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Aggregate green growth is a mirage: we need to take a more scientific approach to societal wellbeing

Aggregate green growth is a mirage: we need to take a more scientific approach to societal wellbeing

In the spring of 2020, the new Irish government announced its desire to develop new measures of well-being and progress in Ireland. The idea was given some prominence in the Programme for Government, ‘Our Shared Future’.

This is exactly the kind of initiative that we in Feasta have been advocating for the past 20-odd years. It’s also in line with an encouraging international trend of governments seeking to reorientate their economies towards well-being, and fits in nicely with the thinking of the global Wellbeing Economy Alliance (of which Feasta is a member).

A recent publication by Fine Gael, ‘Measuring Wellbeing’, refers to this Irish government initiative and makes a case for expanding “the range of economic, social and policy indicators that we use in government”. It lays out a draft outline for developing a wide range of metrics for measuring well-being, along the lines of the OECD’s Wellbeing Framework, and implementing them into State budgeting decisions. There is much in there to agree with.

Unfortunately, however, there is a serious problem with one of the most basic assumptions that is made in the Fine Gael paper. Unless this problem is examined and properly addressed, all the improved measurements in the world won’t be able to improve societal well-being in Ireland.

The problem relates to GDP growth. GDP growth is considered by the paper’s author to be “a critical means to the end of progressing society”.

This is a highly problematic assumption.

The authors take care to point out many of the well-known shortcomings of GDP growth as a measure of progress. So the issue here is not whether or not GDP growth is an unreliable measure of progress; it looks as though we can (almost) all agree on that, these days.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Response to McAfee: No, the “Environmental Kuznets Curve” Won’t Save Us

A RESPONSE TO MCAFEE: NO, THE “ENVIRONMENTAL KUZNETS CURVE” WON’T SAVE US

A number of people have asked me to respond to a piece that Andrew McAfee wrote for Wired, promoting his book, which claims that rich countries – and specifically the United States – have accomplished the miracle of “green growth” and “dematerialization”, absolutely decoupling GDP from resource use. I had critiqued the book’s central claims here and here, pointing out that the data he relies on is not in fact suitable for the purposes to which he puts it.

In short, McAfee uses data on domestic material consumption (DMC), which tallies up the resources that a nation extracts and consumes each year. But this metric ignores a crucial piece of the puzzle. While it includes the imported goods a country consumes, it does not include the resources involved in extracting, producing, and transporting those goods. Because the United States and other rich countries have come to rely so heavily on production that happens in other countries, that side of resource use has been conveniently shifted off their books.

In other words, what looks like “green growth” is really just an artifact of globalization. Given how much the U.S. economy relies on globalization, McAfee’s data cannot be legitimately compared to U.S. GDP, and cannot be used to make claims about dematerialization. If McAfee wants to compare GDP to domestic resource consumption, then he needs to first subtract the share of US GDP that is derived from production that happens elsewhere. He does not. Nor is this possible to do.

Ecological economists have been aware of this problem for a long time. To correct for it, they use a more holistic metric called “raw material consumption,” or Material Footprint, which fully accounts for materials embodied in trade.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is the Green Deal a card shuffle trick?

Is the Green Deal a card shuffle trick?

(NOTE; this is not an analysis of the US New Green Deal, it is about the “green growth” narrative with the European Green Deal as the point of departure.)

The European Green Deal is a ”growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”

There are reasons to discuss if the vision of the European Green Deal is desirable: why should it be a goal to be “competitive” or ”modern”? But let’s buy into the narrative and ask: is the vision possible? Is ”green growth” as expressed in the Green Deal or the Sustainable Development Goals even possible?

In a recent paper in New Political Economy, Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis do a good job in illuminating many of the discussions and concepts involved in the Green Growth debate. Their overall conclusion is that ”green growth theory – in terms of resource use – lacks empirical support”.  They note three caveats of their own conclusions. First, it is possible that ”it is reasonable to expect that green growth could be accomplished at very low GDP growth rates, i.e. less than 1 per cent per year”. Second, conclusions are based on the existing relationship between GDP and material throughput, but one might argue that it is theoretically possible to break the existing relationship between GDP and material throughput altogether. Third, the aggregate material footprint indicator obscures the possibility of shifting from high-impact resources to low-impact resources. Meanwhile, Hickel and Kallis also point out that material footprints needs to be scaled down significantly from present levels; to be truly green, green growth requires not just any degree of absolute decoupling, but rapid absolute decoupling.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith

I’ve seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I’ve lost faith


As the Productivity Commission confirmed this week, Australia’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 28 years straight. Specifically, our output of goods and services last financial year grew by 2%. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but what is it doing to the Earth?

