Needed: Either Degrowth or Two Earths

Degrowth Climate change global warming
Image/Priti Gulati Cox

In a May 30 essay for the New York Times titled “The New Climate Law Is Working. Clean Energy Investments Are Soaring,” one of the architects of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Brian Deese, wrote, “Nine months since that law was passed in Congress, the private sector has mobilized well beyond our initial expectations to generate clean energy, build battery factories and develop other technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

There’s just one problem. Those technologies aren’t going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The only way to reduce emissions fast enough to prevent climate catastrophe is to phase out the burning of oil, gas, and coal by law, directly and deliberately. If, against all odds, the United States does that, we certainly will need wind- and solar-power installations, batteries, and new technologies to compensate for the decline of energy from fossil fuels. There is no reason, however, to expect that the process would work in reverse; a “clean-energy” mobilization alone won’t cause a steep reduction in use of fossil fuels.

I think top leaders in Washington are using green-energy pipe dreams to distract us from the reality that they have given up altogether on reducing US fossil fuel use. They’ve caved. This month’s bipartisan deal on the debt limit included a provision that would ease the permitting of energy infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines like the ecologically destructive Mountain Valley fossil-gas pipeline so dear to the heart of West Virginia’s Democratic senator Joe Manchin. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has issued new rules allowing old coal and fossil gas power plants to continue operating if they capture their carbon dioxide emissions and inject them into old oil wells. And under the IRA, those plants that capture emissions will receive federal climate subsidies, even if they use the carbon dioxide that’s pumped into the old wells to push out residual oil that has evaded conventional methods of extraction. And the IRA did not even end federal subsidies to fossil-fuel companies, which could have saved somewhere between $10 and $50 billion annually. Taken together, these policies could extend the operation of existing coal and gas power plants much further into the future.

GDP Growth? . . . I’m Sorry, That’s Not Available in Green

The 20th century’s fossil-fuel bonanza, with its extension well into this century, has enabled an explosion of economic growth that dwarfs anything humanity had previously achieved. Not coincidentally, it has also empowered our species to cause ecological degradation on an unprecedented scale. Humanity’s industrial and agricultural activities have an impact on the Earth that now exceeds, by a whopping 75 percent, nature’s ability to endure them without lasting damage. In other words, we would need almost two Earths to sustain a world economy this size over the long term—more than two, if it continues growing.

This is an old story, long ignored. But no more. The enormous resource requirements of the “green” energy rush are drawing a lot of public attention to a disturbing phenomenon discussed in last month’s installment of “In Real Time”: the insupportable damage that will be done to humanity and Earth in the quest for the mineral resources needed to build new energy infrastructure.

The unfathomable quantities of ores that will be mined to manufacture batteries required by electric vehicles and vast new power grids, and the damage and suffering that will result, have been the subject of many recent headlines. But if countries keep pushing for new energy systems big enough to fully support 100 percent of the economic activity now made possible by oil, gas, and coal, they will not only fail to stop greenhouse gas emissions but will fail to prevent the violation of other critical planetary boundaries, including biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and soil degradation. We’ve already crossed those red lines, and we’ve kept going. Nothing can grow forever. But the mere attempt to keep the world’s big, rich economies growing into the long future will crush any hopes we may have for that very future.

At the heart of industry’s claim that the world’s economies can expand without limit is the idea of “green growth.” Like the fabled economist’s can opener, the green-growth assumption allows us to believe that the impossible can be made possible. In this case, that means generating greater aggregate wealth year by year while emitting fewer tons of greenhouse gases, extracting fewer tons of resources, and causing less ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, and other damage to the Earth and our fellow humans.

Here’s one of the many research papers from recent years finding that economic growth has never been achieved over large geographical areas for extended time periods without having serious environmental impacts. The authors further find that “there are no realistic scenarios” for sustaining a 2 percent annual growth rate without excessive resource extraction and greenhouse-gas emissions, even with a “maximal increase in efficiency of material use.”

To hear a less technical takedown of green growth, one that even politicians can understand, enjoy this presentation by social scientist Timothée Parrique to the European Parliament’s recent “Beyond Growth” conference. Much has been made of the fact that in recent decades, Europe’s GDP has grown steadily without increasing carbon dioxide emissions. This has prompted giddy claims that “decarbonization” of economic growth is finally happening. But producing more wealth with the same quantity of climate-altering emissions is not the same as reducing emissions.

One of Parrique’s slides at the conference showed that over the past 30 years, as wealth accumulated on the Earth’s surface while carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere and oceans, the European Union achieved no significant reductions in the rate of carbon dioxide emissions—except from 2008 to 2014, the Great Recession years. The EU managed to reduce emissions only when their economy didn’t grow!

Societies must decide: do we want a growing GDP or a livable future? We can’t have both.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the US makes the right decision and pulls back within ecological limits. For starters, that would require rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and building a modest renewable energy system that would only partially compensate for the diminishing supply of fossil energy. Under those conditions, the economy would shrink, and it would need to keep shrinking until it’s small enough to stop transgressing ecological limits. At that point, we would have achieved, in the late ecological economist Herman Daly’s words, a steady-state economy.

