Does climate change mean the end of economic growth?

November 22, 2023

Does climate change mean the end of economic growth? How is value even measured and what does the term ‘economic throughput’ mean? Do we need to de-growth or a steady state economy? Do we need system change and to replace capitalism in order to prevent cataclysmic climate change? All these questions are discussed in this episode of PEP Talk.

About PEP Talk

PEP Talk: The Participatory Economy Podcast is a podcast where we discuss the democratic alternative to capitalism known as a Participatory Economy, featuring co-creator of the model and economist professor Robin Hahnel. He is joined by host of the show Mitchell Szczepanczyk and regular guest Antti Jauhiainen.

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Notable Replies

  1. I think all the camps (Green-growth, Steady State, De-growth, Agrowth (growth agnostic)) agree on a lot. For example, that the Earth is now well outside of the safe operating space for humanity (Planetary boundaries - Stockholm Resilience Centre) (and see 'Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries’), GDP is a flawed measure of well-being used on its own, and that green technologies and public services need to be expanded everywhere.

    As I understand it, the crux of their differences is to do with decoupling, i.e can economic growth and development continue while negative impacts on the environment, including climate change, be reduced – or while the natural environment continues to provide ecosystem services.

    There is relative decoupling which means environmental pressure still grows, but less so than the gross domestic product (GDP).

    Absolute decoupling is a situation where an absolute reduction in resource use or emissions occurs, while the economy grows.

    Greengrowthers claim that we can continue growth in GDP, while reducing negative impacts on the environment, through improvements in throughput efficiency. Degrowthers believe that decoupling is not possible, or at least not possible to the degree needed to bring us to net-zero in time.

    To put it into more context, according to the IPCC we only have till 2030, i.e seven years, a very tight schedule in order to halve global GHG emissions (given the latest science, it’s looking unlikely now that even this will be enough to prevent a 1.5C or even 2C rise - but lets put that to one side). The question is: can we achieve this target while continuing GDP growth, do we need to intentionally reduce GDP in global north economies, or should we just be agnostic about GDP. And secondly, while the urgency is to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions, what about the other planetary boundaries which we have dangerously exceeded and need to bring back to safe levels, e.g. use of natural resources, biodiversity loss, other environmental pressures. What are those safe levels, when do we need to bring them down by and can they be decoupled?

    I haven’t studied the topic in any depth and would like to learn more, but that’s my understanding of what the key questions are in the debate. If anyone wants to confirm, correct me or improve what I have said, please go ahead.

  2. In my mind, some of the most compelling arguments against the degrowth position are articulated in the article The Limits to Degrowth by Rickard Warlenius:

    The main arguments in short:

    1. The pessimistic assumptions on the possibility of decoupling are not backed up with credible evidence, only unsubstantiated assumptions.
    2. Applying the negative assumptions on decoupling articulated by the degrowth camp to the necessary pollution reductions according to IPCC implies a required GDP reduction of 90% over the next 30 years in some rich countries (the US and some European countries). Anyone claiming this outcome is more likely or easier to achieve than alternative outcomes with a higher degree of decoupling and lower GDP reductions is not convincing.
  3. Very good points and something worth considering to all people working with advancing post-capitalist ideas and implementing them in various ways.

    Sorry to hear if some people identifying strongly with degrowth-ideas feel the podcast episode as somehow potentially damaging. I’ve for example never liked the term “degrowth” and see it as very misleading even in simple terms of organizing, but others obviously find it useful and inspiring even. Different groups and points of view will try and find ways to work what best fits them, the physical fact is the overconsumption of natural resources and resulting carbn emissions by the rich both globally and nationally must be limited from what it is now.

    I’m of the opinion that quick revolutions aren’t possible nor desirable and just plain “low hanging fruits” of advancing social democratic ideas both in the global north and south with stricter green investment guidelines globally already seem to be hard to achieve for progressive movements. If our movements can get those underway, it provides more possibilities for the kind of wide-ranging changes towards a more democratic economy that for example I support.

    Thank you Anders also for sharing that article, extremely useful material to take into consideration both the realities of current situation and possibilities in the coming decades. Warlenius seems to have an interesting book in Swedish about capitalism and growth, hope he publishes in English (or Finnish!) at some point.

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