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 (WWF, 2016, The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society) shows that to provide one Australian with the amount of food, water, energy and settlement area we now use, about 7 ha of productive land are required. So if the 10 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 8 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 10 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 3% 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 Eco modernists say, and what most people apparently accept. 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, “Another reason why a steady state economy will not be a capitalist economy”, Real Word Economic Review, Oct.2016.)
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 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 TSW, 2018, 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 reno, 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.