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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Pausing the game of growth

I feel personally guilty for the pandemic. At the beginning of March, I published my PhD dissertation “The Political Economy of Degrowth”, whose introduction ended with the following words: “Let me invite you into a wild thought experiment. Imagine that in one year, it will all stop. In precisely 365 days, the economy will come to a halt. Imagine the economy gone and all of us frozen in social time, suspended between the past and the future. A societal time is up.”

I may have been wrong about forecast (not a surprise, I was trained as an economist), but my thought experiment has never felt as real as in the three months I spent under total lockdown in France. In the first quarter of 2020, French GDP decreased by 5.8%. This is the steepest fall since the beginning of national accounting back in 1949, almost four times as large as the one experienced during the first quarter of 2009 in the midst of the financial crisis. During the lockdown, 12 million private sector workers were put in technical unemployment, almost half of the working population. This is big. Economy-wise, it was the equivalent of turning off the light.

Left at home (unemployed), I found myself reflecting on this exceptional event and what it means for the future. This is what I came up with: the economy is a bit like a game. There are players, rules, objectives, and, ultimately, winners and losers. In today’s economy (let’s call it capitalism for short), points are counted in money and the goal of the game is to gather as many of them as possible.

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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.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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