Another heavy report confirms that efforts to achieve GDP growth while reducing resource and ecological impacts have failed and will continue to do so. The implications for sustainability are profound … but will be ignored. The finding means that unless there is dramatic De-growth all the big global problems will get worse, but this economy cannot tolerate reduction in GDP. What to do?
For at least fifty years many scientists have been telling us that we have gone through the limits to growth and that levels of production and consumption in rich countries, and in the world as a whole, are far beyond sustainable. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Footprint Index we are using up resources at a rate that would require almost two planet Earths to provide sustainably.
But we have an economy, and indeed a culture that is obsessed with limitless increase in levels of production and consumption, economic turnover, affluence and “living standards”, and with growing the GDP. Unfortunately most of those who have seen the problem respond, “No worries, we’ll just need to shift to ’Green Growth’ … that is, to more efficient and technically sophisticated ways of producing and consuming that allow us to de-couple economic output from resource use.” The “Eco-modernists” are the most gung-ho advocates of this faith but it is widely assumed, not the least enthusiastically by green people (and the red Left); hence the recent promotion of “Green Growth” strategies, e.g., by the UN and the World Bank.
However over the last thirty years a large literature has accumulated finding that despite the constant effort to reduce resource use and environmental impacts, overall no reduction per dollar of output has been or is likely to be achieved. Often some degree of “relative decoupling” is achieved, that is as output rises resource use or environmental impact rises at a slower rate, but given that global impacts are far beyond sustainable levels what we have to achieve are large scale absolute reductions, and virtually all the evidence so far shows that this is not happening and not remotely likely to happen.
Not that we needed it, a thorough review has just been published, dealing with achievements within several domains, as well as overall performance. It is from the European Environmental Bureau and is entitled Decoupling Debunked. It cites about 300 references and 1000 authors. Here some of its summary statements:
“The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of economic growth from all critical environmental pressures. The literature reviewed clearly shows that there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling currently happening. This is the case for materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss.” Achievements are deteriorating. What’s more, “… adequate (i.e. absolute, permanent, and sufficient) decoupling is extremely unlikely to happen in the near future.”
Although the report stresses that these findings constitute a head on contradiction of the commitment to economic growth, it does not drive home just how cataclysmic this point is. The report is saying what the vast limits to growth literature has been saying for decades, viz., that as long as we refuse to abandon growth, resource depletion and environmental destruction are going to go on increasing.
The report looks in some detail at the potential for trying to solve the problem by more recycling and technical advance etc., and concludes that it can’t be solved that way. Given that we are already far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption, let alone the levels that all10 billion people expected soon would increase them to, this means we must accept dramatic De-growth to a zero-growth economy.
But this is an economic system that cannot function without growth; it cannot be transformed into a zero growth economy. For instance in this economy capital is invested or lent in order to earn interest, so the sum borrowed must be paid back plus interest, meaning that its use must produce more value than was represented by the investment. If that happens the economy has grown. In a zero growth economy there would be negligible scope for investing capital, confined to maintaining (or restructuring) the stable stock of productive capacity. Without growth opportunities for the investment of ever-increasing volumes of capital cease to exist. That means, without growth capitalism ceases to exist.
Further, we do not just have a growth economy, we have a growth society. This society is driven a culture of limitless acquisitiveness; the universal personal goal is to get richer and richer, without limit and the supreme national goal is the same. A society in which the GDP had been significantly reduced and did not increase would not be possible unless people willingly accepted far lower “living standards”, with no expectation of them ever increasing. That would be a totally alien culture, contradicting fundamental themes that have driven Western society for two hundred years. It is currently unthinkable.
Even if it was, how could it be done? It is not a matter of closing down coal mines and fossil fuelled power stations and transferring the workers to wind turbine installation; it is a matter of phasing out vast amounts of productive activity and plant. What are you going to do with the 55,000 workers presently producing coal in Australia? Even if economists and governments ever thought about this they would have no idea what to do.
The deterioration of the Murray-Darling river system illustrates the insoluble dilemma. The river can’t be saved unless a lot of water is transferred back to it from farming, but that would wipe out large numbers of farmers and country towns. The limits have been exceeded, but this economy can’t deal with the situation without contravening its supreme sacred principle.
The point is that there is no solution to be found within this socio-economic system, that is, within a society designed around the constant drive to increase investment, production, trade, lending, jobs, wages, consumption and wealth. The logic of the limits means that a sustainable and just society has to be designed on totally different principles, above all designed to provide a good quality of life or everyone on the lowest possible per capita resource use rates, with no concern whatsoever to get richer as time goes by.
For decades there has been a small, ignored, simplicity movement telling you how to do this, and telling you that it could easily be done if enough of you wanted to do it. But you would have to face up to and willingly accept extremely radically different lifestyles, systems, ways, ideas and values. The basic form of such a society is detailed at The Simpler Way website. (See also simplicityinstitute.org.) It involves settlements that are mostly small, highly cooperative, self-sufficient and self-governing, devoting local resources to meeting local needs, preventing market forces and the owners of capital from making any of the important decisions, and focused on enabling life satisfaction from non-material pursuits.
Only in such settlements can the resource demands be got right down. In a study of egg supply Trainer, Malik and Lenzenfound that the dollar and energy costs from village co-ops could be less than 1% of those via supermarkets. Lockyer’s study of an Eco-village in Missouri found that per capita energy, water, fuel, transport, and power consumption costs were around 5-10% of the US average. Yet the quality of life reported in Eco-villages is higher than national averages.
This general path is being pioneered by the global Eco-village, Transition Towns, Voluntary Simplicity and De-growth movements. The government of Senegal is working to transform 1,400 communities into Eco-villages. Our fate depends on whether the mainstream comes to see the sense of these ways before growth and greed society hits the wall.
Parrique, T., et al., (2019), Decoupling Debunked. European Environmental Bureau. July. eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked.
Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from UNSW. Author of several books and papers on sustainability with a focus on alternatives to consumer-capitalist society. Developing Pigface Point as a site illustrating Simpler Way themes.