Capitalism demands limitless economic growth, yet research shows that trajectory is incompatible with a finite planet.

If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trendssuggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse. Bushfires will become more monstrous and wildlife will continue to be annihilated.

As my research has sought to demonstrate, an adequate response to climate change, and the broader environmental crisis, will require creating a post-capitalist society which operates within Earth’s ecological limits.

This won’t will be easy – it will be the hardest thing our species has tried to do. I’m not saying capitalism hasn’t produced benefits for society (although those benefits are distributed very unequally within and between nations). 

And of course, some people will think even talking about the prospect is naive, or ludicrous. But it’s time to have the conversation.

Pigs feed at a landfill site in front of a power station in Macedonia. GEORGI LICOVSKI/EPA

What is growth?

Economic growth generally refers to gross domestic product (GDP) – the monetary value of goods and services produced in an economy. Historically, and across the globe, GDP and environmental impact has been closely linked.

Capitalism needs growth. Businesses must pursue profits to stay viable and governments want growth because a larger tax base means more capacity for funding public services.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth!

Decoupling is dead! Long live degrowth!

Thomas Hawk

If making the degrowth case was like baking a cake, disproving the plausibility of green growth would be the equivalent of turning the oven on. Decoupling is only “a myth” or “a fantasy,” some would say, a notorious fallacy that requires as much attention as the confabulations of Flat Earthers. And yet, faith in decoupling is strengthening in environmental agendas all around the world, including the OECD, European Commission, World Bank, UNEP, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals where it even has its own target.

War of the de- words

The concepts of “degrowth” and “decoupling” are actually the same age. Décroissance (the French ancestor of degrowth) was born at a colloquium in 2002 and decoupling first adopted by the OECD in 2001. Since then, the squabbling has been incessant. Decouplers tout efficiency as a recipe for more goods and services at a lower environmental cost while degrowthers plead for sufficiency, arguing that less commodities is the only road to sustainability.

Reading over government reports today, it would seem that decoupling has won. But has it really? In a recent report (Decoupling debunked: Evidence and arguments against green growth), my co-authors and I have enquired to determine if the scientific foundations behind the decoupling hypothesis were robust. After reviewing the bulk of the latest empirical studies, our finding is clear: the decoupling literature is a haystack without a needle.

The validity of the green growth discourse relies on the assumption of an absolute, permanent, global, large and fast enough decoupling of Gross Domestic Product from all critical environmental pressures. Problem is: there is no empirical evidence for such a decoupling having ever happened. This is the case for materials, energy, water, greenhouse gases, land, water pollutants, and biodiversity loss, for which decoupling is either only relative, and/or observed only temporarily, and/or only locally.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant

A burgeoning save-the-climate effort called the Green New Deal, explains Vox’s David Roberts, “has thrust climate change into the national conversation, put House Democrats on notice, and created an intense and escalating bandwagon effect. … everyone involved in green politics is talking about the GND. … But WTF is it?”

Roberts goes on to give a good summary, but no one can fully answer that question until someone puts a complete plan down on paper. We do know that the vision as it’s being described by its fans (and it seems to have nothing but fans in the climate movement) explicitly draws its inspiration from the New Deal that the Roosevelt Administration launched eighty-four years ago in an effort to end the Great Depression.

A Tale of Two Deals

The Green New Deal would emulate its predecessor’s use of public investment and hiring, improvement of wages, and socioeconomic safety nets to accelerate economic growth and reduce unemployment. In asking how well that strategy might work against this century’s climate crisis, we first need to take into account how the original New Deal worked, both as a civilian project and as it morphed into the war effort of the 1940s.

The massive public investment in the civilian economy that began in 1933 carried on through that decade. And the war production and recruitment boom of the early 1940s should be seen as an extension of the New Deal, in part because that turned out to be the spending that finally ended the Depression.

The diversion of money and physical resources into military production necessitated the creation of a War Production Board that allocated resources between the military and civilian sectors and limited production of specified civilian goods.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant

Longview, Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

A burgeoning save-the-climate effort called the Green New Deal, explains Vox’s David Roberts, “has thrust climate change into the national conversation, put House Democrats on notice, and created an intense and escalating bandwagon effect. … everyone involved in green politics is talking about the GND. … But WTF is it?”

