Questioning the Growth Imperative

This post has been published recently in Green (the publication of the Australian Greens), Issue 35, p9. 

Celebrated economist, Sir John Hicks, began one of his essays with the pronouncement, ‘We are living in an age of growth.’ It is a view that applies more so today than ever before, at least as a statement of economic desire, if not as a description of recent economic reality. As the world economy teeters on another meltdown arising from the economic crisis in Europe, the imperative of all governments around the world to maximise growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has never been stronger. In early 2010, then Prime Minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, arguably spoke for all nations when he declared: ‘Going for growth is the government’s number one priority.’

According to this dominant economic paradigm, growth in GDP provides governments, by way of taxation, with more resources to pay for the nation’s most important social services. It provides the necessary funds needed for national security and a police force, democratic elections, sophisticated heath-care and sanitation systems, public education, unemployment benefits, etc., as well as such things as environmental protection programs, foreign aid, and the arts. These are all good things, but they cost money, and funds are always limited. Therefore, by maximising growth of the economy a government can secure more funding for such services and thereby contribute most, so the argument goes, to social, economic, and ecological wellbeing.

Furthermore, the argument might continue, as an economy grows, so too do personal incomes, meaning that individuals, not just governments, have more money and thus more freedom to purchase those things which they desire most. Growth is unquestionably good, one might conclude, from which it would seem to follow that more growth always must be better.

This growth model of progress strikes many people as basically correct. Cracks have formed in this economic paradigm, however, which can no longer be dismissed as minor anomalies in an otherwise healthy system. This is illustrated most clearly when we reflect upon the violence currently being inflicted on the natural world in the name of economic growth. Disturbing though it may be to consult, the best available evidence plainly illustrates that the global economy has physically grown to such a size that it now exceeds the regenerative and absorptive capacities of Earth’s ecosystems.

The Living Planet Report 2010, for example, which is based on the scientific research of the Global Footprint Network, reports that humanity’s ecological footprint is now exceeding by 50 percent the planet’s sustainable carrying capacity. In other words, human beings are now over-consuming ‘natural capital’ and diminishing the capacity of the planet to support life in the future. Even from an economic perspective, this makes as much sense as the business that each and every year sells off some of its key assets and treats this income as profit – a practice of dodgy accounting that might seem fine on paper until the shareholders are told there aren’t any more assets. Put more vividly, today’s global economy resembles a snake that is eating its own tail. At what point, one might ask, will the snake recognise that it is feeding upon its own life-support system?

To put it proverbially, if we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are going.

The fact that the global economy is already in significant ecological overshoot is even more challenging to mainstream views of economic growth when we bear in mind that, in the poorest parts of the world today, great multitudes are living lives oppressed by extreme poverty. The global challenge, therefore, in terms of humanitarian justice and ecological sustainability, can be stated as follows: We must find a way to raise the material standards of living the world’s poorest people – whose economies surely have a right to develop economically – while at the same time reducing humanity’s overall ecological footprint. The difficulty of this challenge is intensified, of course, by the fact that the global population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050.

Intellectually and morally – even in terms of economic self-interest – these issues raise questions that in good conscience cannot be avoided: Should the richest nations on the planet still be aiming to maximize the growth of their own economies? Or will that just exacerbate the greatest social and ecological problems of our age? The logic is easy to ignore but it impossible to escape: The richest nations must begin to question the legitimacy of the growth model and explore alternatives.

This is the point at which neoclassical economists and their handmaidens in the political mainstream speak up, declaring that environmentalists like me, in our naivety, have failed to grasp the importance of science and technology. Rich economies don’t need to stop growing, these people will object. All that needs to happen is for economies around the world to adopt ‘sustainable development,’ which in theory means using science and technology to produce and consume more cleanly and efficiently.

