Beyond growth?

by Caspar Henderson

We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth

— Greta Thunberg speaking at the UN Climate Action Summit, 23 September 2019

For a long time, ‘growth’ has been a central metaphor, and a central goal, for politicians and policy makers. In both the capitalist system and alternatives developed in the twentieth century, growing the economy was an unalloyed good. There needs to be a larger pie from which more people may have bigger slices.  

This view has increasingly been questioned. “Growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness,” wrote the author and environmental activist Edward Abbey in 1968. Update to 2019 with this from George Monbiot: “A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities…This drives us towards cataclysm on such a scale that most people have no means of imagining it.” A more light-hearted analogy can be found in the story of when Winnie the Pooh visits Rabbit and keeps eating and eating until he is so fat that he cannot fit back through Rabbit’s front door.

From at least the 1970s onwards, Herman Daly and others developed theories such as steady state economics, which sought to describe a system of production, distribution and exchange that didn’t depend on endless growth to keep going.  The discipline of ecological, or ‘green’, economics, which argues there are limits to economic activity that cannot be crossed without severely adverse consequences, has evolved from there.

Talking to Perspectiva earlier this year, ‘doughnut economist’ Kate Raworth had this to say about economic growth:

The 20th century was dominated by the metaphor of progress as growth — the endless growth curve.  It seems to make sense because we are happy to think, ‘Hey, my kids are growing, the garden’s growing!’  So growth seems good.  But if I told you my friend went to the doctor and was told she had ‘a growth’, why would you already feel differently about that? It’s because we know there’s another end to this metaphor.  Growth is a wonderful healthy phase of life, but in nature things eventually grow up so they can mature and thrive. We deeply understand within our bodies that if something in the body doesn’t stop growing it becomes a threat to the health of the whole.

The neologism ‘degrowth’ (noun) is not recognised by spellchecker even though it originates in the middle of the last decade at around the same time as words like ‘unfriend’ (verb), which is.  It describes a school of thought and a movement that calls for the downscaling production and consumption, and the contraction of economies in the face of an environmental emergency. 

‘Degrowth’ has its champions. In Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance, Jason Hickel calls for a scaling down of the material throughput of the economy. Responding to an article by Leigh Philips titled The Degrowth Delusion, Joël Foramitti, Marula Tsagkari and Christos Zografos argue, in Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward, that “We don’t need growth to reach a good life for all. What we do need is a genuinely democratic and radical transformation of our economy.”

But ‘Degrowth’ has many critics, and even some of those calling for profound economic transformation seem to be wary of the term. ‘Beyond growth: towards a new economic approach’ (pdf), a report to the OECD Secretary General’s Advisory Group on a New Growth Narrative by Andy Haldane, Michael Jacobs, Nora Lustig, Mariana Mazzucato, Robert Skidelsky, Dennis Snower and Roberto Unger talks about going ‘beyond growth’ but not ‘degrowth.’ Announcing, on 20 September, a proposed bill for a Green New Deal, Caroline Lucas called for a move “away from the pursuit of growth as the primary economic objective,” but she did not call for ‘degrowth.’ In a recent CUSP working paper, Tim Jackson explores the dynamics of what he calls an emerging ‘post-growth challenge’.

Another influential voice is that of the science and policy analyst Vaclav Smil, who has been fêted by Bill Gates and others. Discussing his new book — which is titled, simply, Growth — Smil has said that “growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.”

It is extremely unlikely that the world economy can continue to grow on the material basis that it has to date without bad things happening. Climate change is accelerating and on current trends the global average temperature could rise by between 3º to 4º C this century. According to Joachim Schellnhuber, the Earth’s carrying capacity at 4ºC of warming is less than a billion people. Given that the world population at present is over seven billion that would mean a kind of ‘degrowth’, but not the kind that any decent human being would want. This is not inevitable, but as Vaclav Smil warns:

Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know. The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense. The options are quite clear from the historical evidence. If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone. The best hope is that you find some way to manage it. We are in a better position to do that now than we were 50 or 100 years ago, because our knowledge is much vaster. If we sit down, we can come up with something. It won’t be painless, but we can come up with ways to minimise that pain.

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

See also: Economic growth on a finite planet

Image by E. H. Shepard

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