To Grow or Not to Grow?
We like to own things, eat things, travel. We often measure our well-being by the level - the quantity and quality - of those activities. We tend to expect, or at least hope, that our well-being so measured will increase over time. We call this economic growth.
We want this for ourselves and for our children. We want it for the poor among us, if we are altruistic or if we fear conflict. And the wealthy? If we think about it at all, we hope they will use their ballooning wealth to create income and well-being for the rest of us. Anyway it’s fun to see them fly off into space, right? Good for a day-dream.
But having more things means producing more things. That usually means using energy, and most energy sources that are used today generate greenhouse gases which drive disastrous climate change. Producing (transforming) things for our use and pleasure also often entails digging into our planet’s finite supply of resources like fertile land, clean water, petroleum, sand, cobalt…
So, is there a limit to growth? Might we have to face degrowth, sooner or later? Or can we grow our well-being without feeding climate change or shrinking our endowment of limited resources?
Economic growth denotes an increase in the value, in monetary terms, of the goods and services that a society produces and consumes. A common measure of it is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP): the monetary value of all final goods and services produced within a country or region in a specific time period.
Economists like GDP because it’s easy to measure, but its fit to human wellbeing is problematic. Widespread addiction to smoking or drugs raises GDP. So does manufacture of weapons, whose best use is to remain unused (that is, no war). Unhealthy packaged food is more healthy for the GDP than freshly grown produce. Clothes discarded after one season are a GDP delight. A car crash raises GDP by the cost of vehicle repair or a new car, plus the cost of treatment for injuries. An oil spill requiring a major cleanup raises GDP. Environmental degradation is not subtracted from the GDP, nor is depletion of natural resources, whose “value” is expressed only in the cost of the process of extracting them from nature.
Yet growth, measured in GDP, has become a stand-in for increasing living standards. Governments pursue it for its illusion of prosperity and for the taxes it brings in. They fear that a stagnation or downturn in perceived prosperity would alienate voters and fan unrest.(1)
Some economists argue that our ongoing depletion of non-renewable resources and our unsustainable ecological footprint can only be checked by degrowth: decreasing the flow of goods and services by decreasing the demand for them.
However, nearly half of the world’s population – 3.4 billion people – live on less than $5.50 (£4.30) a day, and struggle to meet basic needs. To impose degrowth on these people would be cruel and senseless. (2)
Quality public services, redistribution of wealth and reliable electricity
A study (3) carried out by the University of Leeds and published in Science Daily took a hard look at the question and decided that without fundamental change, the energy savings required to avert catastrophic climate change would be likely to undermine living standards; while the improvements in living standards required to end material poverty would need large increases in energy use, further exacerbating climate breakdown.
So, how can governments provide populations with fundamental needs such as food, water, sanitation, health ana education, all sustainably? The study concluded that governments need to dramatically improve public services, reduce income disparities, scale back resource extraction, and abandon economic growth in affluent countries, for people around the world to thrive whilst cutting global average energy use in half.
How does inequality affect climate? Oxfam has estimated that the richest 10% produce around half of all CO2 emissions deriving from consumption. (4)
Can energy consumption per capita be reduced without impinging on human development? If there is room for increasing efficiency and reducing waste, there is nevertheless a strong correlation between wellbeing and energy use.
Can energy consumption per capita be maintained without adding to environmental disaster?
Clearly, the fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas - need to be replaced with low or non-carbon emitting sources. Solar, wind and hydro power emit very little CO2 over their lifetimes, but they have limitations. Nuclear power is the most scalable and environmentally friendly energy source we have, it has the lowest land footprint, and it is among the safest, so it would be senseless to exclude nuclear from energy solutions. (5)
Source: Our World in Data
Recent widespread extreme environmental disturbances show that we cannot deny the urgency of action to combat climate disaster. Have we the collective will to do it? We can. We must. (6)
(3) Securing decent living standards for all while reducing global energy use