Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
Being a follower and supporter of Herman Daly for many years, and being active in the leadership of the Club of Rome, I am of course very much in agreement with the view that infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible. However, going back to the Limits to Growth report in 1972, it is important to note that what the report primarily did was not question growth per se, but rather the growing footprint of humanity.
At that time, the footprint was within the planetary boundaries. But developments since have led to overshoot and an increasingly risky situation in terms of climate change, overuse of central ecosystems, resource depletion, and loss of biological diversity. Most of the overshoot is due to wasteful lifestyles in industrialized countries. Poverty is still rampant—more than 3 billion people live on less than 2 US dollars a day.
To do away with poverty will require energy and materials. The North-South tension around these issues should not be underestimated. I have participated in quite a number of conferences on resource efficiency in recent years, where the hostility from Southern participants has been obvious. A more resource-efficient economy is seen by many as a threat to their development. The discussion must take this into account and avoid language that will polarize the debate.
Technology can and will help enhance resource efficiency. The rapid technology shift—the digitization of the economy—offers a lot of opportunities. The same goes for advances in energy technology, in particular solar energy and energy storage. But technology alone will not suffice. We need redistribution of wealth and income, and we need a shift in values, thus leaving behind a culture dominated by excessive consumerism. But to achieve that under the motto of “degrowth” is, in my opinion, going to be very difficult.
As Tim Jackson writes in Prosperity without Growth, “[g]rowth is environmentally unsustainable, but degrowth is socially unstable.” We have built a society where growth is necessary—whether we talk about corporations, employment, taxes, government budgets, financial markets, or pension funds. Society in general is dead against degrowth.
But there is another aspect, more on the level of the individual. Most people want things in which they are involved to grow, and definitely not the opposite. Growth is not negative per se. What is negative is when growth is only appreciated and measured for its quantity, not its quality.
A major problem—something we have discussed for decades, but with no change happening—is how we measure growth. GDP is definitely not a good indicator for measuring wealth. On the contrary, there are many shortcomings. The fact that we do not assess annually how the stock of natural capital develops is a disaster.
We want many things to grow—public transport, renewable energy, health, education, natural capital, etc. By replacing GDP with a set of welfare objectives, including a stable climate and healthy ecosystems, we would start moving in the right direction.
By changing business models—offering services instead of selling more stuff; moving towards a circular economy—we would move the business sector in the right direction.
So there are indeed positive things we can do to start changing course. Such changes would be of a positive nature and not—like degrowth—be perceived by the public at large as negative. Dr. King did not have a “nightmare”; he had a “dream.”
Change, in my opinion, can only be brought about through a narrative that is positive. And that narrative has so far been missing.
So instead of a degrowth campaign, I would urge us to develop together a positive narrative where growth and development are discussed in qualitative rather than quantitative terms. Part of that narrative, no doubt, will have to be to curb energy and material throughput. But the strategy has to recognize the dangers in the short term of degrowth—“socially unstable” according to Jackson—and the importance of charting out a transition course that is credible over the long term.