by Judith Curry
Is economic growth sustainable? Is it desirable?
Earth Island Journal presents two different perspectives on the issue of growth versus sustainability:
The Global Footprint Network finds that we already use far more resources and produce more waste than is sustainable, if by “sustainable” we mean replicable for any meaningful amount of time. Were every country to suddenly adopt the US lifestyle, we’d need four more planets.
Economic growth increases happiness when countries are poor, but these benefits level off as they grow beyond a modest level of comfort. The United States is the best example of this. Per capita income has tripled since the 1950s, but happiness levels have been flat or falling, according to yearly surveys conducted by Gallup.
Impoverished countries still need to grow; modest growth in the past five years, for example, increased happiness in Angola by 25 percent, according to the UN’s 2013 World Happiness Report. But they must grow carefully, not as new consumer societies permeated by market values. And greater growth in rich countries is not only unsustainable but counterproductive. In the United States, doctors call stress from overwork “the new tobacco” while depression and loneliness are soaring.
Yet if we don’t grow, how can we prevent unemployment as productivity increases? Trading productivity for leisure instead of stuff will allow us to reduce unemployment, while giving everyone time for social connection and recreation. Limits on working hours would give us time to restore neighborhoods, grow some of our own food, de-stress, and engage in our own favorite artistic, athletic, and cultural activities.
Fifty years ago, in his “Great Society” speech, Lyndon Johnson warned that the values and beauty of our nation were being “buried by unbridled growth.” A Great Society, he said, would judge itself not by the quantity of its goods, but the quality of its goals. At a time when we are rich in stuff and poor in leisure and joy, when we are stretching the limits of our health and the limits of the planet, economic growth is a labor of Sisyphus.
Roger Pielke Jr
Excerpts from Roger Pielke Jr‘s essay:
But what does it actually mean to be against economic growth? I argue that to be anti-growth actually implies keeping poor people poor.
Economic growth is simply a metric that reflects the accumulation of wealth over time, usually based on universalized US dollars. Economists define economic growth in three parts: (a) growth in labor, which refers to an increase in the number of people working; (b) growth in capital, which refers to increases in the availability of things that can be used by labor in the process of producing goods (like food) and services (like surgery); and (c) increasing productivity, which can be thought of as improvements in the efficiency with which we turn labor and capital into goods and services.
When we break down the idea of anti-growth into its component parts, we very quickly see that “anti-growth” is not a particularly coherent concept. Sustainable growth clearly is not anti-growth.
In the near future, economic growth and its consequences for the planet will be dominated by today’s poor countries. The OECD estimates that between 2013 and 2030 82 percent of economic growth will occur in what are today considered to be the “poor” parts of the world. Similarly, in January BP released its 2014 “Energy Outlook to 2035,” which projects that 95 percent of growth in energy consumption worldwide to 2035 will occur in poorer countries.
The reality is that to be anti-growth today is actually to be anti-growth with respect to poor countries. The fact that very few, if any, anti-growth activists are openly demanding that poor countries remain poor tells us how powerful a force growth is in today’s global politics.
Ultimately, debates over growth tend to mask more fundamental debates about ideologies, values, and what kind of world we wish to see in the future.
I like that Earth Island has published both of these articles, I think they cover some broad scope on this topic. I am sympathetic to elements from both essays. I think there is merit in concepts such as ‘smart growth’, and that growth and affluence does not necessarily correspond to happiness once a certain baseline is achieved. The need for economic growth in developing countries is obvious; resilience and thrivability might be better objectives than sustainability. Overconsumption by some in the developed world does not seem to equate with happiness; rather it seems to be a way of ‘keeping score.’