TED TRAINER. The case for De-growth — will continue to be ignored.

A De-Growth movement has emerged, mainly in Europe, in response to the fact that global levels of production and consumption are now grossly unsustainable. A vast literature documenting this has accumulated over almost fifty years.  But the official world of politicians, governments, economists and media completely ignore it and devote themselves to growing the economy … that is, to accelerating us to our doom. 

The basic case for De-growth is that just about all important resources and ecosystems are being rapidly depleted because of the rate at which things are being extracted from nature and then dumped back into the environment. What is not commonly realized is that the magnitude of the overshoot is far beyond sustainable.  For instance, the World Wildlife Fund’s Footprint index (The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society, 2016) shows that to provide one Australian with the amount of food, water, energy and settlement area we now use, about seven ha of productive land are required. So if the ten billion people expected to be living on earth by 2050 were to live as we do now, around 70 billion ha would be required … but there are only about eight billion ha of it available on the planet.  We Australians are consuming natural resources at close to ten times the rate all people in the world could rise to. No need to think about De-growth?

The situation is primarily due to the affluent lifestyles of the world’s two billion rich people.  Yet they insist on getting richer all the time; the supreme national goal in all their countries is limitless growth of GDP.

Well, let’s apply a little simple arithmetic. If the ten billion people expected to be on earth by 2050 were to rise to the “living standards” we in Australia aspire to given our quest for three per cent p.a. economic growth, the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be twenty times as much as it is now. How many Sumatran rhinos left then? And given that GDP growth rate, by 2073 the multiple would be forty.

“Ah, but he’s overlooking technical advance!”  This is what the Ecomodernists say, and what most people apparently assume. It is not difficult to point out the extreme implausibility of this “tech-fix” myth. Let’s just assume that we have to reduce our per capita footprint by only 50% by 2050, rather than the approximately 90% the Footprint measure indicates. And again let’s assume that in 2050 we have a world in which all have risen to a GDP per capita that is twenty times the present world average. That would mean ecological impacts and resource demands per dollar of GDP would have to be reduced to 2.5% of their present amounts.  Can do?

If you think so, there is another bit of information I should bring to your attention. Many studies of the “decoupling” thesis have found that despite decades of constant effort to improve efficiency and productivity and thus to reduce impacts and demands, growth of GDP continues to be accompanied by growth of impacts and demands.  (Trainer, T., (2016), “Another reason why a steady state economy will not be a capitalist economy”, Real Word Economic Review, Oct.)

So is there not a rather strong case that for us to be committed to economic growth is both idiotic and suicidal? It is the basic cause of the big global problems, including the armed conflict going on because most of that is to secure access to scarce resources and markets, and the deprivation of billions of people who do not get anything like a fair share of the world’s scarce resources. Many are warning that, by continuing to pursue ever-increasing levels of production and consumption when present levels are clearly utterly unsustainable, we are accelerating towards the catastrophic break down of this “civilisation”.

Yet the De-growth issue is totally ignored by governments, media and public discourse while just about everyone is obsessed with getting richer without limit. It is difficult to believe that this society has the wit or the will to save itself. Even the radical Left isn’t interested, despite the fact that the strongest argument against capitalism now is to show that it is totally incompatible with a sustainable world.

The tragedy is that there is an alternative path, one that would not only defuse the big global problems threatening our survival, but would actually greatly improve the quality of life even of people in the richest countries. The problems cannot be solved unless there is transition to some kind of Simpler Way, in which we live mostly in small and highly self-sufficient local economies focused on meeting the needs of all, in national economies that have reduced their GDP to a small fraction of present levels and never grow, and in which affluence has been abandoned and people are happy to live with frugal but sufficient material “living standards.”  (For the detailed vision see The Simpler Way, thesimplerway.info/Main.htm, and Simplicity Institute, 2018, www.simplicity institute.org.) There are now many people working for such a transition, in Eco-village, Transition Towns, Voluntary Simplicity and Downshifting movements. Senegalese government policy is to transform 1,400 villages to these ways. If you want to save the planet these are the movements to join.

The prospects for a transition that heads off extreme global breakdown must now be rated as very poor. There are two groups who would be fiercely opposed to a simpler way. The first is the capitalist class; they are not going to tolerate a 90% reduction in the amount of profitable business they can do. The second group is …just about everybody else … what they want are more well paying jobs, a kitchen renovation, holidays in Bali and a better smart phone.

Strap yourself in for an exciting ride; I don’t think you’ll make it.

Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales.   He has written numerous books and articles on sustainability and is developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney.


Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. He has written numerous books and articles on sustainability and is developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney.

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4 Responses to TED TRAINER. The case for De-growth — will continue to be ignored.

  1. Avatar Geoff Davies says:

    The trouble with promoting de-growth is that is sounds like reversing all ‘progress’, and people are of course reluctant to do that.

    They don’t have to, and that would be more clear if instead we spoke of reducing quantity while improving quality – of life. This is entirely possible. If people understood this they’d be much more responsive I think.

    I have written about this here: http://betternaturebooks.net.au/index.php/2018/12/17/dont-mention-the-g-words/
    in response to an exchange by Jason Hickel and Dean Baker that was, for me, typically unproductive, even though they don’t disagree on the need to reduce our assault on the planet.

    A key is to stop using GDP as a measure, it is a hopelessly confused thing that distorts our priorities and obfuscates what we need to do.

  2. Avatar Geoff Mosley says:

    Part of the problem is that the work of the environment movement is largely spent on trying to limit the damage caused by the endless economic growth system that
    dominates the scene. Part of their reasoning for this is that taking on the larger challenge would be divisive and party political and would hence adversely affect their damage limitation efforts. The answer is for them get over this problem and to take on the system change challenge whilst continuing to mitigate the effects of the growth system until it has gone. Mitigation alone will not work as Ted Trainer makes clear. So, roll up your shirts environmentalists and deal with the real environmental enemy – the economic growth disease.

  3. Avatar john tons says:

    There is another aspect that continues to be ignored. The recent discussions on the Paris accord ended up with an unsatisfactory compromise -somehow the affluent west had to be reassured that their populations would not be disadvantaged. As the late unlamented President Bush once said “The American Lifestyle is not up for negotiation.” the rest of the west largely takes its cue from that proposition. Our histories conveniently ignore that our affluent lifestyle is a product of about 300 years of exploitation yet few recognize that debt. We worry about migration but we pursue policies that will result in global mass migration. A good account may be found here: Burkett, M., Behind the Veil: Climate Migration, Regime Shift, and a New Theory of Justice
    Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 2018. 53: p. 445-493.

  4. Avatar Dufa Wira says:

    Thanks Mr Trainer. Perhaps as many as 1% have understood this now and over the ages. It should be more, but every little bit helps. Why people of religion can’t see it puzzles me. Consider George Browning on the essence of Christianity, over the page.
    “Grace and humility are more powerful and life transforming than wealth or position. The world and all its creatures need to be viewed not as a market for exploitation and profit, but with awe and wonder. We are to judge our achievements not by that which is most spectacular, but by the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. What is freely shared multiplies, what is withheld diminishes the withholder.”

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