Written by Ryan Katz-Rosene and Illustrated by Adam Gibbard
Every so often I get asked some version of the following question by one of my keener students: Is economic growth bad for the environment? You can sense a hint of wonder and simultaneously a hint of doom which both follow from the implications of this potential correlation: If indeed growth is ‘bad for the environment’, then this suggests an inconvenient trade-off between economic prosperity (jobs, wealth, financial security) and ecological resilience (wellbeing, health, physical security). Of course, the growth-environment relationship is much more complicated, and (at least in my humble opinion) there is no black and white answer to this question, which is somewhat akin to asking whether it is ‘bad’ to sit in the sun; An answer inevitably requires heavy contextualization and the weighing of various influencing factors. With the help of my friend Adam’s illustrative abilities, this short guide attempts to sketch out four (and a half) typical responses to this conundrum.
What these inquisitive students have arrived at is the great ‘Growth-Environment Paradox’ (see Illustration A). This paradox is at once fascinating and terrifying, as it suggests the following: Within the structure of contemporary global capitalism, economic growth has been identified as both a prerequisite for prosperity on the one hand and a harbinger of ecological damage on the other. The paradox suggests that our contemporary reality – as expressed within existing political economic structures and their corresponding social relations – is fundamentally unsustainable, because in attempting to improve quality of life today by pursuing economic growth we erode the foundations upon which future life depends.
Illustration A: The Growth-Environment Paradox
Those concerned about society-nature relations typically respond to the paradox in one of four main ways: The first is to refute the existence of a problem in the first place by denying the basic premises of the paradox. Free market advocates such as those at the Adam Smith Institute in Great Britain (Worstall 2011), the Heritage Foundation in the U.S. (see, as an example, Shanahan 1993), or the Fraser Institute in Canada (Schneider 2008), exemplify this position. In this view it is typically asserted that growth is consistent with more efficient use of resources, and therefore improvements in economic growth indicate a move towards a decreasing ecological footprint (see Illustration B). As Tim Worstall has argued, “we can, as we have been, increase GDP by increasing the value added rather than the quantity of goods and services… It’s exactly what we would expect to happen in fact, if raw materials get more expensive… then we’ll use less of them” (Worstall 2011). One of the areas where this ‘Growth is Green’ perspective is often asserted is in pollution – as societies become more wealthy (on a per capita basis), they appear to have a higher capacity to clean up rivers and landscapes and prevent their despoliation (Grossman and Krueger 1995). This view thus usually advocates unfettered markets as a way to both promote wealth accumulation while also encouraging the appropriate valuation of non-renewable resources and other ‘ecosystem services’ in order to reduce the intensity of their use or exploitation.
Illustration B: Growth Is Green
A second common response is to suggest that political economic structures can be reformed so that economic growth can be made ‘green’. This second viewpoint is similar to the first, although it accepts the paradox as a starting point of analysis (that is to say, it recognizes that existing patterns of growth are unsustainable in their current form). This is the view typically advocated by ‘ecological modernization’ theorists, who suggest that through “major state reforms, new modes of governance, [and] new relations between state and economy,” (Mol and Buttel 2002, 8) nations can develop both regulatory and technological solutions that disentangle the processes of growth from its traditional ‘externalities’, or ‘decouple’ growth from material consumption (Lynas 2011). In other instances this phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘environmental Kuznetz curve’ (or EKC; see Stern 2004). The proposed ‘solution’ to the paradox, supporters of EKC say, is achieving an appropriate balance of market and regulatory measures to curtail pollution, foster investment in technological innovation, and to use resources more efficiently (see Illustration C). By doing so we can yield a sustainable ‘natural capitalism’ (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins 1999).
