On Growth and Its Limits

Sustainability diagram

George Monbiot offers a fascinating insight in the wake of last week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro. While rightly deriding the declaration adopted by world leaders for containing little more than meaningless fluff, he notes an evolution in diplomatic language regarding the environment over the years from “sustainability” to “sustainable development” to “sustainable growth” to, most recently, “sustained growth.”

This seems as good a time as any to launch into a topic dear to every environmentalist’s heart: the growth debate.

Intuitively, it does not make much sense to suppose that infinite economic growth is possible in a finite world. Natural resources are limited, as is the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution. To observe that we have not yet run up against any economy-shattering limits is to miss the point. Such undying faith in growth, according to biologist Paul Ehrlich, “is roughly equivalent to bragging about one’s ability to write a bigger check each month, while paying no attention to the balance in the account.” And while many predictions of ecological doom have come and gone, miscalculations over timing do not get us off the hook. The fact that limits exist, and that the world will eventually reach them unless we radically change course, is a matter of ecological, physical, and mathematical necessity.

It is here that three points need to be made.

First, the counterargument: human ingenuity (the ultimate free lunch!). Infinite economic growth need not be unsustainable, this line of reasoning goes, provided that it is geared towards such environmentally beneficial ends as recycling, mass transit, and wind farms. Technological fixes and the brilliant minds that think of them will always keep us a step ahead of disaster.

Unfortunately, such solutions will merely delay the inevitable rather than prevent it — which is not entirely a bad thing. The challenge of convincing the world of the monumental socioeconomic change that is needed is not to be underestimated, and environmentalists so far have not been up to the task. In this context, buying time is an important part of any strategy for sustainability. However, the time available to us is limited. Yes, we can substitute renewable for nonrenewable resources, but even the former have fixed rates of regeneration. And gains in energy efficiency are circumscribed by the laws of thermodynamics. Growth can be “green” for only so long before reverting to more familiar forms of ever-increasing production, consumption, pollution, and depletion.

A second consideration: distribution. If what I say is correct, we will eventually have to bring an end to economic growth or else have such an end forced upon us by the laws of nature. In fact, since the world population’s current ecological footprint is already too large to be sustained, we will almost certainly need to “degrow” — to reduce the overall size of the global economy. This is easy enough for somebody in a rich industrialized country to say, it might be objected, but what about those in the developing world, those for whom higher incomes are not a matter of greed but of basic dignity and survival?

My answer, sadly, will not make the job of persuading my fellow First Worlders any easier. The only morally acceptable way to pursue degrowth is, at the same time, to massively redistribute wealth both between and within nations. This means that while the global economy as a whole shrinks, the world’s most impoverished countries will continue to grow until their standards of living improve. Developed countries, meanwhile, those with wealth to spare, will need to “pick up the slack” and degrow even further until some kind of equilibrium is reached. This is the only way to bring about global environmental sustainability without pushing the world’s most desperately poor further into destitution.

My third point is one that makes even environmentalists a little uncomfortable: when we talk about growth, what we are actually talking about is capitalism. Private enterprise needs endless growth to survive. Without it, competitive market economies are reduced to zero-sum games where one person’s win is literally another’s loss. This is why recessions and depressions carry such heavy human tolls. While a no-growth economy could easily be environmentally sustainable, it would not be socially sustainable unless we transition to a completely different mode of production.

That’s right, comrades, I’m talking about the dreaded S-word! (Maybe Joe Oliver was right. Maybe greens — at least some of us — really are radicals.)

So, of the many forms of socialism out there, which should we adopt? How do we get there from here? How much time should we allow ourselves to make the transition? And how do we go about convincing regular people, to say nothing of those with money and power, to embrace such fundamental change?

I leave these questions to someone more knowledgeable than I. In this post, I prefer to restrict myself to superficially discussing limits to growth and their moral and economic implications, and to marking the lack of long-term solutions from last week’s Rio+20 conference. But as always, I am happy to entertain contributions of ideas, strategies, and criticisms in the comments section below from any whose human ingenuity is not quite so subject to natural limits as mine.


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