A large and growing number of scholars from many disciplines, are advocating for a reorientation of our social and political priorities by abandoning economic growth as our overriding priority.
Even some progressive economists are making these arguments. This degrowth movement argues for prioritising genuine progress in terms of both human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. Indeed, these scholars argue that abandoning economic growth is essential for achieving these more important objectives.
While recognising the need for social and economic change, others, mostly economists and business leaders, argue that economic growth is essential to achieve human wellbeing and ecological sustainability. They cite examples of green growth with clean technologies as pointing the way forward.
Obviously, both groups cannot be right; their views are mutually exclusive. Green growth and degrowth cannot both provide a guiding framework for a just and sustainable future. Which is most likely to be helpful?
Given the extent of our disruption of natural systems at a planetary level, our rapidly worsening social and political problems, and the growing investments in green growth technologies, this seems an important question.
Are we basically on course with the green growth, technology-driven initiatives that most major governments have embraced? Or do we need a radical rethink of our priorities and how we organise our economies and societies, as degrowth advocates argue?
Green growth is a more comforting option, as it implies we can continue pretty much as we are, and largely rely on technology to do the heavy lifting to clean up our environment, and deliver wellbeing in all its guises.
The more radical degrowth option is less comforting because it involves the unknown and many changes, some of which may seem unappealing at first sight.
Despite its appeal, what’s most comforting isn’t always what’s best for us.
There are now many thoughtful and scientifically based critiques of the dominant green growth approach. The essence of these critiques is that biophysical limits indicate that technology-driven green growth cannot deliver what it promises.
As conceived, green growth may well worsen environmental and social problems rather than alleviate them. Building out a clean, renewable energy system, for example, would require a quantity of fossil fuels that would create more emissions than our targets would allow.
Several critiques identify our dominant economic growth paradigm as the culprit in obscuring the flaws in the green growth approach, and the major obstacle to achieving the goals that both approaches share.
Because the degrowth scenario is less well understood, let’s focus on what it is and what its benefits might be.
The term “degrowth” is intentionally provocative, to shock us into at least giving serious thought to the role economic growth might play in our future. Degrowth involves much more than reducing economic activities to sustainable levels, for it includes many progressive policies and programs that would have broad appeal if understood.
The degrowth critique of economic growth acknowledges that economic growth has provided many benefits in the past. But the present is not the same as the past. The growth paradigm has been so successful that its (largely ignored) downsides now overwhelm planetary systems and exacerbate social inequities.
The way we measure economic growth is seriously flawed. We need to consider the drawbacks of economic growth as well as the benefits to provide a more comprehensive assessment of its net effects.
Economic growth is measured in terms of growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The term “Gross” tells us it measures all economic activity, regardless of whether that activity benefits people or the environment. GDP counts the monetary value of undesirable activities like cleaning up oil spills, clear cutting forests, automobile accidents, health costs for lifestyle diseases, and public expenditures for incarcerating offenders, for example.
In many cases the undesirable effects of economic growth are not even counted in GDP. These are the so called “externalities” such as species loss due to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, or human health problems from pollution.
In doing so, GDP confounds both the desirable and undesirable impacts of economic activity. Seeking GDP growth as a national goal is like a business adding its expenses to its revenue each year, and seeking to increase the total year after year.
These problems with GDP are not minor. Both climate change and biodiversity loss are negative costs associated with our level of economic activity. Both represent existential threats to human wellbeing and any notion of progress.
So GDP is hardly a good measure of “progress.” Yet our governments strive for more of it each year.
In discussions of the tension between GDP growth and environmental protection, the comment is often made that we need more economic growth to invest in cleaner technologies to protect the environment. Growing the economy to pay for the environmental damages associated with growing the economy, is a bit like an alcoholic having a morning drink to relieve a hangover.
There are multiple problems with GDP growth as a priority. Economists who developed GDP during WWII explicitly said GDP was not a good measure of social wellbeing, because it confounded desirable and undesirable activities.
We also know that despite today’s global economy being at least 30 times larger than it was just a century ago, wellbeing and happiness have not followed suit.