“GDP, the so-called measure of economic growth, does not separate costs from benefits.”
-Herman Daly, World Bank Economist, author of “Steady State Economics.”
In 2008, economists and scientists met in Paris to discuss “Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity.” The Degrowth (Décroissance) movement grew out of this economic revolution in France. In 2010, a similar conference convened in Barcelona. For the last two years I have helped organize the Degrowth Conference in Vancouver, Canada. I have been asked by journalists and traditional economists why degrowth is necessary. Here are the answers:
Why focus on ending growth? Isn’t growth natural?
Yes, growth is natural, but even in nature, growth is limited.
The Degrowth movement addresses consumption growth, which historically linked to economic growth, population growth, and the impacts of resource extraction – oil spills, polluted rivers, atmospheric carbon – and complicated by system feedbacks such as melting permafrost and methane releases. We call this consumption and resulting waste “throughput.”
We now hear talk of “decoupling” economic growth from material and energy throughput, which would be desirable, but must be realistic about decoupling because we possess very few actual examples. Historically, all economic growth leads to increased energy and materials throughput. For example, some people once claimed that computers would “save paper” but this did not happen. Human society today uses six-times more paper than we did in 1960. Computers accelerated economic growth, and although this yielded benefits to certain sectors of society, the growth required consumption, resulting in ecological devastation and social inequity.
But don’t we want certain economic sectors to grow, like renewable energy and developing economies?
Yes. But to achieve ecological balance and social equity we need to respect the limits nature places on material and energy throughput. A social transition can take place without total system growth, but even solar panels and windmills require materials and energy, rare-earth metals, copper, steel, silicon and so forth. We don’t mine silicon with solar energy, we mine it with hydrocarbons.
We need to appreciate the magnitude of the transitions we contemplate. Today, the richest 15% of Earth’s people consume about 85% of the resources. Meanwhile, our population grows and nations expect their economies to grow by 3-4% annually. Projecting these growth rates to 2050, a world of 9 billion people with social justice and better living standards, powered with renewable energy would require about 30 times more resources than we consume today. We would be fair and wise to ask: Is that possible?
Furthermore, energy systems – windmills, solar arrays, dams – have fixed life-spans, so even if we built enough renewable energy to power a world of 9 billion people, that infrastructure would have to be built again, and again, forever. In nature, desire does not equal capacity. We have to start with Earth’s real capacity and design our cultural transition based on that capacity.
The key policy of any ecological energy plan must be conservation, the only solution that does not require material growth. Conservation has to start with the wealthy nations. If rich consumers reduced energy consumption by half – possible since rich consumer economies waste so much energy – then the rest of the world could double energy use, and we could reduce total world energy use closer to a sustainable level. But if we attempt to power the wasteful, consumer culture built on fossil fuel for 9 billion people, we encounter some inconvenient laws of physics, thermodynamics, and ecology.
But can we not become more efficient through innovation?
Yes, but we will need to question our assumptions. Historically, humans have made millions of industrial efficiency gains, without reducing consumption. When society achieves efficiency with a resource, it becomes cheaper, so we tend to use more, not less. This phenomenon, documented by William Jevons during the coal era, is known in economics as the rebound effect. Efficiency could reduce consumption, but humanity has a poor track record of doing so. Efficiency gains have historically increased profits or reduced consumer costs, not saved resources. We can change this but we should not be naive.
But growth is a natural biological and evolutionary impulse…
Yes, growth is not innately evil. However, growth is not innately “good,” and can become destructive even in nature. When cells don’t stop growing, we call that cancer; if our bodies don’t stop growing, that is obesity. Successful species grow until they overshoot their habitat capacity. Growth can become a liability.
Throughout history, certain dominant societies grew until they depleted their habitats. A few learned to simplify, degrow, and endure. Modern advocates of degrowth are not against social diversity or innovation. The degrowth movement is simply cautioning society about the historic link between economic growth and ecosystem destruction. Wishful thinking won’t change this.
Diversity and complexity grow continuously. Does Nature really have a limit on growth?
The word “growth” does not mean the same thing in different contexts. The growth of non-material qualities – species diversity, innovation, or human ideas – is quite different from the growth of material things such as populations, cell phones, or power plants.