That period of shrinkage would not be a recession. A reversal of growth induced by a deliberate, well-planned reduction in the supply of energy and material resources available to the economy would have effects wholly different from the misery caused by recessions—if we establish policies to guarantee material sufficiency and equity throughout society. That is to say, if we ensure that everyone has enough while preventing excessive production and consumption.

“A Planned, Selective, and Equitable Downscaling”

Last month, The Economist expended 1,400 words belittling the EU’s Beyond Growth conference and treating its attendees as recession-loving misanthropes. Alluding to recent GDP stagnation in some European nations, The Economist asked, “For what is Europe, if not a post-growth continent already?” Parrique took on their rhetorical question with this pithy response:

In reality, degrowth differs fundamentally from a recession. A recession is a reduction in GDP, one that happens accidentally, often with undesirable social outcomes like unemployment, austerity, and poverty. Degrowth, on the other hand, is a planned, selective and equitable downscaling of economic activities. . . . Associating degrowth with a recession just because the two involve a reduction of GDP is absurd; it would be like arguing that an amputation and a diet are the very same thing just because they both lead to weight loss.

This distinction between the reductions in economic activity that happen during recessions and those that would occur in degrowth economies is important. But to gain popular support for degrowth, still more elaboration is going to be required. Those of us who’ve grown up in industrial societies have been taught our whole lives that GDP growth is essential to everyone’s well-being and quality of life. This quasi-religious belief in the goodness of growth persists despite numerous studies published over the past three decades demonstrating that once people’s essential needs have been met, further GDP growth does not increase life satisfaction.

This disconnect between a nation’s overall economic growth and its residents’ quality of life is hardly surprising when we look at the United States, where the bulk of the wealth generated in recent decades has been captured and accumulated by only a tiny minority. As of last year, the wealthiest 1 percent owned one-third of the nation’s total household wealth, while 50 percent of households in the lower half of the wealth scale held only about 3 percent. Many of those households had no net wealth at all, and growth is doing nothing to help them. Of the new wealth that’s been generated since the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, the richest 10 percent have accumulated 75 times as much per household as have those at the bottom 50 percent. (In this graph on the Federal Reserve’s website, you really have to squint to see the bottom 50 percent’s share, in pink.)

To restate the above more succinctly: in an affluent country, money can’t buy you happiness, but having a lot of money does help you acquire even more. And that’s always to the detriment of humanity, ecosystems, and our collective future.

Despite the fact that economic growth has plunged us into an ecological emergency, and even though half the US population does not share meaningfully in the wealth that it produces, almost anyone you ask will express a positive view of economic growth, and most people will recoil at even the mildest suggestion that the time has come for degrowth. To help dispel the ingrained perception that growth is good and  degrowth bad, the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel has invoked an apt analogy:

Take the words colonization and decolonization, for example. We know that those who engaged in colonization felt it was a good thing. From their perspective—which was the dominant perspective in Europe for most of the past 500 years—decolonization would therefore seem negative. But the point is precisely to challenge the dominant perspective, because the dominant perspective is wrong. Indeed, today we can agree that this stance—a stance against colonization—is correct and valuable: we stand against colonization and believe that the world would be better without it. That is not a negative vision, but positive; one that’s worth rallying around. Similarly, we can and should aspire to an economy without growth just as we aspire to a world without colonization.

Hickel, Parrique, and other degrowth scholars stress that it is wealthy countries that need to undergo degrowth. What the rich nations are calling “growth,” he writes, is in reality “a process of elite accumulation, the commodification of commons, and the appropriation of human labor and natural resources—a process that is quite often colonial in character.” Those are the aspects of today’s economy that need to degrow, along with wasteful and superfluous production, not the essential goods and services that can ensure a decent life for all.

The obligation to reduce material production and ecological degradation rests with the rich nations, and with rich populations in the rest of the world. Parrique showed another graphic at the conference illustrating how economies with “unsustainable prosperity,” like that of the US, must shrink, while economically deprived economies should be guaranteed the means and opportunity to build and transform.

A degrowing society’s goals would not be just reverse images of growth goals. One would not see, for example, a degrowth counterpart to the Federal Reserve aiming for a 2 percent annual decline in GDP. The goal in a degrowing society, presumably, would be a good quality of life for everyone, within ecologically necessary limits. And just as the owning and investing classes saw the biggest increases in wealth and consumption in the age of growth, they would experience steep decreases in the age of degrowth. The economy could instead be dedicated to providing good quality of life for all, which would mean a big improvement for the estimated 140 million poor and low-income people in the US.

The most effective strategies for how to accomplish degrowth would doubtless differ from country to country, as would the intensity of political opposition to the very idea of degrowth. Bipartisan elite resistance would be especially strong in the US, I expect, but that would be no reason to drop the subject. In fact, it’s a good reason to get even louder.

I remain convinced that a phaseout of fossil fuels is a small but urgently needed first step that could lead to degrowth and eventually a steady-state society that lives within ecological limits. That, along with ecologically necessary restraints on renewable energy development, would trigger what many would see as a national crisis. But we can make it a fruitful crisis, one in which we’re all obliged to find our collective way into a new, equitable, society—based on an inalienable right to a good life and inalienable limits on material production and consumption.

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and The Path to a Livable Future (2021), both from City Lights. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast.

The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of their ‘In Real Time’ series.

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