Is green growth possible?


Green technologies alone won’t solve our climate and extinction crises unless we also address the growth imperative.

By Rob Delves

“The only question we have to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does the Earth require of us if we are to continue to live on it?” Wendell Berry

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. Greta Thunberg

I love the ’what does the earth require of us’ question posed by the American farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry. For most Greens members, it’s likely THE most important question of all, for if we get it seriously wrong then there probably won’t be any other questions to bother about except desperate survival.

And we’d certainly begin our answer with, “something radically different than business as usual – we need to stop fighting nature and tread much more lightly on planet Earth.” We have to radically reduce our environmental footprint, because we are in danger of breaching all of the major planetary boundaries. In fact we are already exceeding two of these boundaries: safe climate and rates of species extinction.

Just about all scientists and economists agree on the urgent need for widespread technological change to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and then ‘electrify everything’. However, the question I want to explore is whether clean technologies alone are enough to enable us to continue living well on this planet. Do we also need a hefty dose of behavioural change, along the lines of degrowth or lower consumption of material goods?  

Growth versus degrowth emerged as an important point of difference in an excellent 2016 book called How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green? Andrew Leigh, Labor MP and leading economic thinker, argued that Labor believed in continued economic growth as essential to ensuring a decent life for all. He argued that growth could co-exist with reductions in carbon emissions and other environmental pressures, mainly because growth would be achieved by green technologies decoupling growth from negative environmental impact. In addition, the ongoing transition from manufacturing to services will minimise the impact on the environment. He claimed this belief about growth was a crucial difference between the two parties. Is it? And what exactly is the Greens’ position on continued growth?

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is just about the best thing I’ve ever read articulating what a Greens-style economy would look like. She describes in some detail an economic system that meets all our needs without leaving anyone in poverty or exhausting the planet. Seven myths are dispatched, including the myth of unlimited growth – but it is replaced not with ‘embrace degrowth’ but ‘be agnostic about growth’. My reading of the Greens’ economic policies is that we appear to advocate something similarly agnostic – ending the growth of many ‘bad’ things such as fossil fuels, but investing heavily in the growth of ‘good’ things like electric vehicles and wind farms.

Our Economic Justice policy does include this principle: ‘Economic management should prioritise improving the quality of life rather than the production and consumption of material output. The pursuit of continuous material-based economic growth is incompatible with the planet’s finite resources.’ However, this isn’t followed up with any explanations under the headings of what we want or measures to implement this principle.

So I don’t think we make degrowth central to our economics. It’s not an overarching narrative, even within the pillar of ecologically sustainable development. I want to argue that we should be telling the degrowth story. However, I recognise that it’s a hellishly difficult narrative to sell – much easier to concentrate on the story of green technologies and the growth in good things, not bad things.

I’ve thought a lot about this in terms of my individual level of consumption and way of living. I try to live a less materialist lifestyle: small house, share car, use bike-train-bus for nearly every journey, don’t buy much stuff. It’s based on the philosophy of ‘enough’, which I define as a mid-point between excess and poverty. I see it as a recurring theme in Christian teaching. It is also famously captured in Gandhi’s statement: “The Earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Another understanding of ‘enough’ is a material way of life that the planet could sustain if everyone was to live in that way – based on the concept of the ecological footprint. However, I’m well aware that my footprint is still considerably heavier than at least 80 percent of my fellow global citizens. A two-hectare footprint per person is regarded as the maximum our planet can sustain. To sustain the lifestyle of the average Australian requires about seven hectares and I estimate that about four hectares of planet Earth are required to support me.

It was my experience of living as a volunteer teacher in the highlands of eastern Zimbabwe from 1986 to 1988 that started me on this quest to embrace ‘enough’ instead of wanting newer, better, more material goods. We had a simple one bedroom one bathroom house with a cement floor, electricity and basic plumbing. Our kitchen came with a small gas-bottle cooker, refrigerator, hot and cold water on tap, and a good set of knives and pans. Apart from the basic furniture items of bed, wardrobe, sofa, table and chairs, our two concessions to modern consumerism were a portable radio cassette player and a good quality short wave radio to give us access to broadcasts from around the world. Transport consisted of four modes: mostly walking, but also limited amounts of cycling, bus and a car shared between three people. 

