What if... We insist on growth?

What if... We insist on growth?

Craig VanSandt /

I have previously mentioned the idea of “degrowth” in my thoughts about our approach to global climate change and resource depletion.  I first ran into this concept in the summer of 2019, when I attended the Alternative Economic and Monetary Systems (AEMS) in Vienna.  At that point in my thinking, my opinion was, “Well, of course we have to shrink our impact on the climate and natural resources.  That means we all have to do with less.”  Easy enough to say for an affluent resident of the global West, who while certainly not rich by US standards, doesn’t miss any meals, either.

Degrowth, as defined by Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, “…is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”  This definition carries some political baggage with it, in addition to its economic and ecological premises.  Not only does Hickel specify that we need to use less stuff (to me, the main point of degrowth), but we also need to reduce inequality and improve the human condition.  Although his political points may be admirable, I want to bracket those points for this discussion, and focus on the reduction of energy and resources.

To provide some larger context for this idea, we should first look at our current use of Earth’s resources. According to the Global Footprint Network, we are currently consuming the equivalent of 1.75 Earths’ capacity each year. This means it now takes the Earth approximately one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in a year (and that ignores the non-renewable resources we use). According to some estimates, when world population levels off mid-century, we will use the resources of more than two Earths each year, if our consumption per capita does not change. For those of us who have ever spent more money than we make, it is easy to see where that path leads.

As many pundits have noted, limiting our usage of natural resources to sustainable levels is less a technological problem than it is a political one. Eric Levitz, a New York magazine writer, allows that degrowth may be a good and necessary thing, but “…nothing short of an absolute dictatorship could affect such a transformation at the necessary speed….Humanity is going to find a way to get rich sustainably, or die trying.”

So, we have an obvious conundrum—either we voluntarily reduce our usage of resources, we are forced to do so, OR…we rely on something (Superman, technology, miracles???) to save us. Let’s look at those:

We voluntarily reduce our usage of resources.  What would this entail?  I learned in my PhD program that a useful tool in problem-solving is “root cause analysis,” essentially continually asking “Why?” something happened until you get back to the genesis of events (the “root cause”) that led to the outcome you are seeking to explain.  Why are we overusing Earth’s resources?  I would argue that the root cause is a combination of population growth and affluence—we have too many people trying to live too well for Earth to support them all.  As Hickel says, “We do have a population problem, it’s true….The real problem is that there are too many rich people.”  Are rich people willingly going to give up their riches?  Nothing in today’s or yesterday’s social climate indicates that.  Are poor people willingly going to give up what little they have?  They can’t, given their likely outcomes—death—if they do.  Thus, it seems that my initial opinion was not only wrong, but potentially dead wrong.

We are forced to do so.  This is actually a very familiar formula to most of us.  Movies depicting a dystopian future are a Hollywood staple.  Think the Mad Max series, Elysium, Terminator, or The Midnight Sky as ready examples.  I think, obviously, this is not the path most of us would choose.

We rely on something to save us.  Although this answer may seem ironic or cynical, it may well be our best answer.  Ezra Klein, a New York Times columnist, argues that we (he actually specifies progressives, but I want to expand his argument) should be vitally interested in the creation of goods and services we want everyone to have.  The Niskanen Center specifies several core social goods, including health care, housing, education, and child care, that fall into that category.  Klein points out that there are sharp, artificial limits on the supply of each of those goods (e.g., zoning laws, licensing restrictions, limited spots in vocational—broadly defined—education and training, etc.) that place ersatz limits on their availability.  Thus, one “miracle” that could occur that increases supply without demanding increased resource usage, is simply passing laws and regulations that ease access to these goods and services.

Another potential source of rescue is technology.  Perhaps one of the most striking is the recent, renewed interest in nuclear fusion as an unlimited source of energy.  Without pretending to understand nuclear physics, this source of energy apparently is capable of the holy grail—producing more energy than it takes to produce it.  Proponents of this technology speculate that it could become commercially viable within a decade or two.

Expanding on this idea of “extreme supply,” Aaron Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism (I am completely enamored with this title—surely it should win some type of award simply for its sonorous appeal), argues that the world is in the initial phases of what he calls the Third Disruption, marked by an “ever-greater abundance in information.”  That information then allows extreme supply in any number fields, from DNA analysis to off-world mining to cultured meat and cellular agriculture.

I have also written recently about the stories we tell ourselves.  One type of story is based on what we measure.  There is significant concern about what economic measures we utilize, and what impact that focus has on our relation with Earth.  I will mention just two items here.  First, our continuing emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is receiving much attention and criticism.  Its emphasis on economic growth as an end in itself is increasingly questioned.  Second, Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics, raises many questions about traditional economics measures, and argues that our focus should be on two primary factors—the adequate provision of humans’ social foundations, such as sufficient food, water, energy, housing, etc., and staying within Earth’s ecological limits.  In a similar manner, accountants are struggling with how to measure results of firms’ performance in areas beyond financial profit, to include their impacts on people and planet

Part of why figuring out what to do about climate change and resource depletion is such a wicked problem is that what seems obvious probably won’t work, and what seems like wishful thinking is most likely our best path forward.  We all know how to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”  None of that depends on new technology, super powers, or divine miracles.  But, as we have seen, getting sufficient numbers of people to reduce enough, quickly enough, is beyond us.  If, as Bastani argues, we are already well along the learning and cost curves of incredible new technologies, we have the miracles we need to save ourselves.  But then it comes back to us.  Are we willing and able to tell ourselves new, more accurate stories, conceive of new ways of structuring societies, and generate the political will bring about a sustainable future for all of humanity?  Might growth actually be the way out of our current problems?

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.