Non-physical qualities – beauty, love – can grow, but even these require physical foundations with limits. Nature can produce five species of finches or fifty species but nature imposes limits on the total biomass of finches, or forests, humans, or human technical artifacts. Forests reach a limit we call “maturity” at which point the forests reaches dynamic homeostasis, roughly stable biomass with growing diversity.
Humans can create virtually unlimited musical styles, but only a limited number of maple cellos with ebony fingerboards. A massive biophysical supply chain makes “non-material” social innovation possible. Dreaming up innovations may require near-zero material throughput, but the practical application of innovation requires energy and materials.
The infrastructure of knowledge – education, books, Internet, conferences – that nurture an environment of ideas, requires throughput. For this reason, cultures that have dominated in technical innovation also dominated in resource consumption. The Internet may feel like “free” information but requires massive materials, energy, and waste sinks. Growth of difference (diversity) is not the same as growth of stuff. We’ll need to be precise about claims that economic growth can avoid throughput growth.
But the biosphere has grown its energy and material throughput for billions of years with no sign of stopping...
This needs to be qualified for two reasons: Growth rates and natural collapse events.
Nature’s growth rates remain tiny compared to human economies. Nations typically attempt to grow their economies at 3-4% annually. Since about 1750, this equates to a doubling of human consumption every 20 years. On the other hand, over the last 500 million years, Earth’s biomass has doubled about every 50 million years, 2 million times slower than human economic and consumption growth. Growth is natural, but not at the rate of return our bankers and neoclassical economists want to grow.
Secondly, collapse appears frequently in the fossil record and in human history. Biological diversity reached capacity limits not only during the famous “five extinctions” but in thousands of minor extinctions. About 600 million years ago (mya), free oxygen allowed cells to extract more energy from the ecosystem, unleashing tremendous diversity growth. However, this growth reached the limits of habitat capacity many times between 550mya and 200mya, as species diversity crashed, recovered, and crashed again. Growth does stop in nature, and reverses. The rate of diversity growth peaked during the Cambrian era, 500-550mya, and has never been equalled since. Diversity is not a one-way progression; it grows, stutters, collapses, and recovers based on environmental conditions.
Today, human sprawl reduces Earth’s biological diversity. Humans occupy and impact habitats, replacing and obliterating species. If natural growth was unlimited, then these other species could survive human expansion, but human expansion yields ecological decline, exposing nature’s limits.
Likewise, we witness some cultural diversity growth and simultaneous cultural loss. Dominant cultures displace smaller, unique cultures. Industrial growth has diminished cultural diversity as well as species diversity. Economist Kenneth Boulding called these ecological and cultural losses the “metabolic costs” of growth. Donella Meadows, and others simply pointed out the “Limits to Growth.”
Historical anthropologist Joseph Tainter has shown that when societies grow, they inevitably face problems related to habitat capacity. To solve these problems, they develop new technologies, but these solutions tend to create new problems (irrigation causes salinization, nuclear energy causes leukemia, and so forth.) Highly complex societies eventually experience “diminishing returns” on their innovations, which Tainter explains in The Collapse of Complex Societies. A few societies overcame this dilemma by simplifying their systems, but most overshot their habitat and collapsed. Growth is not a solution for societies in overshoot, including our modern industrial societies. Rather, solutions to overshoot involve reduced consumption, simplification, and a return to fundamental rules of ecology.
Human social complexity has grown over the last 100,000 years, punctuated with collapses and ecosystem decline. Human success clearly incurs ecological and social costs. Since human impact now threatens global ecosystem balance, we don’t know if human complexity will continue to grow.
Degrowth advocates claim that the best strategy to ensure maximum human diversity is to stabilize our consumption and expansion. Dynamic homeostasis, nature’s genuine sustainability, makes demands on growing things, and simplicity proves as important as complexity. The notion of degrowth is not intended to destroy human society, but to preserve it.
If our growth economy recycles as nature does, are we not more sustainable?
Yes, of course, but we need to understand nature’s costs and limits regarding recycling. Human economies should attempt to approach 100% recycling, but recycling itself requires energy and materials. The laws of energy transformation teach us that there is no such thing as 100% recycling, even in nature. Recycling is a cost of growth and complexity, and it consumes energy.