Did we miss the rest; the TV, video, lawn mower, microwave and other kitchen electrical wizardry, large freezer, air conditioner, washing machine, clothes dryer, access to a vast range of food and drink (mainly packaged, as in supermarkets stacked with 200 varieties of biscuits and breakfast cereal)? Not at all – except perhaps for a washing machine, as washing clothes by hand in the bath was tiresome. These things, or the lack of them, would have added nothing to the enjoyment of my three years in Zimbabwe. This experience demonstrated the truth of a large body of ethical teaching: the important material needs must be satisfied, but beyond that other non-material needs become more important to happiness and quality of life, for example, good relationships, satisfying work, the ability to pursue hobbies, education, rewarding leisure. 

It is one thing to embrace degrowth in one’s own life, but advocating it for all Australians as a political project is quite another step. Opponents can all too easily ridicule it as forcing people to give up a lot of things they enjoy. Therefore is degrowth – in one form or another – what the Earth requires of us? And if so, can we communicate this as not just necessary but also better for individuals as well as society? Two great books I’ve read on this are Less is More: How degrowth will save the world, by Jason Hickel and Full Circle: a search for the world that comes next by Scott Ludlam.

Scott’s book is about much more than calling time on growth, but it is an important theme summarised in his term ‘coins of the Anthropocene’. He retells a fairly well-known story that dramatises the awesome power of compound growth. The queen was so delighted by the game of chess that she invited its inventor to name his reward. The wily maths nerd asked for the smallest denomination coins to be placed on the chessboard: one on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, 16 on the …. okay, we all get the idea of doubling and also can quickly guess more accurately than the queen that the total coins on the board would make him Jeff Bezos-on-steroids wealthy, even before he reached the mega-earning squares 63 and 64.

I guessed many hundreds of billions, maybe a few trillion, but turns out it’s an 18 followed by 18 more numbers, which I don’t even think there’s a name for (thousand trillion?), and if the coins were 1mm thick, the stack on square 64 would reach way beyond our solar system and well on the way to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. Compound growth can transform even small savings into serious wealth – if you can hang around long enough and have nothing better to do than watch your money grow.

Trouble is, under capitalism, our miners of metallic ores are playing the same game, doubling the tonnage every 25 years. So in 1901 the world’s miners ripped out 150 million tonnes and we’re heading relentlessly for the fifth doubling by 2026, when we’re likely to mine around 7 billion tonnes (4.8bt in 2009 is the last number Scott gives). That’s what 3 percent annual growth delivers: doubling every 25 years.

Going back well over 100 years, the rule holds true that material use rises in lockstep with GDP growth. Scott Ludlam refers to it as the locust economy and notes that its designers never factored waste disposal or recycling into the growth machine, nor the impacts of materials such as plastics with no known disposal path, nor, of course, the coin-doubling impact of burning fossil fuels. Which leads to his dramatic conclusion on page 187: “This is the part that really gets me: these people honestly thought that their imaginary coins would win an argument with the planet.”

Back in 1972 The Club of Rome’s modelling predicted that we’d definitely hit these environmental limits to growth sometime in the 21st century. We’re already punching small holes in some planetary boundaries, so business as usual will very quickly enlarge these to enormous holes that are beyond repair (one more doubling will do it easily). We need a rapid change to green technologies. Do we also need to end the growth imperative? Scott Ludlam says YES, and so does Jason Hickel.

There’s no disagreement in progressive circles that we must stop the growth of bad things such as petrol and diesel vehicles and that will mean considerable growth of good green alternatives such as electric vehicles. The contentious issue is whether on balance overall growth should continue, slow down, stop or even go into reverse. Jason Hickel explains that what matters is reducing the material and energy throughput of the economy to bring it back into balance with the natural world.

