GDP growth killing the planet

Can we consume less without wrecking the economy?

Our species’ addiction to consumption is held responsible for climate change and a host of other environment ills, and the planet suffers. Soils are being leached of their nutrients, forests felled, and minerals ripped from the earth to leave gaping holes where little can survive. The resources we use return to the earth as chemical waste, become land-fill mountains, and create carbon emissions that are pushing the climate toward disaster. Politicians and economists hail consumption as the economic driver key to keeping our economies thriving. Without consumption, the thinking goes, there is no economic growth. All this points to why some economists are starting to question whether we should be pursuing growth at all. The question then is, can we reconcile the two?

Perhaps the question is less whether the economy can survive the death of consumerism, but whether the economic system we have now is one we’re willing to sacrifice the planet for.

Degrowthers argue that while recycling is important, we will only cut resource use to sustainable levels by consuming far, far less. And that just isn’t compatible with a system that demands we all buy as much as possible to keep factories running, workers employed and investments profitable. Over the years, questions over GDP’s usefulness have come from everyone from radical ecologists to economically liberal reformers, and a host of alternative indices that account for things like welfare and happiness have been posited.

According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals report 2018 “nine out of 10 people living in cities breathe polluted air” and “the number of undernourished people rose from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016, mainly due to conflicts and drought and disasters linked to climate change.”

Federico Demaria, professor of environmental science and technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says our fixation on growth – as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) a major component of which is consumption – is responsible for poverty, inequality and ecological disaster. GDP therefore in itself is not an accurate indicator of progress as it leads to an increase in material and energy usage. A scientific report commissioned by the UN argues that economic activity will gain meaning not by achieving economic growth but by rebuilding infrastructure and practices toward a post-fossil fuel world with a radically smaller burden on natural ecosystems.

European Commission vice-president for jobs, growth and investment, Jyrki Katainen, says transition to a circular economy is a tremendous opportunity to transform our economy: with a rising global population putting ever-more pressure on land, water, food, raw materials and energy, Katainen says “we cannot rely further on a ‘take, make, use and throw away’ approach.”

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, identifies the problem is pursuing, on the one planet known to harbor life, a four-planet lifestyle. On the subject of replacing plastic with bio-degradable cornstarch for example, we’re swapping one environmental crisis with another. Where does the corn starch come from, how much land would be needed to grow it, or how much food production would it displace? We overlook the damage this cultivation would inflict: growing corn (maize) is notorious for causing soil erosion, and often requires heavy doses of pesticides and fertilisers. He concludes the right question then, is “How should we live?” Monbiot goes on to say the problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume. One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes, and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism. Incremental linear changes are not enough to stabilise the Earth system. Widespread, rapid and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold. Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.

Is it a population problem?  Many arguments are made that the world’s diminishing resources are the result of global over-population. But we must ask who is responsible for the carbon footprint?  A 2015 British Oxfam report says the richest 10% of people produce 50% of Earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions, and its analysis helps dispel the myth that citizens in rapidly developing countries are somehow most to blame for climate change.

(September 2018) While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit – George Monbiot – read