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Beyond neutrality: How being growth-agnostic reinforces a business-as-usual mindset

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By Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov

· 4 min read

In modern society, the concept of “growth” is often synonymously linked with economic expansion, primarily measured through the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This long-standing metric is the quintessential indicator of a nation’s economic vitality, encapsulating the aggregate value of goods and services produced within a defined timeframe. Yet, beneath the surface of these economic triumphs, a critical question looms large: What are the hidden costs of such growth? 

This inquiry unveils a concerning trend within the environmental movement, where a segment remains notably silent on the detrimental impacts of unchecked economic growth, adopting a stance known as growth agnosticism. This neutrality, or at times, indifference, towards the interplay between economic expansion and environmental sustainability, presents a formidable challenge to the global quest for climate resilience.

The quandary of growth agnosticism

Growth agnosticism, characterized by a tepid stance on the relationship between economic growth and environmental health, has found proponents among some of the most influential figures within the environmental movement. This position, marked by an unwillingness to critically engage with the potential ecological repercussions of continuous economic expansion, threatens to dilute the efficacy of climate action efforts. While self-proclaimed growth agnostics work, sometimes subtly challenge the notion of green growth, their reluctance to squarely address and dismantle the myths underpinning current economic paradigms undermines the credibility of these environmental leaders and raises questions about their commitment to the cause. The reluctance to speak up is most likely fueled by a fear of reducing their influence among the elites, which compromises their credibility by suggesting a preference for personal advancement over the collective goals of the environmental movement.

This article explores the problematic nature of growth agnosticism, especially given the lack of empirical evidence that decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation is feasible at the required pace and scale. It discusses how silence on critical issues hinders necessary systemic changes, thereby significantly adversely affecting the broader environmental agenda. The article also explains why this unwarranted endorsement of unviable models and practices demands an urgent reevaluation of our strategies.

The environmental and social toll of ambivalence

The growth-agnostic viewpoint impedes prompt and decisive action imperative for maintaining ecological thresholds. Environmental deadlines, defined by the distress signals from our planet’s compromised boundaries, demand immediate and bold interventions—luxuries our current ambivalence cannot afford. This hesitation exacerbates the misallocation of resources, diverting vital financial, human, and political capital towards so-called ‘green growth’ initiatives that fail to address their environmental impacts adequately. The hesitation hinders our ability to take bold steps to ensure a future for all. 

Equally troubling is the oversight of equity and justice dimensions. The relentless pursuit of economic growth has historically fueled disparities, exacerbating inequality and environmental degradation, particularly affecting the most vulnerable populations. The silence on the necessity to curtail production and consumption, especially in the global north, perpetuates a system prioritizing profit over the well-being of communities and ecosystems.

“By remaining silent we let down those who most need us to take action and assume responsibility.”

Speaking out: The imperative for action

The article posits that silence, especially in the face of systemic injustices, serves the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Growth agnosticism neglects environmental concerns and perpetuates the broader societal structures facilitating inequality. While seeking common ground is vital, we must not ignore our responsibility to challenge and transform oppressive systems. The failure to confront the entrenched growth paradigm risks missing the opportunity for profound societal transformation. A shift towards regenerative living necessitates radically reevaluating our values, consumption patterns, and economic frameworks, prioritizing community well-being and ecosystem health over GDP growth. The time for silence and neutrality has expired; the era of action and responsibility is now. As Joél Leon says:

“What’s the point of having privilege if we are not using said privilege to amplify the voices of the marginalized and the most oppressed? 

Forging a path forward

The growth agnosticism stance is not a passive predicament but an active endorsement of a business-as-usual trajectory, leading toward ecological and social turmoil. Once in overshoot, the planet's sustainable carrying capacity can only be re-established in one way: down. 

“Either through managed decline, or through collapse – leaving it to the market or to nature to reduce human activity” Jorgen Randers 

Thus, it seems likely that sufficiently large recurrent crises in nature and the economy will be required to bring about the required change. The question is not whether the world economy—particularly the economy of rich Northern countries—has to shrink, but how this process will happen: through design or through disaster. 

It is crucial to challenge the growth-agnostic paradigm, by championing policies and practices that reflect the realities of our planet’s limitations and the needs of its inhabitants. Advocating for a sustainable and equitable future requires confronting uncomfortable truths and leveraging our positions of privilege to amplify marginalized voices. The era of growth agnosticism must end, making way for a new chapter of conscientious action and transformative change. We hope to navigate the perilous waters of our current environmental poly-crisis through collective effort and unwavering commitment. The time for agnosticism has passed; the era of action is upon us.

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

Kasper Benjamin Reimer Bjørkskov is an architect who specializes in converting complex environmental and social challenges into innovative, sustainable architectural solutions, promoting inclusive design that spurs societal change. He has actively engaged in numerous architectural projects dedicated to minimizing CO2 emissions, demonstrating the feasibility of constructing buildings and simultaneously reducing CO2 with no additional costs.

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