Roberts goes on to give a good summary, but no one can fully answer that question until someone puts a complete plan down on paper. We do know that the vision as it’s being described by its fans (and it seems to have nothing but fans in the climate movement) explicitly draws its inspiration from the New Deal that the Roosevelt Administration launched eighty-four years ago in an effort to end the Great Depression.

A Tale of Two Deals

The Green New Deal would emulate its predecessor’s use of public investment and hiring, improvement of wages, and socioeconomic safety nets to accelerate economic growth and reduce unemployment. That part of the vision should be pretty straightforward. But in asking whether success in reaching those economic goals could also help head off ecological catastrophe, we first need to take into account how the original New Deal worked, both as a civilian project and as it morphed into the war effort of the 1940s.

The massive public investment in the civilian economy that began in 1933 carried on through that decade. And the war production and recruitment boom of the early 1940s should be seen as an extension of the New Deal, in part because that turned out to be the spending that finally ended the Depression.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The clean green pipeline machine – a free-market fairy tale

The clean green pipeline machine – a free-market fairy tale

A review of Donald Gutstein’s The Big Stall

In late 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was ready to spell out his government’s “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change”. His pitch to Canadians went along these lines:

We recognize that climate change is a serious challenge and that we must transition to a new economy which dramatically cuts carbon emissions. To make this transition we need a strong economy and a united country. To have a strong economy we must allow our fossil fuel sector to continue to grow. And to keep our country united while we impose a modest price on carbon, we must also build new pipelines so that oil sands extraction can grow. That is why my government is proud to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions, by ensuring that the oil sands sector emits more carbon.

If you think that sounds absurd, then you’re likely not part of Canada’s financial, industrial, political or media elite, who for the most part applauded both the minimal carbon tax and the substantial oil sands expansions being pushed by Trudeau and by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

How did we get to a point where oil companies and governments are accepted as partners in devising climate action plans? And why did these climate action plans, decade after decade, permit fossil fuel companies to continue with business as usual, while carbon emissions grew steadily?

This is the subject of Donald Gutstein’s new book The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada. (James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, October 2018)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Here’s a Simple Solution to the Growth/De-Growth Debate

HERE’S A SIMPLE SOLUTION TO THE GROWTH/DE-GROWTH DEBATE

A number of high-profile economists – people like Carlota Perez and Michael Liebreich – have recently come out swinging in favor of “green growth” theory, trying to assuage mounting public concerns about the fact that climate change and ecological breakdown are being driven by capitalist growth.

What’s interesting about these interventions is that they explicitly pit themselves against their opposite – the idea of de-growth.  Even just a year or two ago, de-growth wouldn’t have been part of the conversation.  Once the province of ecological economists, it’s now gaining more mainstream attention as the evidence against growth mounts – and orthodox economists have no choice but to reckon with it.

But as they try to edge their way around certain prickly facts, their arguments get stranger and stranger.

Green growth theory relies on the assumption that GDP growth can be permanently and absolutely decoupled from resource use and emissions, and at a pace that’s fast enough to reverse ecological breakdown and keep us under 1.5 degrees, so that GDP can continue growing forever while environmental impacts decline.

There’s just one problem.  There’s no evidence that this is feasible.

Let’s start with emissions.  Fortunately, we know that GDP can be absolutely decoupled from emissions.  The real question is whether we can decarbonize fast enough to stay under 1.5 degrees, without relying on fanciful negative emissions technologies.  The answer, sadly, is no.  If we carry on with growth as usual, we need to decarbonize at a rate of 11% per year. That’s more than five times faster than the historic rate of decarbonization and about three times faster than what scientists project is possible, even under highly optimistic conditions.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why Growth Can’t Be Green

Why Growth Can’t Be Green

New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both.

Joan Wong illustration for Foreign Policy

Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.

Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.

It sounds like an elegant solution to an otherwise catastrophic problem. There’s just one hitch: New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

New evidence suggests that green growth isn’t the panacea everyone has been hoping for. In fact, it isn’t even possible.

Green growth first became a buzz phrase in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. In the run-up to the conference, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the U.N. Environment Program all produced reports promoting green growth. Today, it is a core plank of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

From “Green Growth” to Post-Growth

2018 0414postgrowth
(Photo: Pixabay)

The seduction of economic growth is all-pervasive. Even within progressive circles that claim to understand that growth is causing ecological destruction, there is hope in a new type of salvation: “green growth.” This is the idea that technology will become more efficient and allow us to grow the economy while reducing our impact on the environment. In other words, we will be able to decouple gross domestic product (GDP) from resource use and carbon emissions.

