Can we have prosperity without growth?

As China debates the future of its GDP growth targets, we hear two opposing views on whether we should be aiming for no economic growth at all

Firstly, Roger Pielke, Jr,  a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, argues that being anti-growth is to argue for keeping poor people poor.

Roger Pielke: It has become fashionable in some circles to come out against economic growth. Bill McKibben, the author and climate change activist, asserts that “growth may be the one big habit we finally must break.” He adds that this is “a dark thing to say, and un-American". Such calls for an end to growth are typically advanced in environmental debates and those about economic globalisation. But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.

Economic growth is simply a metric that reflects the accumulation of wealth over time, usually based on universalised US dollars. Economists define economic growth in three parts: (a) growth in labour, which refers to an increase in the number of people working; (b) growth in capital, which refers to increases in the availability of things that can be used by labour in the process of producing goods (like food) and services (like surgery); and (c) increasing productivity, which can be thought of as improvements in the efficiency with which we turn labour and capital into goods and services.

We can use the three components of economic growth to better understand what it means to be “anti-growth.”

Anti-Labor Growth, The Neo-Malthusians. One sort of objection to growth sits squarely in the tradition of Thomas Malthus, the English economist best known for his theories on population growth, and is focused on global population. Neo-Malthusians most recently rose to prominence and influence in the 1960s and 1970s, with Paul Ehrlich the most famous US advocate for population control. Today the neo-Malthusian moment seems to have waned, likely due in part to the fact that UN population projections now foresee the end of population growth later this century, followed by a decline in some scenarios. Even so, the Neo-Malthusian movement has its adherents. As Alan Weisman wrote in a book released last year: “From the instant we’re born, even the humblest among us compounds the world’s mounting problems.” Neo-Malthusians see anti-growth as limits on population.

Anti-Capital Growth, The Peak Earthers. Another branch of anti-growth thinking focuses not on the number of people, but rather their consumption of resources. The Peak Earthers, as I call them, present their views through a suite of concepts, such as ecological footprints, planetary boundaries, and natural capital. Such concepts reflect valid concerns, but it turns out that, with respect to limits on continued economic growth, humans have had a tendency to break through physical limits through gains in efficiency and substitution. A good example is “peak oil,” which seems ever on the horizon yet keeps retreating as we tap new petroleum sources. Peak earthers see anti-growth, rather than efficiency gains and substitution, as a solution to resource constraints.

Anti-Productivity Growth, The Luddites. The term “Luddite” refers to an industrial protest movement of the early 1800s, and derives from Ned Ludd, one of the lead protestors. “Luddite” is commonly used to mean anti-technology, a reference to the fact that the original Luddites destroyed industrial machines – but that’s a misreading of history. What the Luddites were protesting was the effect of productivity gains resulting from the introduction of machines into factories as a consequence of the industrial revolution. Today, we see Luddite concerns in other sectors. For instance, in December 2013, The Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “Eight Ways Robots Stole Our Jobs in 2013.” Luddites see anti-growth as a way to stop the effects of technology on the economy.

When we break down the idea of anti-growth into its component parts, we very quickly see that “anti-growth” is not a particularly coherent concept. For instance, those favoring what is often called “sustainable growth” – such as using renewable energy technologies, rather than using fossil fuels, to power growing material wealth – would not fit any of the three categories presented above. Sustainable growth clearly is not anti-growth.

In the near future, economic growth and its consequences for the planet will be dominated by today’s poor countries. The OECD estimates that between 2013 and 2030 82% of economic growth will occur in what are today considered to be the “poor” parts of the world, with just 18% of growth occurring in the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and a few other wealthy countries. Similarly, in January BP released its 2014 “Energy Outlook to 2035,” which projects that 95% of growth in energy consumption worldwide to 2035 will occur in poorer countries.

Some try to sugar-coat their anti-growth arguments by focusing their attention on the rich world. But with most of the world’s expected growth to occur in the poor parts of the world, such arguments are simply mathematical non sequiturs. The reality is that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries. The fact that very few, if any, anti-growth activists are openly demanding that poor countries remain poor tells us how powerful a force growth is in today’s global politics.

Ultimately, debates over growth tend to mask more fundamental debates about ideologies, values, and what kind of world we wish to see in the future. Breaking concerns about growth into its component parts helps to focus such debates on questions that can be addressed empirically, and those which cannot. So when you encounter an anti-growth advocate, ask him or her, which kind are you, Neo-Malthusian, Peak Earther, or Luddite?

