individual, thus creating a world without war, crimes, law courts and government, disease, anguish, melancholy, resentment, death, or sex. It is hardly surprising that this anarchist and individualist paradise on earth is similar to the Christian concept of heaven: the dominance of spirit over matter has been a basic belief of industrial society since its very beginning. Malthus (1798) rose against these dreams, saying that nature represents an insurmountable obstacle to their realisation, that necessity and the “imperious law of nature” restrains every organism, even humans, “within the prescribed bounds”—an idea that earned him Darwin’s praise and the enmity of many social philosophers. Malthus argued that Godwin’s vision of society, although beautiful, was unfortunately based on three errors: (1) that all social ills come from institutions; (2) that eliminating property would give rise to unending wealth; and (3) that equal sharing will always solve material shortages. Even in its literal terms, this debate anticipated a lot of today’s current discussion about sustainable development and degrowth, as well as the ecology–equity relationship.


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Biografia de l'autor/a

Ernest García, Universitat de València

Ernest Garcia (Alicante, 1948) is a senior professor of sociology at the University of València. He is the author of El trampolí fàustic: ciència, mite i poder en el desenvolupament sostenible (1995; ‘The Faustian springboard: science, myth, and power in sustainable development’), Medio ambiente y sociedad: La civilización industrial y los límites del planeta (2004; ‘Environment and society: Industrial civilisation and the limits of the planet’), and transitioning to a
post-carbon society: Degrowth, austerity, and wellbeing (2017).




Com citar

García, E. (2019) “Progress and the planet’s limits: some lessons for the 21st century from the debate between Godwin and Malthus”, Debats. Revista de cultura, poder i societat, 3. Available at: (Accessed: 28 January 2023).