Growth Isn’t Possible

by Joshua on January 25, 2010 · 0 comments

Growth Will Kill Us All, If The Hamster Doesn't Get Us First

The new economics foundation (nef) has released a report title Growth Isn’t Possible, which is available for free download (pdf here) or purchase in a bound copy. The low-down is simple: in order to maintain the international goal of avoiding an increase of 2°C in global temperatures from carbon emissions we must stop economic growth. Basically, economic growth will kill us if we don’t “change our economy to live within its environmental budget.”

nef figures that with a growth rate of only 3%, the global economics “carbon intensity” would need to decrease by 95% by 2050 from 2002 levels. This requires an average annual reduction of 6.5%, which is even optimistically impossible in the best of circumstances. All of the “magic bullets” in the public discourse: carbon capture, nuclear, geo-engineering, et cetera are “dangerous distractions from more human-scale solutions.”

Sure, our carbon intensity has nearly flatlined in the last few years, but we need to reverse this trend not flatten out or encourage growth. Technological efficiencies can help, but physical laws limit the amount of efficiency you can pump out of any system. Worse yet, we’ll never match growth in efficiency with even mild economic growth that our system has been designed to need. It’s simple mathematics, which neoclassical economists have never been good at in the first place.

A broader support for community-scale projects like decentralized energy systems are needed over the pipe dreams currently getting all the political attention and funding. nef’s research shows that in order to prevent runaway climate change we need to change. An economy that took into account environmental thresholds will be more likely able to not only avoid runaway climate change but provide improved human well-being in the future.

As nef’s Andrew Simms points out on the Triple Crunch Blog,

“The banking crisis taught us that when things look good on paper, if the underlying accounting system is faulty, it can conceal high risk and imminent disaster – as Jared Diamond put it in Collapse, his book about societies throughout history that fell by wrongly estimating the resilience of their environmental life-support systems. What looks like wealth might just be a one-off fire sale of irreplaceable natural capital. Ecologically speaking, he writes, ‘an impressive-looking bank account may conceal a negative cashflow’.

To avoid collapse the economy has to operate within thresholds that do not critically undermine the things that we depend on on a daily basis. They’re often interconnected, like a sufficiently stable climate, productive farmland, fresh water and a healthy diversity of plants and animals.

On climate change, a new piece of research by the New Economics Foundation thinktank looks at which rates of global economic growth are compatible with prevention of a dangerous level of warming.

It shows that, even with the most optimistic likely uptake of low-carbon energy, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile a growing global economy with a good likelihood of limiting global temperature rise to 2C, the agreed political objective of the European Union, and widely considered the maximum rise to which humanity can adapt without serious difficulty.”

We Need A Sustainable Economy First, or Must We Believe In The Impossible Hamster

A steady state economy is the only means of staving off the worst climate change can bring while preserving jobs, improving economic stability, encouraging income equality, and providing a human society that can flourish indefinitely on Earth. The alternative of growth addiction will mean less biodiversity, increased resource scarcity, and now nef has shown it will mean the worst case scenarios of climate change.

Questioning economic growth may seem way out of the mainstream, if not also politically unwise, but it is the only way we can preserve human society past the next century. As odd as it might be to question continued economic growth, stranger still is the complete acceptance of it in the face of natural systems that deny the same growth. An example that the nef Triple Crunch Blog references is the hamster.

“From birth until around six weeks old, a hamster doubles its weight each week. If, it didn’t stop and continued doubling each week, on its first birthday, you would be looking after a very hungry nine billion-tonne pet hamster. There is of course one thing in nature that grows uncontrollably. It’s called cancer and tends to kill its host. So when those growth figures come out, let’s hope the government scans the results for what they really mean.”

Watch the “Impossible Hamster” video from nef here:

The Impossible Hamster from new economics foundation on Vimeo.

*Subtitle reference to Dr. Strangelove subtitle

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