Green economic growth, how feasible is it as a policy aim?
July 13, 2019 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Is economic growth compatible with ecological sustainability? A new report from the European Environmental Bureau finds that efforts to decouple economic growth from environmental harm, known as ‘green growth’, have not succeeded and are unlikely to succeed in their aim.

"In recent decades, economic growth rose to become the leading measure of changes in prosperity and wellbeing. For that reason, governments have sought to maximise the growth of their gross domestic product (GDP), which tends to involve greater resource use and more pollution.

As the climate crisis and environmental degradation worsened, policy-makers sought to square the circle of maintaining prosperity while reducing the environmental impact of economic activity by decoupling resource use from economic growth. This policy choice has become known as ‘green growth’."
posted by Caractacus (15 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Betteridge’s Law states that headline ending in a question mark is answered, “No.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:51 AM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

And a law for which I have no name states that whenever a Law of Human Nature becomes widely known, it will become unreliable as people begin to intentionally flout it.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:13 AM on July 13, 2019

The so-called dismal science proves to be dismal...
posted by PhineasGage at 10:17 AM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't know. I haven't read the report, and maybe I won't, because I'm old enough to have been told that cutting down on ODS would end Western Economy, as would eliminating DDT, while ending apartheid would be a catastrophe. I also learnt nuclear power was completely safe and everyone who said anything else were reckless hippies, and since I was young in the 80's, that Social Democracy was a dead end, and the Laffer Curve was true science. Another thing I have been told, quite recently, was that it was a waste of money and a lot of other stuff to produce and eat organic food. Until just the other day, a study confirmed earlier studies showing a correlation between insecticides in the urine samples of the women and the ADHD symptoms displayed by their children. The doctor recommended just sticking to organic produce.
And, the most important point of all this is, every single one of the positive developments in my lifetime that the economists said would lead to negative growth and widespread poverty have led to economic growth and more jobs. Every. Single. One. Including Social Democracy. I don't really know what's wrong with economists, but something is very wrong.
posted by mumimor at 10:27 AM on July 13, 2019 [15 favorites]

Economic growth isn't compatible with ecological sustainability and this paper isn't the first to argue it.

But economic growth isn't synonymous with human well-being (economic or otherwise) either. We've used things like GDP and growth as proxies for human well-being for a long time, but they're not necessarily coupled. Just look at how unevenly all the growth is distributed in the world today, or how natural disasters boost GDP!

One of the very important and worthwhile things this report does is try to outline a way for us to live well while shrinking the economy. From the executive summary:

"It is urgent to chart the consequences of these findings in terms of policy-making and prudently move away from the continuous pursuit of economic growth in high-consumption countries. More precisely, existing policy strategies aiming to increase efficiency have to be complemented by the pursuit of sufficiency, that is the direct downscaling of economic production in many sectors and parallel reduction of consumption that together will enable the good life within the planet’s ecological limits."
posted by congen at 10:43 AM on July 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

We derive pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer from processes that consume fossil fuels, as well as use those fuels for machinery, packaging, and distribution. We may need to figure out how to detach our food production from petroleum consumption, before it is too late. Organic processes are a part of that, if we can figure out how to make it work at scale.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:24 AM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The section on technological innovation is really interesting and I think an antidote to the notion that disruptive tech will help. A lot of people out there think that technology will fix things. It's good that they wrote down an evidence-based counterargument to wrong ideas that so many non-expert people believe. People think windmills, electric cars, and computers help. This article has four pages explaining, LOL no.
posted by polymodus at 11:24 AM on July 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Since GDP, and Economic Growth seem to be directed to the 1%, and not the rest of us, I suggest we stop worrying about those numbers and start planning for ecological sustainability.
posted by evilDoug at 11:30 AM on July 13, 2019 [5 favorites]

"The desirable type of innovation is eco-innovation or one that results “in a reduction of environmental risk, pollution and other negative impacts of resources use compared to relevant alternatives” (Kemp and Pearson, 2008). But this is only one type among several. In general, firms have an incentive to innovate so as to economise on the most expensive factors of production in order to maximise profits. Because labour and capital are usually relatively more expensive than natural resources, it is likely that more technological progress will continue to be directed towards labour- and capital-saving innovations, with limited benefits, if any, for resource productivity and a potential rise in absolute impacts due to more production. But decoupling will not occur if technological innovations contribute to saving labour and capital while leaving resource use and environmental degradation unchanged. "

Indeed, technological innovation is likely to make "the rest of us" worse off under our current economic regime - automated out of a job that's the only way to support yourself.
posted by congen at 11:43 AM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Since GDP, and Economic Growth seem to be directed to the 1%, and not the rest of us, I suggest we stop worrying about those numbers and start planning for ecological sustainability.

The thing is, better jobs and wages for everyone counts as economic growth just as well as more profit to the 1%. Jobs in forest management, green infrastructure, sustainable farming, public transportation, sound construction etc. are all jobs and they create growth. For the economic model, it doesn't matter wether you are buying trips to Dubai or organic vegetables, or wether you are making your money via weeding or welding, as long as you are getting a living wage and spending it in society. If you are spending that money on sustainable stuff and activities, you are contributing to a green economy. This is not news.