A nice story, perhaps; but here’s the problem. Although economies are demonstrably getting better at producing commodities more cleanly and efficiently (a process called ‘relative decoupling’), overall ecological impact is nevertheless still increasing, because every year increasing numbers of commodities are being produced and consumed. We might have more fuel-efficient cars, for example, but the rebound effect is that we are also driving more and buying more cars. This is but one example of a phenomenon that permeates market societies.

It is theoretically possible, of course, for an economy to grow and its overall ecological impacts reduce (a process called ‘absolute decoupling’). Nobody denies that. And techno-efficiency improvements in production are indeed being exploited in many areas of life with that aim in mind. But despite many techno-efficiency improvements occurring, the evidence shows that an overall reduction in the ecological impact of economies – which is obviously what is needed to achieve ecological sustainability – is not occurring. Therefore, it is dangerous and irresponsible to propagate the fantasy that rich nations will grow themselves out of the ecological crisis by relying on science and technology. It is time for such technological optimists to wake up from their dreamland before they impose a nightmare on the rest of us. Nothing less than the world is at stake.

I must not, however, be misunderstood. Techno-efficiency improvements will undoubtedly have an extremely important part to play in any transition to an ecologically sustainable society. We must exploit appropriate technologies in every way we can for the good of our planet and the entire human community. But science and technology are at best only part of the solution to the ecological crisis. What is needed, first and foremost, is a dedicated reduction in the overall ecological impact of the human economy, and this depends primarily on the richest nations on the planet voluntarily producing and consuming less stuff.

This brings me to my final point: Does producing and consuming less stuff actually need to sound so depressing? There is a quietly emerging social movement of people embracing ‘post-consumerist’ lifestyles that suggests not. Known as the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, this diverse group is made up of people who are choosing to live ‘simpler lives’ of reduced income and consumption; not out of sacrifice or deprivation, but in order to be free, happy, and fulfilled in a way consumer culture rarely permits. By limiting their working hours, spending their money frugally and conscientiously, growing their own vegetables, riding bikes, rejecting high-fashion, and generally celebrating life outside the shopping mall, these people are new pioneers transitioning to a form of life beyond consumer culture.  It remains to be seen whether this movement ignites the quiet revolution in consumption behaviour of which it is capable. But it is decidedly the most promising social movement on the planet at the moment, as it is guided by an ‘economics of sufficiency’ so desperately needed in the political arena, especially in the West.

I do not pretend that any implementation of a macroeconomics ‘beyond growth’ would be straightforward. I certainly would not pretend to have all the answers myself about how such a transition would play out. But it seems clear enough that the ideology of growth economics governing the world today is leading human civilisation to a dead-end, and so all I ask is that we start talking seriously and with some urgency about alternatives. As we move into the future, hope resides solely in Green politics and grassroots action.

4 Responses to “Questioning the Growth Imperative”

  1. Nick Bishop says:

    Firstly apologies for the long post…

    The Ecological Footprint Atlas produced by the Global Footprint Network while limited in scope (it ignores usage of non-renewable resources for one) has got me thinking whether an average global biocapacity level is the best metric for an individual country’s sustainability target.

    Australia, while having a very high ecological footprint also is part of a land that has a high biocapacity to absorb some of that footprint, whereas most of the European countries have footprints well in excess of their own national biocapacities.

    Even many of the poorest of countries in Africa have already exceeded their own land’s biocapacity and Africa’s biocapacity is decreasing faster than the world average.

    Does this suggest using more local measures of footprint vs biocapacity rather than global averages is more appropriate in the long-run?

    Using a world-average will mean that some areas of the world will continue or increase in biocapacity while other areas degrade in value, not a solution that appears sustainable nor desirable. Using a global average would mean that a 200,000 peopled desert city would seem just as appropriate as 200,000 people in a region which can support all the requirements of the people within the immediate locale. We need to be more sophisticated about where we need degrowth and where we can grow within the bounds of the environment in the long-term.

