I’ve been doing some reading to try and better understand the debate between decoupling and degrowth. I should acknowledge upfront that I haven’t really grasped the complexities of these issues, so this post will probably be rather confused and rambling. However, the debate is essentially between those who think we can continue to grow the global economy, but can reduce resource depletion and the impact on the environment through decoupling, and others who regard this as essentially not possible and, hence, that we should actively reduce consumption and production.
What motivated this post was an extremely optimistic article by Michael Liebreich called The secret of eternal growth. The basic argument is that there is no real limit to growth and that we can utilise unlimited energy sources to both grow our economies and minimise our negative impacts on the environment. There are, however, a number of responses to this article. One by Tim Jackson, who is mentioned in Liebreich’s article, called how the light gets in, and another by Rob Dietz called the secret of eternal growth? It’s wishful thinking.
The latter response mentions Tom Murphy, who is a physicist who has written posts on economic growth, such as can economic growth last? and galactic scale energy. These posts approach the issue for the perspective of real physical limits, and suggest that unlimited growth is essentially impossible.
A criticism I’ve heard of this is that when people talk about unlimited economic growth, they don’t really mean growing forever, they mean for some reasonable time into the future. Liebreich’s article, however, certainly seems to essentially imply virtually unlimited, saying:
This is a real scientific expert on entropy proving that the economy can grow for as long as there is still a sun in the sky (which would give us about another five billion years).
As Tom Murphy’s posts point out, there are real physical limits to our energy usage on the surface of the planet.
As I understand it, the response to this is then that economic growth simply refers to economic activity which doesn’t have to be associated with ever increasing energy usage. I can understand that this is possible, but can you really have a economy that grows to the point where a vast majority of the activity is not associated with the use of any energy (I really don’t know the answer to this, so maybe it is possible)?
I can quite understand that it is probably possible to develop energy sources that have minimal impact on the environment and that minimise our depletion of resources. Similarly, we can also aim to minimise the impact of our economic activity on the environment, and on resource depletion, either by actually developing activities that don’t have much impact, or by using some of the available energy to minimise this impact (which is essentially what I think Liebreich is arguing for).
However, given that severe impacts are potentially going to materialise within decades, we need to start doing this sooner rather than later. This is really where I have a problem; I don’t see much evidence for this. I realise there has been some relative decoupling (the impact per unit of economic activity has decreased), but I see little evidence that we will get close to absolute decoupling anytime soon.
As I understand it, we can’t have economic activity that simply doesn’t have any impact on the environment, but we can choose to commit resources to minimising this impact (i.e., use some of the available energy to avoid increasing entropy, as Liebreich suggests). However, this would seem to have a cost and it seems to me that we mostly spend our time convincing ourselves that we shouldn’t yet pay this cost, or shouldn’t pay too much now because people in the future will be richer. So, my issue isn’t that I think we can’t continue to grow our economies while decoupling economic activity from environmental impact, I just think that we won’t.
Okay, this has got rather long, so I’m going to stop. As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m still trying to get my head around this whole issue. I may well be wrong about some of this, in which feel free to point it out in the comments. Similarly, I’m also interested in what others think about this topic.
The Secret of Eternal Growth – by Michael Liebreich.
How the light gets in – by Tim Jackson.
The secret of eternal growth? It’s wishful thinking – by Rob Dietz.
Galactic scale energy – by Tom Murphy.
Can economic growth last? – by Tom Murphy.
Decoupling vs degrowth – by Linus Blomqvist.
Towards Peak Impact – by Linus Blomqvist.
Here’s a simple solution to the green growth / degrowth debate – by Jason Hickel.