Illustration C: Growth Could Be Made Green
The third potential response is that growth should be abandoned as a policy objective altogether, and that consideration be paid instead to ensuring that the basic material needs of people are met. Those in this camp range widely from reformers of policy priorities such as the lead authors of the original Limits to Growth report by the Club of Rome (Meadows et al. 1972) to more radical writers calling for the overhaul of capitalism (Kovel 2002; Bellamy Foster 2009; Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2008). The former group typically advocates a ‘steady-state economy’ (Mill 1848; Daly 1973; Daly 1977) in which a society’s “stock of physical capital [is] capable of being maintained by a low rate of material throughput that lies within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem” (Jackson 2009, 123). As the Limits to Growth report argued in 1972, “it is possible to alter [present] growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future… so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his [sic] individual human potential” (Meadows et al. 1972, 24). The idea here is to abandon economic growth as a policy priority, because after a certain point (reached long ago in industrialized societies) growth no longer actually improves people’s overall quality of life (Victor 2008) (see Illustration D).
Illustration D: Managing Without Growth
In turn, the more radical group – often theoretically informed by ecological Marxism or critical political economy, suggest that capitalism itself is the problem, as it is founded upon the prerequisite of capital accumulation (i.e. growth). They thus call for major political economic transformations so that social prosperity is completely removed from the accumulation of wealth. Bellamy Foster (2009), for instance, calls for an ‘ecological revolution’ to make peace with the planet, wherein ‘eco-socialist’ principles of communitarianism replace the profit motive in society (see Illustration E).
Illustration E: Overthrowing Growth
A fourth main response is to accept that there may in fact be no solution to this paradox. Those with this perspective submit to the inevitability of broad declines in quality of life and the degradation of (or drastic changes to) the ecological and biogeochemical systems upon which humans rely, precisely because of contemporary growth patterns. Some in this camp are alarmists (see, for example, Ruppert 2009); others are simply pessimistic about the ability of homo sapiens to adequately achieve a mode of life that does not negatively impact the ability of future generations to meet their needs given today’s circumstances. The business-as-usual world scenario envisioned by the Limits to Growth report captures the view held by some alarmists and pessimists if the paradox cannot be addressed (though perhaps they’d prefer the label ‘realists’): “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” (Meadows et al. 1972, 23). The prescriptions of those holding this view are wide ranging: While some resort to nihilism (for a critique, see Gare 1996), others like climate scientists Jonathan Overpeck find hope in building adaptive capacity in national and local communities in order to deal with impending declines in ecological health and economic capacity.
Illustration F: The Damage (of Growth) is Done
The growth-environment paradox emphasizes the very real and serious character of such a seemingly straightforward question about the relationship between these indicators – the unraveling of which will have lasting consequences for the existence of human civilization. True, humans are but a blip on the radar of geological time; we have come and we will inevitably go, just like all erstwhile species. Yet when viewed from the temporal frame of human existence, the world appears to be at a critical juncture. Some human civilizations have faced similar junctures before (Diamond 2005), but today our civilization is global in scope. The way we interpret this global problematique today will inevitably shape the ability of homo sapiens to prosper in the near future. Let’s just hope – for the sake of the students of today, and the generations of tomorrow – we get it right!
Bellamy Foster, John. 2009. The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Daly, Herman E, ed. 1973. Toward a Steady-State Economy. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Daly, Herman E. 1977. Steady-State Economics. Washington, D.C.: W.H. Freemon Co.
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Schneider, Nicholas, ed. 2008. A Breath of Fresh Air: The State of Environmental Policy in Canada. Vancouver: The Fraser Institute. http://www.fraserinstitute.org/publicationdisplay.aspx?id=12775.
Shanahan, J. 1993. “How to Help the Environment Without Destroying Jobs, Memo to President-Elect Clinton #14.” Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation.
Stern, D.I. 2004. “The Rise and Fall of the Environmental Kuznets Curve.” World Development 32 (1): 1419–39.
Victor, Peter. 2008. “Managing WIthout Growth.” Ecological Economics, April.
Worstall, Tim. 2011. “Peak Stuff Has Been and Gone.” Adamsmith.org. November 6. http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/environment/.
Ryan Katz-Rosene is a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies. He lives on a small organic farm with his family.
Adam Gibbard is the Publications & Communications Officer at International School of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he lives with this family.