This is appealing to the liberal mind — it provides an apparent middle ground and removes the need to question the logic of the global economy. We can continue on our current trajectory if we make the “right” reforms and get the “right” kind of technology.

The hope of green growth is embedded everywhere, from the majority of domestic economic plans to major international policy schemes like the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By uncritically supporting these policies, we are unwittingly perpetuating the neoliberal fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet.

The Logic of “Green Growth

In some ways, the math is quite simple. We know that the Earth can only safely sustain our consumption at or below 50 billion tons of stuff each year. This includes everything from raw materials to livestock, minerals to metals: everything humans consume. Right now, we’re using about 80 billion tons each year — roughly 60 percent more than the safe limit. In order for growth to be “green,” or at least not life-destroying, we need to get back down to 50 billion tons while continuing to grow GDP.

team of scientists ran a model showing that, under the current business-as-usual conditions, growth will drive global resource use to a staggering 180 billion tons per year by 2050. That’s more than three times the safe limit. This type of economic growth threatens all life on this planet.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Betting the Earth on a Game of Wrap-Cut-Smash

Betting the Earth on a Game of Wrap-Cut-Smash

Photo by Kevin Gill | CC BY 2.0

The Earth is having to deal with continuous, largely unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases, along with soil degradation, mass extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, and disruption of nitrogen, phosphorous, and water cycles. Meanwhile, efforts to head off the planet-wide ecological crisis remain trapped in a game of rock-paper-scissors. [1]

Let’s start with the “paper,” which represents the kinds of paper exercises purporting to show that prosperous “green growth” can carry humanity and the Earth together through a better and better future. These include, for example, the 2015 “Ecomodernist Manifesto” [2] and a series of “100% renewable wind, water, and sunlight energy roadmaps” [3] published in recent years. Such cornucopian analyses undergird the mainstream climate movement’s vision of a smooth transition to a greener, happier, more prosperous world.

The paper, however, is cut up by the “scissors”— the restraints on resource exploitation and consequent cutbacks in production of goods and services, along with other human activities, that will be necessary if ecological catastrophe is to be avoided. Rooted in the knowledge that infinite growth is impossible and efficiency a chimera, the idea that economic activity must be restrained was developed early on by the ecological economists Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly [4] and has long been urged by the Post-Carbon Institute [5], “peak oil” campaigners [6], Tim Jackson, Ted Trainer, and various proposals for firm ceilings on energy consumption, with business and household quotas [7].

The scissors argument for the necessity of cutting throughput and pulling back within ecological limits is unassailable. However, most such analyses are focused on the world’s high-production, high-consumption economies, with few specific recommendations for how the billions of people in both rich and poor economies who already lack adequate access to resources can achieve material sufficiency.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Preempting a Misleading Argument: Why Environmental Problems Will Stop Tracking with GDP

Preempting a Misleading Argument: Why Environmental Problems Will Stop Tracking with GDP

I hate to say I told you so, and could be too dead to do so, so I’ll tell you in advance: One decade soon, environmental problems will stop tracking with GDP.

But the reasons? Well, they probably aren’t what you think, especially if you’ve been drinking the green Kool-Aid.

For decades, big-picture ecologists and eventually the “ecological economists” pointed out the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Every tick of GDP came with the tock of habitat loss, pollution, and, as we gradually realized, climate change. A growing GDP requires a growing human population or a growing amount of goods and services per person. In the American experience of the 20th century, it was easy to see both – population and per capita consumption – spiraling upward, and just as easy to see the environmental impacts reverberating outward. Much of the world saw the same, although in some countries GDP growth was driven almost entirely by population growth.

Photo Credit: Simon Fraser University

Unfortunately, a lot of time was spent overcoming fallacious but slick-sounding shibboleths like “green growth,” “dematerializing” the economy, and the “environmental Kuznets curve.” It seemed these were – or easily could have been –designed by advertisers on Madison Avenue, Big Money in general, or economists in their service, to prevent consumers and policy makers from responding rationally to environmental deterioration. Suggestive phrases such as “consumer confidence” spurred the consumer along, buying more stuff to increase the profits of corporations and, in turn, the campaign purses of politicians.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

 

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