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Beyond green growth and degrowth fairy tales

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By Wim Naudé

· 7 min read

Humanity's predicament has never been clearer. Starting around 250 years ago and boosted by the exploitation of fossil fuel energy since the mid-19th century, the world's economy, energy use and population grew exponentially. Since the 1950s, these trends have manifested in a "Great Acceleration" in a broad range of socioeconomic and Earth System trends. For instance, global GDP increased by 1,487% between 1950 and 2015, accompanied by a 414% increase in energy consumption, a 3,115% increase in cement production and a 765% increase in iron and steel production, amongst others. 

While this Great Acceleration is strongly and robustly positively correlated with an extensive range of desirable outcomes- from better health, education, life expectancy and values -such as democracy and tolerance - growth also has its downsides. Most pertinent is that it could lead to ecological overshoot. Economic growth swells the size of the economy, which results in a heavy environmental footprint on the Earth System. At some stage, where according to current estimates we already are, the carrying capacity of the Earth System will be exceeded - overshoot is said to occur. Climate change is one symptom of ecological overshoot, which, as William Rees pointed out, includes “plunging biodiversity, plastic pollution of the oceans, landscape and soil degradation, and tropical deforestation.” 

What should we do about ecological overshoot? The mainstream discourse currently offers two answers. The first underlies the policy agenda known as Green Growth, and the second underlies the radical change manifesto of the Degrowth Movement. 

In my recent book "Economic Growth and Societal Collapse: Beyond Green Growth and Degrowth Fairy Tales", I argue that neither Green Growth nor Degrowth will avert the decline and eventual collapse of current civilisation. In the remainder of this article, I summarise the key arguments against Green Growth and Degrowth and speculate on alternative interpretations of the human predicament.

Green growth: There is no decoupling

Green Growth is based on the view that, inherently, the positive consequences of economic growth always outweigh the negatives and that when adverse outcomes occur, these can be rectified by appropriate policies - including new technologies. The OECD defines the Green Growth agenda as "fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies.” It underpins the European Green Deal of 2020 and the USA’s Green New Deal of 2019.

The approach's steering of technological innovation and "getting the prices right," e.g., carbon taxes, are crucial aspects. There is also a political dimension to green growth—it is an attempt to overcome the collective action problem of addressing climate change by framing it in a positive light. Countries can have and eat their cake, i.e., grow and reduce their environmental footprints. Moreover, pursuing green growth is painted as offering many opportunities to enhance growth and job creation.

The green growth-as-business opportunity strategy has understandably led many to reject green growth as viable and conclude that green growth will ultimately worsen the ecological overshoot problem - one way would be through incentivising "greenwashing." Worse, the tech optimism on which Green Growth is based has been shown to rest on shaky foundations and little empirical evidence. So far, for instance, there has been no absolute decoupling between fossil fuel use, carbon emissions, the material footprint of an economy, and global GDP growth. 

Green Growth also places undue hope in the energy transition, i.e., the phasing out fossil fuels and replacing these with renewable energy sources. The first problem is that wholly replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is not feasible. All renewable energy technologies need fossil fuel energy to be manufactured, and renewable energy systems need backup from fossil fuel or nuclear energy. The second problem is that promoting renewable energy will stimulate the re-materialisation of world production - due to the need for various mineral resources as inputs for renewable energy systems.

Degrowth: ecological iatrogenics

Proponents of Degrowth have rightly pointed to these shortcomings of Green Growth and have hence advocated an alternative: Instead of trying to continue expanding the global economy, the right policy approach would be to shrink it. The Degrowth Movement is, however, about more than just shrinking the economy: its ultimate target is capitalism. 

Degrowth's intellectual raison d’etre has been provided by French Marxist philosopher André Gorz. According to two leading Degrowth intellectuals, Degrowth is Utopianism and “an advanced reincarnation of the radical environmentalism of the 1970s [...].” Hence, to prevent ecological overshoots from leading to catastrophe, the movement calls for abolishing capitalism. The burden of degrowth should fall on the affluent West. The West should also pay the Global South climate reparations for misappropriating more than its fair share of carbon emissions. 

But does the movement offer valid solutions? Are the only two options ecological collapse or degrowth? 

In related posts, the degrowth movement does not provide valid solutions. The main problem is not that it is politically infeasible but that degrowth would be ineffective (many of its detailed prescriptions, such as a four-day week and redistribution, would stimulate economic growth) and might be even worse for the environment. It can be described as a form of ecological iatrogenic-like bloodletting. As I describe it in the British Medical Journal,

"The medical profession once believed fervently in bloodletting. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven's deaths, amongst millions of others, were probably hastened by this treatment. Today, like Florence Nightingale, who rejected it as treatment for wounded soldiers in the Crimea, we know better. Doctors will not subject patients to untried medicines, least not of which we could reasonably expect harm. However, the Degrowth movement proposes subjecting humanity to the degrowth medicine."

Interestingly, the Degrowth Movement does not only have a Marxist ideological foundation but, strangely, also a distorted ideological Christian one. As one commentator described this:

"We see how contemporary revolutionary engagement is thoroughly Christian, even if Jesus hardly comes into it anymore. Degrowth is only one of many contemporary altars of abstinence. The rejection of one's self, in some cases of all humanity, is a prerequisite for being on the right side of history. Only the truly marginalised need not reject themselves less because others have already done it for them." 

If neither Green Growth nor Degrowth offers solutions to the ecological overshoot crisis, what does this imply for the future of humanity? 

Beyond the fairy tales: Collapse as a feature, not a bug

Beyond the "fairy tales" of Green Growth and Degrowth lies the acceptance of an inevitable societal collapse—but as a feature, not a bug, of the complexity that characterises human society.

The interest in societal collapse rose noticeably following the slowdown in Western growth rates in the 1970s and 1980s, starting with the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report. Joseph Tainter set the tone in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies and John Leslie’s 1996 book The End of the World. More recently, Nate Hagens, reflecting Tainter's view that collapse results from societies becoming too bureaucratic and inflexible because of growing complexity, recommended that the world prepare for a post-collapse or Great Simplification. For Udo Bardi, the collapse would offer the opportunity to “get rid of obsolete structures.” These could include notions of "capitalism", "neoliberalism", and "communism" - stagnating ideas that originated centuries ago. 

What the world needs right now is a sort of succession planning: not a "survival of the richest" but a science and politics of managing societal collapse to minimise hardship and lay the foundation for rebound growth. Such rebound growth could see a transition to a new mode of growth, which could be as qualitatively different from that characterising the current global economy as the industrial world was different from the world of the hunter-gatherer economy.

This article is based on the author's book: Economic Growth and Societal Collapse: Beyond Green Growth and Degrowth Fairy Tales. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Wim Naudé is Visiting Professor in Technology and Development at RWTH Aachen University, Germany; Research Fellow at the IZA Institute for Labor Economics, Germany; and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Economics at the University of Johannesburg. According to Stanford University’s rankings, he is amongst the top 2% of scientists in the world.

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