speri.comment: the political economy blog

Growth – do we need it and can we learn to live without it?

Achieving environmental sustainability may require us to break from growth altogether in the long run

Professor Colin Hay, Director of SPERI

Colin Hay

Colin Hay

So, do we need growth and might we learn to live without it? Nearly all of us who write regularly for SPERI Comment have at least nodded in the direction of the need to think beyond growth in some way.  But we have typically left it at that, with the question of what ‘beyond growth’ actually means left unresolved. In fact, most of us (and I include myself here) have done rather worse than that – in that having identified the need to think beyond growth we have then reverted to the more familiar (and simpler) task of considering how growth (albeit a more sustainable growth) might be restored to our ailing economies.  We all know this won’t do.

How then do we start to think beyond growth and assess what might this entail? The first thing to consider is whether environmentally sustainable growth is actually possible.  What is remarkable is how seldom that question is ever directly posed.  In a sense it haunts progressive political economy ‑ which, for the most part, would like to think of itself as both green and yet seems decidedly (if often implicitly) pro-growth.  We tend to assume (conveniently) that we can have environmentally sustainable growth and that, when we progressives talk of growth, this is the kind of growth that we have in mind.  But I suspect that we also know that this won’t do either – not least because I imagine that I am not alone in my worry that environmentally-sustainable growth is in fact an oxymoron.

The literature, certainly the obvious literature, doesn’t really help us here.  A close reading of Serge Latouche, doyen of décroissance (de-growth), reveals that even he can’t make up his mind whether de-growth means no growth, a-growth, anti-growth, green growth or post-growth.  Actually, that’s perhaps a little too harsh.  Latouche is in fact committed to one of these, the last, post-growth.  He is clear that we need to move beyond the fetishisation of growth, whether that entails no growth, a-growth, anti-growth or green growth (‘the green shoots of economic recovery’ perhaps?).  But, although that is almost certainly right, it still doesn’t help very much.  Quite simply, we need to decide whether it is possible to envisage environmentally sustainable growth or whether environmental sustainability entails, at minimum, permanent recession.

Cast in such terms, de-growth sounds potentially rather scary.  Can we learn to cope with permanent recession – and is that really what I am advocating?  Probably not – or, at least, not yet.  The first thing to say here is that permanent recession is certainly no guarantee of environmental sustainability – and, as such, is not a goal in itself.  We might not (quite) have achieved a condition of permanent recession (though permanent austerity is well on the way to making that a more likely scenario than it has perhaps ever previously been).  But the (politically) prolonged de-growth that we have endured since the advent of the global financial crisis has hardly been environmentally neutral.

Growth (certainly the kind of growth that our economies might have achieved had they been less hampered by austerity) has a carbon footprint and a very significant one at that.  Indeed, arguably, the crisis has done more to slow the pace of environmental degradation than any policy innovation designed to achieve such an effect.  But that is hardly cause for celebration, nor good reason to wish for permanent recession.  The point is that, in time, we may well need to wean ourselves off growth (especially if my hunch about the environmental unsustainability of all growth is true), but that does not mean that all de-growth is good de-growth (one’s enemy’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend).

So where does this take us?  I think the best way to think about this is in terms of the ‘carbon footprint of growth’.  If we acknowledge that all growth has a carbon footprint – and that is perhaps as close to a truism as anything in this extended thought experiment – then that suggests three potential types of response.  We might seek to offset the carbon footprint (though, of course, that cannot work at a planetary level); we might seek to reduce the carbon footprint (by making our growth less environmentally damaging than it might otherwise be); or we might strive to reduce our dependence on growth and to promote other measures of economic success.

Of these, it is the third, which surely holds out the best prospect (though it is the least discussed).  Growth, in a way, is a convention for measuring economic success.  Indeed, it has become the global currency of economic success.  It is not difficult to see why.  But, like all conventions, growth need not be the global currency of economic success – and there is a very strong moral and ecological argument for suggesting that it should no longer be tolerated as that.  Things could be different; we could target something else.  But what we almost certainly cannot do is to replace GDP growth at a stroke with some other measure of economic success. The transition would need to be managed carefully and cumulatively, as well as coordinated globally.

