Saving the Environment: Is Degrowthing the Answer?

25th November 2018 Off By binary
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(This piece originally appeared on my Patreon page.)

A friend recently sent me a piece by Jason Hickel, arguing that growth can’t be green and that we need to move away from growth oriented economics. I am not convinced. It strikes me both that the piece misrepresents what growth means and also confuses political obstacles with logical ones. The result is an attack on a concept that makes neither logical nor political sense.

In the piece, Hickel points out the enormous leaps that will be required to keep our greenhouse gas emissions at levels that will prevent irreversible environmental damage. He then hands us the possibility, that even if through some miracle we can manage to meet these targets with the rapid deployment of clean energy, we still have the problem of use of other resources that is wiping species and wrecking the environment.

Hickel’s points about the imminent dangers to the environment are very much on the mark, but it is not clear that has anything to do with the logic of growth. Suppose the Sustainable World Party (SWP) sweeps to power in the next election. They immediately impose a massive tax on greenhouse gas emissions, which will rise even further over time. They also inventory all the resources that are in limited supply and impose large and rising taxes on them.

Furthermore, they pay developing countries large sums to protect regions that are important for sustaining species facing extinction and for the global environment. The new administration also hugely increases spending on research on clean technologies and has massive subsidies for zero emission vehicles and even more importantly for mass transit. As the SWP implements this policy, it has very stimulative fiscal and monetary policies.

Will the economy continue to grow through this transition? That’s hard to say. If the price of gas quadrupled people would obviously drive less and buy fewer cars. On the other hand, since the government is throwing money at them with its fiscal and monetary policy, they may choose to spend more money on things that are not inherently research using. They may spend more money on education, seeing movies and plays, gym memberships, eating at restaurants, better software for their computer and other types of spending that don’t either directly involve the use of resources or at least not obviously more than the alternative. (Eating at a restaurant obviously involves consuming food, but it doesn’t necessarily mean consuming more food than eating at home.)

But whatever happens in the transition period, what would keep the economy from growing in subsequent years? We have locked down all the resources in short supply and preserved large chunks of the world from encroachments by roads and settlements, but it is hard to see why we would not be developing better health care technology, better software, more types of cultural output, better housing (in the sense of being more pleasant – not necessarily larger) and other improvements in living standards, all of which count as growth in GDP.[1] Where is the war with growth?

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