Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Degrowth"
Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker
At the Club of Rome, we have a lively discussion over "decoupling." We had an international conference on the topic at the Volkswagen Foundation's premises in Hanover some five months ago. Decoupling is technically possible, I suggest, by a factor of five to ten (materials ten, energy five), or more (greenhouse gases). But much of this is likely to be eaten up by rebound effects (the Jevons paradox).
So what can we do about limits to growth in our day? One issue we need to address is population. This reminds me of a graph in Michael Hermann and Reiner Klingholz’s upcoming book Consequential Omissions: How Demography Shapes Development – Lessons from the MDGS for the SDGs. It shows that Sub-Saharan Africa had nearly 100% population growth during the last twenty-four years and essentially no progress on Millennium Development Goals. East Asia had some 15% population growth and huge success in development. The other regions fell somewhere in between: the stronger the population growth, the weaker the development success. The question remains: which way is the causality?
Furthermore, in the context of decoupling and addressing the rebound effect, I have continued to advocate increasing energy and other resource prices (with socially acceptable price privileges for the poor and clever incentive measures for resource intensive industries). The proposal is to raise these prices in line with documented efficiency increases, thus prompting a "ping-pong" between prices and efficiency—in analogy to the "ping-pong" over 150 years between labor productivity and wages—leading to a roughly twenty-fold increase of both. The countries going for the new ping-pong, I expect, will become economically stronger, not weaker in the process.
For degrowth strategies (in the affluent countries), one of the most important measures would be reliable incomes for all, partly decoupled from productive work, thus reducing the political "need" for growth.