May 16, 2012

De-growth or growth? Maybe we don’t need to figure that out


There has recently been a renewed interest in the question of whether the ecological crisis means we need to see (or plan for) a stabilization or even a decline in economic growth. This week there is a major conference on degrowth in Montreal. York University’s Peter Victor has made important contributions to this debate in his book Managing Without Growth, as has Tim Jackson in his report for the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission entitled Prosperity Without Growth?.There is a burgeoning literature on this topic.

But my own view is that this debate is largely distracting. The challenge is to focus on what matters –– reducing inequality, enhancing well-being / quality of life, ending poverty, low unemployment and good jobs, hard caps on GHG emissions that lower steadily over time, and limitations on the extraction of natural resources to ensure sustainability and protect biodiversity. Perhaps the result will be slow or even zero GDP growth. Then again, perhaps the investments needed to accomplish the above tasks will be so large that GDP will continue to rise for another few decades. Ultimately, this is not the central problem. The key is that governments should no longer be judged on the basis of the GDP record under their watch, but rather, on the basis of how well they accomplish the higher-order tasks just mentioned.

Clearly, there is an ecological imperative with which progressive economists must fulsomely grapple. Ecological limits necessitate that we see a drop in material throughput, waste and emissions. But this may or may not result in a drop in GDP/ income growth.

If we are to rise to the challenge of climate change, we would expect to see a decline in consumption (less consumer spending on useless things, and a great deal of redistribution, with higher income households spending less and poor households spending more); and a decline in trade (as we replace GHG-generating trade with more local production). However, in all likelihood, the task will require a substantially larger role for government (as governments spend more on meeting our core needs together, and on GHG reduction measures such as building retrofits, public transit improvements, inter-city high speed rail, etc.); and likely an increase in investment (as the private sector spends on new technology and capital equipment that allows it to capture and lower emissions). The net result of these shifts may well be that GDP still remains positive (at least for a few decades), given the scope of the task at hand.

The point is that while GDP may still grow, we would see a dramatic shift within the component parts of the GDP equation. An analogous example would be the experience of many countries re-tooling their economies during WWII: societies saw large reductions, indeed rationing, of consumer goods, and a redirection of resources by government and the private sector. People certainly changed their priorities, virtually overnight. But overall GDP increased. The challenge of climate change will ultimately require a societal effort and re-direction of resources on a similar scale.

To state the obvious: fundamental to achieving this sustainable re-balancing of GDP is a great deal more re-distribution of income, higher taxation, and much more regulation/planning of the economy. What we cannot sustain is growing inequality, with some households spending dramatically more than they need, while others are barely making ends meet.

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