But it is not difficult to imagine what might be entailed here.  Alongside GDP data we would need to build a new index of economic success – a compound index, inevitably, which might include things like changes in the Gini coefficient (in the direction of greater societal equality), changes in per capita energy use (rewarding increased energy efficiency and sustainability), changes in per capita carbon emissions (rewarding the greening of residual growth) and perhaps a range of more familiar development indices (changes in literacy rates and so forth).

This alternative social, environmental and developmental index (SED) would be recorded and published alongside GDP, and would thus allow the production of a new hybrid GDP-SED index.  Over a globally agreed timescale, the proportion of SED relative to GDP in the hybrid index would rise – from zero (now) to 100 per cent (at some agreed point in the future).  And, of course, we would gauge whether our economies were ‘growing’, ‘flat-lining’ or ‘in recession’ according to the new hybrid index as, in effect, we moved from measuring economic performance by relation to GDP to measuring it in terms of SED.  The changes to our modes of living, over that period of time, would be immense.  But if we are to think beyond growth that, quite simply, is what is entailed.  It is a daunting prospect, but such action is long overdue.

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Categories: British growth crisis, SPERI Comment | 9 comments

Articles and comments posted on this blog reflect the views of the author(s) and not the position of SPERI or the University of Sheffield.

Comments (9)

  1. One possible alternative index, which is less environmental focused, is GPI – http://gpiatlantic.org/gpi.htm . However, the inherent problem in trying to design a SED is that it is more obviously political in what is counted and what is not, with many points of contention being possibly concealed by what is counted by a SED. Also, to really challenge GDP, which has many vested interest supporters, its inherently political nature must be brought out and politicians would have to be more engaged with a seemingly technical debate. This change is vital as, at the moment, not talking about growth is very dangerous for policymakers – it’s an open flank for attack.

  2. ” … we might strive to reduce our dependence on growth and to promote other measures of economic success. […] …. which surely holds out the best prospect”

    “Growth, in a way, is a convention for measuring economic success. …. But, like all conventions, growth need not be the global currency of economic success”.

    This comment still seems to be dancing around – evading even – the key issue! For example it advocates that we ‘strive to reduce dependence on growth’ instead of just plainly ‘reducing growth’. And what does reducing dependency on growth mean anyway? The answer proposed seems to be to change the way we measure economic success as if it is mainly the GDP measure that determines the dynamic of the capitalist economy. I’m sorry but I’ve got to break it to some readers but a measure – any measure doesn’t perform that function. In a capitalist economy the fundamental and essential determinant fulfilling that function is profitability – GDP is just a composite proxy measure of economic activity! We could therefore change the popular headline economic measure of success as much as we like however that would do nothing to reduce economic growth – capitalism cannot change its nature simply because some policy makers decide to measure economic success differently.

    If a ‘progressive political economy’ cannot break with a capitalist model then it cannot break with growth. Full stop! And if it can’t break with capitalism then it has no right to invoke environmental sustainability, or for that matter – in this day and age – call itself ‘progressive’.

  3. The opposition of economic growth and economic success is a false opposition. Granted, there are genuine conflicts between demographic restraint, resource preservation, bio-diversity, environmental and atmospheric sustainability, on the one hand, and certain kinds of economic development and growth on the other. Such unsustainable conflicts are most often the result of an unbalanced, distorted economic expansion into exurban and rural areas at the expense of cities and city regions. By contrast, when vigorous trade, technical and organizational innovation, import replacement and economic diversity characterize city and inter-city life, then sustainable economic expansion can –and often does– take root and flourish. Its the difference between societies like contemporary America –where so much economic activity & production (much of it military, agricultural, energy or extrative) is centered in the heart of rural regions of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Alaska, Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, etc.– and societies like Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Taiwan, Northern Italy … where the most profitable, diverse, innovative and expansive productions and services take place within and between city regions.