100 percent renewable energy technologies and transitioning to all-electric transport systems are essential, but these technological changes are challenging enough if our already over-sized levels of demand remain constant till 2050. If demand for materials and energy increases at 3 percent each year, the task of net zero emissions by 2050 becomes close to impossible, because demand will have doubled. The technologies will have to be introduced twice as fast – most experts say 14 percent each year, rather than 7 percent if there’s no growth in demand. And let’s face it, no country is even close to 7 percent per annum reductions, not even Australia – despite Scott Morrison’s impressive demonstration of flexibility in the sport of accounting that would win him the gold medal if transferred to gymnastics.

Techno-optimists argue that green technology can enable us to decouple growth from resource use and thus continue economic growth while reducing carbon emissions and other environmental damage. Three ways of doing this are improving the efficiency of appliances such as using LED lights, upscaling wind, solar and battery technologies, and implementing a range of technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Total agreement – these changes are essential. Several rich nations have been successful in using these technologies to reduce emissions while continuing to grow their GDPs for at least the last 20 years.

Sort of. For starters, how much is due to offshoring much of their emissions-intensive manufacturing to Asia? They’ve also offshored the mining and refining of the huge amounts of copper, cobalt, lithium and silver, plus lesser known rare earths such as neodymium and indium that are crucial to the clean energy revolution. It’s very likely they’ve done this because the mining and refining processes cause enormous environmental harm, so let’s invite countries like China, Mexico and the Congo to soak it all up. Can the planet sustain this damage if production continues to double every 15 years, as has happened since the 1980s?

Here are two final reasons to doubt that technology can save us while we continue doubling our consumption every 25 years. Firstly, we should be switching from material goods such as jet skis to services such as yoga classes, because services generally have much lower environmental impact. However, this difference can be overstated. For example, tourism is a major growth industry in the services sector but some forms of tourism have a monstrous environmental footprint. Secondly, while it’s important to continue investing in miniaturisation and more energy efficient products, we need to recognise that there are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources, or how lightweight a product can be. Solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles can’t be made out of thin air. They’ll always have to be made of ‘stuff’ – even if in 2050 the stuff in our EVs will probably be much lighter than now.

To conclude, both green technologies and reduced demand, or degrowth, are equally important. For example, we must rapidly transition to electric vehicles while at the same time redesigning cities so that most destinations are accessible by walking and cycling and therefore demand for cars plummets.

What are the most important ways of driving degrowth and communicating the changes as a bonus for voters? Tackling inequality and extending and improving free public services are social justice priorities. The great news is that they deliver the double whammy – they reduce demand and therefore carbon emissions. Thomas Piketty has shown how the richest 1 percent have an incredibly excessive carbon footprint and therefore heavy wealth taxes will deliver emission reductions. Replacing private with public services achieves the same reductions because public transport, gyms, parks and pools have much lower emissions than private alternatives. We should campaign for strong, high quality and free public services as the key to reducing emissions, reducing inequality and enabling a better life for the vast majority of people.

As Jason Hickel explains, when it comes to human welfare:

“It’s not income as such that matters. It’s what that income can buy, in terms of access to the things we need to live well. Trying to run a household on $30,000 per year in the United States would be a struggle. But the exact same income in Finland, where people enjoy universal healthcare and education and rent controls, would feel luxurious. By expanding people’s access to public services we can improve the welfare purchasing power of people’s incomes, enabling flourishing for all without needing any additional growth. Justice is the antidote to the growth imperative – and key to solving the climate crisis.”

Amen to that – and let’s note that most of the policies in the Greens’ 15 Big Ideas to Fight for our Future are ways of achieving these goals.

Rob Delves is a Greens (WA) member and a contributing editor to Green Issue.

A version of this article originally appeared in Green Issue. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Hero image: Pexels.

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