Attacking growth is counter-productive because people expect growth, and want to find hope…
In the autumn, when leaves fall and the air turns cold, it is not “pessimism” to point out that winter is coming. If hope is delusional, it is useless.
The degrowth movement does not “attack” growth, which has its appropriate place in nature. The degrowth movement simply exposes the pretence of our culture that celebrates the benefits of economic growth but ignores the costs.
Rich nations typically ignore the costs of growth is by exporting those costs to poor nations and to nature, sending city garbage to the country, dumping toxic waste at sea, exploiting workers to make consumer products cheap, or devastating the landscape with mining. A large portion of China’s CO2 emissions, for example, are really European and American CO2 emissions, because those nations consume the products of that pollution.
Naturally, people resist the idea of limits on their consumption. These instincts to grow were forged in natural evolution. But our instincts don’t make limits disappear. Even in non-human nature, instincts can become counter-productive. Aggression, for example, exists because it had survival value, but in certain contexts aggression becomes destructive. When the context changes, instincts can be harmful. Once a species reaches its habitat limits, the instincts to grow and expand become a liability.
Aren’t ecosystems destroyed just as thoroughly in poor nations as wealthy ones?
Yes, but usually because those nations are plundered and exploited by the rich. Sheer numbers of habitants anywhere can deplete an environment, but wealthy-nation industrial expansion is the leading source of global ecological destruction. Many cultures were sustainable for thousands of years, and could have endured many thousands more, until colonized by industrial nations, which took their resources, took slaves, waged war, practiced genocide, and so forth. In the industrial era, rich nations export destructive resource extraction, waste disposal, and social costs to the poor nations. Africa is not ecologically depleted and poor because Africans consumed too much stuff; it is depleted and poor because Europe and North America plundered it to fuel their economic growth. Now, China, Japan, and other industrialized nations have joined the plunder of poor nations and the global commons. Wealthy consumption and economic growth remain the primary causes of ecological destruction.
Rather than degrowth, should we not focus on preserving ecosystems?
If our social, political, and economic planners actually understood ecosystems, we might avoid a lot of problems we face.
But degrowth not just a rallying cry or a trivial idea. Degrowth is an important concept that our society needs to understand, whether we call it Degrowth, Limits to Growth, Costs of Complexity, Overshoot, Carrying Capacity, Metabolic Costs of Evolutionary Success, Diminishing Returns on Innovation, Entropic Limits, “The Meek Shall inherit the Earth,” or “Richer lives, simpler means” as Arne Naess said.
The problem for our society is not that these ideas are too complex or wrong, but that they are annoying and inconvenient for the wealthy and powerful. Millionaires wants to be a billionaires. The more that individuals grab and horde, the less there is for everyone. On the other hand, as we learn to share and live modestly, our ecosystems can recover and provide us with nature’s bounty.
The Degrowth movement advocates richer, more rewarding lives with less material stuff. Our economic efforts should focus on providing basic needs to everyone in the human family, rather than enriching a few, while others starve. Beyond basic necessities, happiness does not come from consuming more stuff. Happiness comes from friends, family, community, creativity, leisure, love, and companionship. These things can grow without much material throughput. These are the qualities of life we should be helping to grow.
This topic may be the most important public dialogue of the next century. We better get it right, because humanity may not get many more chances.
Albert Bartlett on Exponential Growth: “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” video lecture
William Catton: Overshoot
Donella Meadows, et. al., Limits to Growth (D. H. Meadows, D. L. Meadows, J. Randers, W. Behrens, 1972; New American Library, 1977)
Herman Daly: Steady-State Economics (1977, 1991)
Mark Anielski: Genuine Wealth
Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966)
Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, 1973, Le Monde also discusses the negative social and ecological impact of high-energy society.
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971).
T. Gutowski, et. al., “Thermodynamic Analysis of Resources Used in Manufacturing Processes,” Environ. Sci. Technol. 43(5) pp1584-1590, 2009).
K. De Decker, (2009) “The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology” tracks the embodied energy and material resources of silicon based technology.
Arne Naess: Ecology, community and lifestyle
Wendell Berry: Solving for Pattern, on appropriate solutions