“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” That was Greta Thunberg at the United Nations Climate Action Summit four years ago denouncing “Green Growth:” the notion that we can continue striving for economic growth while addressing environmental crises. Despite her prudent remarks, policymakers have continued pushing for growth, even while stating ambitious decarbonization goals.
It’s easy to understand why; the growth of GDP, the most common measure of the size of an economy, is correlated with numerous measures of human welfare. According to OurWorldInData, from 1990 to 2015, global GDP grew from $8,822 per capita to $15,212 per capita. Over this period, global life expectancy increased by eight years, and the percentage living in extreme poverty fell from 37.81% to 8.86%.
However, as Thunberg’s indictment suggests, the GDP story is not this simple. The coal, oil and gas industries fueling economic growth have produced an alarming increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the IPCC, this is causing an increase in average global temperatures, leading to sea level rise, biodiversity loss, adverse food growing conditions, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves, storms and droughts. Furthermore, the wealth generated by GDP growth has been unjustly distributed. Per the Pew Research Center, from 1969 to 2016, the US wealth gap between rich and poor families has more than doubled. This wouldn’t be problematic if the purchasing power of poorer families was increasing; however, today’s average hourly wage has the same purchasing power as it did in 1978. This begs the question:
Why strive for limitless growth if it only bloats the already heaping coffers of the richest while accelerating environmental disaster?
Organizations like the IPCC have proposed decarbonization paths that include continued GDP growth. They speculate that technologies such as renewable energy and carbon capture can be deployed rapidly and broadly enough to decarbonize an expanding economy.
These plans depend on GDP growth occurring without environmental degradation – a phenomenon called decoupling. However, a synthesis of 835 peer-reviewed studies conducted by Haberl et al. found decoupling in only a few countries in which the decoupling rate was too slow to avoid disastrous climate change. It’s common sense; as the economy expands, it becomes increasingly harder to decarbonize, like running a race with a moving finish line. The evidence is clear: Economic growth is not compatible with averting ecological disaster.
This is the foundation for the burgeoning degrowth movement. It aims to deprioritize economic growth as a policy goal and scale down resource use in developed economies. Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, argues that we must consider which sectors of the economy we should grow and which we should scale back, instead of pushing for growth across all sectors. In an incisive letter, he asserts that the narrative of GDP and human progress is built upon inaccurate metrics of human welfare and blatantly ignores economic growth’s colonial legacy. He cites a study published in the World Economic Review, which predicted it would take 100 years under the present growth trajectory to eradicate poverty – defined at a meager $1.25 per day. Over this time, the economy would have grown to 175 times its present size, propagating poverty-inducing, catastrophic environmental harm. Simply put, despite what surface-level trends suggest, global GDP growth inhibits progress.
This may challenge your instinct. After all, doesn’t reduced economic activity cause unemployment and hardship? Remarkably, a study authored by Millward-Hopkins et al. estimated that 60% of the current energy used by the global economy would be sufficient to provide a quality standard of living to an approximately 30% larger global population in 2050. This is a profound result, one which highlights just how inefficient our economy is, and one which affirms that downsizing developed economies does not necessitate a meaningful reduction in living standards. It suggests we can expand access to a high quality of life if we tackle hierarchical and systemic injustice and equitably distribute wealth. This can be done through policies like progressive taxation, a universal basic income and universal healthcare and education.
Economist Kate Raworth developed the concept of a “Donut Economy” to represent the tenets of degrowth. Under this analogy, the global economy is constrained by a minimum social foundation and a maximum ecological ceiling. In between lies the “safe and just space for humanity,” in which the economy provides all people access to essential services without exceeding planetary boundaries.
You may not believe we can achieve this utopia, but continued faith in the “fairy tale of eternal economic growth” condemns humanity to environmental disaster. Why not abandon dreams of endlessly stacking wealth and aspire to a just economy that respects planetary constraints while providing a quality standard of living to all?
Thomas Bonitz is a sixth-semester Geographic Information Science and Economics double major at the University of Connecticut.