Will Degrowthing Save the Planet?

8th December 2018 Off By binary
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[This is the third piece in an exchange with Jason Hickel on growth. Hickel’s response will be the last piece in the series.]

Jason Hickel responded to my earlier piece on degrowth arguing that in fact economic growth is inconsistent with a sustainable environment and that we have to get people to reject growth as an economic goal if we are going to limit the damage from climate change and excessive resource use more generally.

First, let me point out where we do agree. It is necessary to take drastic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly. The world is falling far behind a path of emissions reductions (they are still rising) that will prevent excessive damage to the planet. Going beyond the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, we also have to take steps to reduce resource use more generally. The planet is rapidly losing habitat and species in ways that are irreversible.

I’m sure Hickel knows the data in these areas better than me, but I would not argue on the basic point. The question is whether degrowth needs to somehow fit into the picture. I will raise two points, one a question of logic and one a practical political issue.

On the logical point, I am at loss to understand why we would have a war on growth. Granted, we need to massively reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and over time other material inputs, but I am afraid I don’t see how that this precludes growth.

I am certainly willing to believe that a period of rapid increases in carbon taxes may lead to a recession, although I would not even take this as a foregone conclusion. If we spend enough in other areas, it is possible to offset sharp reductions in the sectors of the economy that are heavy users of fossil fuels. (Yes, I know people have modeled this scenario, but I’m afraid that I don’t view such modeling as sacrosanct. Almost no economic models projected the collapse of the housing bubble and Great Recession. I don’t think economists who can’t tell us what will happen next year in ordinary times suddenly have perfect foresight when we talk about an unprecedented transition in energy use.)

But let’s say that the transition brings about a recession, how does that preclude further subsequent growth. The Federal Reserve Board has brought on nine recessions since World War II. Would anyone say the Fed precludes growth?

Concretely, when we get to our sustainable level of resource use, I assume we will still have clothes, shelter, computers, etc. These items all wear out. When we replace them, is there some reason the new items would not be better (e.g. longer lasting, clothes that are warmer or cooler etc.) than the ones they replaced? If so, that sure sounds like growth to me.

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