By Geoff Garver.
On September, 18, 2014, Paul Krugman used his New York Times column to call out critics of endless growth on a finite planet, in particular the Post Carbon Institute and those in the degrowth movement. His main mission was to praise the The New Climate Economy Project’s Better Growth, Better Climate report and an International Monetary Fund report that both concluded strong measures to control carbon emissions would not significantly hinder growth, and might even enhance it. In dismissing those skeptical of a global agenda of infinite growth, all he felt was necessary was an explanation-free assertion of “what you need to know,” namely that thinking adequate control of carbon emissions and economic growth are incompatible is a “fuzzy minded misconception.” Just take his word for it!
In fact, the world’s growth-insistent economic agenda raises serious problems when assessed against what we know from physics and other natural sciences, and especially the science of complex dynamical Earth systems. From a systems perspective, the impossibility of infinite economic growth becomes clear if you consider the absurd reductions in material and energy throughput that would be needed to sufficiently decouple perpetual growth of 2 to 3 % (what Lord Nicholas Stern has said is a reasonable average to expect over the next century) from environmental harms—that is, to reduce the use of material and energy and the resulting ecological impacts enough to stay within planetary boundaries of safe operating space for humanity. Or to return humanity’s collective ecological footprint to one planet’s worth of biocapacity, instead of the 1.5 Earth’s worth we require now. Relative decoupling of economic growth from ecological impacts has occurred for a long time, and will continue to do so. It’s what’s behind the mischief of those who prefer to talk about reducing the “intensity” of greenhouse gas emissions instead of the absolute reductions needed for long term climate security. In fact, mechanisms like carbon taxes and cap-and-trade regimes that Krugman rightly advocates would probably result in a good deal of decoupling if done right.
But the degree of absolute decoupling of growth from ecological impacts needed to live within planetary boundaries and enhance the Earth’s ecological integrity is unprecedented, and as the economy grows, the amount of decoupling needed will also grow—eventually to biophysically impossible levels. And it’s not just climate change. Planetary boundaries scientists refer to many interrelated systems threatened by the human enterprise. Conventional economists like Krugman end up saying that something will magically come along on the technical side, just as the internet and airplanes did in the 20th century. But humanity is facing a no analog future—we’ve entered the Anthropocene—and in the long run conventional economists are unable to tell us how all of that increased economic activity and the wealth it generates will avoid ecological catastrophe and collapse.
What will people be spending all that money on when the economy is 9 to 16 times bigger than it is today? The reward that a well-compensated person expects is not just money; it is more specifically what that money can purchase: say, one or more large homes, jet-fueled vacations in far-off places, and a host of other material and energy intensive things. This legally protected consumption, rooted in strong notions of property rights and personal freedom, exacts ecological costs that are collectively shared and often incremental, diffuse and delayed and consequently external to the economic and legal infrastructure. Krugman certainly did not make out why or how the much bigger economy he envisions in the future will avoid the ecological impacts of material and energy throughput that historically have risen in a tight parallel with growth. And it’s hard to imagine that it will. That’s why the innovations in social sciences that the degrowth movement, ecological economists and others are working on are so important—technological innovation is essential, but alone it just isn’t going to be enough.
But at least Paul Krugman gave growth skeptics some attention. His column drew eloquent responses from Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute and Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth (that book and E4A Steering Committee member Peter Victor’s Managing Without Growth both provide hopeful and coherent visions and outlines of how society can thrive and prosper without growth). And Paul Krugman is not the only one paying attention. In February 2011 (“Green growth or no growth?”) and again in May 2014 (“Can profits save the planet?”), CBC radio’s show Ideas broadcast debates between ecological economists skeptical of infinite growth and more conventional economists who believe in, or at least hope for, the decoupling of growth from ecological impact that is at the root of the green growth agenda. On October 21, 2014, the Maison du développement durable in Montreal hosted a similar debate entitled “La croissance, solution ou problème?” I’ve listened carefully to those broadcasts and have yet to hear one of the green growth proponents explain convincingly how on Earth infinite growth is ecologically possible. These debates and the attention they bring to those calling into question endless growth on our finite planet are most welcome. So, let the discussion go forward and, yes, grow!