In response, John de Graaf, co-author of What’s the Economy For Anyway? says the constant drive for economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet

John de Graaf: Is economic growth sustainable? Is it desirable? First, let’s define our terms. I’m speaking of material growth, more products for more people. Non-material “development” – including improvements in health, education, and leisure time – may well be sustainable and desirable. But further material growth, especially in rich countries, is much harder to justify.

The twentieth-century environmentalist David Brower pointed out that, since World War II, population and economic growth have resulted in greater material consumption than in all previous human history. In that period – one one-hundredth of a second if we compress the age of Earth into a single week – we have reduced our fisheries, fossil fuels, and soils by half while causing the extinction of countless species and dangerously changing the climate.

Consider what it means that we did this in the blink of the geological eye. There are those who believe what we’ve been doing for that last hundredth of a second can go on indefinitely. Those people are, Brower observed, considered reasonable and intelligent human beings. Indeed, they run our governments and industries. But they are stark raving mad. It may be hard to convince our leaders to turn away from growth, but not as hard as changing the laws of physics.

Simply put: We can’t grow on like this.

The Global Footprint Network finds that we already use far more resources and produce more waste than is sustainable, if by “sustainable” we mean replicable for any meaningful amount of time. Were every country to suddenly adopt the US lifestyle, we’d need four more planets.

Technical improvements can reduce the impact of each additional unit of growth. But such “decoupling” is partial. Total resource use and throughput continue to rise via the so-called “Jevons Paradox” – e.g. we get better gas mileage, but we then drive more, or use our savings to fly more, using more total energy. As the ecological economist Tim Jackson puts it: “Resource efficiency is going in the wrong direction. Even relative decoupling isn’t happening.”

Meanwhile, we seek new but more dangerous means to propel continued growth: fracking, tar sands mining, and costly, potentially catastrophic nuclear technologies. Even solar and wind technologies require increased strip-mining of copper, threatening wild areas like Bristol Bay. The potential consequences of environmental crises increase with more complex and vulnerable technologies. These technological “breakthroughs” are assumed to be evidence against limits to growth, when they are but temporary stopgaps.

Democrats and Republicans alike believe growth is essential and desirable. Yet the record is mixed, at best. Economic growth increases happiness when countries are poor, but these benefits level off as they grow beyond a modest level of comfort. The United States is the best example of this. Per capita income has tripled since the 1950s, but happiness levels have been flat or falling, according to yearly surveys conducted by Gallup.

Impoverished countries still need to grow; modest growth in the past five years, for example, increased happiness in Angola by 25%, according to the UN’s 2013 World Happiness Report. But they must grow carefully, not as new consumer societies permeated by market values.

Italian economist Stefano Bartolini suggests that rapid economic growth is more a symptom of social decay than dynamism. The drive to grow leads to longer working hours and loss of natural habitat. Social connection is lost to overwork, but sold back to us as consumer products we presume will make us happy. We alleviate our loss of nature by flights to gorgeous tropical beaches. All these defensive expenditures result in greater growth, exacerbating resource depletion and climate change.

We are told we must grow to provide employment and “lift all boats.” Yet the past 35 years of growth have done neither; growth has been siphoned into the pockets of the already wealthy, creating a Grand Canyon between rich and poor in the US as well as globally. Eighty-five billionaires now own as much wealth as the bottom half of the planet’s population. Growth-driven economic policies have led to elimination of jobs through outsourcing and automation, trends that show no sign of abating. Faith in a bigger pie as the great equalizer only delays fair wealth redistribution.

Yet if we don’t grow, how can we prevent unemployment as productivity increases? Marx, Keynes and other great economists were clear about this: we should share the jobs and work less. That is still the way forward. Trading productivity for leisure instead of stuff will allow us to reduce unemployment, while giving everyone time for social connection and recreation. Limits on working hours would give us time to restore neighborhoods, grow some of our own food, de-stress, and engage in our own favorite artistic, athletic, and cultural activities.

Fifty years ago, in his “Great Society” speech, Lyndon Johnson warned that the values and beauty of our nation were being “buried by unbridled growth.” A Great Society, he said, would judge itself not by the quantity of its goods, but the quality of its goals. At a time when we are rich in stuff and poor in leisure and joy, when we are stretching the limits of our health and the limits of the planet, economic growth is a labour of Sisyphus.

Environmentalists should turn a deaf ear to the siren song of growth. The good life lies beyond, and we can have it if we choose.

This debate was first published by the Earth Island Journal