    While in the immediate future it would seem necessary for countries like Australia with large natural biocapacities (or countries who are not in overshoot of their own local biocapacities) to assist other countries survive as they draw down their ecological footprints and/or regenerate their local biocapacities but in the long run, we must be targetting a future where the smallest possible scale of division of land is sustainable on the surrounding resources rather than requiring a global network of biocapacity and footprint flows to balance the earth’s footprint.

    I know this suggests that people in poor biocapacity areas should by nature of their environment have a small footprint (or reduce their populations), which contradicts the notion that every single person across the world is entitled to exactly the same footprint but otherwise I think we are not going to achieve true sustainability, which to me is about attempting to embed human society back into local ecosystems.

    Last note – I would recognise the different scales of impact of our environmental footprint, such as greenhouse gas production impacting on a global scale whereas other impacts such as desalination are more local impacts. Perhaps global average levels then are appropriate for global scaled impacts and local levels appropriate for local impacts.

  2. SJ says:

    Firstly, I can’t see where Australia is a special case with a heap of spare capacity. We are already relying on desalinated water, our ancient lands are full of salt and irrigation or clearing, quickly bring it to the surface to poison the land. Then there is extinctions and destruction of habitat. In so many ways, Australia is well into it’s environmental capital.
    And next thing, why should we expand human population. Do we think people are good so therefore more is better. Humans have become so removed from nature that they resemble a rat plague. In general, it’s not that pretty. I think when it comes to people, we should shoot for quality rather than quantity.

  3. Nick says:

    Sorry, perhaps I wasn’t particularly clear. I wasn’t saying that Australia is not drawing down its environmental capital, it is – the report suggests Australian have a footprint of around 26gha, with a biocapacity of 14gha. And I wasn’t advocating increased population.

    I was pointing out that certainly Australia (and other countries with very high biocapacity per person such as those listed in the report: Gabon, Bolivia, Mongolia, Canada etc) is “special” in that we have a biocapacity of 14gha/person compared to so many countries with biocapacities of less than 1gha/person (Albania,Italy, Afghanistan, Bangladesh). What do people in those countries do to fix their situations? Mass migration? Continue to deplete their already exhausted landbases? Violence?

    Lets imagine an ideal case where we all decided to embark upon a path of decreased consumption, negative population growth and restoring ecosystems…this will take time. In the interim, I was hypothesizing that countries like Australia can potentially assist so that countries whose resources cannot cope with their existing populations don’t descend into violence, migration, or just further deplete their environments. I obviously mean a situation where Australia’s average footprint is well under our biocapacity and therefore where our biocapacity increases every year while still exporting some resources to allow the transition of other countries worldwide to sustainability. I agree with you that that future won’t rely on desalinated water, destructive agricultural methods etc etc.

    I was then further questioning at what point we would consider ourselves in balance with the environment, is it when we reach global average, or when we can support ourselves generally from our local landbases? e.g. 200,000 people living in a desert city of Australia at global average footprint would be of more detriment to the local area than 200,000 people living in a rich biocapacity, coastal region of Australia at global average footprint. While we can shoot for quality over quantity, the reality is we have the opposite and therefore working out a way to manage such a huge global transition is needed.

  4. […] Alexander, ‘Questioning the Growth Imperative,’ 35 Green [publication of the Australian Greens] (2012) […]

  5. Ted says:

    Wonderful discussion. I would have liked to have “heard” more. It probably is being discussed elsewhere on this website. I personally believe that in the interest of compassion, it would be best to move people from areas that are over their environment’s carrying capacity (e.g. much of Rwanda and Haiti) to places that are under the carrying capacity. Anything else would be completely heartless (to let a state descend into civil war, starvation, etc.). However, that would require that these places are controlling their population so that they are not continuously exporting people.

    Gosh, I feel so impersonal talking about people in this manner, but regarding people as rats is also impersonal but somewhat true.

  6. […] Alexander, ‘Questioning the Growth Imperative,’ 35 Green [publication of the Australian Greens] (2012) […]

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