    Reducing economic growth as a policy can only lead to stagnation and decline. Its inevitable outcome, in the end, is a return to subsistence living (such is the case throughout much of the less-developed world). I think even Karl Marx would deplore such a trajectory. What is needed –no small accomplishment– is to adopt policies that free people from living off the land and allow them instead to find economic and cultural fulfilment in cities and city regions. Those of us for whom the well-being of humanity is a priority should direct their attention to achieving this difficult transition away from agrarian life and subsistence living.

    • “Reducing economic growth as a policy can only lead to stagnation and decline. Its inevitable outcome, in the end, is a return to subsistence living (such is the case throughout much of the less-developed world).”

      An explanation for this assertion might be useful.

      “What is needed – no small accomplishment – is to adopt policies that free people from living off the land and allow them instead to find economic and cultural fulfilment in cities and city regions. Those of us for whom the well-being of humanity is a priority should direct their attention to achieving this difficult transition away from agrarian life and subsistence living.”

      ‘Policies needed’? I must have bee hallucinating- I thought this process had been going on for up to the last few hundred years depending on the part of the world in question! And I wouldn’t exactly call it a raving success story. Secondly, I’m not convinced that a ‘better’ geographical pattern of urbanisation and economic activity – assuming that is even feasible – would address the environmental problems associated with growth (such as is mentioned). Thirdly, it would be interesting to hear from people who advocate continued economic growth what, in their view, the purpose and need for the continuation of such growth is, never mind their views about its feasibility. Following on from this, I wish that more people, in particular those educated for influential roles in the technocracy, began to question the myth of progress and the conceit that they are concerned for’ the well-being of humanity’ and, above all others, possess the knowledge of what is in ‘humanity’s’ best interest. This myth, and these attitudes, have manifested in many different guises (ranging from totalitarian to liberal), throughout post-Enlightenment history, however they all stem from the same delusions and all are highly dangerous in their own ways. I completely agree with John Gray that this type of thinking/consciousness is *never* going to solve our environmental crisis – although I hope he’s wrong that *no* form of consciousness might help mitigate it.

      • Neil –thanks for the thoughtful comments. While I think there is some merit to your criticism, there’s much I find unhelpful.

        For starts, if you buy John Gray’s oft repeated conclusion that human progress is bunk and not to be taken seriously, then our discussion is over. We may as well simply wait, patiently or not, until either our environment implodes, or we, individually and collectively, die first instead.

        Perhaps you prefer to embrace primitive agrarian modes of living, if not outright hunting and gathering? I have little argument with you in that regard, except to say that such lives are mostly boring and mean, nasty, brutish and short, and virtually everyone given the opportunity to escape, does. You will not convince me that a significant number of this website’s readers yearn for such a life (especially if they have the slightest familiarity with it).

        If, on the other hand, you still entertain some hope that we humans can do significantly better in the foreseeable future, then I would invite you heed my following attempt at further explanation:

        Perhaps I failed to make clear that, IMO, diverse, vibrant city life –in terms of work, production and commerce– is less damaging to the environment and ecosystem, than massive rural enterprises in agricultural monoculture, timber, hydro-electric dams, coal and gas extraction (e.g., fracking), high tech aerospace and military production, and so on. By the same token, a “locavore” approach to food production makes more sense, economically, energy-wise, and environmentally, than long-distance agribusiness transactions.

        I tried to at least suggest that by “policies” I mean legislation and regulations that encourage (via favorable loans and tax benefits) local and regional –domestic– business ventures and start-ups, instead of promoting multinational off-shore and trans-ocean investments justified in the name of neoliberalism, globalization, efficiency and comparative advantage. I hope this necessarily simplified and summary comment on “policies” is fairly clear –though not necessarily convincing– to anyone with an elementary exposure to macroeconomics.

        It seems obvious to me that mankind, like any other dominant species, must inevitably leave a sizable footprint and occupy a large niche in this planet’s ecosystem. I remain optimistic, however, that we can create habitats growing –though not necessarily “continuously”– in terms of productivity, sophistication, innovation, adaptability and versatility, while simultaneously pulling back from our excessive infringement upon, and destruction of, the natural world.