About 20 years ago, there was a lot of surprise and books written about the fact that welfare states with living wages and a more fair gini coefficient were among the richest countries in the world. How could that be? Well because the economy is about everyone, not just the rich, and ordinary people spend proportionally more than the ultrarich. It's basic Keynesianism, but had been "forgotten" by economists.

All those years ago, I was working at a very green newspaper, and while I agreed with the basics and fought on the barricades along with everyone, I also felt there is a kind of puritanism and guilt among some of the people who fight for a better world. Don't misunderstand me, I've basically lived according to my principles since I was a teen in the -80's after reading The Limits to Growth. But there are two things: I have never felt I was giving up on anything personally, and through all those years, I have seen how change that the economists couldn't imagine kept happening. Economists are not good at imagining stuff.

There hasn't been enough change regarding CO2 emissions, obviously, but there are other aspects of environmental damage that have been altered dramatically. The problems with CO2 have not been as broadly known before, when more obvious forms of pollution took centre stage, but now many people know. Change is still happening all the time. I'm not altogether optimistic, but I am hopeful.

BTW, the tech-fixes are just childish fantasies and always the last resort when old white men realize they were wrong all along. There may be some good technological inventions, and that's fine. But societal change is what we need.
posted by mumimor at 12:30 PM on July 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

It's easy to label tech fixes as childish fantasies, but in my direct experience, it is grown adults, workforce adults, men and women, and young people, and people of color, who still believe in a technological narrative. Chapter 3 Section 6 of this report addresses this audience's beliefs, it isn't just a set of beliefs limited to old white men; it is broadly accepted enough that the writers of the report took the time to counteract the opposite arguments.

There's a big difference between saying that technological innovation is fundamentally flawed, but also giving evidence for that, which is what the authors in this report did. That's not at all the same rhetoric as calling ideas childish and attributing it to people being old white and male. What this report contributes in that section is show how their reasoning is superficial.
posted by polymodus at 1:11 PM on July 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

Take my uncle as one instance out of many. If I tell him his wrong ideas about technology are wrong because they are childish and misogynist and post/neo-colonialist and classist/capitalistic, that won't help him see things differently. It will just increase the gap between me and him. If on the other hand, I cite some of the examples mentioned in this report, then I can confront him and appeal to his ability to reason about this stuff and establish better rapport. Because he's clearly getting his wrong information from somewhere else, be it his reactionary investor male friends or the mass media or the wrong books he reads.

Take my female, PoC friend who works in an energy and smart housing startup in Silicon Valley. If I call her approach childish and male-dominated, that won't help our relationship at all. If I discuss this report with her the next time we meet, that's could be a nice conversation piece that could lead in interesting directions; one of the basic questions raised in this report is whether energy efficiencies are prone to backfiring (and the authors think so), so wouldn't that challenge the fundamental assumptions of many such startups? And so on.
posted by polymodus at 1:20 PM on July 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

fair enough, polymodus
posted by mumimor at 1:29 PM on July 13, 2019

Technoutopians: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hb 11:1)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:09 AM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is from an article written a couple of months ago by Asad Rehman, executive director of global justice charity War on Want. This is a real issue. There are no easy and quick fixes without rethinking our current socioeconomic arrangements fully, locally and globally:
"Much talk in the Labour Party and left sections of the Democrats in the US is of a “just transition” – transitioning from fossil fuel-intensive jobs to green jobs – and moving to “100 per cent renewable energy”. Yet these movements fail to realise that these social democratic fixes would be disastrous for much of the world’s population. A “green new deal” in the mould of current thinking will lead to a new form of green colonialism that will continue to sacrifice the people of the global south to maintain our broken economic model.

The demand for renewable energy and storage technologies will far exceed the reserves for cobalt, lithium and nickel. In the case of cobalt, of which 58 per cent is currently mined in the DR of Congo, it has helped fuel a conflict that has blighted the lives of millions, led to the contamination of air, water and soil, and left the mining area as one of the top 10 most polluted places in the world.

Some studies estimate that the demand for cobalt by 2050 will be 423 per cent of existing reserves, with lithium at 280 per cent and nickel at 136 per cent of current reserves. Tellurium for solar panels could exceed current production rates by 2020. Rather than face up to the reality that capitalism requires relentless growth and is simply incompatible with tackling climate change, a new scramble for mineral extraction is already being planned with proposals for deep sea mining, that will wreck some of our most fragile ecosystems, with more extraction planned across Brazil, China, India and the Philippines.

Last week, Chilean community leader Marcela Mella warned that the plans of mining giant Anglo-American to extract 400,000 tonnes of copper per year for the next 40 years from Chile’s Andean glaciers, could lead to the destruction of vital ecosystems which also supplies water to the 6 million people living in Chile’s capital, Santiago. The mining executives told its AGM “our products are essential to the transition to a low carbon economy”. The new wave of green extraction promises to be as deadly and dirty as fossil fuel extraction".
posted by talos at 5:35 AM on July 15, 2019

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