Lately, I've been reading some of the same old arguments against degrowth. These anti-degrowth arguments all tend to be similar in their lack of understanding of what the term means, their clutching at growth for reasons that can be debunked, and their irrational and science-denying attachment to business as usual dressed up as 'green growth'.
At this stage, it's probably wise to define the term degrowth, which isn't as hard to do as people tend to make out. My research into the topic leads me to define degrowth in two ways:
- Degrowth is a planned and democratic reduction in energy and material throughput in over-consuming nations to move back within the planetary boundaries while improving societal wellbeing and global equity.
- The 'de' in degrowth can also mean 'away from' and degrowth can be seen as a "decolonisation of the imaginary and implementation of other possible worlds" (Serge Latouche, Pluriverse). Degrowth is about moving away from growth being the be-all and end-all for the decisions we make, and moving to other, better ways of being which are more aligned with the wellbeing of people and the planet.
In this piece, I want to dispel some of the more common arguments both in favour of green growth, as well as against degrowth.
GDP is a terrible metric, so why ‘green’ it?
It's widely agreed that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth is a terrible metric for measuring the well-being of a nation. Robert F Kennedy summed it up well in 1968 in this speech including the key insight that GDP “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile". Simon Kuznets, who is credited with developing the GDP metric, warned that "[t]he welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP".
So, if GDP growth is a terrible metric, why are people trying to keep it, but make it 'green'? It doesn't make sense until you realise that - as Jason Hickel says in his book, Less is More, “GDP growth is, ultimately, an indicator of the welfare of capitalism. That we have all come to see it as a proxy for the welfare of humans represents and extraordinary ideological coup.” The people who are in favour of green growth typically have vested interests in the status quo and do not want it to change.
Growth can’t be greened
People who want us to believe that growth can be greened tend to use the same old tired charts which show growth and emissions going in different directions (or even the more obscure GDP/capita and CO2 emissions/capita). In these charts greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are the only form of pollution that is being considered (even though there are 5 other planetary boundaries we are transgressing, including biodiversity loss), there is no consideration of pace (is the decoupling fast enough to keep warming at 1.5 degrees?), no scaling up to see what is happening at a global level (after all, that’s all the atmosphere cares about), past performance is assumed to be a good indicator of future performance (decoupling gets harder and harder as time goes on) and no acknowledgment that everything is easier to achieve without growth - or even better, a reduction - and boy would it be helpful to make the task easier rather than harder right now. As Timothée Parrique says in this brilliant speech, the task is to decouple well-being from environmental harm, not GDP from emissions.
Growth hasn’t lifted the majority of the world out of poverty (nor can it)
The notion that economic growth is responsible for lifting most of the world's population out of poverty and therefore we need growth, is not supported in the data. Eighty-five percent of the world's population currently live on less than US$5/day, a figure which accounts for purchasing price parity, ie. what US$5 will buy someone in the US. It's a cruelly low bar, especially when you consider that over-consuming nations have a poverty line around the US$30 mark: what we consider poverty for people in the Global South is far more extreme than what we consider poverty for people in the Global North. For more issues with the notion that we need economic growth to solve poverty, this quote from Jason Hickel's book, The Divide, is illuminating:
"Right now, the main strategy for eliminating poverty is to increase global GDP growth. The idea that the yields of growth will gradually trickle down to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. But all the data we have shows quite clearly that GDP growth doesn’t really benefit the poor. While global GDP per capita has grown by 45 per cent since 1990, the number of people living on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 370 million. Why does growth not help reduce poverty? Because the yields of growth are very unevenly distributed. The poorest 60 per cent of humanity receive only 5 per cent of all new income generated by global growth. The other 95 per cent of the new income goes to the richest 40 per cent of people. And that’s under best-case-scenario conditions. Given this distribution ratio, Woodward [author of a study into growth and poverty] calculates that it will take more than 100 years to eradicate absolute poverty at $1.25 a day. At the more accurate level of $5 a day, eradicating poverty will take 207 years. This is the best we can expect from the business-as-usual trajectory of the development industry. And keep in mind that Woodward’s methodology is not able to capture the poorest 1 per cent of the world’s population, who will still remain in poverty even at the end of this period. That’s 90 million people who will remain in poverty for ever….
As if the epochal timelines here aren’t disappointing enough, it gets worse. To eradicate poverty at $5 a day, global GDP would have to increase to 175 times its present size. In other words, we need to extract, produce and consume 175 times more commodities than we presently do. It is worth pausing for a second to think about what this means. Even if such outlandish growth were possible, the consequences would be disastrous. We would quickly chew through our planet’s ecosystems, destroying the forests, the soils and, most importantly, the climate. As Woodward puts it: ‘There is simply no way this can be achieved without triggering truly catastrophic climate change – which, apart from anything else, would obliterate any potential gains from poverty reduction.’ It’s a farcical proposition – a cruel joke played at the expense of the poor. And, as it to add insult to injury, achieving this level of growth would mean driving global per capita income up to $1.3 million. In other words, the average income would have to be $1.3 million per year simply so that the poorest two-thirds of humanity could earn $5 per day. This gives us a sense of just how deeply inequality is baked into our economic system."
“The pace of renewable energy roll-out means that we don’t need degrowth”
The fact that there is progress in deploying renewable energy in various parts of the world is seen as a reason to maintain business as usual, a sort of dismissive "look, some stuff is being done, no need to get too radical". But this approach is removed from the science. We need to be moving much quicker. The quicker we get to zero emissions:
- the less we need to rely on speculative technologies and technologies that do not yet exist at the scale required, which are (highly irresponsible if you ask me), in the majority of the IPCC pathways to net-zero.
- the lower we keep warming. Current policies put us at 2.7 degrees of warming this century. Surely no one thinks that's an acceptable level of warming. Just because we're doing something, doesn't mean we are doing enough, nor does it mean it’s happening fast enough. Furthermore, the reality is that the target of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” is a political target. A target based on the science would likely have been much closer to zero increase in warming vs pre-industrial levels.
We need growth to free up capital for decarbonisation
It's generally claimed that we need growth to free up capital for investment in new technology and the deployment of existing technologies. This is the mainstream assumption around how money is deployed, but it is entirely removed from the reality of how money is created. Currency-issuing nations can never run out of money: anything they can afford, they can do. They do not need to rely on the largesse of corporations or wealthy citizens, nor do they require growth to be able to invest, they can simply … invest.
Degrowth plays into the hands of climate deniers
The idea that degrowth plays into the hands of climate deniers is a convenient deflection, but I could also argue that "green growth" is the new form of climate denial. But now, instead of denying the science, people are denying the mitigation required to align with the science-based targets. The outcomes are exactly the same: business as usual continues and the world keeps warming all while we waste the most precious non-renewable resource we have: time.
This article is also published on the author's blog. 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.