        That said, I remain interested in seeing what your alternative approach to economic growth might be –assuming you are not a total John Gray negativist.

        • David,

          The critique of the Enlightenment myth of human progress is not unique to John Gray – it is a consistent and often distinguished tradition of thought running through western and non-western thought since the enlightenment began. Gray is simply one of the most well known and distinguished prophets of our particular age. Although I disagree with his nihilistic conclusion I believe there is a lot to be said for his critique of the myth of progress and its roots and for his alternative social philosophy (even if to be consistent he does not propose it as a ‘remedy’ for our crisis). I do not think it should be lightly dismissed, though he, and I, know that – human beings being human beings – it will be. If you believe that human society and individuals can address its predicament with the same intellectual approaches, ideologies, and consciousness that caused it in the first place then I would suggest that you haven’t thought very deeply about it yet, but also that there’s nothing that can be done to change your mind – only you can arrive at that transformation yourself if you are ready.

          I note that you did not address my question asking you to explain your assertion that the end of growth means a return to a pure subsistence economy. Instead you launched an attack on subsistence or hunter gatherer societies which repeats the old lie that life in them was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It seems that no amount of contrary evidence makes the blindest bit of difference – it is one of those orthodox mainstream myths that are impervious to reason. In case you might believe that you are more interested in reason than in myth I suggest you might start exploring the anthropological and archaeological literature on hunter gatherer societies. The best starting point is Marshall Sahlins’ ‘The Original Affluent Society’ (which has never been substantially refuted). [See http://www.vizkult.org/propositions/alineinnature/pdfs/Sahlin-OriginalAffluentSociety-abridged.pdf%5D.

          It is a pity that you did not try explain what – for you – the purpose and need for continued and indefinite economic growth is, although perhaps there is an implication that ‘diverse, vibrant city life’ demand growth? If this is what you are suggesting I would suggest that it is untrue in the current terms of what economic growth means and the long-term historic record reflects that. For the record I support the practices you advocate as far as they go, however I do not see that they are dependent on economic growth, nor do I see a ‘locavore’ approach to food implies continued urbanisation and automation and technologisation. I wonder if I discern in your arguments the belief that zero growth or de-growth equals stasis? I don’t see that this connection is inevitable at all. I think we need to form a much clearer idea what growth and non-growth means than comes out in this debate and perhaps in the literature more generally.

          In my opinion these ‘policies’ are more likely to imply the opposite or at least a turning of the tide: I think the drive for growth is the motor that out of necessity pushes against ecological living, and your statement that ‘mankind, like any other dominant species, must inevitably leave a sizable footprint and occupy a large niche in this planet’s ecosystem’ to me epitomises this mentality. It seems that you want human beings be more intelligent and ‘sensitive’ ecological imperialists, but you haven’t realised that this is an oxymoron and will always and inevitably lead to disaster. It’s completely conventional thinking in (neo) imperialist societies such as I think you come from. All imperialists – American’s included – think their rule is just, natural, and will last for ever (or at least the next thousand years!).

          If you are asking whether I have a blue print and a strategy for achieving a non-growth economy and society I would say that this is not possible – it’s not the way it can be done. I agree with Gray that there is likely to be a human demographic collapse and modern society will to some extent or other disintegrate or decline and there is nothing that can avert this. This is not the whole of the story though – at the same time as decline and death predominate there is also the beginning of renewal. My alternative approach – be part of that renewal and that includes nurturing it wherever one sees it. In other words, transformation starts with one’s own life and responsibilities and involves humility towards the world and others. One needs to stifle the fascist/imperialist within.

  4. Well said David. This anti-growth stuff is so naïve.

    • The idea that *growth* can continue indefinitely is ‘so naive’! To have that belief involves denying or ignoring so much reality and the evidence of history – as well as being totally hubristic (itself a form of naivete). No point arguing about it though.

  5. Dear David, please find more idea about Degrowth on that websites: http://www.partipourladecroissance.net/?cat=44
    In particular I recommand this interview: http://www.projet-decroissance.net/?p=961

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